Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mrs. Catt

On August 18, 1920 the Tennessee state legislature met to vote on women's suffrage. 35 states had already ratified it and once it passed in Tennessee, it'd be a done deal. Carrie Chapman Catt, the head of the National Women's Suffrage Association, thought she had the votes. But when the vote ended at a 48-48 tie, the speaker, who was sympathetic to women's suffrage, voted no. Rat bastard. Can you believe it?

Fortunately, a 24 year old representative named Harry Burn, known as solidly anti-suffrage, had gotten a letter from his mother that morning. She'd written, "Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt out." And so Harry Burn changed his vote. The bill passed and thus it came down to a note from Mom that women finally got the right to cast their vote.

I love this story. It's a delightful story. But the stone cold bummer of it is that by 1920, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were dead.

No good progressive act has ever happened in America without a long hard slog against an entrenched conservative power base that Does. Not. Want. Change.

But we fight the fight and remember that the fight is worth fighting even if you don't live to see victory. Because, in the end, progress will out. But not on its own.

The America we live in now is better than it has ever been before. We're a better country for women voting. We're better for our growing acceptance of the LGBT community. For god's sake, you'd think you wouldn't even have to say this out loud: but we're a better America than the one in which people could own other people.

American culture, for all its weird celebrity obsession and 24 hour news cycles, is more open and accepting than it has ever been before. And for that, we owe a debt of gratitude to the lion-hearted few who would not give up and to the Moms who knew when to write a timely note.