Sowing for the Future

Last week, John and I returned from a much-needed vacation in the Finger Lakes. It was an area we hadn’t visited before, and we had a great time–I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a huge wine drinker, which we are not. There are lots of interesting things to see in the region, including the town of Seneca Falls, which we visited twice.

It was interesting and inspiring to read about the history of the first women’s convention, and the women who made it happen–and to see the memorials and the statues that commemorate that history.

Turns out that our timing was good: 172 years ago today, July 19, this Convention for Women’s Rights began. On The Writer’s Almanac podcast, Garrison Keillor recounted that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were inspired to hold the conference after having attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London eight years earlier. Well, they had tried to attend: they were told that because women were “constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings” they would not be seated but could listen from behind a curtain. It was that experience that sparked the idea.

This first convention wasn’t huge: around 300 people attended, including 40 men (Frederick Douglass was there); and on the second day, the delegates passed a declaration of resolutions, including the right of women to vote. [The press was not supportive; one report from Philadelphia said, “A woman is nobody. A wife is everything.”]

In the podcast, Keillor noted something that Elizabeth Cady Stanton had written in her diary later in life: “We are sowing winter wheat which the coming spring will see sprout and which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy.” She was right: it wasn’t until 70 years later that women did finally earn the right to vote [only white women, it must be noted], when all but one of those who had signed the declaration were dead.

What struck me about this was Stanton’s willingness to do the hard work of laying the foundation for a goal, a victory that she knew full well she herself would never see. In a way, she freely and willingly gave herself, her labor, her time and her efforts to future generations, most of whom she would never meet or know.  She knew her cause was important and just, and so it was enough for her that others down the road would harvest the fruits of her labor, even if she herself did not.

This seems to be to me to be a really important characteristic of a healthy society: citizens who are willing to work together for the building up of a just and peaceful society even when they will not live to see their dreams become reality. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a person, of course–and we who are living today are blessed by the fruits of his labor, as well as the countless [and often nameless] others who also took upon themselves that difficult and even dangerous work.

While I suppose this is all self-evident, I think it is often harder than it looks. Humans are characteristically impatient [or maybe that’s just me], and we also tend to focus on our own self interest. I want what is best for me, and I want it now. This means that we tend to prioritize actions that offer immediate benefits to ourselves, rather than those that entail the long, slow efforts of building up society as a whole. Again and again, we show ourselves willing to sacrifice the long-term for the sake of the short-term, willing to sacrifice the whole for the sake of the one.

This all seems particularly relevant in an election year, when the temptation to focus on one’s own self-interest is particularly strong. So, now seems like a particularly good time to ask: What are we sowing now, for future generations? And what kind of harvest are we leaving them?

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