Hey friends in the Twilight fandom - I've missed ya'll! (&hearts). ;) Just as promised, here is Waiting for Liberty, the story of the women's suffrage moment as told by Esme, who (in my version of the story) was actually there to see it all unfold. This falls under my category of "Stories-For-A-Cause" - for more info on that, see my profile. As with most of my SFAC, it has a super-long author's note at the end. Read that too if you're interested in the topic. Basically, in honor of American elections on Tuesday, I want to shed some light on women's battle for the vote. It's an epic story, and is definitely inspiring me to cast my ballot! Regardless, enjoy what I hope will be an entertaining story!
"What topic did you choose for the oral presentations in American History?" Edward asked Bella as they turned the corner into his driveway. "We should probably spend some time doing research for those this afternoon. They're due the week before final exams, after all."
Bella groaned. She had been hoping for a low-key afternoon – and maybe a movie – but she could always count on Edward to bring school into it. After all, she certainly didn't want to study at Dartmouth. And even if she did, he had made it clear that her grades wouldn't be the deciding factor in whether or not she got accepted.
All that aside, Bella knew he had her best interests at heart.
"I chose Women's Suffrage," she replied. "I've always been vaguely interested in that. Renee is kind of a feminist, and I heard a lot about it growing up."
Edward chuckled to himself.
"What?" Bella demanded, shoving him playfully. "Don't tell me you've held on to a 1910 notion of women's rights. That just might be a dealbreaker."
"No, not at all," Edward assured her, as he brought the car to a stop. "I was just thinking that you should ask Esme about it. She might have some interesting stories."
"Since you're saying that, I'm guessing that she does," Bella said, smiling wryly. "But yeah – I can ask her. Do you think she'll have some information I can use?"
"I'm fairly certain she does. It was her time, after all. Carlisle changed her in 1921, when she was twenty-six, remember?"
"Right!" Bella exclaimed. "So she would have been twenty-five in 1920, when the 19th amdendment was ratified. I bet she read all sorts of interesting newspaper articles about it."
Edward chuckled yet again, the sound almost more mysterious than before.
"I think she can do better than that, but I'll leave it to her to explain."
Edward gave Bella a kiss and a wink before getting out of his car door. Naturally, he appeared beside hers to open it before she could so much as reach for the handle. Chuckling and shaking her head, Bella took his hand, stepped out of the car, and walked beside him across the sidewalk and up the front steps to the door.
"We're home," he announced as they walked into the lobby, obviously not needing to yell.
"Welcome back!" came the response.
Esme did yell, and Bella knew it was for her benefit. She thought that was sweet, but it didn't come as any kind of surprise. That was exactly the kind of thing Esme would think of. The vampire mother's consideration for Bella's humanness seemed boundless.
"Great to see you both!" Esme exclaimed, appearing at the bottom of the stairs with a tray of cookies – as though in response to Bella's thoughts. "I baked a batch of snickerdoodles for you, dear. Hot chocolate is on the stove in the kitchen."
"You really don't have to do all this," Bella said for the thousandth time, rolling her eyes and giving Esme a hug.
"It's no trouble," her would-be mother-in-law insisted. "I have do a certain amount of shopping in a small town like this, or people would realize they never saw me buy food and they might get suspicious. Besides, I like it. I get to tell these kids to clean their rooms and make sure they get good grades, but I don't get to cook for them. I feel like a better mother when I'm providing food for somebody."
"Let her have her fun," Edward said.
Bella picked up a cookie and took a bite. It was still a little warm, and she could taste the brown sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla.
"I can't make them taste this good, and I can do taste tests," Bella admitted.
"It's like riding a bike," Esme said, waving a hand dismissively. "They were one of my specialties back in the day. Cookie recipes are one of the few things that haven't changed since the 1920s."
"Speaking of which," Edward cut in, "Bella has something she wants to ask you about."
"Yeah, I do," Bella said, "but he made it sound like the answer might take awhile. We might want to sit down."
Bella noticed Edward's lips turn up at the corners to become a wry smile.
"Well, I might want to sit down," she corrected herself.
