What Would Susan B. Anthony Do?

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Election day is just around the corner, which means a lot of scrambling to get votes. Phrases like “the fight for women’s votes” are being bandied about as though women are some monolithic block of voters who all think and vote with one brain. In reality, women fall all over the political spectrum. We come in all shapes, sizes, colors, religions, ethnicities, sexualities, races, abilities and more. To represent all women as having one mind when it comes to voting is highly flawed and ignores all the different ways women are women.

I have been reading Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings by Nellie Bly. Bly’s interview with suffragist Susan B. Anthony is a highlight of the book. If I had a time machine that would turn me into a fly on the wall, I would go back to the day in 1896 when these two great women sat down to talk. With all the chatter about the woman’s vote, it’s hard not to think of Anthony and her fight for the 19th amendment. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other suffragists spoke of votes for women. Yes, that’s women plural.

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Bly asked Anthony, “What do you think the new woman will be?” Anthony responded, “She’ll be free…Then she’ll be whatever her best judgment wants to be” (137). Anthony was hesitant to define the new woman as a single type of person. She did not assign her specific values or viewpoints. Instead she trusted the new woman to determine those things for herself. If Anthony got it back in 1896, why are politicians in 2014 stuck representing women in one way?

There have been republican commercials that try to court the female vote (pun intended!). For some clips of the commercials and humorous commentary by Kristen Schaal and John Stewart, check out this segment from The Daily Show. Why is the one type of woman represented one who seems solely obsessed with marriage? Are women that daft that they will only take an interest in politics if they are framed in terms of wedding decisions?

The way these commercials try to appeal to women makes me think that they were designed by men who have had little to no interaction with women. This seems impossible when you consider that most men have a mother, wife, sister and/or female friend, and most men also work in and go to places where women are present. It is as though a bunch of old men sat around a table on Man Island and tried to figure out what this mysterious creature called “woman” likes:

Hey, women like to get married, right? Maybe we can do something with that.

I’m not married, I’m not obsessed with marriage and I don’t watch The Bachelor. Aside from being a woman like the actors in these commercials, my values and viewpoints are not represented. I do not condemn the women who watch shows like The Bachelor or who love marriage. One of the beautiful things about what feminists have fought for is that women can be who they want to be. Even women who are interested in marriages have interests beyond that. My issue is with the fact that commercials like these are part of a larger pattern of telling a single story of women’s lives.

The issues mentioned in the commercials are couched in things like picking the right wedding dress or lamenting a bad relationship. It’s as though women lack the ability to process information about candidates and political issues, so it must be spoon-fed to us with wedding dresses and reality shows about marriage because those must be the only things we care about.

If we as women are truly going to be “whatever [our] best judgment wants to be,” then we must express ourselves through our votes and our stories. Bly closes out her interview by saying, “Susan B. Anthony is all that is best and noblest in woman. She is ideal and if we will have in women who vote what we have in her, let us all help to promote the cause of woman suffrage” (137). Anthony spoke her mind and championed the cause of women getting the right to vote because she believed that women were intelligent and informed enough to make decisions about the political destiny of their country. It is time that politicians recognized this and stopped distilling us down to a group of people whose sole interest is weddings and dating. We are intelligent and informed, and we are fully capable of participating in this country’s political process.

Work Cited:

Bly, Nellie. Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. Print.