Sonja Livingston is an assistant professor in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis. Her first book, Ghostbread, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Book Prize for nonfiction. Below she writes on the origins of an unexpected essay in Queen on the Fall: Memoir of Girls and Goddesses (April 2015). Watch the book trailer here.
Hanging with Susan B.
I first admitted to writing about Susan B. in one of my creative writing classes. I was discussing segmented structure in literary essays or the role of speculation in nonfiction, and used my work as an example: In my Susan B. essay… The students smiled enough to be polite, their faces showing kindly detachment. But even I heard the way my voice became the teacher’s in Charlie Brown specials as I said it—I’m writing an essay about Susan B. Anthony. I may as well have confessed interest in the blooming habits of Japanese daylilies or the history of beekeeping in southeastern Saskatchewan.
The nation’s most famous suffragist, Susan B. Anthony was a woman who used her voice, even and especially when it was the last thing people wanted to hear. For her fearlessness, she was pelted with fruit, mocked in the newspapers, and even hung in effigy—all for her insistence that women deserved access to money, education and government. In other words, Susan B. was a badass long before the word ever trended. Why then did my saying—I’m writing about Susan B. Anthony—sound like something I’d been stuck with, like an elementary school book report?
Is she a lackluster icon because the equality she fought for has, even a century after her death, still not been embraced, with issues such as equal pay left to fizzle in the background? Perhaps. But the lace collar doesn’t help. With her tight bun of hair and severe profile, Susan B. could be the cover model for a deck of Old Maid playing cards, and it turns out that a badass who looks like a schoolmarm is a tough sell. And why should it matter so much, her stark silhouette? Why should the woman’s image trump her radical activism and incredible achievement? And how did I, a memoirist, suddenly find myself slipping into the terrain of history?
I wrote about Susan B. because I couldn’t shake the memory of a fourth grade play. The classroom production was intended to heighten our interest in local history, except that no one in my class at School #33 could be coaxed into the role of Susan B. (Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, were snatched up in seconds). I sat there, a ten-year old girl, avoiding eye contact with the teacher and praying that the role of Miss Anthony (and the pile of gray that was her costume) wouldn’t land on me.
That singular memory propelled me. I wondered how, despite her status as an important American reformer, she’d become a figure none of us wanted to be and I began to write about her for the same reason I’d written other essays in Queen of the Fall—because images from the past tugged at me and I wanted to explore why those figures (of girls and women) had stayed with me. So I wrote about that school play. About pleasure and purpose. About the Susan B. Anthony dollar, the way no one seemed to want women’s faces on our money—though I wondered, if back in 1979, we would have been more receptive to Farrah Fawcett’s image set into our coins.
But even as I wrote, I found I couldn’t be too resentful about the way society prefers women soft and smiling, when, as much as I now admire Susan, the truth is that she frightens me. I have no problem imagining having brunch with Farrah, for instance, while I’m fairly certain Susan would find fault with my posture, my sweet tooth, my lack of activism. So serious, that Susan B., a regular spoilsport.
Which is why I decided to conjure her. The image I’d been carrying all these years was not enough. I required a more approachable Susan, so I pulled her from her resting place at Mt. Hope Cemetery and insisted she sit with me awhile, singing along to Gladys Knight while revisiting her old stomping grounds. We drove to the southern shore of Lake Ontario, to Charlotte Beach where I tried to talk her into some frozen custard. She rolled her eyes at the indulgence of custard, of course, but even still, I found there was something powerful about lifting her from grainy old photographs and into my company.
A strange activity, perhaps, summoning a long-dead suffragist. But it bore fruit. It led me realize, for instance, that my need for Susan to appear friendlier was less about the severity of her profile than my own discomfort with seriousness. In leaning against her ramrod back, I had to face the slump in my own, caused perhaps by my tendency to smile when a smile is not called for, all the effort spent trying to be pleasant, and to, above all, make people comfortable. Here I was struggling with such far-reaching and embedded tendencies in 2015; it became clear to me suddenly, the backbone (and gravity) required of a woman in 1870 to leave off the sugar in her words, to say precisely what she meant, to stand and demand an equal share.
Susan B. was a canvas then, a silhouette, both familiar and jarring, against whose dimensions I began to trace my own contours. And while, in the end, I was better able to relate—and even cozy up to Miss Anthony—the truth is that dear old Susan isn’t the one who requires changing after all.