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The voice of American women

By
SHIRLEY SAAD

SAN DIEGO, Jan. 29 (UPI) -- From Anne Hutchinson to Sojourner Truth, from Gloria Steinem to Betty Friedan, and from Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Rodham Clinton, American women have always found a way to get their voice heard.

From the pulpit or in the classroom, from the White House or in print, this land of liberty and the First Amendment has often tried to silence them, but to no avail. They fought not only for women's rights, but also for the benefit of others: for abolition of slavery, child labor laws, and labor unions, to name but a few issues.

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Denied a role in her husband's administration, Clinton is now a New York senator, en route to greater things. They will not be silenced, and their voice is worth listening to. Kathryn Cullen-DuPont has compiled a collection of what she calls "private reflections upon public action: an exploration of how the difficult choice was made, what in childhood or later life propelled one to action, an occasional tallying of the costs and sacrifice."

Her book is titled "American Women Activists' Writings, An Anthology 1637-2001," (Cooper Square Press, $35.00, 605 pages. It will appear in bookstores in March.

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A recurring objection -- as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn recalls -- was, and in some cases still is, "Woman's place is in the home." Flynn, an agitator and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World and the first national chairwoman of the Communist Party in America, was a renowned orator known as "the Rebel Girl." She gave her first speech in January 1906, before she was 16, and was soon speaking in Newark, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence. She was arrested a few months later for "speaking without a permit" and "blocking traffic." It would not be the last time, but that never stopped her.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, "I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken -- and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet --

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"Charm by accepting, by submitting sway

Yet have our Humour most when we obey."

Margaret Sanger founded what was to become Planned Parenthood, and in 1912 realized what a tragic affair an unwanted pregnancy could be. She watched as one of her young patients died of a self-inflicted abortion and vowed to do something "to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were vast as the sky."

Today people are still dying because of the fight over the legalization of abortion. Mothers, doctors, and nurses are killed because of ignorance and bigotry, because of some people's refusal to admit that each woman has the right to dispose of her life, and her body, as she sees fit.

Finally, there is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who maintained her dignity in the face of scandal, slander and bitter opposition and kept her course. In 1995, in Beijing, at the United Nations' fourth annual conference on women, she talked about the role of women in today's world. "This is truly a celebration -- a celebration of the contributions women make in every aspect of life: in the home, on the job, in the community, as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, learners, workers, citizens and leaders."

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She said what all these women in the anthology knew and tried to promote. "What we are learning around the world is, if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish.

"And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish."

That reasoning seems so self-evident, but it has taken years for it to be articulated, and it will take many more years for it to be accepted everywhere.

At a time when women's plight in Afghanistan is daily in the news, it is good to hear the voices of American women who would not be silenced. As the Oneida elder told Wilma Mankiller, first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, this is "the time of the butterfly," a time for women to take on a more important role in society.

The anthology ends with an interview of Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a U.S. space shuttle and to command a mission into space. We've come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go.

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