We hold these truths to be self-evident...
—The Declaration of Independence
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
In Rochester, New York,
you were buried and I was born,
and both of us voted for the very first time
and we—would you include me in your “we”?
may I include you in mine?—
were both denied and abridged
on account of sex, told our bodies made us less
than who we knew we were
by the same United States
that wrapped us in the privilege
to the whiteness of our skins.
Unlike me, you didn’t take privilege for granted.
At 17, I was doing drugs and hitching
across the country whose injustice
I didn’t want to see; you were petitioning
for the end of slavery,
practicing for a lifetime
of opposing institutions
that diminish humanity.
My parents did social work, back
when the social work business was booming;
yours, abolitionists, made money from a cotton factory,
profiting from slavery
until, ruined, they bought a farm in Rochester,
hosting activists on Sundays, including Frederick Douglass,
who became a friend.
A few years later, about the age
I devoted myself to getting tenure at a school
that still doesn’t hire black professors
and pays women less than men
(I got a bonus for pretending
I was one of them),
you devoted your life to making
the kind of trouble
I spent my life avoiding,
speaking out, getting arrested, refusing to pretend
to be other or less
than the woman you were,
an unabridged citizen
determined to make America as true
as Frederick Douglass and you
to the “We”
that created her.
In Rochester, New York,
it was against the law for you to vote,
but still, it wasn’t easy
for a white lady like you, well-schooled and well-connected,
to get sent to jail.
First, you had to brave the barbershop
and bully the election inspectors
into registering you.
Hair was being cut, razors stropped,
the beards of patriarchy trimmed.
The boys weren’t moved by your citation
of the 14th Amendment and the New York Constitution
until you threatened legal action.
You had a judge behind you, you said.
Fourteen women altogether
made it onto the rolls, prompting a newspaper to proclaim in panic:
“Citizenship no more carries the right to vote
than the right to fly to the moon.”
“Well I have been and gone and done it!!”
you wrote your bff, Elizabeth Cady (“Mrs.”) Stanton—
not flown to the moon, but “positively voted”
on the fifth of November, 1872.
A week and a half later, a warrant was issued for your arrest
for voting while female
(maximum penalty: three years imprisonment).
A deputy marshal appeared in your parlor
wearing a beaver hat; said the weather was fine
(not likely, given the beaver hat and Rochester in November)
and invited you (you were a white lady, after all)
to call on the election commissioner.
“Is that the way you arrest men?” you asked. Demanded
to be led out in handcuffs.
You won that argument too.
The embarrassed young man
brought you, you would later say,
to “the same dingy little room where ... fugitive slaves
were examined and returned to their masters.”
A grand jury was impaneled.
You were delighted, hoping to be imprisoned,
and twice refused bail.
No such luck. Your own attorney bailed you out
because, he said, “I could not see a lady I respected
put in jail.” The good news was
the grand jury, twenty men, indicted you
for voting, the charges said,
being then and there, as you well knew,
a person of the female sex,
contrary to the statute
and against the peace
of the United States of America.
In a grey silk dress, white lace collar, and neatly knotted hair,
you spent the months before your trial
giving speeches the prosecutor feared
would persuade every potential juror
to find you innocent. He needn’t have worried.
The Supreme Court had been busy
narrowing the 14th Amendment
to preserve the right to discriminate
on the basis of sex. The judge sustained the objection
that you, as a woman, were “not competent” to testify
about your own opinions;
barred you from taking the stand;
read the guilty verdict he’d written
before the trial began.
He didn’t let the jurors say a word,
but though he kept trying,
he couldn’t stop you from declaring
that you’d been convicted according to laws
written, interpreted and applied
by and for the very same men
who, not long before, had made it a crime,
“punishable with a $1,000 fine
and six months imprisonment”
to give a fugitive slave
a swallow of water or crust of bread.
“As the slaves who got their freedom,” you said,
“over, or under, or through
the unjust forms of law,
now, must women, to get their right
to a voice in this government, take it.”
Over every objection, you did.
In Rochester, New York,
I grew up in the America you insisted had no right
not to exist:
slavery abolished, voting rights
unabridgeable, at least on paper,
on account of race or sex,
child of a card-carrying member
of your descendants, the League of Women Voters. My mother
who thought I was her son
taught me nothing
about how to be a woman,
but she taught me to vote
and how to drive a stick;
stood up for herself in supermarkets,
spoke in a low voice (she’d trained for radio)
and showed me how to live
without being ashamed
of being different. A magazine on her nightstand
taught me the word for what I am,
though it was forty years
before she heard me say it,
a word you never learned,
a word that didn’t exist
for a way of being human
you probably couldn’t imagine.
I guess I’m not a truth
you’d hold self-evident.
I wonder if you’d think I was created equal,
was created at all, in fact,
or am just another outrage
perpetrated by men. I wonder if you’d see me
refusing to be abridged
and tell me, as my mother did,
“Whatever you look like,
you’ll always be my child.”
No. You wouldn’t say that.
You didn’t have people like me in mind
when you fought your country to redefine
what it means to be a woman,
but here we are
and here I am, abridged, like you, on account of sex, wrapped
in education, money, and whiteness
that have so far kept me from being jailed,
evicted, beaten, burned or tossed in a ditch
as my sisters have
for defying, like you, statute and form
and every decree and argument
that we are created less,
created to hide, created to cringe, created to accept
that we’re excluded, by definition,
from the unabridgeable “We”
by whom, for whom,
America was created.
As you said in your suffrage speeches,
I’m not arguing the question.
America needed you to refuse
the unjust forms
you dragged her
over and under and through.
Whether or not you see us
as your daughters,
America needs us too.
Acknowledgments: Historical details and some phrases in this poem drawn from “The Trial of Susan B. Anthony: an Account,” by Professor Douglas O. Linder, the Wikipedia biography of Susan B. Anthony, and the second count of the indictment of Susan B. Anthony for voting.
Copyright © 2020 Joy Ladin. This poem was co-commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and the New York Philharmonic as part of the Project 19 initiative.