SUGAR AND SPICE AND EVERYTHING NICE
By NANCY PATRICK
Women’s History Month provides a time for everyone to pause and reflect on the value of women in society. Modern women benefit greatly from the dedication, persistence, commitment, and sacrifice of our female predecessors. No longer does the developed world relegate women to the home as wives, mothers, and caregivers. Though many modern women choose to retain those roles, many have added great depth of meaning to their lives by becoming educated professionals in any field of their choice.
When I think of women who have most influenced my life so that I can find fulfillment, productivity, value, and worth, I think of those women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who began the fight for recognition of equality between men and women. Historically, society considered women inferior to men in every way—intellectually, socially, spiritually, and legally.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments” written for the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, provides clear examples. The declaration stated 12 grievances; summarily, they included legal restrictions to property, education, professions, participation in religion, voting, jury participation, and even custody of children.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I learned to imitate my mother’s behavior as a submissive, obedient, polite, soft-spoken, pleasant, and non-assertive woman. In other words, I was sugar and spice and everything nice. Consequently, I became extremely aware of others’ needs and feelings, never asserting my own needs or desires. As a result, I spent most of my life working diligently never to inconvenience another person.
As I entered adulthood, I continued my behavior of caution around others. I measured words, practiced serving others, pretended to agree with everyone, and in general appeared as a sweet, kind, generous woman, often hiding my true feelings.
As a high school student and undergraduate, I never read feminist literature. I learned in graduate school that most schools had banned such controversial and divisive authors, among them Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, and Toni Morrison. After discovering this body of literature hidden in history, I studied all the theories and philosophies I could find. I learned about the women who had paved the way for my freedom, assertiveness, liberation, and honesty. Their pioneering work for women’s equality not only inspired me but also empowered me.
Although women had gained suffrage before my birth, I learned that they accomplished much more for women than the right to vote. I discovered that Alice Paul (1875-1977), President of the National Women’s Party (NWP), had tried to work with the already established National Woman Suffrage Association but found its methodology too conciliatory and compromising for her own desire to effect change. She proposed a more aggressive yet non-violent approach to attain liberty for women.
Paul, herself a Quaker, never sanctioned illegal or violent actions. As Woodrow Wilson traveled to the White House after his inauguration, Paul led a huge parade up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. She also organized a peaceful picket line outside the White House. Even when the United States entered WWI, Paul continued the silent protest, infuriating many citizens who heckled the women.
Wilson’s advisors finally concocted a legal charge that would remove the picketers and put them in prison. Charging them with blocking traffic on a public street, a facetious charge, at least drew much needed public attention to the suffrage issue.
While in prison, Paul began a hunger strike, refusing to eat so long the prison officials feared she would die. At that point, guards restrained her, prying her mouth open with a clamp and ramming a tube down her esophagus into her stomach. Then they poured raw eggs down her throat. Consequently, Paul suffered permanent gastric damage.
Finally, word leaked to the press about what these women suffered in prison, forcing President Wilson and his male advisors to relent. These women endured imprisonment and torture because they refused to surrender to political pressure. With their release, Alice Paul and the NWP had won this battle in the war for equality between men and women.
The Suffrage Movement marked the first step toward opening doors for women in education and all the professions, including religion. Because men had traditionally considered women inferior intellectually and spiritually, they had closely guarded entry to the clergy. With the vote, women began walking through the doors of higher education that led to professional careers previously reserved for men.
Because of Alice Paul and women like her, many women have found their own voices. Not only have they gained enough confidence to claim their competence, but they can say “no” to requests or presumptions from others. In addition to the political and social liberty gained by women, spiritual liberty has made great strides. Women no longer must feel intimidated by husbands or church officials to adhere to legalistic interpretations of biblical roles for women. Many women have explored their own beliefs and pursued professional positions within the clergy.
As sugar and spice girls who never wanted to express contrary opinions for fear of offending or alienating, women no longer have to remain quiet in situations where they truly want to express a different opinion. Because of the strength and sacrifice of Alice Paul and literally thousands of other women who had the courage and integrity to stand up for righteousness, women today can express themselves as independent individuals who owe no apologies for their positions.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.