Why Legacies Deserve Transparency

Just last month, my son was in the midst of the first grade’s big Great Changer project. Each child worked from a picture book about his or her changer in order to write a poem about the person and create a portrait (their gorgeous creations of poem-plus-artwork hung in Northampton’s APE Gallery for a week). Remy’s changer was Barack Obama.

Obamamania most certainly overtook our household last year. We chanted Gobama at the top of our lungs all the way to school on Election Day morning. Inauguration day felt like a huge holiday in our world, and Remy—then in kindergarten—was duly swept up in the excitement of the pageantry and the history being made, as well as the complete amazement that two little girls so near to his age could be smack dab front and center of the day’s drama.

Not so unlike the jaded adults losing hold of how remarkable a barrier had tumbled, a year makes a huge difference for a child. Remy no longer views the awesome fact of Obama’s election as such a big deal. Quote: “You dream it and you can do it, Mom.” Yes, I absolutely swoon at my seven year-old son’s plucky self-confidence. Beyond that, though, I see how, in a country that now has an African American President, it’s even harder than it was a year ago to make the case for just how huge—sea change, game change—Rosa Parks’ refusal to go the back of the bus or all those people gathering to hear Martin speak of his dream were. Though history is—and rightfully should be—a guide, it’s very difficult to find a lens that allows us to maintain a clear vision of why something important was—and remains—significant when our current landscape seems so very different than one decades or even days ago.


So, with all that in mind, I am particularly intrigued—and, I admit, Why —by a vehemently anti-abortion activist, Carol Crossed, buying Susan B. Anthony’s birthplace in Adams, Massachusetts—now the Susan B. Anthony Museum—and using Anthony’s legacy to further her (Crossed’s) own anti-abortion message.

When questioned about the issue, Crossed insists Anthony’s position on many issues was full of contradictions, that Anthony was a Quaker who wore jewelry, a lover of peace who backed John Brown militancy. Crossed says, “The truth was sometimes complicated, almost always unpopular." Museum director—and former vice-president of New York’s Feminists for Life organization (now renamed Feminists Choosing Life) defends the closeness of a current stance on this issue and promoting Anthony’s legacy as they are: “She was all about resources for women, something that FCLNY is all about. If she were here today, I think she'd be proud of those resources.”

Ann Gordon, research professor and director of the Anthony and Stanton Papers Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says, "There's zero evidence that Susan B. Anthony ever made her position known… She didn't often speak on religious issues, which she would have considered this. We can't say what her stance on abortion would be, but we can say for sure that she'd be against the government regulating a woman's body. She spoke out about that issue quite clearly."


While the privately owned and operated Susan B. Anthony Museum has the right to promote her legacy as its board so chooses, omitting its bias—on a current hot-button issue—does seem willfully misleading, because the agenda is not simply to share history, it is to interpret it in a particular way, for a purpose beyond simple preservation of an historic figure. That said the same could be argued for any number of museums, even the MLK Center in Atlanta. That institution, though, expressly announces its mission as one beyond preserving history, “preparing coming generations of Dr. King’s followers to carry forward his unfinished work into the new millennium.”

Freedom may look different as circumstances change that is for certain. An honest portrayal of one’s motivations, though, is a constant worth striving for, one that great—and complicated—leaders, from Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama, it could safely be argued, all share. So, too, should those endeavoring to protect and promote their contributions and their legacies with honesty and integrity.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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