Protest! She Urged, Some One Hundred Years Ago

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Protestors advocating for voting rights to be extended to women were called “suffragettes,” rather than suffragists, to diminish them, much as the belittling term “women’s libbers” was used in the 1970s. Similarly, when Hillary Clinton was running, female supporters were accused of “voting with their vaginas.” In response, feminists now speak of their political “vagendas.”

THE FERVOR OF POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT since the 2016 election, notably — but not only — the global women’s marches on the day after President Trump’s inauguration, has startled commentators and politicians alike, and heartened some. But this should be no surprise, for protests are a solid part of the American experience. More than a hundred years ago, this American poet celebrated the fact that here “speech, thank God, no vested power…can gag or throttle.” Ella Wheeler Wilcox also complained of “the lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws.” Read on for more of her only-too-timely views.

Protest

By Ella Wheeler Wilcox
To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox was born on November 5, 1850, at Johnstown Center, Wisconsin. She was widely read in her time, and Brooklyn Artisan recently reprinted a New Year’s poem of hers. Her books include Poems of Passion (1883) and Poems of Peace (1906). This poem was published in a collection in 1914, and may have appeared earlier in a periodical. Ms. Wilcox died on October 30, 1919, the year before the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women’s voting rights protection under the Constitution. 

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