We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats
Dauntless crusaders for women’s votes
Though we adore men individually
We agree that as a group, they’re rather stupid …
Cast off the shackles of yesterday
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
Well done, Sister Suffragettes!”
With Election Day nearly upon us — the ninth presidential election of my adult life — I woke with those lyrics from Mary Poppins’ Sister Suffragette ringing like the Liberty Bell in my head.
Hard to imagine a world where I might have been barred from the polls, in which I might have been allowed only to pass out leaflets or make bake-sale goods while being denied that manly work of pulling the lever connected to my brain.
Who were these suffragettes who suffered heroically to win our right not only to vote but to have a strong voice in the democratic process? It’s because they trod the rough, subversive path that women a century later matter more than ever to today’s pollsters. In the women’s movement, we have moved from politically fallow to fearsomely powerful. Talking heads say the onus is on women to choose the nation’s course Tuesday. And many consider our choice clear: forward or backward.
Back in 1964, most kids my age – or older, ’cause I was 3-ish — got all caught up in the whimsy, magic and razzmatazz of the Mary Poppins movie – the diving into 3-D chalk paintings, the dirty, dancing chimney sweeps, the word starting with an “S” no one could spell and fewer could define: suffragette.
OK, maybe that wasn’t the word. Yet, without benefit of YouTube or metrolyrics.com or even a VCR, yet, I memorized Sister Suffragette and was known to march around the house imagining myself in a sash and carrying signs.
Blissfully unaware I was, at the time, that the sashes popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by militant feminists had morphed into the burdensome mantles of beauty pageant queens — women not parading but being paraded and adored for their surface assets and not their mettle.
Another accidental feminist
I was cluelessly indoctrinated by what another blogger has labeled “accidental feminism.” Sister Suffragette, while certainly not the most ubiquitous of Disney songs by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman — It’s a Small World (After All) seems a more likely candidate — is a front-runner as the most educational. What did its lyrics mean to an impressionable young girl of the Sixties?
From Kensington to Billingsgate,
One hears the restless cries
From every corner of the land:
And equal rights with men
Take heart for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again …”
Even if I didn’t know where “Billingsgate” was or who “Mrs. Pankhurst” was then — stuffy Britishisms that nursed a budding inner Anglophile — that ball-busting Glynis Johns got my attention as Mrs. Banks, an uppity wife who wasn’t paying enough attention to the children or household because she was out rabble-rousing. I didn’t know any women like that. Or even that that was a thing to do.
Emmeline Pankhurst, it turns out, also was schooled early in feminism, at the tender age of 8, but it wasn’t until after she bore and raised five children and her husband died that she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. Remember: Lives were much shorter back then, but she lived to the ripe age of 69.
Her group dedicated itself to “deeds, not words” — if women didn’t have a voice, what good were words? They resorted to vandalism, smashing windows, and minor assault, attacking police officers, making jail cells their cozy homes away from home. They staged hunger strikes to protest cruel conditions in Manchester, England, workhouses. They not only fought for a woman’s right to vote, but a woman’s right to work — OUTSIDE the home — and work hard for the money, even to join men on the battlefield, in combat.
Not mentioned in the song was another suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, who famously stepped onto the Epsom Derby track and died after a collision with the king’s racehorse. People at the time mused she must have been suicidal, because what woman in her right mind would stand up thus for a cause? Herbert Jones, the jockey on that horse, was said to be “haunted by that woman’s face” and, in 1928, at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst, he laid a wreath “to do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison.” In 1951, Jones’ son found him dead in a gas-filled kitchen. The horse, Anmer, by the way, got up and finished the race, rider-less.
Which all sounds like a pretty good Disney story, after all (from the horse’s perspective).
Those suffering fools
That sly fox Walt Disney. Disney didn’t write the Mary Poppins script. It was based on a 1930s series of novels by P.L. Travers — she the J.K. Rowling of her time. (So, what’s the deal with successful female authors disguising their gender using initials?) She didn’t want to sell him the rights, but he bulldozed over her and started producing the film before she grudgingly agreed.
Disney’s bully-pulpit politics aside (he was a founding member of the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals who in 1947 testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, ratting out fellow animators and labor union organizers — no Mickey Mouse stuff), the message of sugar-coating one’s medicine is not lost on Hollywood types. Dosing the public with propaganda masked as entertainment is an old trick; this season’s political ads have borrowed from Hollywood and proven as fictional and visceral as any Disney fable.
Just as in Mary Poppins, this election seems to be coming down to women’s rights vs. Wall Street, Mrs. Banks vs. Mr. Banks, participants in an unhappy marriage, heads of an unhappy, dysfunctional family.
Call in the Supernanny — like the reality TV show. The woman as superhero, who, by the way, was way, way ahead of her time. But always on schedule and looking smart and so put together.
Mary Poppins was everything I wanted to be. Dripping in wit, she had all the answers. She could communicate with the animals, the birds, especially. She handled the housework with a snap of her fingers and had plenty of time left over for fun — and not just ordinary fun, but surreal fun, with a boyfriend who would dote on her, declare any day a national “jolly” holiday in her honor and serve her tea and crumpets with dancing penguins as waiters. OMG fun. Men in service to women. What a concept. And still, Poppins is 110% woman, practically perfect in every way.
No more the meek and mild subservients we
We’re fighting for our rights militantly
Never you fear!”
