Dr. McClaurin’s Keynote on “Susan B. [Anthony] & Me: Change Agents in Our Own Right

Right now, I am one of three diversity consultants for the Rochester Museum and Science Center’s upcoming exhibition entitled “The Changemakers: Rochester Women Who Changed the World.”  We began work for this project over a year ago. Since then, much has happened, and the world is now filled with people who can lay claim to these terms.

Below is the keynote I delivered on the occasion of  the 199th Susan B. Anthony Birthday  Luncheon in February, 2019, hosted by the The National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House.  Listen to me deliver the speech live below.

But, if you just want to read it, now seems a good time to post it.

Little did I know when I wrote this 1 1/2 years ago, how timely the idea of change agents and changemakers would become.  Today, we have a Black and South Asian-American woman as the Democratic Nominee for Vice President of the United States of America.  I wonder what Susan B. Anthony would say about that?

Change is definitely in the air. It is the one constant that  we anthropologists know we can depend upon.  Change will happen. Perhaps not as fast as some of us would like, but I know in my gut, “a change is gonna come.”  Sooner than some expect, and not soon enough for others. But it is coming.

Susan B and Me: Change Agents in Our Own Right

Irma McClaurin, PhD,  Keynote Delivered 2/13/2019 at the 199th Susan B. Anthony Birthday Luncheon 

If any proof were needed of the progress of the cause for which I have worked, it is here tonight.  The presence on the stage of these college women, and in the audience of all those college girls who will someday be the nation’s greatest strength, tell their own story to the world.  They give the highest joy and encouragement to me—…

These were the words spoken by Susan B. Anthony in Baltimore at the 1906 National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the organization she had founded and presided over for four decades.

Image. Victoria Brzustowicz. Keynote Speaker Dr. McClaurin, Rochester 2019

Some of you here today may well be descendants of those very “college women” she called this “nation’s greatest strength” and whose very presence would “tell their own story to the world.”

To you I say Welcome.

Yet some of you had no representation in that historic audience of 1906; and why not? Because there was a tension between those who pushed for “racial equality” and those who struggled for women’s “electoral equality.”

This fissure persists today, as recent media coverage has informed us; the Women’s March of 2017, which mobilized almost five million women three years ago, is now struggling with internal conflicts around leadership, diversity and inclusion.


This fissure persists today, as recent media coverage has informed us; the Women’s March of 2017, which mobilized almost five million women three years ago, is now struggling with internal conflicts around leadership, diversity and inclusion.

I wonder what Susan B would say seeing that once again there is a clash over which takes precedent—racial equality or women’s equality?

Whichever side of this debate you find yourself, I extend a hearty Welcome to all of you.

Yes, Susan B would be proud.  She predicted such greatness would become evident as women (all women) were recognized as “this nation’s greatest strength.”

Moreover, Nancy Pelosi continues to weld the gavel as the first and only female House Speaker. And there were many other “firsts,” among the women leaders, that time does not permit me to name.

But some of the forerunners to this changing political tide and those who broke down barriers, before this current political gender transformation, are some of the women present today:

I extend my personal warm welcome to the Honorable Lt. Gov Kathy Hochul and the Honorable Lovely Warren, Mayor of Rochester.

When you both ran for your current office years ago and won, your political success made you a game changer and barrier breaker.

Every day that you have served and provided leadership, means you are leaving a personal legacy for young people of every political persuasion, gender, phenotype, and religion.

You have proven the truthfulness of Susan B’s sage declaration of intent: “failure is impossible.”

You now have great company in Congress and the Senate.  But don’t let them forget the history of the battles you fought to get to where you are.

To everyone else in the today’s audience, not covered in any categories mentioned above, especially the men who are supporting this event, I extend a heartfelt Welcome.

Guests, including Mayor Lovely Warren. Susan B. Anthony 199th Birthday Celebration, Feb. 2019, Rochester

Finally, to the organizers of this magnificent celebration by The National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House, especially Deborah L. Hughes, president and CEO, and who I came to know when we both served as co-chairs of the 2018 Seneca Falls Revisited: Women’s Equality Conference held here in Rochester, and who I now count among that small circle of people I call “friend,” I say  ‘Thank You,’  for this invitation to speak and inspire.”

There are many things that I could address with regard to my title, Susan B and Me: Change Agents in our Own Right.

I could speak about the fact that several recent articles[1] have pointed out that Black Suffragettes endured segregation and were often the proverbial “hidden figures” of the Suffrage Movement.

I could critique the way women’s history has been written to portray the struggle for women’s equality as if it were the sole domain of white women.

I could invoke the voices raised to criticize the erasure of Black women’s involvement in the Suffrage movement and who portray Susan B. Anthony as a racist for elevating the vote of white women over Black men gain of electoral rights.

There is a snippet of truth in all of these criticisms. They remind us that Susan B was both a woman of her time and complicated. They also remind us that the women’s history cannot follow the same one-dimensional “great man” prescription. As women, ours must be an inclusive history that lifts up the contributions of all women, and not just the one.

It is clear that there is also some truth to the fact that Susan B. was involved in the anti-slavery movement, that she spoke out against lynching, that she was involved in the Underground railroad, and that she hosted Black women like Ida B. Wells at her home as her equal and as guest.

In other words, Susan B. was complicated!  She was a woman both ahead of her time and a product of her time. She has been tarnished by those she associated with who took white supremacy stances or supported segregation. Susan B was consistent in some areas, and contradictory in others.  Overall, she was human.

