Chicago World’s Fair, 1893
It has been years since I last spoke in front of such a large crowd. I remove my notes from the credenza, the pages fluttering in my hand. It isn’t nervousness that makes my hands tremble but rather a familiar excitement. The chance to inspire a crowd of young people is a gift for an old woman like me.
Alice rushes about our rooms collecting my hat and coat, seeing to everything I need. I haven’t told her that the pain in my abdomen is almost unbearable this morning, that I fear I might never recover my full energy again—there’s no use worrying her when we are so far from home, with little to be done about it. But it makes today’s announcement all the more important. I should have promoted her to Editor-in-Chief of The Women’s Journal months ago. The rigor of the job has been too much for me for some time, and she has certainly proven herself. At thirty-six she’s a smart and capable woman, a persuasive writer, thoughtful in her assessments and never hesitant to share a well-considered opinion. She’s never had to bend her beliefs to please a husband. I was the same at that age. My convictions were all I had.
I can already picture her delight when she hears the news, how her hand will fly up to her mouth to cover the toothy grin she’s never liked, how the tears will stream from her eyes. I can hear the enthusiastic applause of the audience and envision the nodding heads of thousands of subscribers across the country when they read of the change. They know our reliable Assistant Editor is more than ready to take the helm from me. I’ve dared to imagine this day for years, and I can’t deny an overwhelming sense of pride that it’s finally arrived.
A knock rattles our door, and Alice dutifully goes to see who might be calling so early in the day. She returns with a telegram in hand, her face pale.
“What is it?” I ask, pushing myself up from my chair, my spine gone cold.
“Johannes,” she says. She lowers herself onto a window seat, her eyes fixed on the paper in her lap.
It’s always bad news that travels fast. I wait for her to put words to it.
“He says he needs to set sail earlier than planned,” she continues, looking up at me. “He wants me to come with him.”
“To Armenia?” The words tumble out before I can control the panic in my voice.
“This is a proposal,” she says, and smiles into her hand as her cheeks turn pink.
I had no idea it was so serious. Alice and I work together every day, and yet she has said little to me about him. Perhaps she thinks I’m too old to have useful insights. Or does she simply not value my counsel?
“Is it what you want?” I ask, trying this time to keep judgment out of my voice.
“I don’t know. How does one know such a thing?”
Time presses on me. I hoped to present her with her future today, and I will admit I was anticipating the relief of putting the paper into such capable hands. A wave of nausea makes the room wobble.
She looks toward the clock on the mantle. “We’d best be off, or you’ll be late for your speech.” She snatches her coat from the rack by the door.
I hold her arm as we head for our carriage. She seems taller than ever before.
We find the Women’s Pavilion among the acres of exhibits, canals, and attractions of the Fair, and enter the auditorium through the door behind the stage. When Alice parts the curtain the applause rushes at us, and I wonder for a moment if we have interrupted someone else’s remarks. She cups my elbow and guides me to the dais. Hundreds of people fill the seats, their smooth faces looking up at me. This is what will make the fifteen hundred rattling miles from Boston worth it. My body is too much of a burden for that kind of travel anymore.
I scan the audience until I find my touchstone. I’ve always done this, picked out one person in the room to use as a bellwether for how my message is being received. I’m not used to having so many friendly faces to choose from. In the early days, I would often have to utilize a snarling, bearded man as my measuring stick. But even that would suffice. Today I find a young woman about ten rows back who looks quite a bit like I did in my youth. She is petite, with thick brown hair pulled neatly off her face, and her smile accentuates pleasantly rounded cheeks. She even has my bright gray eyes. I decide to name her Hope.
I look down at my prepared remarks, entitled “The Progress of Fifty Years,” and wonder if I should use this time to deliver an entirely different speech. Perhaps I should raise the question of whether what we’ve achieved can be called progress if women are forced to decide between professional opportunity and love? Which will Alice choose?
Hope unfolds and refolds a handkerchief in her lap. She is anxious for me to begin, perhaps even worried that I’ve lost my famed oratorical abilities. I owe her the talk she came to hear. I grip the podium, scan my notes, and speak.
“Three years even before the last fifty marks the beginning of true progress—with the opening of a door, the door to education. When the first college in this country decided to allow women, it finally gave our sex access to the tree of knowledge, to a root system that could nourish our starving minds.”
I remind Hope that once the spread of truth and knowledge began, it could not be stopped. Professional barriers were the next to fall. I tell her of my great friend Nette, who was the first female to be ordained as a Protestant Minister, and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor licensed in the country. Hope is smiling and nodding; she is with me now. I note the many guilds and organizations available to women and, perhaps most importantly, how the right for us to speak in public at all was won. Rows of shoulders relax into my words as they pour forth. Heads bob up and down with satisfaction.
