Susan. B. Anthony.
Elizabeth Van Lew.*
Clarina Howard Nichols.*
Elizabeth Blackwell.* Clara Barton.* Elizabeth Ann Seton.* Antoinette Brown Blackwell.*
Their names sound like a litany on our lips, these 19th century American heroines. During this month of women’s history, we usually think of women like these who have risen above the throng.
But let’s face it: women have always held up half the sky. And there is another kind of history–the tales of women who feed, clothe and shelter us by the work of their hands and the sweat of their brows, whether they are paid or not. Women who, when we are weak, hold us while we weep and then strengthen us to stand on our own.
Unlike the “greats” in my first paragraph, these women are noteworthy because they are accessible to us in their ordinariness. They live in our homes or next door, give us medical care, serve on our parent-teacher associations, run our libraries, watch our kids, and own the businesses we patronize. They teach us to walk, write the books we read, and snap the photos that make our hearts sing or cringe. They run myriad small businesses so they can juggle family and work. They are our sisters, mothers, aunts, friends, and members of our worship communities. Because they are close to us, we learn much from their intelligence, wit, grace, beauty, grit, daring, and faithfulness.
In addition to her many iconic friends in reform work, Susan B. Anthony leaned on many such everyday women for food, housing, friendship, and funds during her years of campaigning for universal human rights. She was inspired by her Quaker aunt Hannah Hoxey and her mother Lucy Anthony. Her letters and her biography show that she stayed close to her sisters, sisters-in-law, and nieces, many of whom helped her with the mundane tasks that allowed her to live her public life.
I was greatly inspired by Susan when I was writing my 1994 biography of her. (I hope to re-issue it soon.) This year I published a book an ordinary woman, Susan’s sister-in-law Annie, who held up half the sky with Daniel Read Anthony. In doing so, I discovered greatness in little-known people.
If you believe Bill Wilson’s adage, ““To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world,” then such little-known women of America are just as valuable as Susan B. Anthony.
Happy Women’s History Month. Remember to hold up your half of the sky. But when you feel your arms falter, look to the woman next door.
*If you don’t know some of these contemporaries of Susan, they are:
- Elizabeth Van Lew, Union spy during the Civil War;
- Clarina Howard Nichols, Kansas abolitionist and feminist;
- Lucy Stone, women’s rights activist;
- Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman doctor in U.S.;
- Clara Barton, Civil War nurse;
- Elizabeth Ann Seton, first American saint;
- Antoinette Brown Blackwell, first woman minister in U.S.