Esme and Edward laughed as the three made their way into the kitchen. Sure enough, Bella smelled the hot chocolate heating on the stove as promised. She could see steam rising from the pot, and a single porcelain mug sat on the counter beside it. She made a mental note to remember to ask how Esme made it as they all sat around the table – because she knew there was no way she used a mix.
"What's going on, Bella?" Esme asked, folding her hands.
"Well, we have to do a project on an event from American history," Bella began, "and I chose Women's Suffrage."
Esme gave Edward a look, and both of them began to laugh again.
"You put her up to this, didn't you?" Esme demanded.
"Well, admittedly I made the offhand suggestion that you might be able to provide some useful information," Edward agreed. "But really, Esme… you love telling this story. And I don't believe Bella has heard it yet."
"No, she hasn't," Esme admitted. "And you're right… this story is definitely one of my favorites. Do you want to hear it now, Bella?"
"Yeah, definitely," Bella said. She was becoming increasingly enthusiastic about Esme's story the longer she had to wait. It was definitely going to be more than an account of some interesting newspaper clippings from the era in question.
"Well," Esme began, clearly trying not to betray how much she was enjoying the moment. "I was, once upon a time, what your history professor probably calls a 'suffragette.'"
"You mean, you were actually…?"
"Yes," Esme confirmed. "They didn't call us that at the time, though – well, at least, not to our faces. Most of what they called us wasn't fit to print in a textbook or anywhere else, but some of the milder terms were 'troublemaker' and 'rabble-rouser."
"I still can't wrap my mind around the fact that you were actually part of that – the NAWSA, and all that…"
"Not the NAWSA," Esme corrected. "The NWA – or National Women's Party, to be more specific. There was a big difference there. A lot of our members came to us from the NAWSA, but our methods were a little different. Carrie Chapman Catt's girls never would have dreamed of picketing in front of the White House – particularly during wartime. But that was at the center of our operation. And, incidentally, it turned out to be our coup de grace."
"You actually picketed?" Bella asked. "I've seen pictures and all, but I can't believe you were really there, seeing it all first-hand."
"I really couldn't either, even at the time," Esme said. "But we definitely did. It was dreadfully cold and wet the days I spent out there… but I should probably back up. There's a backstory that predates Pennsylvania Avenue by years."
Esme glanced at Edward, and some kind of unsaid exchange passed between them.
"I think I'll go start on my own history assignment," Edward said easily, giving Bella a wink as he pushed his chair away from the table. "Far be it from me to invade a 'girl talk' moment – regardless of how many of them seem to happen in this house. "
"Really – you don't – "
Bella didn't want to feel like she was pushing Edward away, especially since she was talking to his mother at his kitchen table.
"I told him to, Bella," Esme cut in with a laugh. "He's heard this story a million times. And besides, he might as well get his assignment done. It usually takes him awhile, since he insists on researching until he finds sources that agree with his own memories of the events in question."
"And I'm doing my project on speakeasys, so it might take awhile," Edward said. "Seeing as that period coincided with my rebel phase, I have quite a few experiences on which to draw."
The two women bade him goodbye and good luck, and Bella absentmindedly picked up another cookie as Esme continued her story.
The middle-aged husband and father had hardly had a moment to pick up his newspaper before a familiar, childlike voice called out to him.
"Daddy! Daddy, are you in the sitting room?"
"Yes, dear. Do you need something?"
Shortly following his response, his twelve-year-old daughter bounded into the room. Her brown curls bounced on her shoulders, and her cheeks were pink from running from her room upstairs to the living area where he sat, a lit pipe in his left hand.
"Daddy, I've decided what I want to do with my life!" the young girl exclaimed, breathless. "I was thinking a lot about it this afternoon during my lessons, and I've made my choice."
"Well take a seat, Esme," Mr. Platt said, unable to hide his smile. "You have a good six or seven years before you even have to worry about getting married. I think you can spare a few seconds to catch your breath and tell your old man."
Esme giggled, taking a seat beside the ottoman on which her father's feet were propped.
"I've decided that I want to be… a teacher."
Esme's eyes gleamed as she looked up at her dad, waiting for what she was certain would be unequivocal approval. However, she was surprised when all she got was a slightly confused gaze and a short laugh.
"Esme… why would you want to do a thing like that?"
