“You seem bored.”
Shy girl, self-conscious girl, sits in the sunlight, stares into space. I looked at the speaker: friendly guy, warm smile. I’ll permit him to interrupt my solitude. I smiled in return. “Nah, I’m just relaxing,”
He chuckled. “Gotta enjoy this weather. Listen, do you want to sign my petition? I want to fight for the equal rights of women.”
He extended a clipboard to me. “I’m working to end women’s suffrage.”
Sure enough, three simple words and no other description: “End Women’s Suffrage.” A handful of signatures. A disbelieving pause. I looked up at him.
“You want to end women’s right to vote?”
He stared at me. “That’s – that’s not what that means.”
A split second silence as I stared back at him. Reality bent. Shit is there another definition of suffrage? What the hell?
“I want to end women’s suffering,” he said smoothly, looking away from me. “I just want to make a difference in the world. I feel like women are just at such a disadvantage.”
I breathed. This guy is an idiot, I thought. I don’t know what the fuck he thinks he’s going to do with this thing – it’s going to get laughed off of the desk of any legislator on which it lands. Thoughts chased each other through my mind. But he wants to make a difference. Maybe he’s thinking about domestic violence, sexual harassment, equal wages, that kind of thing, but doesn’t know the right word to encompass it. Whatever he’s doing, it sounds like he has a good heart. I honestly believed that. I believed he meant well. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, didn’t want to discourage him.
“I’m pretty sure suffrage means the right to vote, but well, okay.” Nice girl, obedient girl, puts down her name. It’s not like a piece of paper that literally says nothing other than “End Women’s Suffrage” is going to affect anything.
“What in particular are planning to get done?” Maybe that would clarify his motivation.
“Uh, well, I’m just going to send this to Obama. He’ll decide what should get done.”
I stared at him, passing back the clipboard. Your bad liar alarm is ringing to high heaven, isn’t it? As for me: How misguided can you get? Well, somebody else is going to put him straight, someone’s going to tell him this is not how you get change to happen…whatever change he’s hoping for.
He left. The exchange rankled me, but I had to put it out of my mind. It wasn’t until that night, getting out of the shower, that I gave it more thought. It was starting to occur to me that something was seriously off.
Maybe there really was an alternate connotation to the word “suffrage,” some embarrassing slang that had recently corrupted the word. Maybe the guy was having a laugh at my ignorance of slang. But that ever-reputable source, Urban Dictionary, claimed that no, suffrage is still simply the right to vote.
I started getting a sinking feeling, though, about the idea of the guy having a laugh. The pieces were falling together. I typed into Google: “End Women’s Suffrage prank.”
There it was. “American Students Sign Petition to End Women’s Suffrage.” It was a prank, a goddamned prank to make fun of women who didn’t know the meaning of suffrage. My heart started to pound loud, slow and steady, but loud. My hands shook so badly I could barely grab my laptop screen to snap it shut.
Not an exaggeration: I had never been so angry in my life.
Out of naiveté (he’s an idiot, but he means well), out of apathy (this is obviously a petition no one will take seriously), out of my own self-doubt, my own unwillingness to question things that seem wrong, I made an utter idiot of myself. And if he was somehow filming the mess, I’ll get to be part of a YouTube video in a couple of weeks. Everyone is going to know my uncertainty, everyone is going to know my cowardice — cowardice my acquaintances had perhaps suspected of this timid girl, but which they would be revolted to see actually exists.
I swear this: this kind of thing will never happen again.
I failed by signing that form. It wasn’t the failure he was hoping for – hur de hur, look how many people don’t know what “suffrage” means! I could care less about getting laughed at for not knowing the meaning of a word. It was a failure more acute, a failure more profound. I let my self-doubt rule me—as usual, in fact. I don’t take many risks, I sit back and slide under the radar in heated discussions, swallowing my opinions. I’ve gotten away with being a doormat pretty successfully. There were never any negative consequences of being a quiet sheep, until now.
If you really don’t know the meaning of “suffrage,” go back, take a flip through your high school history book. The people – women and men – who fought for the right to vote deserve that we know what their efforts were, and they deserve our respect. But so much more importantly, they deserve that we question, that we question everything. They deserve that we trust our instincts, that we do only what we choose to do, by the guidance of our own judgment and moral compass. They deserve that we fight what we know to be wrong. That’s what they did.
My lack of self-confidence finally led me to do something which, in principle, could have contributed to significant harm, if this was a different kind of country, if haphazard petitions carried weight. It was disrespectful and cowardly, to myself, to all of my fellow women. Chances are I’ll pay the price when these oh-so-original documentarians publish their findings. My thoughtless act makes me want to tear myself to shreds; it made me punch my wall; it made me cling to my pillow and sob for hours. It made me write, a skill I rarely exercise these days.
But you know: I think it’s finally going to make me change.