Photo by Kim Dedam
LEWIS — The final resting place of suffragist Inez Milholland was covered in roses and white lilies and decorated with an American flag after hundreds gathered at her snowbound gravestone set flat against the ground a hundred years ago.
Echoes from a rich part of local history here blended with fresh concerns expressed nationwide last Saturday.
American flags flew as dissent was delivered in hues of red, white, blue, rainbow stripes and pink.
It was just one rally among hundreds that drew hundreds of thousands of people to a Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and to sister rallies around the world.
A confluence of fluid speeches, signs and songs merged women’s rights — both medical and legal — with environmental, civil and human rights concerns.
Businesswoman Tex Clark came north to Lewis from Warren County.
“I showed up,” she said.
“As a woman I don’t want to go backwards. I don’t want to lose what women fought for all these years to gain.”
Progressive movements from the late 18th century forward, she said, won rights to vote for minorities and women, the right to choose abortion, the right to interracial marriage and gay marriage, even the right to work.
“I remember when my great-grandparents talked about how women couldn’t work unless they had permission from their husbands,” Clark said.
“At one time, a man owned us like a piece of furniture.”
The pique was ripe given the politics and what many saw as divisive campaign language of a newly sworn American president.
And within soft-spoken words carried in songs and poetry, the focus on resisting any civil rights step backward seemed palpable and vital, even in a graveyard.
Many who attended the rally said Milholland’s burial place was a perfect place to make a historic stand.
“It’s why I wanted to go,” Crown Point middle school teacher and theater director Crystal Farrell said.
“The historic context was perfect.”
Milholland, whose family had a farm where Meadowmount is now, fought hard for women’s right to vote.
With particular attention to historic detail, organizer Sandra Weber unfurled a banner printed with Milholland’s famous suffragist battle cry, “Forward into Light...”
She wove the purple sash around bare branches on the tree behind the grave.
Five-year-old Sofia Kite-Whidden had updated the phrase for her rally sign: “Forward into Massive Light.”
But Weber’s sign replayed the last words Milholland spoke in public.
Before she collapsed during a suffragists’ rally in California in 1916, Milholland address the U.S. president: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for Liberty?”
Asked what liberties they believe are at risk, people here said marriage and equality rights, healthcare access and reproductive rights and especially civil rights to freedom of religion are chief among them.
They expressed opposition to an incoming political agenda that began with immediate actions taken on Inauguration Day by President Donald Trump.
“The person that has been elected president wants to reverse or privatize funding for everything: Medicaid, social services, Social Security, arts programming, even funding that supports victims of domestic violence,” Ready Barron, of Horicon, said.
“He’s never walked a day in our shoes and has no concept of what the poor and middle-class have gone through. Forget the Mexican border wall, we have crumbling bridges and roads all over America.”
They are very concerned with the cabinet full of billionaires that Trump has picked for his administration.
Voices here wanted to make sure their concerns were made very clear.
“I hope he proves me wrong,” Clark said. “But I doubt it.”
They also stood defiant against what many perceive to be a rise in hate crimes since Trump won the election on Nov. 8, citing recent threats made over the last few weeks to Jewish Community Centers in New York and at mosques around the country.
Emily Warner, of Saranac Lake, who founded Now What?, a civil rights action group, carried the American flag in her march up the cemetery hill to Inez Milholland’s gravesite last Saturday.
Photo by Kim Dedam
FORGET THE EPITAPH
Arriving in Lewis by 10 a.m., some 325 people of all ages, six months to age 85, made their way up the icy hill behind the historic Congregational Church and stood around Weber.
Hand lettered signs proclaimed: “Our rights aren’t up for grabs;” “Science is Real, Kindness is Everything” and “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.”
One charged: “Underestimate us ... go ahead, see what happens.”
Pulling the crowd together, Weber read the poem Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote for Milholland. The two women were close friends, she said.
“Only my standard on a taken hill/Can cheat the mildew and the red-brown rust/And make immortal my adventurous will,” Weber read evenly as people placed flowers on the grave.
“Even now the silk is tugging at the staff/ Take up the song; forget the epitaph.”
A common strain from the blended message emerged familial, held in unison by entire families.
Mothers and grandmothers came with children and grandchildren and husbands and partners. Husbands came wearing hand knit pink hats with pointed ears.
The mood through the crowd remained joyful if not upbeat; excited chatter interlaced with children’s laughter.
One group of youngsters worked together to build a four-foot snowman beside the cemetery.
And conversation drew farmers together with military veterans, volunteer emergency personnel with lawyers, waitresses and teachers to shop clerks and college professors; business owners and mechanics with museum directors; doctors with writers; scientists with civic leaders.
Weber, who is a local author and historian, asked around and found people came here from more than two dozen communities.
“I had no idea, not when I started,” Weber of the non-partisan initiative she launched New Year’s Day (about three weeks prior) as part of the Washington D.C. Women’s March.
“I am completely humbled by this,” she told the crowd after someone produced a microphone and speaker.
“It was not a protest,” according to David Hodges, a business consultant and Weber’s partner.
“It is about people getting together in solidarity and unity to figure out where we go from here.”
The gathering did work to connect at least eight existing grassroots groups that had been working on different issues separately, pressing for clean energy, environmental and civil rights protection.
Among groups to represent were Sexual Assault Support Services at Planned Parenthood of the North Country; Green Circle, from Saranac Lake; Mother’s Out Front, from Keene; Now What?, from Saranac Lake; Plattsburgh-Adirondack Building Bridges and the Adirondack Climate Coalition.
With a new found network, many continued on to a social music gathering held at the Whallonsburg Grange. Others continued on to an afternoon rally held in Plattsburgh which drew about 700 people.
Leaving still-fresh red roses and white lilies on Milholland’s grave and the deep purple banner wrapped around the tree, Weber stood astounded by both the attendance here and the need to press forward.
“I think Inez would be a little shocked, surprised that we are still having this conversation about respect and liberty for women one hundred years later,” Weber said with a slight shake of her head.
“I anticipated 10 to 20 people. I never anticipated over 100 people,” she mused.
“Inez would be happy. She’s saying ‘keep it going’.”