“You all know why we’re here today. However, if we women expect the right to vote, then we must follow the democratic process. With that in mind, our first speaker will be Herbert Cunningham, who will speak against a woman’s right to vote.” Marta marveled at how smoothly Helen had turned an awkward situation around and made it sound like the suffrage movement’s idea. She was also relieved that she wouldn’t speak first. It would be easier to follow Cunningham than listen to him critique her remarks. She noted that Helen had deliberately ignored Cunningham’s title, which she thought was a good idea. His name sounded less authoritative without the title of Count. The brief scowl on his face told Marta how he felt about Helen’s slight, but he quickly covered his disappointment with a smile as he stepped forward and took the megaphone from Helen. He was met by enthusiastic applause.
Marta looked at the crowd, startled. She knew many men sympathized with his view point, but their response unsettled her.
“I’m not here today to belittle the rights of women. Their role in our society is sacrosanct.” Cunningham’s voice was surprisingly deep and forceful for a man of such small physical stature. Marta heard the same confidence she’d heard in Helen’s. “The question we must answer today is just what exactly are a woman’s duties. We men know that we depend on them to rear our children and keep our homes intact. But their role is much greater than that. They are the glue that holds our nation together. They give us the courage and the warmth to carry on in life and to build this great country.
“You’ve just seen an impressive demonstration by women who would undermine our family values, but they only represent a narrow slice of the female population here in San Francisco. In fact, the last time women tried to wrest control of the democratic process away from men, San Francisco was one of the cities that voted it down. The true cult of womanhood is built on the pillars of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. It’s the way things have always been and the way they must continue. The alternative is anarchy.” Murmurs of agreement rumbled through the crowd of men. Marta’s facial muscles tightened. This was just what they wanted to hear, she thought. Keep a woman pregnant and she’ll be content. She touched her own belly and thanked God that Byron didn’t think that way. He wanted to see Marta and all women have a chance to succeed at something more than motherhood and “domesticity” as Cunningham put it. She suddenly missed her husband terribly and hoped that everything was all right.
“How will giving women the right to vote change things?” Cunningham continued. “It won’t be long before they’ll leave our homes and take our jobs. Pretty soon, they’ll be just like men. Just like Lillie Collins who rode in here astride her horse . . . like a man!” He pointed in the direction of Lillie and Marta. There was a smattering of applause at his remark. “Personally, I prefer to see women riding sidesaddle” Cunningham’s voice raked the crowd with his sarcasm. A round of cheers rose from the men. “Tell me, how many of you want to be married to a man?” Many of the men chuckled or laughed outright at the idea. Others nodded in agreement.
Marta had expected some disparaging remarks, but this was preposterous. Equating a woman’s right to vote with manhood distorted the whole discussion. She fumed at the comparison but realized that Cunningham had put forth a clever argument. If women who wanted the vote were cast in the role of men, if they were seen as a threat to hearth and home, not to mention jobs, the whole movement would unravel. Men would never support women’s suffrage if it was seen as a direct threat to their livelihood and way of life.
Cunningham continued to speak about a woman’s role in society and how they would be forced to choose between marriage and career, but Marta was hardly listening. Her rival had touched a nerve that could very well turn the tide against the day’s rally. If she didn’t respond to it forcefully, the idea might fester and grow. A wave of anger swept over her. Cunningham had lit a fire in her growing belly. Her little speech had suddenly become pivotal to their cause, and even though she still trembled at the idea of facing all those men, she found herself eager to take up the challenge.
But how? She studied the faces of the men staring up at the stage. When Cunningham joked about turning women into men, it seemed to Marta that every man in the audience agreed with him, but that wasn’t so. She realized many of the men weren’t laughing. They were listening with interest and concern, not necessarily agreement. It struck her that while most of these men were concerned about their jobs and livelihood, they were not people of the upper classes. They were working class men who didn’t share the same values as the Cunninghams of the world. For most of them, this was not some ideological argument about the role of women in the home and in society. It was a meat and potatoes issue. Marta suddenly knew what she must say, and she squirmed to get her hands on the megaphone.
When Cunningham finished his speech, a round of cheers rumbled through the throng, led by the politicians standing in front of the stage. For a moment, self-doubt crept back into Marta’s thoughts, and she felt her world spinning away from her. How could she hope to turn these men around? When she looked at the men with a clear head, however, she saw what she’d seen before. Not all the men were expressing their support. In fact, she put the number who agreed with Cunningham at less than half. There was still an opportunity to turn the debate to the suffrage movement’s favor.
The Origamist - Excerpt
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