Last week I took yet another tour of the state house, an activity that always brings my civics nerd-dom to the fore. I love history, politics, policy, and majestic buildings, so this oft-repeated trip inspires and interests me. I have no illusions about the inclusion of my people in most of Massachusetts history: women, Catholics, and even the iconic Irish were absent from most of the decision making for a large portion of the history of the Commonwealth. So I know how significant it is when we walk by the sign on Senate President Therese Murray’s door, and my heart aches a little when we stand in the House chambers, beneath a ceiling encircled with names of Massachusetts greatest (white, anglo-saxon, protestant) men.
Most days I can be patient about the progress women have made. Things are easier for me than they were for my mother, and were easier for her than for her mother. I went to a college my mother couldn’t have gone to and have the freedom to live on my own, have a job that I love, and basically do what I want. Things are OK.
At the very end of the tour, in a side hallway near the stairs, we viewed the Portrait Gallery of six of the Commonwealth’s most extraordinary women. It was a challenge to listen to our tour guide and read the quotes and look at the portraits. I was struck by this quotation of Lucy Stone:
In education, in marriage, in religion, in everything disappointment is the lot of women. It shall be the business of my life to deepen that disappointment in every woman’s heart until she bows down to it no longer.
Then I heard the tour guide say “Not only does this gallery honor these six women, it honors all women”. I’m sure our well-spoken and bright guide was just following her script, and I’m sure most of the people I was with were thinking “isn’t that nice”, but I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something snide. Don’t pretend that portraints of six women make up for centuries of grave injustice, and don’t imaging that just because Lucy Stone was a woman, she’d be content with sharing her honor with everyone else just to be nice. This is better than nothing, but it’s not even close to justice.
I’m glad we honor Dorothea Dix and Florence Luscomb and the other leaders whose faces are on those brass plaques. In no way does that make it right that so many people’s voices were excluded from decision making just because of their gender (or race, or religion). It doesn’t make it right that we criticize our successful female politicians for being pushy or unbecoming, and then ridicule the other half who we keep in the public eye in order to have someone at whom to laugh and gawk.