Forget Conventionalisms: A Susan B. post for Women’s History Month

Civil Liberties, Education, Social Justice

By: Ned Davis

Forget conventionalisms; forget what the world thinks of you stepping out of your place; think your best thoughts, speak your best words, work your best works, looking to your own conscience for approval.
—Susan B. Anthony

Cosplay ‘Susan B Anthony’ in front of Library exhibitIt would be lamentable for a blogger from Rochester, New York, to let Women’s History Month pass without celebrating the remarkable and revolutionary role that Susan B. Anthony played not just in helping gain suffrage for women but in advocating for intellectual freedom. Because of the efforts of Susan B.—as she is affectionately known in her hometown—and other extraordinary leaders in the movement, New York women got the right to vote in 1917, three years before the nation as a whole. To commemorate this history, in 2017, the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library (FFRPL) supported the major community project Because of Women Like Her: Winning the Vote in New York State, providing a forum to recognize this incredible and impactful legacy.

This project brought together the Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County, the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester Historical Society, Rochester Institute of Technology, and the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries, among others, to tell the story of the central role our community played in the national fight for women’s civil rights. But, as one might imagine, organizing, curating and staging such an exhibition—especially with multiple collaborators—was neither easy nor inexpensive. As FFRPL took on this challenge, we took to heart more words from Susan B.: “Failure is impossible.” (‘Susan B. Inspires Me’ is a popular button from the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, just across the Genesee River from the Rochester Public Library.)

The role the Library’s Friends & Foundation played was central: supporting the project externally enabled organizations with widely varying levels of resources to come to the table and contribute their expertise to the exhibit. This is worth emphasizing: in every community, there are many stories to be told and, frequently, many tellers. What is too often lacking is the venue and resources to bring these narrators together so that the stories can be heard, loudly and clearly, as these voices amplify each other. A Library’s Friends & Foundation can provide these resources, so that (to paraphrase Susan B.), a community can come together to think its best thoughts, speak its best words, work its best works.

Christine Ridarsky, Rochester City Historian and Historical Services Consultant for the Rochester Public Library, said of the Because of Women Like Her exhibit: “The community collaboration that resulted in the suffrage centennial exhibition has been, by far, one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. It was amazing to see how well staff from six different organizations could come together and pool our diverse skills and talents.”

Photo of Rochester NY sculpture of SB Anthony and F Douglass ‘Let’s Have Tea’ from Rochester Public Library collection, approved for “non-commercial, personal, educational, or research use”
Sculpture of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass; ‘Let’s Have Tea’ from Rochester Public Library collection.

Susan B. Anthony once wrote, “Organize, agitate, educate must be our war cry” – perhaps channeling the work of her friend, another American pioneer of human rights who called Rochester home, Frederick Douglass (celebrated last month in this OIF blog post). But this month, as we honor the work of pioneering women throughout history, we also celebrate the knowledge that in every community the Library stands in support of the battles for the civil right of education and the human right of intellectual freedom.



Ned DavisNed Davis has been Executive Director of the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library since 2010. He was recently honored with the New York Library Association’s ‘Intellectual Freedom Award’ in recognition of his effort to make connections, clear obstacles and find resources allowing the Library to host lively discussions, big thoughts, diverse stories, colorful people and ideas that stretch boundaries. In his non-spare time he also plays several musical instruments of and with varying degrees of difficulty and skill.

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