Goodbye to Aunt Susan

March 15: Funeral services were held in Rochester, New York for Susan B. Anthony on this day in 1906, with an estimated crowd of 10,000 lining up to pay their respects. Anna Howard Shaw, the last to speak at the church service, expressed outrage that, a few days before her death, Anthony should have had to lament, "I have struggled for sixty years for a little bit of justice and die without securing it." Shaw's eulogy then forged a new rallying cry for the suffrage movement:

Her talismanic words, the last she ever uttered before a public audience, 'Failure is impossible,' shall be inscribed on our banner and engraved on our hearts.

But the ringing rhetoric of the church service seems outdone by the improvised events which followed it. Thousands had been unable to view the casket before the funeral started, and had been standing outside the church in a raging snowstorm, waiting for the procession to the cemetery. Someone decided that they should be welcomed inside and given their chance for a last glance at "Aunt Susan":

Every seat in the church was filled, but no one stirred. Tramp, tramp, tramp, came an army in single file, marching with quick but decorous step up one aisle, past the casket and down the other aisle. People who had sat calmly through the whole service broke down and sobbed as this living stream went by. It was a biting storm with a searching wind, and as the people came in, old and young and little children, the snow covering their shoulders, clinging to their hats, blown through their hair, it was evident enough that no mere curiosity had held them in that fierce storm for an hour-and-a-half waiting for this privilege. They were the plain people, the people whom Abraham Lincoln and Susan Anthony loved, and who returned that love without making many words about it.

Below, the concluding lines to Gertrude Stein's opera, The Mother of Us All; at this point Anthony is a statue in the Capitol building in Washington, but still working the cause:

Life is strife, I was a martyr all my life not to what I won but to what was done.

(Silence)

Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.

(Silence)

My long life, my long life.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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