Helen was introducing her, now, but Marta could hardly hear what she said over the din of anxieties and doubts buzzing around in her head. Her feet had suddenly become heavy weights that anchored her where she stood, but the weight fell away when she felt the pressure of Lillie’s hand on her arm. “Give ‘em hell, darlin,” Lillie whispered in her ear. Lillie’s touch and verbal support warmed her like a shot of whisky. Her feet became lighter, and the churning in her stomach subsided. As always, Lillie knew just what to do and say.
Marta’s new found strength didn’t prevent her from trembling as she stepped forward. She couldn’t help it. All eyes had now shifted to her. Everyone, men and women, were looking at her. Some expressions reflected a defiant attitude; some were indifferent; and some were friendly. She concentrated on the friendly faces as she took her place near the front of the platform. She turned to Helen for the megaphone but realized that Cunningham had somehow taken control of it. Marta glanced towards him with an expectant look and raised her hand for it, but he stood as still as a fence post and stared at her with his bulging eyes. His lack of cooperation created an embarrassing situation. If he refused to bring the megaphone to her, she would have to go get it, and she felt certain that was what he wanted . . . to make her appear submissive to him. Marta trembled again, only this time it was with anger. Without thinking, she stormed across the platform and snatched the megaphone from his hand, then returned to her position on the podium. She was pleased to hear appreciative murmurs humming through the crowd. It seemed they liked her decisiveness.
Marta calmed herself while she considered what she wanted to say. The sun’s mid-day glare pressed down on her until she thought the heat would scramble her words. The speech she’d intended to give no longer seemed relevant, and it was no use trying to write another one in her mind. It was best to just start talking. Let the ideas come as they may. She raised the megaphone to her mouth.
“Those of you who know me are aware that for many years I’ve been helping the poor through my Pacific Aid Society. I mention this now, because it bears on today’s discussion.” Marta stopped and took a breath. A slight breeze brushed her cheek, but it offered little relief from the heat. “Most of the families I help have an able bodied woman in the home who could add measurably to the family’s income, but other than a few low paying jobs like sewing, house cleaning, or bank clerking, there are few opportunities for them to work or to make a decent wage.
“Four years ago, the man who just spoke to you abandoned his first wife, Angela, in favor of a new one, and he left her with little money or prospects for a normal life.” She could feel Cunningham’s bulging eyes burning into her back, but she kept her gaze forward and ignored him. “I hired her, and she proved to be a good worker. All she needed was a chance. It’s the same for women at all levels of society, from the well-to-do to the poor. There are few jobs available to women, and those that do exist pay a miserable wage.” She moved her eyes back and forth across the silent crowd. Silence was good, she told herself. It meant they were listening. “Giving women the right to vote has nothing to do with how feminine we are. The last thing we want to do is become men. But we do want to take our place alongside our husbands as partners before the law and to take more control of our lives. None of us want to end up in Angela’s position: abandoned and unable to make an honest living.”
She heard footsteps and glanced behind her. Cunningham was approaching with a fist raised in angry protest. “Now see here Mrs. Wagner . . .” It was all he got to say before a chorus of boos drowned him out. “You had your chance,” a voice yelled out. “Let the woman speak,” another joined in. Cunningham hesitated and stopped. It was a heady moment for Marta. She knew she’d won the crowd to her side. Cunningham knew it, as well. Recognition of defeat was written in his flushed face and narrowed eyes. Marta glared at him, daring him to open his mouth again, but he clamped it shut, turned around, and stormed off the back of the stage.
“Now imagine this,” Marta’s heart fluttered with excitement as she continued. “Imagine that your wife could work and bring home a decent income to help meet your family’s expenses. Imagine how much better your life could be. Many of us would gladly work to help our families. All we need is the chance, and having the right to vote is a big step in that direction. We can help shape our futures with the vote, not as opponents to men, but as partners standing side-by-side.” She stopped to let this last point sink in.
“And don’t worry,” she said with a smile. “We’ll still come home at night to cook your meals and mind the children.” This elicited nervous laughter. “But let us do more than sweep floors and wash laundry. Let us help create a more productive workplace. That will bring more jobs and higher pay for everyone.” More thoughts buzzed around inside Marta’s head, but she sensed she’d said enough. It was time to let the two women behind her take center stage. They knew better than anyone what issues were important. She only hoped she’d made a contribution that was worthwhile.
The Origamist - Excerpt
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