That’s when I see her, sitting in the front row of the balcony. How did I not notice her bright red shawl and wire-rimmed glasses earlier? Susan B. Anthony, as thin and prim as ever, her power undiminished by her years. Once my dear friend and most trusted ally, here she is, listening to me speak of our shared history, of the accomplishments we worked so hard together to achieve. It’s kind of her to be here, but I cannot deny that the old anger still rankles, and I work hard to keep it out of my voice. I knew from the beginning that fighting for women’s rights would not be easy work, that my own version of right and wrong would cost me friends. But never did I expect to lose this friend.
Over breakfast, I read in the morning paper an article entitled “Ms. Anthony Charms in Chicago.” According to the article, Susan was well received here yesterday and gracious in her remarks. She passed the credit for the founding of our great Woman’s Movement onto four women, putting my name on a list that didn’t include her own. We’ve learned to be good to each other in public. And yet we’ve been unable to forgive each other.
And how extraordinary, really, that neither of us is likely to survive long enough to walk into a booth and cast a proper vote. That will be a bitter pill for her. She has nothing else.
Hope’s gaze implores me to go on. I summon my thoughts into a stream of words, coaxing them to flow through the auditorium. I will admit that I was blessed with a voice for this work. After a little practice, it’s easy to speak loudly enough that those in the back row don’t have to strain to hear. Doing so while not overwhelming the front row is the trick. No one likes a woman who yells. But they say I was born with a voice like a babbling brook, soothing to hear even as it cuts a new path into the silt of an unsuspecting mind.
I try not to grimace as I gather in my breath—the pain in my side is thrumming.
Then I glance at my prepared remarks and hesitate. I’ve arrived at the moment when I was planning to share the example of progress nearest to my heart, the success of The Women’s Journal as one of the longest-running papers in our country and the only one devoted entirely to women’s rights, the moment when I wanted to introduce Alice as its new Editor-in-Chief.
But I can’t do that now. She might think I’m trying to force a decision on her that’s not mine to make. How ironic that such a hard-won opportunity might now be seen as a burden, an obligation she no longer wants because of the pull of a more traditional life. Why is it that men are never forced to choose between family and career?
I turn over the papers in front of me and close my remarks instead with my most deeply held belief, that what we need most of all to continue our progress is to speak the truth fearlessly. Where I found that courage at so young an age, I don’t know. But as Susan once famously said, “It is not bravery when you know you’re right.”
I look up to her, and she tips her head at me—an entreaty to mend what divides us?
Alice is at my side, steadying me against the sudden explosion of applause. Hope is on her feet, as is everyone around her. Tears rush down her cheeks and drip into her bright smile. A familiar joy swells in my heart, the sense that maybe I have changed one mind, moved one detractor, made one woman’s place at her own dining table a more respected seat. That is all I’ve ever wanted.
I look into the balcony again to share the moment with Susan, but she is already gone.
Back in our rooms, I lean into a soft pillow and drag my aching feet onto the settee. I am exhausted and unsettled in equal measure.
“What do you plan to do?” I ask, trying to find a gentle way back to our earlier conversation.
“I was thinking I should call on that fellow Harding this afternoon and finally grant him an interview with you,” Alice says. “You must have seen Susan in the balcony today. Wouldn’t it be the perfect time to set the record straight?”
“You know where I stand on that issue.”
“It still makes no sense to me. Why should she be unfettered in writing history in the way that best suits her?”
Alice and I have been having this debate for years, ever since Susan and Elizabeth Cady Stanton published the first volume of The History of Women’s Suffrage more than a decade ago, a book that essentially removed me from the story.
“I meant about Johannes,” I say.
“Oh.” She gazes out the tall window, which is closed against the soft drizzle outside and the throngs of carriages and umbrellas clattering below. “I do adore him. But I don’t know how we could manage. He has his work and I have mine.”
“Work isn’t always the best substitute for companionship. That I know from experience.”
“So you think I should go?” She speaks with surprise and something like excitement in her voice. “What about the Journal?”
I’m unsure how to answer that. Pretending I could readily find a replacement would dramatically underestimate her value. I don’t know of another woman in the country with the skills and experience she has. But telling her the truth—that I can’t imagine the paper surviving without her after I’m gone—might limit her freedom to make the best choice for her.
“Would Johannes ever consider moving here?” I ask.
“His work is in Armenia. He feels responsible for helping to keep their culture alive. It would be hard for him to be anywhere else.”
“It’s difficult to compete with a passion like that,” I say gently. “You might always feel second to his work.” The pull of my own work has tested my priorities more than I’m sometimes willing to admit.