This is the “accidental feminism” part, when you learn the song was added to the movie only to appease an actress’ ego. As Gregg Sherman, son of Richard, revealed recently on the “Disney Insider” blog:
“Walt and the boys were having lunch in the commissary with actress Glynis Johns, venerable star of stage and screen. Midway through the meal, Glynis was suddenly confused and a tad hurt, as she believed she was up for the lead role. Walt, always thinking on his feet, assured Glynis that she’d be ideal as Mrs. Banks. ‘And just wait ’til you hear the big number the boys wrote for you,’ Walt boasted. There was no number. The boys quickly excused themselves and scrambled back to their office to create a cause for Mrs. Banks’s character by researching women’s movements in 1900’s England. They fashioned new lyrics into a tune they were writing called, ‘Practically Perfect.’ The result was Glynis’ (cast as Mrs. Banks) big number, ‘Sister Suffragette.’ “
[The astute theatergoer will notice a song called “Practically Perfect,” penned by George Stiles and Anthony Drew, was added to the 2004 stage production, and “Sister Suffragette” was cut.]
Even without Mrs. Banks’ cause tossed in, though, Mary Poppins had the feminist drill down-pat. And talk about diplomacy. She could heal the rift in any household, and still make its inhabitants think it was their idea when truth finally dawned, regaining control of their senses and getting their houses in order, or going off their rockers to just go fly a kite.
Vote Mary Poppins in 2016
The other night I was out drinking with a couple of gal pals, talking men and politics. Of course, the election and their husbands’, er, positions came up. One despaired to me: “What we need in there is a woman. Someone who knows how to compromise and get things done. [Someone like Mary Poppins, perhaps?] Will Hillary ever run again?”
I told her I would take Hillary at her word. She says she’s done, she’s probably done. Unlike the Chris Christies of the world who tease and train for 2016.
Then I start thinking: Who else, if not Hillary, to take one for the team? The nation seems ready for a female politician to go all the way. But political leading ladies tend to be Annie Oakley types, on both sides, oddball characters — whether no-nonsense Kay Bailey Hutchison or maverick loony Sarah Palin; lightning rod Nancy Pelosi or brassy Louise Slaughter.
Is there really a war on women? If so, where are the front lines, exactly? There could be arguments either for the male-dominated legislative chambers or the male-dominated media, obstructing their path.
Anyone knows political tides are strongest at the poles: the polar opposites of wealthy vs. welfare classes. I know “extremists” in both parties, and each argues that the other is brainwashed, or focusing on just one issue, not educating themselves holistically. “The dumb voters — maybe we shouldn’t encourage them to vote, if they vote the wrong way, anyway.”
The way I see it: One issue that you care about deeply is enough. Just vote. If you’re rich, maybe that issue is taxes, and you want to preserve your wealth. If you’re a woman, maybe that issue is reproductive rights, to preserve how far we’ve come. But vote. Maybe you don’t like or trust either guy, so the power behind the man — the woman — is swaying you. Is it a choice between whoopie pies or vegetable gardens? Macy’s vs. Ross Dress for Less? I’m not judging anyone’s fashion tastes, values or lifestyles.
Simply: Vote. With your gut. With your noodle. Because you can.
Stand up for something, as Emily Davison did. Just steer clear of all the horse stuff.
Even if you feel choosing one of the guys at the top makes no difference because it’s the meddling of the middle-man Congress that muddies our system, then especially vote. Forget the top-down, down-ballot party platform approach. Maybe it’s time for women to go bottom-up. Examine the local races, vote closer to home.
Man up, women
According to the Women in Congress website, since 1917, when Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first elected U.S. lawmaker, a total 277 women have served in either the House or Senate.
Currently, of the 17 female senators in office (17%), five are Republicans and 12 Democrats, representing 13 different states. Only four states have more than one female senator (two each): California, Maine, New Hampshire and Washington. Offhand, I know at least one, Maine’s Olympia Snowe, is not seeking a fourth term. And in the three-way race to fill her seat, the only woman, Democrat Cynthia Dill, has not received even an endorsement from the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. And Texas’ legendary Kay Bailey Hutchison is also retiring. Note to swing voters: Connie Mack in the Florida race is NOT a girl’s name.
In the House, 73 of the 435 seats are occupied by women from 27 states: 24 Republicans and 49 Democrats. That’s also about 17% of the House. California has the most with 19, followed by New York with nine; Florida with six; Ohio with four; North Carolina and Texas with three each; two each in Alabama, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin; and lone she-wolves representing the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. I haven’t had time to sort out where else the female representation is bound to slip in Congress, but I’m sure someone must be monitoring it.
Of governorships, there are six sitting women (12% of the whole, four Republicans and two Democrats) but, according to the National Organization for Women, when you include all statewide leadership (lieutenant governors, attorneys general, secretaries of State and legislators) the percentage is more like 23%. Better than Congress but sad when you consider women are the U.S. majority.
We women suffer from representation without representation.
And the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 6,030 of a total 7,383 legislative seats in 44 states are on the line Tuesday. (It’s an off-cycle election for Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia.)
In short — not — we haven’t come such a long way, baby. We still have far to go.
The best thing any woman can do for the woman’s movement, no matter where she stands, is to move herself to the polls tomorrow. Maybe even stop by a nursing home, where women far outnumber men, and help mobilize a few elderly ladies there, too. Some of them may remember what it was like to feel voiceless and powerless.
Let them have their say. Say, say, say, 90 million says — the estimated number of Americans who will sit out Tuesday.
I’m just saying. Don’t get discouraged because you feel the choices aren’t good enough. Did the suffragettes get discouraged, when they had a right to be discouraged?
Make a choice, sister. Represent, and be represented.
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us and sing in grateful chorus: Well done!