The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Susan B. Mine


How I long to send her a red paper heart. Not only because my crush is old-fashioned but because when it comes to valentines, nothing beats construction paper and gobs of sweet-smelling paste. But where love is large, the valentine must be larger, so perhaps a batch of almond paste cookies is in order—their sweet sinking centers, is there any better gift? Except that I can’t bake, which means I’ve opened the door to imagination and might as well hop a flight south, me and Susan B. Anthony seated side by side, her schoolmarm dress bulging in black folds from the seatbelt as she presses her face against the glass, gaping into an expanse of clouds. “Astounding,” she mumbles every few minutes—charming at first, Susan B.’s repetition becomes unbearable after an hour. But love is merciful, so I grab my suffragist’s hand and before you know it, we’re in Memphis for a quick trip to midtown and Molly’s for spinach chimichangas—and oh, if you could see Susan B. swoon over the smoked pecans! If you could hear her sigh with delight at the novelty of salsa and chips! I’d like to keep her for a day, so we could visit Graceland and attend Al Green’s church, but here reality must intervene, because no matter the intensity of my affection, it’s tough to send a proper valentine to one who’s passed on.

Susan B. Anthony is gone, of course. She died a month after her 86th birthday, in 1906. But what are facts in the face of longing? And can it be a coincidence that she was born a day after Valentine’s Day? I’d like to think Miss Anthony would be impressed by my efforts, and if I could keep talk from turning to wage inequality, low voter turnout, or the travesty of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, I think we’d do all right.

Vintage Valentine greetingSusan B, I love you true. I love you grand. I love you today and tomorrow and maybe even for always—though I can’t say for sure because love is fickle, and as is the case with the greatest of passions, my feelings for you began with a bumpy start.

Fourth grade. Love was out of the question. Not because I was young—anyone who remembers fourth grade knows how muscular is the grammar school heart. No, the problem was that I didn’t like Susan B. No one did. At least that’s how it seemed the day our class at #33 school in Rochester, New York, was told we’d be staging a play, a production intended to make history come alive, which amounted to the teacher doling out parts from a stack of cardboard cutouts of historic heads. Western New York was proud of its role in abolition and women’s rights. Hands shot into the air to claim a part. Frederick Douglass. Harriet Tubman. Abraham Lincoln. One at a time, the figures were taken until only Susan B. Anthony’s remained, and the teacher, looking as dire as the cardboard head in her hands, screwed up her face and said, “Well, boys and girls, someone will have to be Miss Anthony.”

Had we already mastered the art of looking into the carpet to avoid the teacher calling our names? We must have, for such lessons come quickly to boys and girls. We would have torn into the industrial-grade carpet with our eyes, pushing beyond the tight weave of fabric into the very foundation of the school, gouging into the earth with our collective desire to avoid being Susan B.

The teacher didn’t intend it, but she held Miss Anthony’s head like a weapon, an American gorgon, features so severe they might unfeather the layered swoops on the heads of even the prettiest girl. With her tight bun and stony face, Susan B. was the spitting image of the spinster on a deck of Old Maid playing cards. No matter that she was one of Rochester’s own—to us, she was simply the opposite of Superstar Barbie, the Bionic Woman, and every one of Charlie’s Angels. Unloving and unlovable. Words no girl ever wanted to hear flew from the lines of the suffragist’s face: Grim. Prim. Starched. Straight-backed. Straight-laced. Stick-in-the-mud. Upright. Uptight. Drab. Dour. Sour. Persnickety. Prude. Old fogy. Old fart. Old bag. Hag. Nag. On-the-rag. Fun-spoiling. Fuddy-dud. Shrew. Hard-nosed. Hard-assed. Harridan. Battle-ax. Dragon. Severe. Somber. Solemn. Serious.


A damning word for a girl. Worse than ugliness perhaps. Puritanism might be cultural, fussbudgetry a matter of conditioning, plainness the product of unfortunate happenstance, but seriousness was a preventable ill, a matter of choice, and all the worse for its purpose.

