I always have goosebumps when I receive a parcel from Brooklyn, New York, with a book in it. I’ve never been to New York, but the city that is a myth to many worldwide is so part of my culture that I think of it like all the Italian cities I have never visited. After a reasonable length of time from ordering it, I held in my hands Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States: Abigail Scott Duniway’s autobiography. A double thrill.
I love the way Abigail fits adjectives to herself: Presumptuous Dreamer and Path Breaker. Four words that, however, contain all her life.
Reading the first chapters of her autobiography, I couldn’t but further appreciate the work done by Helen Krebs Smith with her The Presumptuous Dreamers. A Sociological History of the Life and Times of Abigail Scott Duniway. Volume 1. That is the book that introduced me to Abigail’s life. Path Breaking tells the same story but with Abigail’s voice. The voice of a woman with almost no regular schooling who achieves what she was determined to succeed, not for herself but all women. Her selflessness comes out of every page. She is never alone: she always has someone to remember, thank, and regret not being still with her. I think she had a winning intuition that still has excellent value today: men have to lend a hand to attain women’s rights. I love to see this cooperation between Abigail and all her family. Her husband after an accident was not able to work like before so they adapt to the new situation Ben minds the family and Abigail works at the millenary shop and carries on campaigning for the equal Rights. When Abigail decides to publish a newspaper all the family in involved, I find it extremely modern. Most men of my generation, here In Italy, wouldn’t have been so broad minded. Ben had behaved like a male chauvinist in some occasions but he was also undeniably her supporter. In more than one circumstance Ben helped Abigail find the path to break, I think that’s what marriage should be about.
Abigail understands the connection between property rights to women and equal suffrage thanks to Ben’s hint.
Abigail so describes this sudden awareness:
“The light permeated my very marrow bones, filling me with such hope, courage and determination as no obstacle could conquer and nothing but death could overcome.”(p. 40)
Then in November 1870, Abigail decided to move to Portland to start publishing a weekly newspaper, “The New Northwest.” She had no experience, but again this did not stop her. The first edition was issued not many months later, on 5th May 1871.
“As I look backwards over the receded years, and recall the incidents of this venture, in the management of which I had had no previous training, I cannot but wonder at my audacity, which can be compared to the spirit of adventure which led the early pioneers to cross, or try to cross, the unknown plains, with helpless families in covered wagons, drawn by a team of oxen.”(p. 41)
In that same Spring, Abigail meets for the first time Susan B. Anthony to become soon after, her mentor. Susan was on a lecture tour with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leader of the women’s rights movement in the U.S. during the mid- to-late 1800s.
“I am proud to mention Susan B. Anthony, this wonderful woman had up to that time been object of almost universal ridicule, being caricatured as a ‘cross, cranky old maid, an avowed ‘man- hater’ and a ‘dangerous agitator’.” (p. 43)
Susan Anthony sensed all Abigail’s qualities immediately and made her business manager for the two months she was staying in Oregon and Washington and assigned her to make the introductory speeches at all her meetings. This is her first speech:
“The movement that arose in the East nearly twenty years ago, to demand Equal Rights for Women, and appeared, at first, as a shadow not larger than a woman’s hand, has grown and spread from the Atlantic coast, till it pauses tonight in farthest Oregon, almost in hearing of the Pacific Ocean. Keeping ahead of that shadow is the illustrious visitor, who illuminates it wherever she goes with freedom spirit of her devotion. The distinguished visitor is in my world-renowned coadjutor, Susan B. Anthony of Everywhere, who will now address you.”
Nobody was more astonished over the effect of that little impromptu speech than myself, and from that time to this I have never been without more invitations to lecture than I could fill.” (p. 44)
Abigail, like her mother and her sister, was grateful for not being “burdened with dissipated or cruel husbands; we had no reasons for hating men, and we believed it was our religious duty to accept our lot as we found it.”(page 28)
I’ve been thinking a lot about these lines. Abigail seems to consider violence against women as a private issue regulated by luck. I certainly can’t be sure, but I like to think that if she were alive today, she would fight with all her energy against it because today, it is a social and political issue. During those same years, she has to face another very modern question that women face when they decide to be visible:
It was St. Valentine’s Day and her husband came home “bringing the mail with a large envelope” for Abigail:
“I was standing near the fireplace tugging with all my might at the dasher of an old-fashioned churn, which formed an important part of my almost daily duties. Every farmer’s wife of my acquaintance was doing likewise, and some of them had husbands who would go on occasional sprees and spend the wives’ ‘butter money’ for whisky and tobacco, which my husband was spending chiefly, at that time, for taxes and that awful interest at two percent per month on another man’s debt, as recorded elsewhere, “compound semi-annually until paid. As soon as ‘the butter had come’ I carried the heavy churn to the kitchen, lifted out the butter into a wooden bowl, and returning, seated myself to nurse the baby and read the mail. On opening the big envelope, I discovered a gaily covered, poster-like Valentine. Seated on a chair was pictured a typical henpecked husband, trembling as if in terror. Clambering over him a lot of squalling children, and above his cowering form stood an irate, ill-clad, toothless, straggling-haired woman, brandishing a broom. Under this delectable picture were the following lines:
‘Fiend, devil’s imp, or what you will,
You surely your poor man will kill,
With luckless days and sleepless nights,
Haranguing him with Women’s Rights!’
I gave the screed to my husband and said, through falling tears: ‘Did I ever give you, or anybody else, a reason for attacking me with a thing like this?'[…]
Years later, when my public career has become established, […] Again it was St. Valentine’s Day, and a page brought a large envelope to the stage which I opened curiously, […] I smoothed out the folds of the gaudy sheet and stooped above the footlights, exhibited it before the audience. ‘The author of this exquisite piece of art didn’t give his name, but he has sent along his picture,’ I said, as the audience roared, ‘You see’ I continued,’ that it represents a henpecked husband. He is lying helpless on his back, on the floor, a picture of terror. Over him stands his wife, half hen and half woman. […]
‘Don’t you see ladies,’ I said, turning to the crowded platform, and relating the older scene before described, ‘that all we have to do, when we meet the nettle of ridicule, is to grasp it tightly, and then it cannot sting us much.’
I have never had another comic valentine.”(pp. 29-30)
What good advice from the 19th century and from an extraordinary woman, to this date in 2021 for women still coping with ‘haters’, ‘stalkers’ or political opponents.
…to be continued
© Photo copyright Patrizia Verrecchia. All rights reserved.
*In Italic throughout the essay are quotes from The Presumptuous Dreamers: A Sociological History of the Life and Times of Abigail Scott Duniway, Volume One (1834-1871) by Helen Krebs Smith – Smith,Smith and Smith Publishing Company Lake Oswego,Oregon, 97034 – FIRST EDITION./ Copyright © 1974 by Helen Krebs Smith.
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