Remembering a Forgotten Woman

There have been calls to replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the twenty dollar bill with that of a woman. It is a good idea, and Women On 20s recently announced their four finalists. Worthy, if predictable, choices. I know that you can’t choose everyone, but I have to wonder why a certain candidate never got as far as the primary round. It raises an important question. Why does a prominent female activist who believed in equality, crusaded against social evils oppressing women, and inspired people the world over not even make it to the final fifteen? As you have probably guessed from the picture, I have Carry A. Nation of saloon-smashing fame in mind. Nation was a strong, independent, and unconventional woman who tirelessly fought for equality. She was not afraid to oppose social and systemic evil. Born poor, Nation became an entrepreneur, a journalist, an educator, and a performer, possibly one of the most famous women of her day. Her example inspired women in other countries such as France. She suffered ridicule, humiliation, physical assaults, and escaped several attempts on her life. She seems to be exactly the kind of woman who should be celebrated as a quintessentially American hero, yet she is marginalized by men and women across the American political spectrum. Why? As her recent biographer explains,

Nowadays, however, no one wants to claim Carry Nation. Although she fought for women’s rights, feminists dismiss her because she was intensely religious and lambasted liquor. A puritanical killjoy, they say. One would think that the religious right would like her precisely for this reason, but they disparage her as a stereotypical domineering woman because she marched into the male sphere (with an axe!) and deserted her husband. Even the organization that helped to launch Nation’s career—the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—no longer claims her as their own (if they ever did).

Carry Nation is not polarizing, she is inconvenient. No one really knows what to do with her because she does not comfortably fit current political agendas, so she is written off as a loon. Twenty dollar bills or not, if you care about women’s history, reintroducing the marginalized like Carry Nation into the narrative is change you can make happen now.