I know I’m about a year too late for this to be news, but I recently watched Suffragette with my family. Snuggled up under a warm comforter and popcorn in hand, I was expecting a feel-good, rah-rah feminists!, let’s-go-change-the-world film, but that isn’t what I got. Instead of inspirational and heartwarming, it brought on a lot of raw feelings and emotions about the absolute thanklessness of advocacy work and the heartbreaking sacrifices that are thrown onto change-makers. So often when we tell the stories of our feminist forebears, we give a polite nod to their sacrifice and acknowledge it must have been hard, but they were right, they won, and we move along, satiated by our moment of gratitude. What we forget is that many of them lost everything dear to them. Most of them never intended to.
What struck me most forcefully was not my gratitude for their sacrifices but the anger that I felt. I was angry they had to make those sacrifices in the first place. I was angry that more people around them didn’t share their portion of the burden in bringing about justice and equality. I wondered how much better things would have been if everyone had looked around and noticed the inequity and been bothered by it. But they didn’t.
I was angry that so many people suggest they would have been on the right side of history yesterday as they simultaneously dismiss today’s activists and movements as “disturbing the peace.” I was angry that so many people seem to believe the quest for equality is done. Finished. Even more, I was angry that so many who cared so little reaped the same benefits as those who did everything. Yes, those suffragettes who sacrificed so much won the vote. So did the women who fought against them.
And then I thought of the people these brave women lost on a personal level–the coworkers, friends and family, even their own husbands, who turned their back on them. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film, the main character, Maud, has her son taken away, largely because she no longer conformed to the traditional roles and beliefs about womanhood. She was deemed unfit to raise her child because she no longer espoused traditional womanhood.
In turn, I thought of all the people I’d lost in my life since coming to Mormon feminism–those who have written me out because my activism made them uncomfortable, the bridges I never wanted to burn but did as I tried to find my way, the not-so-subtle suggestions that I was ruining my family and turning my back on them because (obviously) feminists hate their husbands and children. I thought of my close childhood friend who no longer speaks to me because of the views I hold and the audacity I have to share them. It was then that I realized Maud never felt the fight was worth the sacrifices she was required to endure. I’m sure that had she been given the choice of her son vs. her advocacy, she would have chosen her son. Hands down. Thing is, she didn’t choose her sacrifices. None of us do. They were never made willingly–they were thrust upon her and she was left to move forward anyway.
While I’ve never endured anything so terrible as the loss of my children, I wept over the people I’ve lost that I never wanted to lose. As I sat in the anger and pain, I kept wanting to tie it up in a pretty bow and talk about how it’s all worth it. I wanted to be able to say that the knowledge and perspective I gained turned me into a happier, better person. I wanted to talk about purpose in life. I wanted to say that the sacrifices were worth it, that they were hard but I was willing to make them. But maybe I’ll never be able say it was worth it on a personal level–that my writing and speaking about the need for the expanded role of women in the Church will ever be personally fulfilling enough to make up for what it feels I’ve lost.
In just about every lesson on the Law of Tithing, there will always be the stories about the person who was on the very edge of the money, where paying their tithing was a huge personal sacrifice and then days later, mysterious money shows up in their account or on their doorstep. These stories make us feel good and reinforce the narrative that God will immediately deliver us following our sacrifice. The ram in the thicket always shows up in a timely manner. But perhaps more important than the stories of quick deliverance is learning to sit with the uncomfortable stories of when deliverance doesn’t come, at least not in the ways and timetable we expect it to come. Sometimes windows of heaven don’t open. Sometimes we surrender to the sacrifice anyway.
And so this American election season, I’m not going to talk about how their sacrifices of those suffragettes a century ago were made willingly or even that they would have recognized they were worth it. Instead, I will voice my gratitude through continuing their legacy of working for an equitable and just world. Their work was not finished. Neither is ours. We have miles to go before we sleep.