Get out the vote

Frank Zappa, 1988, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith

Frank Zappa, 1988, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith

AP, Associated Press

(AP) _ Rock ‘n’ roll singer Frank Zappa has pledged to register fans at his concert here tonight to vote, and the League of Women Voters couldn’t be happier.

The alliance prompted one elderly league member to joke that he would turn down the volume on his hearing aid during the concert, said Pittsburgh League President Marsha Bingler.

”I consider that an upbeat comment,” said Ms. Bingler. ”The gentleman who said that is about 70 years old. He does have trouble with his hearing.

”I’ve had no one in the league say anything other than that this is a worthwhile effort,” she said. ”The league encourages the widest participation in the electoral process.”

Zappa said 400 people registered at his recent concert in Boston, and about 380 registered at a stop in Hartford, Conn.

”The only way to change what is going on is to vote,” he said. ”Unless young people get involved, their decisions will be made by people older than them who don’t know or don’t care.”

In 1972, when the age requirement for voting was dropped to 18 years old, Frank Zappa began printing “don’t forget to register to vote” on his LP sleeves. I wasn’t aware that his huge voter drive, which began around 1985, was in partnership with the League of Women Voters. I’ve been thinking about voting in these perilous times, and about Frank Zappa, amongst other things.

Listening to the Looking Backward podcast with Chris Schwarz a few days back, he brought up an issue that I hadn’t heard him reference in any of his books or articles—the right of a workman to own his tools. During the time of the guilds, only “authorized” people could possess and use certain tools. To be truly free, access to tools is important. Frank Zappa famously quipped, “communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff,” but at the same time, he also railed against the abuses of capitalism and fetishizing property. There really isn’t an either/or decision to be made about this issue. There is, however, a big decision to be made about participation.

I find it completely beyond my understanding that somehow, starting in the late nineteenth century, many anarchists insisted that it was wrong to participate in the voting process. Schwarz is among the contemporary anarchists that abides by this today. Watching another Ken Burns documentary, this time on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the last few days reminded me of some parts of history that I had somehow let go of. The struggle for a woman’s right to vote began first as a property struggle.

I still remember fondly teaching, in first year composition at the University of Arkansas, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. It’s an astoundingly powerful document, penned by Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the First Women’s Rights Convention held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19th and 20th, 1848. It’s written with a kind of force that should resonate to audiences then and now, and an outstanding gateway to teaching persuasion to writers. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence penned by Jefferson, it provides impeccable Lockean logic for the struggle which began there. The incredible thing is that only one of the signers of this declaration was alive at the time that women finally achieved the right to vote in 1920, as the crowning moment for a movement that began there in Seneca Falls.

The movement didn’t stop there. In 1919, before the amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified, the women of that struggle banded together to figure out how to continue the fight after achieving the right to vote. The new organization formed was the League of Women Voters.

In a democracy, voting isn’t the beginning or the end of the struggle for human rights. It’s simply a pivot point, and an important one at that. What’s the first step to freedom? The right to not be classified as property, e.g., the Emancipation Proclamation. Not far beyond this though, is the right to own property. This was a right that women in New York didn’t have until just before the convention. The New York Married Women’s Property Act was passed April 7, 1848:

Sec. 1. The real and personal property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents issues and profits thereof shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.

Sec. 2 The real and personal property, and the rents issues and profits thereof of any female now married shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband; but shall be her sole and separate property as if she were a single female except so far as the same may be liable for the debts of her husband heretofore contracted.

Sec. 3. It shall be lawful for any married female to receive, by gift, grant devise or bequest, from any person other than her husband and hold to her sole and separate use, as if she were a single female, real and personal property, and the rents, issues and profits thereof, and the same shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts.

Sec. 4. All contracts made between persons in contemplation of marriage shall remain in full force after such marriage takes place.

Step one was a hard fought battle—this law made it possible for women to own businesses, like newspapers, to attempt to get the full benefits of civil society. Step two, the vote, took another 72 years. Step three, equal opportunity, stalled in 1982. The history of this battle is full of reversals of fortune, and advances followed by movements backward— losses of rights. It can, and does happen. The only thing that changes that is the ballot.

The thing that struck me the most in the Ken Burns documentary is the voices of those early women voters who proudly proclaimed that they had voted a straight republican ticket. Since that time, the parties have of course exchanged positions. My father and mother generally voted a straight democratic ticket, and my father remembered fondly that he managed to vote for F.D.R. once; he didn’t remain in office long, but at least my father felt like he had made a difference.

