Our columnist, a feminist, reflects on past battles for equality and the election’s threat


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DES MOINES, Iowa, Nov. 6, 2022 — These days, I’m moody as all get out.  I’m probably cranky and no fun to live with, though my husband assures me otherwise.

I’m frightened that I might be living in a state and country that retreat to values opposite of mine, after all the votes are counted in the general election this Tuesday, Nov. 8.

I’m usually not this dramatic.  Then again, I’m now old enough to legitimately refer to the good ol’ days of 50 years ago!

My feminist activism, working for women’s equality, started in the early 1970s.  Those experiences shaped me, and they made a permanent imprint on my values.  And on my soul.

Personally, I never wanted special treatment as a woman. I wanted to use my brain and my skills regardless of whether I wore a skirt or trousers.  Asking me when I intended to have children during an interview for my first corporate job out of college, was appalling.  It was also commonplace and legal.

Most of all, I wanted my voice to be heard and my vote to be counted, even if I didn’t win the argument or the race of a candidate I was backing.

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Mary Riche with the “Women of Change” sculpture in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the birthplace of the Women’s Rights movement. The four early activists are, from the left, Laura Cornelius Kellogg, Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright and Sojourner Truth.

Back then, opponents to equality used falsehoods to threaten voters with a change to their power or status if women were treated as equals.  Today’s political ads by some candidates use that same anxiety-producing approach.  Make the voters afraid by threatening them with a loss of their power or status.  I hope I see the end of negative ads in campaigns, still used now because they are effective.

In 1973, my passion for equality was ignited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade that gave women reproductive freedom. Naively, I thought it was a right that could not be taken away.  I remember celebrating that victory as though it happened yesterday, and I’ve been a volunteer and supporter of Planned Parenthood ever since.

This June, I was absolutely gob-smacked by the current Supreme Court’s decision to overrule the landmark cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. CaseyCould this current court reverse more individual rights represented by the cases on the court’s current docket?  That possible retreat is even more upsetting.

And that’s when I feel sucker-punched by my friend democracy, a system where the majority rules.  It’s a system I’ve believed in and been devoted to since I was old enough to vote for a student council representative as a ninth grader at Oelwein Community High School in Iowa.

Recently, I stood on hallowed ground in Seneca Falls, New York.  It’s the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention held in 1848 – almost 100 years before I was born.  One of the few national parks dedicated to a social reform movement – women’s rights.

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Sign welcoming visitors to the “hallowed ground” in Seneca Falls, a town of 6,200 in western New York.

I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of reverence. Then I couldn’t decide whether to shout cheers of joy or an obscenity.  Or both, given the feelings I’ve just described.

The organizer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was a firebrand, suffragist, and tireless worker as she authored the “Declaration of Sentiments” (modeled after the Declaration of Independence) and signed by 68 women and 32 men convention attendees.

At that time, women were prevented from owning land; earning wages; voting; having any authority in divorce or child custody decisions; getting a college degree; participating in most public church affairs while being subjected to a different moral code than men.

That’s an outrageous list of grievances.  I found myself wondering what it must have been like to be part of that conference of 300 activists, as I sat in the rocking chair on the porch of Stanton’s home.

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On the front porch of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton home, preserved at its original location in Seneca Falls.

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Rocking-on where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, convener of the first Women’s Rights Convention in July, 1848, might have rocked herself.

In our Des Moines home, I have a framed, original letter signed by Susan B. Anthony, written on December 28, 1897, when she was President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.  Anthony and Stanton were best friends, agitators, and collaborators.

Anthony wrote to prospective donors hoping to raise a total of $3,000 for a “press bureau” where an “experienced newspaper woman will give her entire time and effort to collect and distribute arguments and practical illustrations in favor of equality.”  Another example of how some things remain the same even after 125 years, as this direct mail appeal demonstrates.

Thanks to them and those who followed, today I can vote, keep the wages I earn, own property in my own name, and get credit without a co-signer.

Almost 25 years ago in November, 1977, I attended the First National Womens Conference, sponsored in Houston, Tex., by the U.S. Commission on the Observance of International Womens Year.  It was an electrifying experience, and we were all pumped up by what we thought would be continuing progress in our march toward equal rights.

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Souvenir poster from the First National Womens Conference.

And that’s why I’ve been so emotional these days, leading up to the election on Tuesday.

I love our system of democracy where the majority of voters rule.  I understand that the winners get handed the power to make important decisions.  I vote in every election and will continue to do so.

However, I also believe, sadly, that this system of government could tumble into full-fledged anarchy, given the horror of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the number of “election deniers” on the ballot across the country, and too many examples of politically motivated violence for my heart and stomach to manage.

Gratefully, the sermon at our Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ today was what I needed to hear given my yo-yo’ing emotions.  The scripture lesson was from Matthew as we celebrated All Saints Sunday with communion, beautiful music featuring our chancel choir with the visiting Baltimore Consort, and a perfect message by our associate pastor Jack Mahoney.  You can view the full service on Plymouth Church’s YouTube channel.

I was reminded that “God’s hand is gently touching my shoulder,” and that I am loved exactly as I am.

Whether I’m in a hopeful, reflective mood, as I am tonight.  Or cranky and moody, like I was this morning.


You can comment on this column by using the handy form below here, or you can write directly to the columnist by email at maryriche@gmail.com.

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A great quote from Elizabeth Cady Stanton Park in downtown Seneca Falls.

6 thoughts on “Our columnist, a feminist, reflects on past battles for equality and the election’s threat

  1. Thanks, Mary! I felt better today after church, also. I may need to watch Jack’s sermon a few times on Tuesday, then watch the Halloween concert on YouTube. Before the results are in. Then maybe eat a few chocolate-covered cranberries from the annual nuts sale. Then do an attitude check before I start judging Middle School Mock Trial Competition at 8:30 on Wednesday morning.

    Artis Reis, Des Moines

  2. Well done Mary. All of the photos enrich your great writing. We are soul sisters in our beliefs. In my office, I have a framed photo of Gloria Steinem and me at an event in Des Moines more than 20 years ago. When I look at it, I am reminded of how hard women before me (such as you) worked for women’s rights. We must stand strong and have courage. Now I have a granddaughter for whom I need to be an activist for her future. Thanks!

    Jann Freed, Des Moines

    • Soul sister Jann, I believe I handled PR for that event with Gloria and I remember her speech as if it was yesterday. You serve as a great role model for your granddaugter Lottie, and I’ll keep fighting for her rights too. Thanks for your comments!

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