“Gratefully Becoming Susan” by Linda McKenney
It began with a question. . .
“Are you interested in developing a script and portraying Susan B. Anthony?”
“Yes,” I say, surprising myself. Not at all like Susan, as I will learn, I’m sometimes hesitant to take on a challenge. I’m practicing my yeses.
The proposal is from a new acquaintance, who will become a close friend. She’s my teacher right now, in a creative non-fiction writing class. A member of The League of Women Voters, she explains that they have a grant to bring historical women re-enactors into classrooms in Saratoga County, NY.
All I know at this juncture is Susan B. Anthony had something to do with women’s suffrage, and that her face is on a dollar coin, now out of circulation because it was about the same size as a quarter. I wonder what else I will discover.
What I soon learned was that Susan devoted her life to abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage. As early as age sixteen, she gathered signatures on anti-slavery petitions. She aided in creating the first national women’s movement in this country and then led it, brilliantly, for fifty years. Her astonishing organizing skills not only changed laws and attitudes, but helped to introduce the entire realm of equal rights to a very reluctant nation. As a leader, she was compared to Napoleon and Bismarck. Until Susan appeared on the lecture circuit, male icons were the only ones considered worthy of emulation. She revolutionized that belief.
I was soon enchanted with her.
As I continued my research, I discovered more and more about this remarkable woman. I learned of her high intelligence, such as learning to read when she was three. She was brave and tenacious. She always spoke her mind, especially when she witnessed injustice or inequities. I started to feel a connection, as we are alike in that regard. I have a reputation for revealing the elephant in the room.
My goal is to create a palatable tapestry of Susan’s life that will resurrect and honor her. Writing the script is one thing. Memorizing it is much more challenging, partly because I keep the language close to how one would speak in the 1800s. And additionally, my brain has lost some of its elasticity. My senior neurons aren’t firing as quickly as they used to.
As Susan’s persona unfolded, I realized that many of the words used to depict her were qualities I hoped to aspire to: selfless, diplomatic, charming. She was generous, friendly, curious, open and amusing.
I wonder if portraying Susan will further imbue me with these desired character traits. And then there are those attributes I possess that can be off-putting. Apparently, Susan had them as well. In one source, I read that, to her colleagues in the suffrage campaigns and her adversaries in politics, she could be overly forceful, stubborn and exasperating in her single-minded goal.
Open mouth – insert foot! I’ve certainly done that. Aging has helped me to be more diplomatic when trying to make a point, but there are those times when I wish I could roll back my tongue. I’m trying to be more cognizant of those times when it just makes sense to keep my mouth shut.
On my quest, my admiration for Susan intensified. I’ve never had a self-sacrificing tendency for any cause to the degree that she had for women’s suffrage. Rather than her dedicated passion, I have interests and beliefs that I promote with blog posts from the comfort of my couch. I’ve not advocated for a campaign by marching or protesting. I was sequestered at home, raising children when a vast number of contemporaries were protesting the Vietnam War.
Susan, however, was relentless in her mission. In her campaign for women’s suffrage, there were numerous times when she feared for her life. She was ridiculed for her looks, clothes, marital status, speeches, voice and ideas. She was hung in effigy, and her image was dragged through the streets of Syracuse, NY
All I’ve ever done is exceed the posted speed limit. Susan broke every rule that didn’t suit her. The most significant—her arrest for voting in the presidential election of 1872. She spent an overnight in jail. When she was brought before the Commissioner, her bail was set at $1,000. She refused to pay. She was willing to spend time behind bars. Spend time in jail! That terrifies me. Could hanging out with Susan make me braver?
Research is only one part of this project. I had to find appropriate clothing. I visited various vintage clothing shops but none, save one, have clothing from the 1800s. Here, someone told me that I’m much too large to wear anything authentic. “Women were tiny back then. You’re not going to find anything to fit you.”
Shortly after that encounter, I read the results of a physical examination for a life insurance policy for Susan: Height: 5’5”, figure: full, chest: 38”, weight: 156 lbs., complexion: fair, habits: healthy and active, nervous afflictions: none.
Then there’s me. Height: 5’4”, figure: full, chest: 38”, weight: 152 lbs., complexion: fair, habits: healthy and active, nervous afflictions: none (except for my fear of heights and spiders).
I’m struck by what seems like destiny that Susan and I are meant to bond. My tendency, like Susan, is to press forward when I have a single-minded goal that keeps me on task. I purchase a sewing pattern and set about making my own dress. As I cut, pin and sew, I recall that as Susan sat by the fire sewing shirts for her father and brothers, she dreamed of the future work she might do to make her life count for something.
Making my life count for something drew me to debt counseling, corporate training, working for the AIDS council, and life coaching. I hope that in some small way, I’ve been instrumental in helping others live life to their full potential.
I feel compelled to incorporate a personal message of action and civic duty in my portrayal of Susan. In her travels across the nation, her mission was to change perspective. Perhaps she could offer me the opportunity to plant a seed in minds, young and old.
Don’t give up on your dreams.
Don’t let complacency render you powerless – Vote!
Speak out against injustice.
Ed. Note: Part II of “Gratefully Becoming Susan” will be published on August 23, 2018 on LetsRockTheCradle.com.
Linda McKenney is a personal wellness coach, motivational speaker, writer and storyteller. She is published in Silver Birch Press, 101 Word Short Stories, The Survivor’s Review, The Rush, Fiftiness, Number One 2017 and Helen: A Literary Magazine. Linda also posts at Susanbanthony.live.