Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Solitude of Self

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pioneers of the Women's Rights Movement, 1891. (Credit: The Library of Congress)
DID TEARS FALL ON ALABAMA LAST NIGHT?  And from the eyes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton?  
by Denis Ferrara

“AND YET, there is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self. Our inner being which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced. It is more hidden than the caves of the gnome; the sacred adytum of the oracle; the hidden chamber of Eleusinian mystery, for to it only omniscience is permitted to enter.

Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?”

So said the great women’s suffrage activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her epic resignation speech from the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1892.  It was titled “The Solitude of Self.”
"Who, I ask you, can take, dare take on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?"
OVER a restless, sleepless several days, I gave in to my chronic insomnia and decided to binge watch documentaries on Amazon.  I avoided mysteries, thrillers and action flicks.  Sometimes, a documentary, no matter how interesting, can lull one into at least a semi-doze. (I’d tried reading the wide-awake away, by flipping through “a little” of Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra.”  Although I’d read it before, I ended up engrossed all over again from the rug roll-out to the asp — or more likely, poison. What a woman!)

I finally settled on a two-part “American Lives” entry, Ken Burns’ “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.”  Produced in 1999, I must have seen it before, but perhaps not.  If I had, I certainly watched and listened intently this time, albeit in a more appreciative, if profoundly anxious mood. 

Stanton and Anthony were friends and fighters in the women’s rights movement for half a century. Susan B. Anthony, the more famous of the two, was a staunch, never-married Quaker, whose battle for women to get the vote was so intense it would lead, toward the end of her life, to some unwilling compromising, to making “deals” with a few devils to get the support she needed. 

Stanton, married, mother of seven, was vivacious, cerebral, and equally uncompromising. She could not, even temporarily, sacrifice her belief in equality for all, or to denounce the chains of religion from which sprang so much hated and fear of women — the latter belief resulted in Stanton’s remarkable book, “The Woman’s Bible” which challenged the ingrained religious notions of women’s subservience. 
Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848 with two of her three sons
This led to some strain between the two suffrage icons toward the end of their long, mission-packed mutual endeavor.  It also led to Stanton being ostracized by some of the very groups she helped found and by many of the younger suffragettes she and Anthony molded to carry on the fight after they were gone.  (They were correct in sensing the power of women to vote would not come in their lifetime. Stanton died in 1902.  Anthony in 1906.  The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the vote, would not be in place until 1920.)
Handwritten draft of commentary covering the Book of Genesis, Chapter II, verses 21–25, concerning Adam and Eve.
I was overwhelmed at the dedication and passion of these two, so very different, but so passionately in tune with elevating the rights of women.  Although they did not live to see women cast their first ballots, they were directly responsible for a sea-change in women’s lives, during their 50 years of ceaseless educating, writing, lecturing, petitioning, organizing and inspiring.     

I suppose — well, I more than suppose — that I watched this moving documentary with a more than usually troubled soul.  No fight for civil and human rights is ever over. There is never a finish line. Women struggle on, as does every person classed a “minority” or an “other.” (Other than a straight, white, conservative man.)  Don’t be fooled by the liberating “freedom” and license of TV and movies. Or even the real lives of some of those successful “others.” No amendment to the Constitution can ever erase the hate, or at the very least, lack of compassion or ignorance that must be “carefully taught” as Rodgers and Hammerstein eloquently declared in “South Pacific.”

I write awaiting the results of an election in Alabama.  Today, as you all read this, we’ll know the outcome. 

No matter the result, this person, this candidacy, the support of this candidacy from the highest perch in American politics, is a horror, but it is no aberration.  It is not the majority, but it is not inconsequential. That it is not inconsequential is enough to drain the life blood out of those who hope for humanity and who fight for legal protection when humanity, as it so often does, fails us. (How to make sense out of a potential senator to the world’s greatest democracy who thinks “life was better’ during slavery, and that “so many problems” would be solved by abolishing all amendments to the Constitution after the Tenth.)
I NEVER had to fight for my rights.  I left home at 15 and avoided those particular conflicts. (And as the only child of a single mother, those conflicts themselves were considerably lessened.)  When “liberation” came in 1969 after the Stonewall riots, I enjoyed all aspects of a freer life in a cosmopolitan, liberal East Coast city, without ever lifting a finger to help others. (Sure, I marched.  And I marched when it was truly a march, not a parade.  But at 17, it meant less to me as a transformative moment, and more as a long, campy, sunny afternoon, out with friends.)
Although it doesn't look like it here, at 17 I was having too much fun to help "organize, agitate, educate!" (I am visiting my mother, in Hollis, Queens. Those visits rarely led to smiles.)   
When I eventually decided to straighten up and fly right — in the matter of working for a living — I fell into a world where my “lifestyle” as some still insist on calling it, was never an issue.  I never knew discrimination. To recognize, just from that alone, that I have lived a remarkably lucky, even blessed, life, is beyond understatement.

But my luck has not made me indifferent. I am sometimes ashamed I didn’t do more, in a truly activist sense.  On the other hand, though my work — in all its surface frivolity — and thanks to an enlightened employer, I — and she — could make the more than occasional pertinent point.   

Today — no matter where the ballots have fallen — I stand with every woman, all people of color, every religion or lack of religion, with all who have been to made feel ostracized or fearful, because of those they love, or who they want to be.  And I even stand with those who fear and hate, because I am human and nothing and no-one human is completely alien to me (to paraphrase good old Publius Terentius.)  

Over the past two years I have relentlessly awakened and gone to bed, if not to sleep, with a heart devoured by hopelessness, equally as angry at those I might class as “enemies” as with those who so often behave with such cluelessness as “friends.” 

But I cannot allow myself that hopelessness, or indifference, although in late mid-life, that is the easier road. Why can’t I allow it?  I’m still here. We all are. 

On Friday, I’ll go all Golden Globes nominations and other fun stuff. I’ll even be a little bitchy. OK — more than a little.

You will forgive me, I hope, today’s rumination and allow this final quote from Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

“Nature never repeats herself, and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another. No one has ever found two blades of ribbon grass alike, and no one will ever find two human beings alike. Seeing, then, what must be the infinite diversity in human character, we can in a measure appreciate the loss to a nation when any class of the people is uneducated and unrepresented in the government.”
P.S. And so Doug Jones has won the Alabama Senate seat. I  will not gloat.  I’m too cautious for that. But tonight, sleep will come more swiftly.
Contact Denis here.