In Blog: Factually Speaking

A version of this post originally appeared in The Alpena News.

A woman sits in her rocking chair, holding a piece of white cotton fabric. She turns it over, running her fingers along the edges, looking over her handiwork. It had been a simple tea towel when she started, but her hands had transformed it, creating an intricate crocheted pattern. Satisfied, she crossed the room and hung it in a prominent spot in the parlor. Her guests would appreciate it, she knew.

Especially if they looked closely.

She began work on it sometime between 1904 and 1918, though exactly when, I can’t say. You see, the woman was my great-grandmother. The history of the tea towel was never written down, but we can figure out the time frame based on that intricate pattern, because closer examination reveals a hidden message in the lacy edging: VOTES FOR WOMEN.

Family lore says that Great-Grandma Blanche and her suffragist friends hung these towels in their homes to communicate that it was safe to talk about their movement.

Safe to talk about voting.

The tea towel’s “Votes for Women” message is barely discernible unless laid flat on a dark surface.

They lived in a world where such conversations were dangerous. It was less than a century ago that women gained the right to vote, and for decades before that—and after that, really—journalists, religious leaders and politicians used incendiary language to fight against suffrage. And closer to home, in even more chilling conditions, husbands, fathers, brothers and even mothers and sisters used harsh tactics to shield their families from the “dangers” of women gaining the vote.

But in my great-grandparents’ home, it seems, people were on the right side of the issue. Given what I know about my family, I assume they took a quiet approach to political activism. Today, Great-Grandma Blanche’s tea towel is one of my most prized possessions. And when I feel defeated by the state of our world, I try to remember the state of her world: War, disease, laws that were inherently anti-woman, rivers that ran thick with toxins, factories where children worked barefoot.

What if she hadn’t, even in her own subtle way, fought for progress? There is so much progress still to be made—so much more we can do for women, for kids, for our planet, for each other.

I don’t know where Blanche stood on all the issues; she died decades before I was born. But I know she stood. And that’s why I’ll stand on Tuesday. I know where my polling place is, I’ve looked at my sample ballot and I have a plan to vote.

Many of the most pressing political issues of her time have since passed on, but others, like voter access and racial and gender equity, are just as burning today. Let’s remember that the suffrage movement was by no means inclusive of all women. Great-Grandma Blanche was white and a member of the middle class; she fought to win the right to vote for women, but we know that voter suppression for men and women of color continued throughout the 20th century and continues today.

But know this: people would not try to prevent women or people of color from voting if their votes “did not matter.” The staunch opposition to and ongoing suppression of their right to vote belies the exact opposite.

That’s why it’s vital to support Proposals 2 and 3 on Nov. 6, which the Michigan League for Public Policy has proudly endorsed. For too long gerrymandering and voter restrictions have kept Americans from being represented at the polls. A great state begins with fair elections, and these two proposals go a long way in making sure our voting system is stronger.

Voting matters. Representation matters, too. And exercising one rectifies the other.

Great-Grandma Blanche knew the power and importance of voting and she pushed for it in her own way. Though we never met, I think I inherited this same reverence for voting and a desire to make it better for everyone. Working at the League, I know that nearly every policy improvement our state needs is at the discretion of elected officials. And every elected official is at the discretion of your vote. You have more power than you may realize. It’s imperative that you use it.

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    Well said and very well written, Laura! Thank you for sharing this wonderful family story. I stand with you and all women who understand just a little about what a privilege it is for our gender to be able to vote, all because of the courageous women who fought for the right long before we were born.
    Long live ‘votes for women!’

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