Raise your hand if you know that today is the birthday of Susan B. Anthony. As I thought. Only one hand raised, and it’s mine. Or maybe there was one other hand raised somewhere in the back row. What a responsibility it has been all these years to be the only person in the room harboring this important piece of knowledge.
And how is it that I became the keeper of this factoid? The answer to this, and probably most of my other quirks, dates back, of course, to my childhood. And to savings banks. That’s right, savings banks. In the days when savings banks looked like ancient marble mausoleums. And had higher interest rates. Additionally, if you walked into a bank in the 40s or 50s and opened a new account, you just might leave with a toaster or an electric wall clock.
Well, I must have grown up in the wrong neighborhood, because all our bank gave away was a paper calendar. Pathetic as this giveaway was, my mother brought the calendar home and hung it on a wall in our kitchen. And although the calendar could not brown your bread or tell the time, that’s not to say it wasn’t useful. Each day was represented by a little square where you could inscribe an appointment, or some other reminder. And the little square would also tell you if a particular day had a particular significance, like the Chinese New Year, or Mexican Flag Day, or when there would be a full moon.
My favorite page on the calendar was the month of February. Little narcissist that I was, it was my favorite because it’s the month in which I was born. The second week of February was just chock full of important days. February 12 – Lincoln’s birthday; February 13 – my birthday. Well, that wasn’t exactly printed on the calendar, but hand printed on it by me. February 14 – St. Valentine’s Day. And last but not least, February 15 – Susan B. Anthony’s birthday. That lineup made me so proud. I must be so special to be surrounded by all those important people! I confess at the time I had no knowledge of Susan B. Anthony, but I figured she must be an important person to have her own square. As well as sharing my name.
And, oh yes, the following week, on February 22, there was a square marking the birth of George Washington. (On today’s calendar, Lincoln and Washington are no longer entitled to their own birthdays, but have been efficiently combined into President’s Day, which typically falls on no one’s date of birth, but ensures a three-day weekend.)
As I got older, I did learn who Susan B. Anthony was, but sadly misunderstood what she represented. To my 9-year-old ear, she fought for women’s sufferage, which made absolutely no sense to me at all. You can surely understand why. Also, that she was a suffer jet, which in today’s world, sounds like she played quarterback on a losing football team. But as children we mishear lots of things, like Elephants Gerald, the jazz singer, Round John Virgin who’s mentioned in the song “Silent Night,” and Youth in Asia, who, horribly, were being murdered.
But I’m happy to say that by the time I was old enough to vote, it had all sorted itself out. I developed a full appreciation of Susan B. Anthony’s place in history and her personal importance to me as a woman living in 2019, beyond the fact that we share a name.
She was born February 15, 1820 into a large Quaker family who were social activists, and active in the anti-slavery movement. She became a teacher, and fought for equal pay for women, who were paid less than their male counterparts. Sound familiar? She recognized early on that if women were to have any power at all, they needed the right to vote.
In 1852 she joined with Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the Women’s Rights Movement, and dedicated the rest of her life to women’s suffrage. (See, I got it right this time.) Women who supported the cause were called suffragettes. (Professional football didn’t even start until 1892.) She never married, and traveled the country campaigning for abolition of slavery, and women’s rights. Frederick Douglas became a good friend.
In November 1872 the Notorious SBA voted illegally in the US Presidential election, and was arrested. She was found guilty by the judge and ordered to pay a fine of $100. She refused to pay, and walked away. The trial increased her profile, and her ability to raise funds, enabling her to spread her message of supporting equal rights for women.
She died in New York in 1906. Fourteen years later, in 1920, women’s right to vote was guaranteed by the Nineteenth Amendment.
End of history lesson. Hopefully, I’ve contributed to spreading the word about the importance of Susan B. Anthony. And going forward, I will no longer be the only person in the room who knows that her birthday is February 15th.
Sitting on my desk right now is a contemporary appointment book. Like the bank calendar in my mother’s kitchen, each day is represented by a little square. Still listed on the February page are Mexican Flag Day, Chinese New Year, and St. Valentine’s Day. Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays have been replaced by Presidents’ Day. And Susan B. Anthony is notably absent. So would you be so kind as to pencil it in? And while you’re at it, although it’s over, mark down mine as well.