"Because I love children!" Esme exclaimed, slightly put-off by her father's lack of enthusiasm. "And… I'm good at arithmetic and reading. I think I could be good at it, and I think I would have fun every day. You've even said that yourself, Daddy: 'The best jobs don't feel like work.' Well, being a teacher wouldn't feel like working to me. I would enjoy it!"
"It's not that I don't think you'd be good at it, honey," Mr. Platt said, clearly choosing his words carefully. "It's just a question of… why do you want to worry about something like a job?"
Esme laughed nervously.
"Well… my money's got to come from somewhere, right?"
"Of course, dear. It comes from me! Do you think I'd leave my little girl without any money to pay for the things she wants and needs? I'd say I've done a pretty good job so far."
"Of course you have," Esme insisted. "But what about when I get older and I get married? Won't I be on my own then?"
Mr. Platt shook his head, his eyes showing his disbelief.
"Honey, the women who are your teachers… well, they aren't exactly on our level. They're wonderful women, I'm sure, but they didn't come from the same place you do. They have to help their husbands pay the bills – and that's something you won't ever have to worry about. I'm not going to give you over to some kind of deadbeat husband who can't take care of you. With your looks and our family's standing, you'll have the pick of the litter. You won't have to worry about things like working to make ends meet. You can concentrate on important things like taking care of your own children."
"But what if… what if I just wanted to be a teacher?" Esme demanded. "Not because of the money… just because I wanted to?"
"Esme, being a teacher involves at least two years of college, and that's a hassle you definitely won't want to worry about. I like that you're thinking about your future, but I'm sure you'll find as you grow up that being a mother and wife is plenty of work in and of itself, and it's the best kind of work a woman can get. Now I'm sure your mother needs help setting the table. Why don't you see if you can fold the napkins for her? You're very good at that."
"That's ridiculous," Bella said, wiping cookie crumbs on her jeans. "I can't even imagine that. I think I've been told since the day I was born that I was going to college and getting a degree in something."
"Well, that's the different seventy years can make," Esme explained. "And it's also one of the major reasons we did what we did – the suffragettes, I mean. It was never just about voting. Voting was important, of course, but what it symbolized was equally important. It meant that in the eyes of the law, we would be people – capable and worthy of our own careers and our own ideas."
"That makes sense. But if you were twelve, that meant there was over a decade to go before the Nineteenth Amendment got passed. Was the cause even around back then?"
"Oh, definitely. I didn't get involved until I had the time and resources – which was around 1916 or so – but it had been around since the mid-nineteenth century. It was a pressing issue even then, but our grandmothers were good little girls and rolled bandages and took care of their menfolk during the Civil War, and in doing so, they managed to push the cause out of legislators' minds and off their to-do lists almost entirely. My generation – or most of us, anyway – were determined not to make the same mistake. This meant we had to picket a wartime president."
"That had to be scary," Bella said.
"Well, yes, but for many of us it made our work a bit easier," Esme said, her expression becoming a conspiratorial grin. "A lot of our husbands weren't exactly sympathetic to the cause. But if they were four thousand miles away, fighting on the Western Front, we had the freedom to take up our own call to arms."
Bella couldn't help but admire the way Esme's eyes flashed when she said this.
"So when they were doing all the picketing – was your husband already overseas?"
"Not overseas," Esme corrected, "but not at home, either. Charles left for the war in February of 1917, and I got on the train to Washington on the same day and at the same station where I saw him off. He took the 9:30 AM train west to St. Paul, and I took the 2 PM train east to Washington, DC. I had hidden my luggage in the trunk of our car. Not that I had much – as I recall, the possessions I saw fit to bring were my toothbrush, some laundry soap, and a bottle of aspirin. You see, Charles and I had been in a fight a few days before, and I still had rather an unsightly bruise on my cheek."
Bella's expression softened.
"Did any of the women in Washington comment on it?"
"Well, nobody commented directly, but I'm sure people noticed," Esme admitted. "That brings me to another interesting part of my story, though: the debarking in DC. Imagine my surprise when I stepped off the train and saw Alice Paul herself, carrying a sign that said 'NATIONAL WOMENS' PARTY.'"
"The Alice Paul?" Bella demanded, her eyes wide.
"In the flesh."
