So another Nancy listens to spirits. It’s not Nancy Reagan; it’s Nancy Pelosi. I read the story recently published on CNS News (“the right news, right now,” which gives you some idea of the slant they offer) courtesy of a link furnished by a Facebook friend. Pelosi, perhaps speaking metaphorically, perhaps not, said that as she was being sworn in as Speaker of the House, she felt the spirits of a phalanx of advocates for women’s rights surrounding her. The CNS writer positioned that experience as evidence that Pelosi is a weird “woo woo” lady, probably a spiritualist and thus unfit for public service. I started to shrug it off as another personal attack on a woman in the public eye, and move on. Every woman of every political stripe has to deal with those attacks, from Christine O’Donnell to Hillary Clinton. But then I read the comments, and the latent urges of a former eighth grade Social Studies teacher have come bubbling to my brain and out my fingers to the keyboard. I need to put right what I DIDN’T teach to those eighth graders back in the seventies, because I didn’t know any better. I do now. Class is in session.
The first comment I read touted Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as “religious God-fearing women.” The implication, of course, is that Pelosi isn’t. I wonder if that commenter and those who followed her ever actually read Stanton’s Women’s Bible, the correspondence of Anthony, or the definitive work of their companion Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church and State. It was in defense of liberalized divorce laws and other “ungodly” positions, that Stanton and Anthony broke with the original women’s suffrage organization and formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association. But that was much later in the fight for women’s suffrage. The 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, that document, modeled after the U. S. Declaration of Independence, and which poured out Stanton’s “long accumulated discontent,” was conceived around a “spirit table” in the upstate New York home of Mary Ann McClintock. Whether or not one “believes” in spiritualism, there is no question that it played a key role in advancing the cause of women’s rights. As Barbara Goldsmith notes in Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, “spirit raps . . . served not only to communicate with the dead, but to give courage to the living.”
In the nineteenth century, mediums were the only women’s voices that were actually listened to in a public space, because, of course, the medium (usually a woman) subverted her own voice in favor of the voice of the departed. That Pelosi, as a woman was elected SPEAKER of the House of Representatives, is an apt fulfillment of the dreams and efforts of those she names as having “heard” at the White House. Who is to judge that anyone in her position might be overwhelmed by the actuality of BEING where she was, not as Nancy Pelosi personally, but as a woman, as speaker. The same sentiments could conceivably move even those who do not agree with policy positions taken by Barack Obama. I speak as one who can easily find political fault with both Obama and Pelosi. But the fact remains that the election of each of them to their respective positions marks a transformation in the Nation, a transformation for the better. It shows what can be done.
Who hasn’t stood in the Lincoln Memorial and “heard” the voices of suffering slaves, the cries from Civil War battlefields, and the mournful tones of the Gettysburg address? The very presence of that honking big statue of the seated President and his words inscribed on the marble walls, evoke these voices. Alas, the statue of the three women most associated with the progress of women’s rights has never found a home in our nation’s capital. It languishes still, out of public view, in a basement somewhere far beneath all those marble halls. So lacking any other venue, where else might Pelosi bring to remembrance those lost women’s voices but in the “presence” of her office as “Madame Speaker?”