Politeness Won’t Get it Done

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.

Susan B. Anthony

This week, on election day, I flew to Rochester, New York. Voting is a powerful act. The fact that a bunch of individuals in Virginia can go to the voting booth and turn the legislature of the home state of the National Rifle Association from red to blue is damned impressive. Rochester is famously the home of Susan B. Anthony, a woman who fought to gain the right to vote for herself and others.

On Wednesday, I visited the Susan B. Anthony House and Museum with a professor and a librarian from the University of Rochester. We saw the parlor where Anthony was sitting when a U.S. Marshal showed up to arrest her in 1872 for the crime of voting while female. The marshal intended to ask Anthony to come to the courthouse later, where she’d be charged with no fanfare. Anthony wasn’t having it. She knew no man would be arrested by invitation and she understood the value of fanfare. She insisted on being detained and transported. The marshal took her to the courthouse via streetcar, where Anthony announced loudly, “I am traveling at the expense of the government. Ask him for my fare.” The librarian in our group remarked that today Anthony would have used Twitter to spread word of her arrest.

Susan B. Anthony would have killed on Twitter.

I stayed at a hotel just across the street from Mount Hope Cemetery, where Anthony is buried. On Thursday morning, just before catching a plane back to Denver, I walked over to see the historic gravesite. It was raining and cold. The forecast called for snow later in the day. I had a good coat, but no umbrella or gloves. After the first block, I considered turning back, but I was already wet and it would make no difference if I got a bit wetter. Anthony, I figured, had endured worse trips in worse conditions for my right to vote, so I kept walking.

When Anthony began to gain fame as a leader in the women’s rights movement, she was often ridiculed by the press, shouted down while speaking, and mocked in the political cartoons of the day. The media called her a spinster and made not-so-subtle jabs about her appearance. The implication was that if she couldn’t land a husband, there must be something wrong with her. Basically, they said, she was unlikeable.

Boy, does that sound familiar.

Take Elizabeth Warren. She gives speeches about funding social change by taxing the very wealthy. The more she talks and the more popular she becomes, the more she’s deemed unlikable. Men have declared her impolite and arrogant. They complained when she persisted in speaking after a man asked her to stop. The current president continues to use a racial slur to demean her. Billionaire Leon Cooperman most recently accused her of defecating on the American Dream, though he used less polite language. But no one expects men to be polite. Politeness is designed for women.

Painting women like Anthony or Warren or Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar or Hillary Clinton or Geraldine Ferraro or any other woman as unattractive, uppity, unlikeable, shrill, demanding, or emotional, is a tired and pathetic effort to undermine women because they are women. No one cares if an ugly man grabs at power. Men are allowed to yell and shake their fists and get angry and make demands. Women are expected to say “please” and “thank you” and to keep their voices down.

I don’t care if a female candidate for office is likable, but I find Elizabeth Warren to be exceptionally likable. She is funny and warm and determined and intelligent. She speaks her mind. She voices her opinion and backs it up with logic and facts. I like all of that very much. Tying a woman’s likability to her perceived politeness is no better than tying her likability to her marital status.

I am grateful that Susan B. Anthony put up with the insults and persisted to fight for our right to vote. I’m glad she broke the rules and broke the law when necessary. And I am grateful that Elizabeth Warren and other women put up with all the insults and continue to fight for equality and for social justice today.

I made it to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite after hiking about a mile through the large cemetery. A groundskeeper pointed me in the right direction. He worried about my lack of an umbrella and the fact that I was dripping wet, but I assured him I was fine. I followed his directions and found the gravesite a few minutes later. Anthony’s headstone was speckled with “I Voted” stickers from the recent election and there were several flower bouquets resting at her grave. I snapped a photo, said a quick thanks, and headed back to the hotel. I had a plane to catch and I couldn’t dawdle.

At the airport I read the news that Mitt Romney had sent out a condescending tweet referring to Elizabeth Warren as “Prof Warren,” despite the fact that she serves alongside him in the Senate. People like Romney, Donald Trump, Leon Cooperman, Mitch McConnell and others like to lament about women who aren’t “nice.” They insult women for being “nasty” or “unpleasant” or “arrogant,” but they are the ones being disrespectful and dismissive and rude. Why should we be polite when they are not?

Here’s the answer: we shouldn’t.

I’m not interested in earning the respect of men who don’t respect women as equal and autonomous human beings with the right to express our opinions and make decisions—in our careers, in our homes, in our doctor’s offices, and in the voting booths. Politeness is fine if you’re asking for a cup of tea, but it’s useless when you’re pushing for radical change. If we don’t say “please” and “thank you,” it’s not because we’re impolite, it’s because we don’t need to ask your permission to use our rights.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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