"Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine...Do what is more difficult & brave. Reform! It is not proof of highest goodness never to have done wrong, but it is proof of it, sometimes in ones career, to pause & ponder, to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it...Once in awhile there comes a crisis which renders miracles feasible. The great tidal wave of sorrow which has rolled over the country has swept you loose from your old moorings & set you on a mountaintop, alone.”
After James Garfield was shot, Chester Arthur the Vice President and soon-to-be president, started receiving letters from a woman named Julia Sand. It was the 1880s and women had almost no hope of participating in or influencing policy in any way. It isn't really clear why Sand started writing to Arthur. At the time, she was confined to her bed due to spinal trouble, and was losing her hearing as well.
Julia Sand was a voracious reader of the newspapers and was not shy about sharing her opinion. She wrote Arthur about who he should hire for his cabinet, and who he should keep out of it. She encouraged him to not take part in Congressional elections, and urged him to veto or support certain bills. And she did not hesitate to criticize him when he did not follow her advice.
Why is any of that relevant? Why does it matter what one woman wrote to a president almost 140 years ago?
Because there's evidence that Arthur read her letters, took her opinions into consideration, and took her advice. She was just one person, without any political ties, and she was able to change the mind of the most powerful person in the country, just on the strength of her words, and her certainty in her own opinions.
After an incredibly tough election, where we saw an incredibly qualified woman lose to a racist hatemonger, it is very easy to slide into hopelessness. It is hard to imagine that any one of us, or even all of us together, could make a difference. This election galvanized people, we organized like never before, and we worked as hard as we could. And it did not pay off. We still lost. Why keep fighting?
Because great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life. Because we have to do what is more difficult and brave. Because we are in a crisis that renders miracles feasible.
We have to keep fighting because no one in the history of this country had their rights given to them. We had to demand them, and it did not happen overnight. We have to keep fighting because for a lot of us, there is no other option. We have to keep fighting because there are kids who are looking to us to see what we will do next, and we cannot teach them that the answer to failure is to give up.
I wouldn't call Julia Sand a once in a million person. I think there have always been women and people of color, and LGBTQ people and disabled people behind the scenes slowly chipping away at the established structures of power with nothing but their endless belief in a better, more equal, and more just America.
We owe it to these pioneers, the ones we know about and the ones we don't, to keep fighting for what we believe in, no matter what else happens in our country. We may not be able to change the entire country, but there is so much we can do individually, and even more that we can do together.
Or, to hear Julia tell it: "It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or gold. For the sake of your country, for your own sake, and for the sake's of all who have ever loved you, let it be pure and bright."
Even now, there are concrete ways we can advance our values. Stay tuned for a post about concrete actions you can take in the wake of this election.
Special thanks to the Presidential Podcast which first taught me about Julia Sand.