Things I Never Learned in School

History question: In what year did an American woman first cast a vote for president? The standard answer is 1920, after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted suffrage to American women. But it’s wrong.

The first presidential ballot was cast by a woman in the election of 1872. The woman, unsurprisingly, was Susan B. Anthony. The place she cast her ballot was my hometown, Rochester, New York.

I learned this a few years ago and immediately wondered, “Why was I not taught this in school?” Yes, I heard Ms. Anthony’s name when I was in grade-school civics class, probably the same way every other student of my era heard it, but those other students didn’t live in the same city as Ms. Anthony.

In the latter half of the 19th century, the area between Rochester and Syracuse was a hotbed of women’s activism. The first American women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. The second was held in Syracuse in 1852. In the election of 1872, Ms. Anthony walked into a polling station, filled out a ballot and deposited in the box. As there was no way to determine which ballot was hers, it was counted along with the rest. (That night, she wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton that she voted a straight Republican ticket. Ulysses Grant was the presidential nominee.)

Ms. Anthony was arrested two weeks later and charged with illegal voting. Ms. Anthony was a Rochesterian, but aside from the convenience of voting in her home district, she knew a) she’d be able to get away with her direct action on Election Day and b) she’s be able to use her trial as a platform to illustrate the injustice of male-only suffrage. She did use her trial as a platform, was convicted and fined. She never paid the fine.

So why didn’t I learn about this in school? Why was this not pounded into my head every year on Election Day? Why did the Rochester or Monroe County or New York State Republican Party never make a big deal out of this? Why do they still not make a deal out of it today?

It’s not like we didn’t study local history. I still remember our sixth-grade trip to the Campbell-Whittlesey House Museum, where we learned about the life of a 19th-century flour trader. BFD. What about the woman across town, making history? Her house was a museum. Not a word. Why is that? Ongoing sexism? Certainly that accounts for some of it, but I think there’s more.

Rochester was also a sometime home for escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Like Ms. Anthony, we got the same three sentences about him that everyone across the country else got, but they did make sure we learned to sing “Erie Canal” (which passed through the city).

If you walk around America, you’ll see an inordinate number of statues and monuments to 19th-century politicians and soldiers. That makes sense, I suppose, since the United States matured as a nation in that century. We also fought a big war with ourselves, so there were plenty of generals to go around. Are they all worth honoring? It was a civil war, but both sides couldn’t have been right. Someone must have been wrong, so why erect a statue to him? Where are the masses of statues dedicated to women’s activists and abolitionists and escaped slaves? If I read my history correctly, it is they who have been proven the real heroines and heroes of that century.

It’s not really about the bronze and marble, but about what we choose to remember and what we choose to teach our children. We seem to be embarrassed by the Americans who have found a prophetic voice, who tell us unpleasant truths about ourselves. Remembering Susan Anthony and Frederick Douglass – and the things they did and said – is a reminder that we once forbade women from voting and held slaves. Those facts don’t jibe with the American myth that we’re always the good guys, always on the side of right, always seeking to expand democracy.

There’s never a better time than now to remember the better episodes of American history, so we don’t keep repeating the worse.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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