As the train finally came to a rumbling stop in the unfamiliar station, Esme felt her stomach twist a little bit. She had finally made it to Washington DC – a place she had never imagined she would end up even touring; much less that she would visit with such a distinct purpose in mind.
But now that the worries of the trip were over, her concerns regarding the shorter journey to Pennsylvania Avenue could finally surface – and they were troubling at best. Esme didn't even know how the roads in Washington were laid out. She could be across the city from the White House, and she didn't know what cab fare would be. She could only borrow so much money from her family's account without Charles noticing the difference the next time he made a bank deposit.
Well, first thing's first, she supposed: get out on the platform and try to find a map of the city.
Collecting the bag at her feet and casting a quick, self-conscious look towards the reflective glass window (which revealed, much to her chagrin, a bruised cheek that was still plenty visible) Esme stood and headed down the aisle. Finally, she reached the door. She couldn't help but squint at the sunlight that poured in through the skylights of the station, but she gritted her teeth and stepped forward. Placing her shaking hand in that of the man at the station who helped passengers step down to the platform, Esme took in the sight of the new world laid out before her.
And there, mere strides away from her, was the most blessed sight she could have possibly imagined. The sign was hand-lettered and held above the heads of two women. The letters read clearly "NATIONAL WOMENS' PARTY." The 'W' was slightly smudged, but it hardly took away from the effect the sign had on Esme. She knew one thing in that moment and one thing only: she had to get to those women.
"Hey – ladies! Womens' Party!" Esme exclaimed, setting off at a run towards them. However, her voice was lost in the hustle and bustle of the crowded station. Cursing under her breath in a very un-ladylike fashion, Esme picked up her pace even more.
Finally, one of the ladies turned around. She tapped on the arm of one of her companions, and the group – which had gained an additional woman in the time since Esme had first noticed them – came to a stop.
"I'm sorry – to hold you up," Esme gasped, coming to a halt in front of the Womens' Party representatives. "I… I just got off the train, and I want to go where you're going. That is to say… I want to hold up banners with you. I want to protest."
A smile broke out on the face of the woman who held the NWP sign.
"Take a seat and catch your breath, dear; we're in no particular hurry," she said, gesturing towards one of the many benches that lined the walkway.
"Thank you," Esme said, realizing at that moment that she on the verge of tears at the sound of the woman's kind voice. She had to blink a couple of times to clear her eyes as the group settled down on the bench beside her. They were a warm and solid presence – but also comfortable and feminine. They were exactly the same in person as they had looked in the grainy newspaper photo.
The woman who had invited her to sit down bent down on the ground at her feet.
"Now then, what's your name?" she asked, giving Esme a hesitant smile.
Esme stumbled for a moment. She hadn't thought about that. She certainly didn't want to end up on the front page of a paper herself – on the off-chance that it would make it into Charles's hands. That would end very badly, no matter how much time passed before her husband came home. However, at the same time, she wanted to show these women she trusted them.
"Esme Anne," she said finally.
The woman's smile grew bigger.
"Alice Paul – pleased to meet you, Esme. Now, mind if I ask what brings you here? It looks like you traveled quite a distance. Was it to find us?"
"I saw you and your group in the morning paper," Esme admitted. "You all looked so powerful and beautiful standing there. I wanted to do anything I could to join you. My husband left for Fort Snelling yesterday morning – he's going off to fight. I saw him off at the station, and I knew that was my chance. I had borrowed some money from our account, and I used it to buy a train ticket."
Esme finally stopped, still catching her breath. She caught the knowing look that Alice shared with the redheaded woman who sat on her right. Clearly, the bruise hadn't escaped their attention.
"Well, we're very glad you found us, Esme," she said – genuinely sounding like she meant it. "The lady sitting on your left is Mrs. Lewis – she was on your train as well, and we were waiting here at the station to meet her. It looks like we got two for the price of one."
"Can – can I share a cab with you?" Esme asked. "I promise to chip in."
"Why, of course you can," Alice said, as though she had already assumed this would be the course of action they would take. "And don't worry about chipping in – we were headed that way anyway."
"I can only imagine how I must have seemed to them," Esme said, laughing at the memory. "I looked a mess after the train ride, not to mention the fact that my cheek was a nasty shade of yellow-green by that point. What a pitiful spectacle I must have made!"
