Delivered April 28, 2012 on Boston's City Hall Plaza
In the Constitution, the federal government was granted the power to establish post offices and postal roads, the primary purpose being to facilitate interstate communications. Federal oversight would ensure all areas would have access to the system of roads, because all areas were represented in the Federal government. It was recognized then that if a democracy was going to work, it was going to need efficient ways for its disparate people to exchange information, opinions, and ideas, which would then help them to form the connections necessary to keep the states as united as they could be.
We’ve had the same postal carrier for three or four years now. Monday through Saturday, he walks the streets of our neighborhood, going in and out of our local businesses, up and down the residential stoops. He’s not a banterer. He seems to like quietude that can be found in walking the same route every day. But when we see each other, we nod hello.
He knows that my husband works in the restaurant next to our apartment door, so our packages can go there if we’re not home, and that the restaurant’s mail can go to us when it’s closed. And he knows that our friend in the barber shop can be trusted with our packages in a pinch.
He sees our relationships, the bonds that we’ve formed in our community, and he re-enforces them.
In the country, of course, a post office can serve as a community hub. Everyone goes in there at some point, and the routes the carriers drive weave together what can be scattered strands of connection.
And, indeed, it was the post office who first mapped our routes, requiring that they be given public identities. And they fixed our homes and businesses in the landscape, defining their place so others could find us and share with us.
When we need to prove our residence, we present our mail as official evidence.
In the holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street, it is the post office that proves the existence of Santa Claus by delivering his mail.
And now the post office is under attack. Why? Because it struggles now to make a profit.
It’s enemies point to UPS and FedEx, and ask why they so easily make a profit when the post office cannot.
Well, of course, these companies couldn’t exist without the vast, and at times tedious, work the post office did and does to give everyone an address. Actually, most companies couldn’t.
And UPS and FedEx aren’t accountable to the people of the United States in the way the post office is, so they don’t have to make sure every area of the country has access to their services. They can focus on what is profitable.
But, in a country where more and more we are told that worth can only be measured by profitability, we scoff at the podunk post office.
Women know a little something about undervalued work, don’t we. Traditionally, we have disproportionally done so much of the work that ties communities together: the PTO bake sales and auctions that raise money for our schools; the pot-luck suppers to draw our communities into conversations; the meal delivery to the sick, dying, and bereaved.
During the height of the AIDS crisis, when the gay community was being brought to its knees, gay men and their allies pulled together in ways that echoed, and often duplicated, these traditional actions. Out of that a powerful movement was born.
The importance of the sometimes ephemeral bonds of community cannot not be overstated. Our forefathers and mothers knew this. As Benjamin Franklin famously said:
“If we do not hang together, then we shall surely hang separately!”
They sought to encode their creation of these bonds in our founding documents. Thus the mention of post offices and postal roads, a particular passion of Franklin’s.
Over time, many of the things women traditionally did to serve communities were formalized as jobs within government departments, so the benefits could be more fairly distributed throughout the population. And women could finally get paid for the things they were already doing: running programs for schools, creating community events, coordinating meals on wheels. And, of course, sitting or standing behind counters, interacting with the community, providing the link between citizens and the government of their day to day lives.
When Mitt Romney says that women have disproportionally lost jobs in this economy, he’s right. What he doesn’t get into is why these jobs were lost. By and large, these were government jobs, lost to budget cuts.
And make no mistake: women will keep doing these things that the government has stopped doing, the care-taking, and the funding, and the form navigating. But we’ll be back to doing it all for free.
I saw the astounding Madeleine Albright speaking at the JFK Library this week. She is a passionate believer in democratic government, having seen tragic effects of the some of the alternatives. When asked about our current political climate, she decried the lack of value now being placed on relationships between our elected officials. It reaffirmed what I wanted to say in this speech.
When we elect people to represent us, it shouldn’t be so they will go fight the representatives everyone else has elected. We’re not sending them off to war. We should want them to work with the other representatives, because that’s how things actually get done.
Government isn’t a reality show.
It may feel really great to watch our representative make an awesomely passionate speech about freedom, and glory, and not backing down. But in the end, how does that actually benefit our state, our district, our town in any tangible or substantial way? What does that get done? Who does it benefit, aside from the representative, who gets to bask in a brief, hot spotlight, and vent their spleen a little?
To get bills passed, and programs started, you need to build relationships, learn to work with the others. It’s not as exiting and cool, but it’s not supposed to be.
Democracy is, really, kind of boring.
When we talk about the American Revolution, we tend to focus on the battles, and the whites of their eyes. We’re less keen to discuss all the meetings the people building our country had to attend. Tedious meetings that went on for hours and hours over the course of YEARS while people bickered over the wording of every document produced.
The Declaration of Independence was written in the summer, as we well know. And while Thomas Jefferson did write a good chunk of it, there were still hours of editing, and discussion, and arguing with others, who inserted their own bits of wording. In the summer. With no air conditioning.
But out of that came our brilliant founding document.
When it was finished, messengers rode out in all directions, to deliver the news throughout the colonies.
Right over here, around the corner and up a bit, is the Old State House, originally a seat of British power.
When the rally is over, maybe you should stroll on over. Stand on the spot where the victims of the Boston Massacre fell in 1770. Then look up at the tiny balcony. That’s where the messenger stood to read aloud, in his most powerful voice, our Declaration of Independence to the waiting crowds.
For the first time, they heard these words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
It’s said that when the messenger finished reading the document, the crowds, wild with excitement, climbed the building and tore from its roof statues of a lion and a unicorn, symbols of royal power.
But, wait: this is a rally for women, and the Declaration would seem to be talking about men.
Well, yes. Those men arguing in hot rooms in Philadelphia had limited scope to their thinking. Abigail Adams would put in her two cents about remembering the ladies, but those guys weren’t, you know, *there* yet.
But some people were. A woman in Sheffield, Massachusetts named Mum Bett, as legend has it, heard the discussion of these documents proclaiming liberty and unalienable rights, and those she was not only a woman, but black, and enslaved, she knew that these documents were talking about her. In 1781, she and her lawyer, Theodore Sedgewick, sued her owner for her freedom and won. That case eventually led to the abolishing of all slavery in Massachusetts.
It was self-evident to her that she was created equal.
And here’s what Susan B. Anthony had to say on the subject in 1872:
“It was we, the people; not we, the white, male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens, but we, the whole people, who formed the Union...”
Yes, few of our names were noted in the history books, our voices went unheard in those arguments in Philadelphia, and we’re still not offically in the Contitution.
But we women also built this Union. This great and complicated community known as the United States of America.
Let us take a moment to place value on that. Say it with me:
I am endowed by my Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Our government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Do we consent to how we women are being governed?
In 1920, after years of struggle, marching, tedious meetings, and exhausting work, the 19th amendment was ratified, and women, at last, had a guaranteed right to vote. Don’t let all that work go to waste.
Vote for the relationship builders!
Vote for the competent!
And vote for the knowledgeable! Vote out any man who thinks women can get pap smears at Walgreens!
Be thoughtful. Be smart. Be powerful.
Use the 19th!