April 18 is a special date for me. This year, it’s the official launch date of my children’s picture book, Rapunzel the Hairbrained. (I’ll actually be launching it all the way through Saturday, as part of Nickel Plate Arts Fairyville event.) But diving back into history, April 18, 1998, was the debut of Seneca, my 3+ hour musical about the American Women’s Right Movement in the 1800s. As I look in the mirror and adjust my $25 tiara encrusted with fake diamonds, I ask my reflection, “What would Susan B. Anthony say about this?”
Let me rewind…
In 1996, when I was a sophomore in high school, I was a part of Academic Super Bowl. Teams of students studied English, Science, Social Studies, and other core subjects and then competed in a live multiple choice contest. Each year featured a different theme, from the Space Race to Black History. In 1996, the topic was Women. We were given a list of people, events, books, and theories to research in advance. One of the preliminary lists included Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Dutifully I began my research months in advance. I didn’t expect it to be more than an assignment, or that a one-year commitment would blossom into a lifelong interest.
As I read Miriam Gurko’s “The Ladies of Seneca Falls,” I was shocked at the discrepancies between my life and the women of the 1800s. Laws and beliefs that I took for granted were radical concepts for them. Married women own property? Have the right to divorce abusive spouses and retain custody of their own children? VOTE?
There was so much there in the historical record to fall in love with. The friendship and political chemistry between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the “noise-making twain.” Henry Blackwell, the brother of the first female doctor in the US, falling in love with feminist abolitionist Lucy Stone. Sojourner Truth, a former slave who turned an anti-woman convention on its head with a short and brilliant speech challenging the notion women were weak. (“I could eat as much as a man when I could get it, and bear the lash as well. And ain’t I a woman?”) Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned abolitionist and journalist, who convinced the attendees at the first women’s right convention that they should strive for the right to vote.
But most of all, I fell in love with Susan B. Anthony. Her unflagging effort for decades came to embody the movement. The journey against all odds and despite all exhaustion was almost Frodo-like. She was witty, she was a deft organizer, she was independent, she had her facts at her fingertips, she confronted politicians, hecklers, and opponents of her own gender. For me she was the embodiment of a smart, independent woman who dedicated her entire being to a worthy cause. I carried around a Susan B. Anthony coin in my pocket, and got annoyed when people told me she sewed the first American flag.
I’d long wanted to write a musical. In my senior year I got permission from a wonderfully supportive band director, Mr. Smith, to write and produce one about the Women’s Rights Movement. It was longer than the movie Titanic, which also came out that year. When someone in the audience commented on the length, another audience member retorted, “If you men had been quicker to give women their rights, this musical could have been shorter.”
Although the musical was only produced for a single evening, it defined my teenage years and shaped my adulthood. It spawned an interest in history that landed me in the job I’ve had at a history museum for the past 15 years. But Susan B. Anthony and all the woman like her have become my reminder of struggle for human equality, for struggle for any worthy cause.
Then why do I write fairy tales now? Have I jumped ship for the land of Disney princesses? Have I exchanged my bloomers for a ballgown?
I seriously wrestled with this question several years ago. Was I selling out when I donned the glass slipper? Some people today argue that fairy tales are anti-feminist. They teach girls to be, well, “girly.” To wear glitter and tulle and wait for a prince to rescue them. I would argue that some fairy tales are like this. But these are old-school fairy tales. The vast majority of fairy tale retellings today have female characters that are more empowered (some more, some less). But there are outstanding examples of fairy tales that focus on female strength of character and the power of female community. Take Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy. And even if you live in dread of someone bursting into “Let It Go,” you have to admit the movie Frozen had a lot of empowering messages for girls.
I confess, I do write fairy tales. But Rapunzel the Hairbrained, for all its long hair, is a feminist text. The first half of the poem (it’s a book in verse) recounts the classic tale. Beautiful girl locked in tower by witch, prince climbs up her hair to visit her, ticked-off witch-mom cuts off her hair and casts her out, prince and girl finally happily reunited. But the poem goes on to ask, if she’s spent her entire life thinking about her hair, would she really be prepared to rule a kingdom? And to also question, What happens in a society where we place so much emphasis on female appearance?
The second half of the book asks questions in workbook style. Is it wrong that Rapunzel thought about her looks? No. In a culture where girls and women constantly criticize their own bodies and the bodies of others on social media (and elsewhere), we need to emphasize that every girl’s body is beautiful. But beauty shouldn’t stop with the body. It should also involve that girl’s talents and (get ready for the old-fashioned word) character. In the end pages, I ask girls to write down traits that make them beautiful on the outside and the inside. We conclude with a fill-in-the blanks story in which the reader becomes the heroine of her own fairy tale, and saves a kingdom with three of her talents.
I want to thank Indiana Arts Commission for a grant that made the publication of this book possible, and especially for underwriting the costs of a workshop. Thanks to them, I’m able to deliver 5 free workshops on self-esteem to girls in grades 3-5, and hand out 10 free books at each. I’m also able to sell the book at Fairyville this week at a discounted price.
In a few hours I’ll be holding tea parties with kids at Fairyville. I’ll be joined by teenagers in full-on fairy costumes and wings and wands. I admit there will be sparkles. And princess games. But we’ll also be working together to fix a problem (a fairy tale book has been scrambled through magic). Both girls and boys will work together to cross the dangerous briar patch (crepe paper maze) and save the day. And hopefully, at the end of the program, a few guests will take home the book and talk to their girls about beauty and talent and where their true value lies.
I’ve written a book about self-image, so I can’t help some reflections on myself at this moment. Today I put on the same queen costume I wore in a play senior year (Once Upon a Mattress), the same year I wrote Seneca. And I find, 20 years later, the dress still fits.
The dress then (third from right):
The dress now:
The person I was then is not so radically different than the person I am now. I am still a feminist who likes to dress up as a queen. And like my “Aunt Susan,” who as she aged trained up the next generation of feminists, my goal is to ensure the next generation of girls today learns how to value and love themselves, and to use their talents to thrive in this challenging world.
Susan, I hope I do you proud.