I started the month of March with a head full of possible topics for a Women’s History month blog entry. So full, in fact, that my pencil was paralyzed. I stared endlessly at the copious list of local ladies I’d compiled – all worthy of recognition – it was just too hard to choose.
While pouring through old newspapers in search of early accounts of local baseball news for our summer exhibit - ‘Covering All the Bases: A Pictorial History of Danbury Baseball’ - opening June 9th, I came across the smallest mention of some big news.
In the crowded columns of The Danbury News published on January 28, 1874, I read:
“Miss Susan B. Anthony is to speak at the Opera House on the evening of Friday, the 6th of February, on the general subject of woman’s rights. Whatever may be the prejudices or notions of individuals in regard to Miss Anthony’s opinions and enunciations, those who know her best accord her not only earnestness of purpose and a conviction of right, but also a discretion in pressing her views upon the attention of others that always insures her a respectful hearing. She will undoubtedly be listened to by her audience with pleased attention as well as with courteous deference, for she is an entertaining speaker as well as an earnest woman.”
On the same page, positioned in another section of the same page was the following preview for the event:
” The meeting to be held at the Opera House Friday evening, February 6th, when Miss Susan B. Anthony will speak, will also be addressed by Mrs. Isabella B. Hooker, a sister of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Miss Anthony is well known as one of the most prominent and able advocates of woman suffrage, one who has suffered and sacrified in behalf of the cause she has so earnestly advocated. Whatever may be our opinions as to the expediency of extending the suffrage of women, it will certainly be advisable to hear both sides of the question and the ability and sincerity of Miss Anthony and Mrs. Hooker, certainly entitle both to respectful attention and consideration. The two speakers hold the same or similar opinions on the subject announced, but will give us two lectures the same evening instead of one. We trust there will be a large attendance.”
The February 11th edition of The Danbury News once again included two separate reviews of this special evening at The Opera House.
“A tolerably fair audience listed to Miss Susan B. Anthony and Mrs. Isabella Beecher Hooker at the Opera House, last Friday evening. Miss Anthony made an argumentative and logical speech against the legal restrictions imposed on women, and demonstrated, in her own person, the intellectual equality of woman with man — unless she is an exception; for her address was an excellent argument, whatever may be thought of its premises. Mrs. Hooker followed her in a very different style, appealing to the sentiments and emotions, rather than to the judgement and treating on the social rather than the legal and political aspect of the question. Miss Anthony is not a pleasing public speaker, being much more attractive in private conversation; but Mrs. Hooker’s manner and style are engaging and attractive at all times. The subject however, on which they spoke — Woman Suffrage — compelled the devoted attention of the audience.”
A second, more descriptive review of the evening was also published on February 11th:
“Miss Anthony’s and Mrs. Hooker’s lecture was listed to by a very select but appreciative audience, that neither prejudice, nor cold, nor the extreme uncomfortableness of the “House,” could keep from being interested. That they are ladies eminently fitted for the work they have imposed upon themselves, but few will deny. Miss Anthony, in her clear, forcible, straight-forward style, explaining the why? and the wherefore, endeavoring to show the injustice and illegality of certain acts of which she complains, and through her of which the whole sex may be justly indignant. We were very pleasantly disappointed in Miss Anthony – whom we had regarded as an antiquated spinster, positive, self-assuring, and willfully defiant. We found her a plain, modest, unassuming lady-like lady, of whom we could learn much. Mrs. Hooker is all Beecher, and to whom is not a Beecher attractive? Earnest, witty, pleasing; what may not two such accomplished in the missionary work to try to teach the ignorant? and how little women know in regard to things that pertain to their real welfare. May we not hope prejudice and precedent will so give way as to induce crowds to go and hear them. When a woman has devoted twenty of the best years of her life striving to enoble her sex, to better their condition, to lift them to a higher plane, to give them better employment – better wages isn’t meet and right and proper her own sex should respectfully listen to her teachings. To all, we say, go and hear them, and know for yourselves wherein their error lies.” - M.A. B.
Reading these tidbits of Danbury history reveal to me a city with open-minded attitudes and that makes me proud. These finds also make me wonder. Who was in attendance that night? How long were the speakers on stage? Who wrote the newspaper articles for The Danbury News? Did the author actually sit and have a private conversation with Miss Anthony? And yes, ‘to whom is not a Beecher attractive?’
What I was drawn to most, however, in reading each mention, was the repeated use of the word respect; an adjective that would be agonizingly absent in describing today’s national conversation. What might Susan and Isabella think and share about the present and politically-fueled climate surrounding a variety of issues affecting the lives of women? It’s hard to say.
I’ve no doubt, however, that each of them would offer us their earnest, witty, educated, sincere, respectful, straight-forward and most lady-like opinions.