"But you were so real!" Bella exclaimed. "You were like the embodiment of everything they were fighting for!"
"That's probably true…. And I do believe that's how they saw it as well."
"Have you seen her eye?" a woman with brown hair whispered.
Esme was only a few feet away, but she guessed that the others had assumed she was asleep – or the younger girl didn't realize how loudly she was talking. Then again, there wasn't much space for a private conversation on the floor of the office where the women who were visiting from out of town were spending the night. Thanks to a donation from a local minister, they each had a blanket and pillow, but the lodgings were modest at absolute best. But then again, they really only needed enough sleep to function the following day; the cause wasn't exactly about comfort in the short-term.
Though her back was turned to the girls, Esme couldn't help but continue to follow the conversation.
"Don't sound so cruel, Emma," the girl's friend scolded. "It's not as though it's her fault. She probably has a husband who's a drunk. Just like those jackasses who walk by our line on the way back from the tavern and throw dirt clods at us. Lucy had a bruise on her neck last week. She wouldn't admit it, but I was there when it happened. She got hit by a handful of dirt that had a rock in it."
Esme couldn't deny the way her heartbeat picked up a little.
"You're right," the first girl – Emma – conceded. "I didn't mean to blame that new girl. She's really pretty, and she's come a long way to be here. It's just hard not to stare… because it still shocks me. It shouldn't, but it does."
"I know. In a way, I think it's a good thing that it still makes us sick. It means we really believe in what we're doing. Because once we get the vote, it won't just be those bastards going to the polls. We're going to be there two, and we're going to get people like that girl's husband put behind bars."
Esme couldn't help but smile.
"So how long did you spend in Washington?" Bella asked.
"Only a couple of days," Esme admitted. "I wish now that I had been bold enough to make a couple of weeks out of it, but I did what I needed to do. Besides, there was the issue of paying for things like food and new underwear."
"Did you ever get out on the picket line?"
Bella watched as Esme's eyes shined.
"Most definitely. That was one of the defining moments of my mortal life – and one of the ones I remember most clearly even now. It was the Friday before I left, and it was a dreadfully cold day. My stockings were damp because I had hand-washed them the night before, and whenever the wind blew, my teeth chattered."
"That sounds miserable," Bella said.
"Under any other circumstances, I believe it would have been," Esme agreed. "But something about it was electrifying. In every stare of every man that passed, I saw my own husband's judgmental eyes. It frightened me at first, but my heart leapt the moment I realized that these men couldn't touch me. I was surrounded by my sisters, and they weren't going to let anything happen to me. So I stared back, giving them a look that was just as mean as the ones they gave me.
"We only held one sign that day, but it was one of the more biting ones. It said 'Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?' The daring thing about it was the way it addressed Mr. Wilson himself. There really wasn't much vague about it. We were spitting in the face of a wartime president."
Esme paused, and Bella racked her brain for another question to ask. However, all she could manage to do was give Esme a look of awe and admiration. The story she was telling was unbelievable. All the rights that Bella took for granted, she actually owed to soft-spoken, baby-faced warriors like Esme. The idea was almost impossible to stomach.
"I'm not boring you, am I?" the vampire mother asked with a little laugh.
"Not at all!" Bella exclaimed. "This is, like, the most amazing thing I've ever heard. I never thought I'd actually get to talk to someone who lived through something like this."
"Even stranger, someone who's only a few years older than you are," Esme added.
Bella nodded, and the two shared a laugh.
"I'm almost done," Esme assured her. "My suffrage story - or at least the exciting part of it - ended on a Saturday morning after I had already returned home to Wisconsin. I had a dreadful cold for the entire week after my trip, but I spent most of my time indoors anyway. Alice had given me a handful of addresses of senators who needed harassing, and I had thirty or forty letters to write."
"So I'm guessing you escaped the arrests?" Bella asked.
"I did, thank goodness. They all got their photos printed in the paper, and Charles would probably have killed me for something like that. I'm properly grateful now, but I can't say that I was at the time."