As to her position on slavery—she was against it, and the Black community of her time viewed her as both a champion and friend of the anti-slavery cause.

Listen to how Hester Jeffry, a contemporary colored woman, eulogized Susan B at her death:

We, the colored people of Rochester, join the world in mourning the loss of our true friend, Susan B. Anthony.  Yes, a true friend of our race.  …[At a Birthday celebration of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison], …she spoke of her life’s work, the suffrage movement, [and]told us how for more than sixty years she had given our race every thought of her life.  She bade us to look forward to better and brighter days that would surely come to us as a race, and as we looked up into her sweet face and listened to words it seemed like a benediction.  Little did we think it would be her last address to us as a race. She was our friend for many years—our champion. (my emphasis)  Sleep on, dear heart, in peace, for we who have looked into they [sic] face; we who have heard thy voice: we who have known something of thy great life work—we pledge ourselves to devote our time and energies to the work thou hast left us to do.

Whatever Susan B. Anthony’s flaws were around her position on racial equality v. women’s rights, she certainly inspired some segments of Rochester’s Black community, and they believed in her wisdom, her support, and her life’s work of women’s equality, and also saw her as a champion of racial equality.

While alive, SBA established a personal living legacy, and in death

that legacy continues. It is the very reason we are all gathered here today.

So, what is a Personal Living Legacy?

In her book, A Journey that Matters: Your Personal Living Legacy,” my friend and coach, Erline Belton, writes:

Your living legacy encompasses all of who you are, your personality, your passion, your pain, your joy, your sadness, your progress, your mistakes, your love, your hate, your hopes and dreams, and so much more.  …Your name could be repeated for centuries by many generations; you may have streets, businesses, or buildings named after you in your community, your state or throughout your country; or you could become an international phenomenon known for changing something that affects the entire world.

This describes Susan B precisely; she left a personal legacy in life and in death.

So, what exactly is a “Change Agent”?  Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point says “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”

Those “social gifts” are described by George Couros[1], who defines himself as a “learner, educator, and Innovative Teaching, Learning, and Leadership consultant; he outlines five characteristics he deems necessary to Change Agents.

(And, as I call them out, if you see yourself in any of these descriptions, raise your hand).

Image. Change Agent by G. Couros
  1. CLEAR VISION:  For me, a Change Agent is definitely someone who has purpose; they are visionaries with the ability see the impossible as possible. Change agents are able to step outside their personal comfort zone, and envision the impossible, with little regard for personal consequences.
  2. PATIENT YET PERSISTENT: A change agent is like a dog with a bone. It means staying strong, even in the face of brutal criticism, something that Susan B faced all the time; as change agents, we continue to carry the banner of our  ideas forward, without discouragement or a sense of failure. We understand that we are in this race for the long haul.  Change Agents persist.
  3. ASKS TOUGH QUESTIONS: Being a Change Agent means stepping on toes, and not backing off when people say ouch!  Susan B. Anthony carried forth the banner of women’s equality for all of her adult life. She certainly stepped on toes! She stepped on the toes of Frederick Douglass when she refused to concede that black men be granted the right to vote before white women;  she challenged his position of “black men first & white women afterwards,” and, if the truth be told, both Douglass and Susan B forgot black women in their debate.

Susan B throws down the gauntlet to Douglass—at this meeting she spoke the following words: If Mr. Douglass had noticed who clapped [for] him when he said “black men first & white women afterwards,” he would have seen that they were all men.  The women did not clap [for] him.  (Diary, p. 40).

  1. KNOWLEDGABLE AND LEADS BY EXAMPLE:  Change Agents talk the talk and walk the walk.  They do not ask anyone to do something that they themselves would not commit to.  On this occasion, where Susan B confronted Douglass, she continued her response in no uncertain terms to Douglass’ suggestion that white women defer their desire for voting right and yield to black men; this is her response:

What we demand is that woman shall have the ballot, for she will never get her other rights until she demands them with the ballot in her hand. It is not a question of precedence between women & black men. Neither has a claim to precedence upon an Equal Rights platform. 

Susan B was not afraid to take unpopular stances on any issues.  She also challenged and stepped on the toes of white segregationists when she spoke out against the instituted segregation policy of the Women’s Club of America; she made her position quite clear with these words:

The color line cannot be drawn. It would be as sensible to bar women because of the shade of their eyes. If a woman is intellectual, of good faith and character and stands for the progress of women in the largest sense, it makes no difference what her color or nationality may be.  Colored women should be given an equal footing with white women when they are working for the same end.

  1. STRONG RELATIONSHIPS BUILT ON TRUST:  Change Agents understand that success of social change is not dependent upon the individual, but is the result of trusted relationships.  There is no social movement without people and Change Agents must develop relationships and interactions based on trust and transparency. This involves tough decisions and sometimes they may have to part company with those who threaten the integrity of their mission.

In her personal life, Susan B. once terminated a worker who refused to take dictation from Ida B. Wells, a house guest. In response to the woman who said  —but I didn’t choose to write for a colored woman—I engaged to work for you”  Susan B, said “Well—when I ask an employee to do a favor to a guest—I expect her to comply ––.  (p., 43; Diary, 1895).

With people who re-enact Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

So how many of you are Change Agents and can relate to Susan B?? (1200 people stood up in response to this question at the end of the Luncheon).