“I assumed you’d be against it,” she says.
“That’s not what I said. But you have to weigh whatever you want right now against what you might have to give up. Sacrifice can put enormous strain on a relationship.”
She pulls a chair close to mine. “You had to make the same choice once. Tell me how you decided.”
I lean back. It’s such a personal question. “This isn’t about me. This is about your life.”
“You said in your speech today that women can’t truly move forward unless we understand the hurdles of the past, the limits that were put on us, the breakthroughs, the consequences borne. Why do you refuse to speak of your own?”
Her tone pains me. It isn’t argumentative so much as the plea of a thirsty traveler wondering if a small sip of water is too much to ask of someone holding an overflowing jug.
My good friend Fredrick Douglass taught me that personal stories have the greatest impact. He encouraged me when I was new to the speakers’ circuit to include human stories in my anti-slavery speeches, like the story of the escaped slave I met in Cincinnati who broke her own daughter’s neck rather than hand her over to the slave hunters who had caught them. He said I must also speak aloud of the nursemaid in Alabama who was repeatedly raped while her babe slept nearby. No one wants to hear these things, which is exactly the point. Mr. Douglass understood that laws ending slavery would not erase the fact that a negro’s life, free or not, was considered inferior. Only by revealing individual hardships and triumphs do we come to truly care about each other. I’ve tried to infuse every lecture I’ve ever given with this idea, and yet my own stories have always felt too personal, or too specific, or both.
And how would Alice judge the choices I’ve made? Am I ready to admit to my mistakes, tell her how some of my most important relationships were damaged along the way? I couldn’t bear to have her think less of me. And would those stories turn her away from our work? From attempting a life with Johannes? Which would I wish for her? My stomach churns again, and I shift my weight to my left side, trying to quell the spark of pain shooting through my abdomen.
“You don’t really want to hear about all that,” I finally say.
“I do,” she says. “Now more than ever.”
She takes off her shoes and tucks her feet beneath her skirts, the way she always does before diving into a favorite book of poetry. She is both relaxed and eager, attentive and entirely patient, a mixture of attributes I have long envied.
I glance at the clock as it ticks relentlessly on. I know there are other speeches she plans to attend, scores of exhibits she wants to see.
“We have time,” she says. “Tell me.”
Alice already knows that staunch abolitionism played a central role in my childhood—it wasn’t fashionable at the time, even in the North, but my father was as firm in his hatred of slavery as he was in his love of whiskey. Another influence was education: watching my eldest brothers head off to college before I turned ten sparked in me a burning desire to follow that path, even though no colleges accepted women at the time. But of course what Alice is most curious about are the choices I made regarding marriage—why I avoided it at all costs for so long, why I ever considered it. That story can begin in only one place: Coy’s Hill, on the day my cousin Abigail got married. Up until then I was just a girl on a farm.
How I loved that farm! The morning was my favorite time, driving out the cows with Old Bogue wagging by my side. My brother, Luther, was supposed to share this chore with me, but he was afraid of the dark, so I often rose alone before dawn to enjoy the solace of the last star in the brightening sky. The climb up Coy’s Hill invigorated my senses, and once at the top I could see from our sheep pasture all the way to the apple orchard. Our acreage was an eternity to me, the rocky outcroppings of Coy’s Hill my own personal castle. Anything was possible when I stood atop the edge of the world with everyone else still asleep.
Abigail’s wedding day rolled in on a wave of gray. The drizzle pecked at my cheeks and clung to Old Bogue’s fur but could not dampen my excitement. I had never been to a wedding before. I wondered how Abigail would feel putting on the dress she had shown me—fashioned by her mother from a bolt of pale silk the color of the sky in winter, wispy white with only a hint of blue. I had never seen such fine fabric.
When I asked Abigail if she was nervous, she told me that Jeb seemed nice enough and that her mother had said she would grow fond of him over time. Besides, not much would be changing. They were going to build their own cottage at Plum Tree Farm so Jeb could help Abigail’s father. She would still be able to ride her horse, Willow, on their favorite trails every day, and I could still visit whenever I pleased. I didn’t understand the point of it all, but at only twelve I figured there was a lot about marriage I didn’t understand.
Despite my anticipation, the wedding ceremony was unremarkable, with three hymns, a reading from the minister, and the speaking of the vows. Mama and all the older women in the congregation dabbed at their eyes as promises were made. I kept my eyes on the groom, hoping he might smile. Above all, I wanted Abigail to be marrying a kind man.
Father drove us back to Plum Tree Farm, the ropey veins in his forearms protruding as he whipped and steered the horses. Despite the overcast skies, the breeze was blowing from the direction of summer, and the grass soon dried. Five or six families came to Plum Tree to enjoy a rare afternoon of leisure.