I got that same feeling when I managed to vote for Al Franken in my last vote before leaving Minnesota. Then I knew what my father really meant. That particular election was a hotly contested fight with an incumbent, which went through an arduous recount. It mattered, and Al has hung onto that seat and spoken out for issues that really matter to me. It hurts, physically hurts me, when people like Schwarz claim that this sort of civic participation doesn’t matter because they prefer to “opt out” of the system. There is no “outside” the system.

I note with terror that Donald Trump briefly formed the “Lions Guard” to protect people at his rallies, a direct analog to the brown shirts. I had suspected that this was coming. My wife just pointed out to me that the comparison, as far as efficacy goes, must be handed to Hitler because at least he had a coherent agenda. And the first move of any dictator is to suspend elections; first that goes, and soon your right to property disappears. The pathway to human rights can lead both ways. How can anyone opt out?

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Home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, NY. Park Service Photo

Yesterday, my wife and I stood in front of this house. It’s a small house, really. Apparently it was larger when she lived there, with an equal wing with front porch on the opposite side. Just down the street is the Seneca River, just past the falls. We both marveled that besides being such a profound writer, she also raised seven children in this house, and at least one of her daughters continued the fight into the twentieth century.

Voting is central to freedom, not something that you can simply ignore while you dream of a better world. I was amazed to read her daughter, Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch’s book Mobilizing Woman-Power from 1918. Obviously, it central concern is World War I. The pragmatism of the women’s movement, 70 years on, is well considered:

Let us admit the full weight of the paradox that a people in the name of peace turns to force of arms. The tragedy for us lay in there being no choice of ways, since pacific groups had failed to create machinery to adjust vital international differences, and since the Allies each in turn, we the last, had been struck by a foe determined to settle disagreements by force.

Never did a nation make a crusade more just than this of ours. We were patient, too long patient, perhaps, with challenges. We seek no conquest. We fight to protect the freedom of our citizens. On America’s standard is written democracy, on that of Germany autocracy. Without reservation women can give their all to attain our end.

There may be a cleavage between the German people and the ruling class. It may be that our foe is merely the military caste, though I am inclined to believe that we have the entire German nation on our hands. The supremacy of might may be a doctrine merely instilled in the minds of the people by its rulers. Perhaps the weed is not indigenous, but it flourishes, nevertheless. Rabbits did not belong in Australia, nor pondweed in England, but there they are, and dominating the situation. Arrogance of the strong towards the weak, of the better placed towards the less well placed, is part of the government teaching in Germany. The peasant woman harries the dog that strains at the market cart, her husband harries her as she helps the cow drag the plough, the petty officer harries the peasant when he is a raw recruit, and the young lieutenant harries the petty officer, and so it goes up to the highest,–a well-planned system on the part of the superior to bring the inferior to a high point of material efficiency. The propelling spirit is devotion to the Fatherland: each believes himself a cog in the machine chosen of God to achieve His purposes on earth. The world hears of the Kaiser’s “Ich und Gott,” of his mailed fist beating down his enemies, but those who have lived in Germany know that exactly the same spirit reigns in every class. The strong in chastizing his inferior has the conviction that since might makes right he is the direct representative of Deity on the particular occasion.

The overbearing spirit of the Prussian military caste has drilled a race to worship might; men are overbearing towards women, women towards children, and the laws reflect the cruelties of the strong towards the weak.

Whether the comparison is with the conditions leading to the first, or the second world war, we have no need for another tyrant who places the strong over the weak. The head macho-man himself, Teddy Roosevelt puts it succinctly in his introduction:

No man who is not blind can fail to see that we have entered a new day in the great epic march of the ages. For good or for evil the old days have passed; and it rests with us, the men and women now alive, to decide whether in the new days the world is to be a better or a worse place to live in, for our descendants.

In this new world women are to stand on an equal footing with men, in ways and to an extent never hitherto dreamed of. In this country they are on the eve of securing, and in much of the country have already secured, their full political rights. It is imperative that they should understand, exactly as it is imperative that men should understand, that such rights are of worse than no avail, unless the will for the performance of duty goes hand in hand with the acquirement of the privilege.

I was taught that voting was a basic “performance of duty.” Without that sense of duty, we stand to lose whatever privileges we have gained so far. Being a member of civil society means that you fulfil your duty, even if you may have “a tendency to mistrust organizations.” Without organization, the law would still sanction (as it does in many parts of the globe) women being bought and sold or being treated as the property of a husband.

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