“I am not a political person”: On politics, storytelling, and responsibility

This was originally slated as tomorrow’s post. Instead, it seems appropriate today and tomorrow.

Since I talk a lot about storytelling here, I thought I’d talk a bit about my internal story of “I am not a political person.” Rarely do I actively seek out political information, rarely talk about it, and I tend to get pretty flustered when I do. And yet, the day before the American election day, I feel compelled to share my story around politics and responsibility.

During my thinking, I was taken back to a conversation I had with a professor I deeply respect, nine years ago in my first semester of my Communication Studies masters program. I was presenting a reaction paper in what was one of the most challenging classes I had in graduate school. In my class were a number of people who had backgrounds in Political Science, who were debaters, and who were involved in politically grounded research or interests. That night, I prefaced my presentation by saying, “I don’t have a background in politics like most of you, my background is feminism.” My professor stopped me and was like “I think that’s a background in politics.”

His comment then and now reminded me that politics doesn’t always look the way that we think. And that my background is a political one. And, as my feminist foremothers taught, storytelling is inherently political. There is power in truth-telling. There is power in knowledge. That power can be scary. I may want to refuse that responsibility. And yet… knowing what I do, there are some responsibilities I cannot shirk.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) with Susan B. ...
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) with Susan B. Anthony (standing) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the end of my masters program, like most, I wrote a thesis. I spent a year and a half with some incredible women – the American woman suffragists. This was a story I soaked in for a year and a half, the lives and stories and courage of the women who fought for the right for woman suffrage in the early 20th century.

The first call for woman suffrage in the United States was made by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. It wasn’t until 72 years later than women across the country were actually allowed to vote in the United States. In the intervening 72 years was in-fighting, disagreements, and struggle.

In the early 1900s, many of the suffragists from the Seneca Falls Convention had died. There was a lull in activity as the movement was trying to find its bearings again, this time with new leaders. And as many of us know, new leaders often means new motives. The time period I focused on in my thesis was the year 1917. There were two new leaders, Alice Paul of the National Women’s Party (NWP) and Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The major difference between the two organization was how to get things done: through federal amendment (NWP) or on a state-by-state level (NAWSA).

There’s a larger story of struggle, identity, and self-definition in there, but what I want to focus on here is that in 1917, members of the NWP began picketing the White House, even after the United States entered World War I in that year. The NWP used President Wilson’s words of democracy and freedom – which he was directing overseas – to show the contradiction between what he was fighting for in Europe with how half of the United States was being denied democratic voice.

NWP members picket the White House
NWP members picket the White House in 1917; the banner reads, “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty.” (From wikipedia.org)

Beginning in June 1917, the NWP suffragists were thrown in jail for “blocking the road.” The picketers remained on the sidewalks, standing with their signs. They endured horrific conditions in one of the worst prisons of the time. The prisoners demanded being treated like political prisoners, as they were there under false charges. When that did not happen, they began to hunger strike. Over the next three years, there were additional jailings, and a lot of hard work done by both the NWP and NAWSA to push forward the amendment which would ensure that women were able to exercise their right to self-governance. In 1920, 72 years after the fight for woman suffrage began in the United States, women were granted the right to vote via the Nineteenth Amendment.

There are two big takeaways for me from my research and from this story that has come to rest in my bones:

First is that I have an obligation to vote. I have a responsibility to the women who have come before me, who risked their lives to ensure this fundamental citizenship right was available to me, almost 100 years later. I may not have always followed through on this obligation, but I have always regretted when I have not.

Second is that we must find ways to work together. There was such a contentious relationship between the NWP and NAWSA. But it was imperative that both organizations existed and did the work they did. From my research, it is my belief that it was only through the divergent methods and viewpoints that suffrage was able to be secured. Whether you think one party was right or wrong in their methods? I have argued and will continue to believe that both were needed.

I try not to put too much political information here. I do that, in part, because I believe our politics are part of our story – and that is only something that you can declare. I can’t and won’t do it for you.

But, I do believe that those of us who are able to vote need to exercise that right. That while voting is a right of citizenship, rights should not be taken for granted… especially when others have fought for those rights to be available to all.

So if you are in the United States, please be sure to cast your vote and have your voice heard – our stories need to be heard in this arena, too. (And if you are not registered and unable to do so at your polls, I urge you to register for the next election. Now.)

If you are not in the United States and have voting abilities, exercise them. Your country needs your voice. If you are not registered in your country, please register.

Your country needs your voice. Our world needs you to speak up.

~ For a really well-told movie of this time in US History, check out Iron Jawed Angels by HBO.
~ Susan Piver has an incredible blog post called Only Us: Beyond Republican and Democrat that allows for a new way of thinking about politics and our government and tomorrow’s election… as well as thinking about the us-versus-them mentality.


7 thoughts on ““I am not a political person”: On politics, storytelling, and responsibility

  1. […] “I am not a political person”: On politics, storytelling, and responsibility The U.S. election was a week ago, but this post on First Wave feminists fighting for the right to vote remains relevant. A call to remember our history and responsibility as well as a plea to learn to work together. […]

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