After Luther and I had had our fill of rhubarb pie, I wandered down to the barn to visit Willow. He would have missed his daily ride today, and I was sure would appreciate some company. Abigail had taken care of him entirely for the last ten years, from the time she was nine years old and he was a newborn colt. She had named him after her favorite tree on account of his skinny legs. No one had thought he would amount to much, but she’d seen strength in those tiny legs, like branches that can bend without snapping. Sure enough, Willow had grown into a fine young horse. The way she rode him, they were two parts of the same body. They had been inseparable for as long as I could remember.
Just before I reached the entrance of the barn, I heard a sputtering sound, the unmistakable gulps of someone trying to breathe through sobs. The pitch of the weeping told me it was Abigail. I ran the remaining distance to the door, but at first I didn’t see her when I peered inside. I followed the sounds to Willow’s stall and found her curled up on a pile of hay, her dress crumpled around her.
“What is it?” I asked, kneeling beside her.
It was some time before she could speak.
“He’s gone,” she said, and broke into a fresh set of sobs.
“Jeb?” I asked. But I had just seen him up by the house, celebrating.
She shook her head and whispered his name, grimacing with the pain of it. “Willow.”
“Willow?” I suddenly realized that he wasn’t in the stall with us and that I hadn’t seen him out grazing. Had he fallen ill? Had there been some kind of accident?
Abigail was crying too hard to say more. I stroked her back and waited, trying to swallow what felt like a clump of hay lodged in my throat.
Finally Abigail sat up and rubbed her face, blotchy and wet. She exhaled a great breath of air and swept her hand over her tangled hair. “Jeb sold him,” she said.
“What? How can that be?”
“I guess Jeb had some debts. He promised my father he would settle them right away, so we could start fresh.” Abigail’s words were slurred with fatigue. “A man came while we were at church. I didn’t even get to say good-bye.”
She broke down again, and I pulled her to me, trying to make sense of it.
“Did you tell your father? Surely he can fix this,” I said. While Uncle Joseph teased Abigail for her attachment to Willow—“Horses are for pulling things,” he’d say—I knew he had his own favorites in the barn. He always said that Banshee and Vulcan knew what field to dig into before he even hitched them to the plow. He wouldn’t let his daughter’s horse be sold for a handful of coins.
“Father said it’s my husband’s right to do what he thinks is best with his property, and it’s my duty to support him,” she said, clearly reciting his words.
“But Willow is your property.”
“Not anymore,” Abigail said. She looked small then, as if the hay might swallow her.
None of it made any sense. Question upon question piled up in my mind.
“Mother says once I have children I won’t have time for horses anyway, and my heart will be full again.” A new rush of tears brimmed over her lashes. “But I don’t know what I’ll do without him!”
How could her parents have known about this and allowed it to happen? I pulled my right hand into a fist and tapped it against my thigh, something Mama had taught me to help control my temper. Abigail shook as she wept. I knew there were no words of comfort I could offer, but something had to be done to get Willow back.
While at work on my second novel, I decided to name three characters in the story after little-known women in history and set about finding historical figures who fit the bill. I don’t remember what I googled exactly, but up on my screen popped the name Lucy Stone.
Lucy was the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree, the first woman to lecture regularly for women’s rights, and the first woman on record to keep her maiden name. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of her before. The more I learned about the hardships she endured in her quest for equality and the surprising reason she was written out of history, the more I wanted to know. Reading about her became an obsession, and the foundation for the novel I eventually realized I needed to write.
While the facts of Lucy’s life provide the scaffolding for Leaving Coy’s Hill, the book is squarely fiction. I wanted the freedom to imagine what it might have felt like to be her—how she summoned the courage to speak to violent crowds at a time when it was considered unseemly for a woman to speak in public at all, why she chose marriage while working every day to educate women about its legal perils, and whether or not she eventually forgave those who betrayed her.
While parts of Lucy’s story are unique to nineteenth-century America, her struggles are timeless. Can a mother dedicate herself to a career and nurture her children fully? And what of the guilt that comes of half success in both endeavors? Is a marriage of equals possible? Does one have to compromise principle to create change in an intensely divided political climate? As an abolitionist and pioneer for women’s rights, fighting for the future of the reconstructed Republic, Lucy Stone and her quest to live life on her own terms is as relevant as ever.
Katherine A. Sherbrooke is an entrepreneur-turned-writer and the Chair of the Board of GrubStreet in Boston, Massachusetts, the largest creative-writing center in the country. Her first novel, Fill the Sky, was published by SixOneSeven Books in 2016. Visit www.kasherbrooke.com for more information.
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020