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Commentary: Agitating for change

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Monica Corsaro

I love books don’t you? Fat ones, skinny ones, some have pictures, still others all words. There are hardbacks, paperbacks, fiction, and non-fiction. As you know the possibilities are endless. Clutter!? Books are not clutter!

And I love you, my friends, that you love to read! We are always sharing with each other what we are reading, and we recommend to each other all the time. And now a confession: I keep trying to go to the fiction genre. I am, I really am.

In fact, not long ago I was my locally owned bookstore picking up one of your recommendations and then out of the corner of my eye, I spied a book calling me, sitting on the 40% discount table in history -- in fact the history I study, and it had women on the cover. I had to pick it up!

Note to self, it is OK to love what you love, and go with it.

So my friends, let me tell you during this herstory month about my new good friends I just spent time with through the words on the page. They collectively were called, in the book title, The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights, by Dorothy Wickenden.

Here is what Hilary Rodham Clinton had to say about them:

“The Agitators tells the story of America before the Civil War through the lives of three women who advocated for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights as the country was split apart. Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright and Frances A. Seward are the examples we need right now - another time of divisiveness and dissension over our nation’s purpose to form or more perfect union”

Listen to how the book cover flap reads, how could one NOT be captivated:

“In the 1850’s, Harriet Tubman, strategically with uncanny prescience, rescued some seventy enslaved people from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and shepherded them north along the underground railroad. One of her stops was Auburn, New York, where she entrusted passengers to Martha Coffin Wright, a Quaker mother of seven, and Frances Seward, the wife of Willian H. Seward who served over the years as governor of New York and Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln.” (Wickenden, front flap).

While most of us know Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward, Fredrick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison, many of us do not know the names of the tireless women who had to work behind the scenes, because of misogyny, white supremacy, and, sexism, but we today benefit as a society from what they did. These women could not write policy, but they could agitate against it and in fact influence policy for others even when it did not benefit them.

For example, while Secretary Seward was working to get the Emancipation Proclamation passed, back home in Auburn, New York, his spouse Frances Seward was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and at times was giving sanctuary to as many as nine fugitives from slavery at a time. Gutsy woman, and while she did that, it was not enough for her, knowing that her friend Harriet Tubman needed a decent house of her own. After Harriet brought her parents and other families to freedom, they needed a roomy and decent place to live. Frances, seeing this, sold to Harriet the family home she had inherited from her father. So now the Tubmans and the Sewards are neighbors and supporters of one another, intimately engaged with the Underground Railroad and all it entails.

And let’s not forget their friend Martha Coffin Wright. She was called a “dangerous woman” by her neighbors on the other side of town. Martha worked side-by-side with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to organize women’s rights and anti-slavery conventions across New York State. It was no easy task. Along the way they had to brave hecklers and mobs when they spoke, for it was considered unseemly for women to speak in public, but speak they did!

We learn, as we travel with these women through the years, about the sacrifices they made, the risks to their own lives. They truly were sheroes in every sense of the word.

Even when it turned out they had to give up the vote for themselves, they still organized, strategized, and used their influence, to get the 14th amendment passed!

Martha Coffin Wright, Frances Seward, and, yes, Harriet Tubman! Let’s say their names. Now that you know just a bit of their stories, tell it, help them live on, and not just in March. If their stories interest you, go to a library and/or your locally owned bookstore, get a book, and read more about them and other folks that do not always get the headlines. Just in this book I was reminded that ordinary people become extraordinary because they look at their situation and make a choice and HOW to be in their situation and do extraordinary acts.

Frances used her privilege to save others and give access and economic stability to Harriet. Harriet, in turn, who was illiterate because of circumstances, used her wisdom, strength, and tenacity to save her people. In fact she was bestowed the nickname of Moses by some and became the most wanted woman in America by others. And Martha, while she could never vote herself, influenced the vote and got the vote for the newly freed black men.

When you are feeling overwhelmed, that the burdens in life are heavy, say to yourself: ‘I can choose HOW I want to be in this situation.’

Just like books, heroes and sheroes look different, act differently from one another, and can be defined in many different ways. They are not “out there.” Go to the mirror they might just be “in there.” As we know, they are usually ordinary people who choose to act, and their action makes all the difference for the good.

So go forth, act, and become an agitator. You and our world will be all the better for it.

Monica Corsaro is the Interim Chaplain at Monmouth College.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or its license holder, Western Illinois University.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.