Esme almost choked on the hot tea she was drinking when she first read the morning's headlines:
PROTESTOR LUCY BURNS AND CO-CONSPIRATORS ARRESTED FOR OBSTRUCTION OF TRAFFIC –
She could feel the color rising to her cheeks as she scanned over the article. Obstruction of traffic? She had stood in exactly the same place Lucy and the others had been standing when the arrests were made. They were as far removed from the street as could be – the only way traffic would have been obstructed would be if the automobiles were trying to ride down President Wilson's sidewalk!
When the outrage subsided enough that she could think, Esme found herself wishing that she had been there on the day the police showed up. Keeping order was one thing, but false arrests were entirely another. She would have shown them obstruction of traffic!
But there was no time for idle wishes. She had a phone call to make. Rushing over to Charles's business phone, Esme picked up the mouthpiece.
"Operator? Yes. Put me through to the capital."
There were a few more tedious transfers, but after what felt like an eternity, Esme finally heard a familiar voice on the other line.
"Alice? It's Esme, from last February. You may not remember me – "
"Of course I do!" Alice interrupted. "The curly-haired girl from the train station. I'm guessing you've read the morning's headlines?"
"Yes," Esme sighed. "Is… is everyone alright?"
"As far as we know. But… don't worry about them, Esme. I'm certainly not. Lucy can handle herself just fine. There are still plenty of us to hold down the fort here. Besides, if they're taking people away, it means people are noticing what we're doing. The gears have started to turn."
"Okay," Esme replied. "I just wish I could be there to help."
"You're doing great where you are. Just keep sending letters. You'll hear about it if something big happens."
"Thanks Alice – I know you're busy."
But the line had already gone silent.
Esme put the mouthpiece back in its holder on the wall and preceded to sit by herself for a moment, stirring her spoon around her empty tea glass and thinking to herself about letters, prisons, and traffic that hadn't been in any way obstructed.
"I read about the workhouse and the force feeding later, of course," Esme explained. "It was all I could do not to jump right back on a train and fill the shoes of the women who had been taken away. But to buy a ticket, one needs some money. And alas, not much of Charles's salary seemed to make it back home."
"Figures," Bella sighed. "But Esme – don't feel guilty. You didn't have to be tortured to make a difference. You had already done so much."
"I'd like to think that."
"You definitely should. It's true. Esme – thank you."
"For helping you with your project?" Esme asked. "It's the least I could do."
"That's not what I mean. I'm talking about the way you had the courage to get up and fight for something so incredibly unpopular and unheard of. My mom – Renee – has framed picture on her desk of the women's suffrage picket lines in front of the White House. I grew up idolizing people like you – but until now, I never really knew the magnitude of what you went through. You're the reason I have… anything."
"Of course, sweetheart," Esme exclaimed, getting to her feet and giving Bella a careful hug. "Honestly, it's just nice to be able to say I took part in something that made a lasting difference. After all, not everybody has an eternity to wait for progress to happen."
Thank you all for reading! This piece has been a long time coming, and it's probably my longest one-shot ever. I'm actually typing this in August, but I decided this story was worth saving a couple of months to churn out amid the American election frenzy. I think all of us – but us ladies in particular – need a reminder of how fortunate we are to be able to wait in lines at the polls.
So just to let y'all know, all the facts/dates/places/historical figures in here really existed – with the obvious exception of Esme, haha. I researched this super-thoroughly. The U.S. Women's Suffrage Movement is a fascinating time in history, though, so I don't mind. The only things I'm not a hundred percent sure about are the train stuff (whether there actually was a train that went from Ashland, Wisconsin to DC in 1917) and if it's necessarily realistic that Charles would have gotten sent to an American fort in 1917. But in the scope of the story, those things are largely inconsequential.
I hope I've sparked your interest a little in regards to women's suffrage! If you would like more information about the movement (and if you like movies!) think about renting Iron-Jawed Angels. It's an amazing film, and it really gives you an idea of what went on. History classes tend to gloss over unpleasant things like the Occoquan Workhouse, the Night of Terror, and the force feedings, but that's the kind of stuff that made history happen.
In conclusion, I guess the moral of the story is: If you are of age and a citizen of a democracy or otherwise free republic, please embrace your right to vote! Whether you're American, British, or of another nationality entirely, chances are somebody suffered so that you can get the rights you have. So whether you are politically-minded or not, step up to the polls and let your voice be heard. Do it in honor of Esme. ;)