I love the way that everything intersects with everything else. There are connections that are obvious, and there are some that are completely surprising. If there were a Venn diagram of the social revolutions of the 19th Century, the American feminist movement – the Seneca Falls Convention, the suffragists – is obviously related to the Abolitionist movement. But there is a third circle – it also came out of the Spiritualist movement in Upstate New York in the 1800’s.
In those days, speaking for the dear departed was more acceptable than women speaking for themselves.
While most people know who Susan B. Anthony was, not nearly as many people know who Elizabeth Cady Stanton was. Susan was certainly no intellectual slouch, but Elizabeth was the speechwriter, and Susan was the one who delivered the speeches. Their political partnership was formed in the social circles of the anti-slavery movement. Elizabeth was often in a position where upper and middle class women were not supposed to be seen in public; not just not speaking on a platform to an audience, but not leaving the house. As the mother of seven children, a large part of her adult life was spent in socially correct semi-seclusion. Pregnancy was supposed to be private.
Susan, a woman who had opted not to marry so she could devote her life to the cause of justice, did not have to stay out of sight. But women were rare as public speakers, in an era where going to hear a lecture was an evening’s entertainment.
So was communicating with the dead.
The table-rapping seances and ghost channeling mediums who were alleged to communicate beyond the veil opened the door for women to begin to claim both public presence and legal rights. For a woman to speak in front of an audience was pretty scandalous. But as the belief in Spiritualism grew into a bigger social movement, the channeling sessions moved out of the living rooms and into the community halls. Mediumship was considered a talent, and women who claimed the gift were slightly more numerous than men.
Women who gathered as Spiritualists hoping to be able to reach their dead children and departed husbands had a license to talk about what was important to them, topics that were taboo beyond the rigid social borders of the time.
Victoria Woodhull, who ran for President before women even had the vote, came out of the Spiritualist crowd. She could not have jumped into politics without first stepping up as a narrator of life beyond the grave. She and her sister Tennessee Clafin were also among the first women to start a newspaper in 1870.
Women in Rochester, New York these days have made a tradition of putting their “I voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave.
I can’t celebrate International Women’s Day without thinking of all the women – let’s start with Susan and Elizabeth and Victoria – who made my life possible. The right to vote, the right to independence, the right to educate my daughters, the right to own property, the right to speak … it’s the beginning of a very long list.
There are women all over the planet who don’t yet have a fraction of these rights.
Their lives intersect with mine in ways that I know, and in ways that I don’t know. Slavery is illegal, but it’s not extinct. Perhaps the next movement to address both the spiritual and political needs of women will flower out of someplace as quiet as a graveyard. Everything is connected, the obvious and the obscure.