Of course, women can be serious. Badass, we say when a woman breaks the rules to get things done. Kickass, we say when she succeeds. Feisty, when she speaks out. And while these terms may be more flattering than their unsexy cousin, bitch—when was the last time we called a man feisty? No, the word seems reserved for women and problematic household pets. As for badassery, why does it seem like a feminine subcategory of bravery? Like boldness decked out in a bodycon dress? Why—one hundred and ten years after Anthony died—do we still merit subcategories where speaking up is concerned? Smatterings of seriousness are more or less fine, but a girl should not ruin the bloom of her face by making it a habit and should balance such occasions with decent doses of frill.

val11In theory, we know better—even now, someone’s bucking against these words, naming all the serious women she knows. Wonderful. But I wonder if we’re more often accepting of the idea of a strong-minded woman than the reality, and before we think ourselves into corners, let’s take a look at the women in our lives. Mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends. How much energy goes into attempting to please with the management of our bodies, our actions, our words? Look at a girl as she stands before a mirror. Before her family. Before a crowd. Notice what she says, what she excuses, apologizes over, hopes for, and fears.

Smile, people say, and is anything as soothing as a genuine smile in a difficult world? But the wide red Kool-Aid variety plastered like veils over the lower halves of the face are another matter entirely. Smile, someone reminds us, as if a woman might ever forget the pressure to use her mouth to please. The silent upturned mouth—such power and sway. The power to calm, to charm, to unruffle feathers, and move the world forward in certain sugary ways. But there are times when our smiles serve as endorsement—times when speaking up, no matter how unlovely, is necessary if we are to live fully, honestly, and equally in the world.

Which brings me back to Susan. B., who championed the vote, of course, but only because she understood that voting meant voicing. She insisted that women use their mouths for something other than smiles, even and especially when they were unwelcome. And for such radical belief she was pelted with rotten fruit, mocked in the papers, and burned in effigy. But she kept on. Traveling the miles, standing before the jeering crowds, ignoring yet another insult. She kept on. She stood and said what needed saying while looking the world straight in the face: There shall never be another season of silence until women have the same rights men have on this green earth.

Her refusal to blanket her words in niceties was Susan B.’s most revolutionary act, so that despite a lifetime of bravery and a list of achievements that should make her a national hero, I wonder if she’s still paying the price for coming at the world with the firmness of an unbroken gaze.

Oh my badass feisty Susan B., what a perfect tizzy I’m in over you.

Do not think I’m blind to my suffragist fixation. I see the way I want to ply her with almond cookies and soul music in an effort to turn her into a softie. The way I return to her time and again, writing her into poems and essays, conjuring her into Prohibition-Era dance halls, outfitting her in Gatsby dresses, imagining her in a pair of Cuban heels, bowtie lips, and a Love Hurts tattoo. I’ve carted her out to the shore of Lake Ontario, sweet-talked her into an Abbott’s custard, a spin on the old carousel, and a verse or two of Gladys Knight’s version of “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. All of this because I’ve wanted so badly to know our staunchest feminist, and the only way I knew to reach her involved getting her to crack a smile.

val10All of which is to admit than I’m perhaps as silly as Susan is serious. But love is expansive, so that what I really want is to go back to the plaid bell-bottoms and Star Wars T-shirts of 1978 and snag her unclaimed head—not because it was crummy to leave her hanging like that, but because, after all these years, I’m finally ready for a more serious role. What I saw as harsh, I now see was resolve. What looked like coldness was the strength required for a woman to speak up back when the world told her she didn’t count. I look now into her face and find a new kind of beauty, one that doesn’t depend on the turn of mouth, or cut and color of dress.

I’ve recently discovered that she wore a red shawl over those fussy old frocks. She blazed scarlet, Miss Susan. Like a red-winged blackbird. Or a valentine. An unlikely love letter pulsing beneath yards of black silk and collars of lace.

How my heart flaps open to her—though I’m as startled by the strangeness of my suffragette crush as anyone else. All this time spent trying to change Miss Susan, when it turns out I’m the one who needed changing. But this is the true power of love, the way it hooks a foot into a door that had seemed closed, cracking it a bit, slowly widening the spaces until before you know it—something finally opens, and you find before you a new and wondrous source of light.


Vintage valentines via Flickr/Creative Commons license: 1) Kristin Basta; 2) Royce Bair; 3 & 4) Dave

Sonja Livingston's most recent book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, combines history, memory,and imagination to illuminate the lives of women from America’s recent and distant past. She’s also the author of the recent essay collection, Queen of the Fall, and the childhood memoir, Ghostbread, which won an AWP Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has been honored with a New York Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, and Arts & Letters Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis. More from this author →