By Rena Graves Patton
One hundred years ago, women— some women, white women—cast their first votes in the nation. That right was wrested from the hands of power by women who were reviled, demeaned, imprisoned —and then after their hunger strike, were force fed. Can you picture that scene?And still black women—and men—struggled to vote under the cruelty of Jim Crow well into my life time and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
One hundred years later, here we are, still engaged in the struggle to refine and fulfill the promise of America’s creed.
Saturday in Savannah, the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia celebrated their one hundred year anniversary and the anniversary of women’s right to vote. Mayor Russ Carpenter, looking very sharp in a beautiful antique Ford convertible, joined the mayors of Savannah, Tybee and Pooler in the pandemic-safe car parade around Forsyth and Daffin Parks. Flags waved, ladies in white held onto their big hats, cars hooked, beeped and sped through intersections held up by police escorts. It was a grand outing, indeed.
By far the most compelling attire was worn by Barbara Gatens. It was her wedding dress, designed and created by Tilly’s, former a Savannah design team, in exquisite period detail of antique laces, inserts, and the tiniest layers of tucks in the pristine white cotton lawn. The dress was designed to match the period of Monet’s garden in Giverny, west of Paris. And that is where she married, on that famous turquoise bridge in the artist’s garden.
“ I didn’t know they allowed weddings there!” someone remarked.
“Oh! They don’t,” she said. The fluffy little white dog in her arms wagged approvingly.
Barbara was revealing herself to be among those women who would not take no for an answer. Among those who push against the rules. In a small but real way, among those women whose defiant spirits we were celebrating on Saturday.
From the time we moved to Bryan County twenty-three years ago, I have been deeply impressed by the vigorous role of women here in our little corner of the world. From educators to attorneys, from realtors to developers and home builders, from accountants to mayors and journalists, the shape of Richmond Hill, Pembroke and Bryan County has been forged by strong women.
Even the beautiful Ford-era church that is a religious and architectural anchor in Richmond Hill pays homage to a woman, Saint Anne. Down the road, after Ford Avenue becomes Georgia 144, St. Elizabeth of Hungary Episcopal Church flourishes under the iconic live oaks here.
The influence of women is rising. Judging from the polling information, which seems to come out incessantly these days, women may be poised to the be the deciding factor in the upcoming elections. Comprising 53% of the electorate, the role on women voters, of every political persuasion, is a force to be reckoned with. A long way from one hundred years ago.
Now in the pandemic year of 2020, after the first woman to be nominated by a major party won the popular vote but lost the election, a Black/Asian/Islander woman has made history herself as a vice presidential nominee.
I am learning a great deal these days. Old dog, new tricks thing. About what life might look like to those who don’t look like me but whose hopes and dreams are a lot like mine. They have to do with faith, family and fairness. With mutual respect—and a willingness to respond to those who are asking me to hear their voices. To listen —not the easiest thing for a retired teacher who comes from a raucous line of raconteurs and generations of teacher. To listen. To learn. And to act. To channel my outrage at injustice into constructive action.
I didn’t know about the Divine Nine. I had not heard of Mamie George Williams. I had not read Ta-Nehisi Coates or met Dr. Bertice Berry or Paul Thurston. I did not live just up the road from the men who hunted Ahmaud Arbery from the back of their truck in broad daylight. Or had I simply not looked? Not heard?
No more. We must all find our own way. And whatever that way is, I find myself standing on the strong shoulders of those women before me, including my mother, Susan,, my aunt Rowena, and my grandmothers, Susie and Rena May. I offer my own strength to those women of the next generations.
As Flannery O’Connor wrote:
“Nothing can be possessed but the struggle.” And the truth: “ Everything that rises must converge.”
So. Still we are rising. Let us rise together.