Title: The Suffragette’s Saga
Author: Martin A. Sweeney
Book Heat Level: 3
The bloomer-wearing Julia O’Rourke faces a quandary: Is her public advocacy of temperance and women’s rights linked to her father’s brutal murder in December 1894?
BLURB: The Suffragette's Saga
Told by a Central New York pub owner, The Suffragette’s Saga is a story of grief and grievances. In an era of streetcars, vaudeville stars, and gritty men in corner pubs, a seemingly unsolvable murder leaves the unmarried Julia O’Rourke wondering if she is responsible for her father’s death. The economic livelihoods of the local brewers and pub owners have been threatened by her wearing bloomers, riding a bicycle, and marching for the vote and Prohibition. Resentment is palpable. After experiencing the gossip of other women, the theft of her “Freedom Wheels,” arson, and the trampling to death of a protesting suffragette, Julia comes to terms with her obsession for social and political reforms and discovers her voice, the love of her life, and the murderer.
EXCERPT: The Suffragette's Saga
While the local chapter of the W.C.T.U. never marched for the vote again in Maysville, it did lift up Jillian Brown as a ‘martyr of the cause’ when it came time to gather signatures every year for a petition to Congress. And it did count Julia O’Rourke among its new members. When Mrs. Lucey asked why she had decided to join, the newest member explained, “The cause of female suffrage must be terribly important, for nothing unimportant would have ever met with such bitter resistance. The cause must continue in spite of it.”
Upon learning that the Maysville Chapter of the W.C.T.U. had voted to travel to Syracuse at the end of June to march for suffrage with other chapters in the state, Patrick Kinney, the personification of “bitter resistance,” had a question for Seamus. Almost chidingly he had asked one evening in Doyle’s Pub, “Isn’t it unwise of you to allow your daughter’s actions to go unchecked?”
Squinting into Kinney’s eyes, Seamus replied with a question of his own. In a tone others present thought could be construed as threatening, he had asked, “Isn’t it unwise for you to be meddlin’ in other people’s business?”
“Now, don’t be gettin’ your feathers all ruffled, Seamus,” Kinney shot back. “I mean no ill will, mind you. It’s just seemin’ odd enough to some folks around here for your Julia to be participatin’ in a suffrage march in Syracuse, but ridin’ a bicycle and wearin’ men’s pants to boot is a might unnatural, don’t you think?”
Seamus knew exactly what Kinney was referring to and he tried to keep himself in check, but he could feel his face getting hot with anger and embarrassment. The anger was from Kinney deliberately hassling him in the presence of other men in the pub. The embarrassment was from having it out and about that his Julia was, indeed, planning on being part of a contingent in the march in Syracuse that was going to be drawing attention to the cause of suffrage by wearing their bloomers and riding bicycles. Besides, he might be critical of his children but no one else could be. Here in the pub it was either flight or fight now, and Seamus chose to stand his ground. “They’re not men’s pants she’ll be wearin’, I’ll have you know,” he said glaring with disdain at Kinney.
Smugly and full of self-satisfaction, Kinney responded with a smirk. “Oh, no? Then what would you be callin’ them? Pantaloons?”
This last comment brought forth laughter from the men at the bar, who had been attracted to the escalating volume of two male voices. Even Calvin Stone, off in his personal corner table in the pub, lifted his head up to take in the heated interaction.
“Bloomers, dammit! They’re called bloomers!” Seamus couldn’t believe he was actually saying the word in public. He came up close to Kinney and poked him hard in his sternum with his finger as he calmly declared, “They are bloomers, Mr. Kinney, and I will thank you kindly one last time to not be concernin’ yourself with matters that involve any of my children.”
Judging by Kinney’s facial reaction he must have been poked with a finger of iron. With alcohol prompting him to make another comeback, Kinney started to speak. But Seamus beat him to it, determined to have the last say.
“Perhaps, you can comment on other people’s children, when you are man enough to sire your own,” blurted out Seamus. The comment hit with the force of iron, too. It was a well-known fact that the Kinney's were childless and incapable of having children. Deep within, Seamus wished he had not said it; it was literally ‘hitting below the belt.’
Kinney was stunned by the remark, but then recovered enough to physically make like he was going to engage Seamus in some fisticuffs. Men standing behind Kinney grabbed him and restrained his arms before he could ‘have at him.’
Seamus simply stood his ground, lifted his pint of ale to his lips, and swallowed the remaining portion. Licking his lips, he returned the glass to the counter of the bar. All the while, he was staring Kinney down. Doyle came around the corner of the bar to intervene out of concern that a brawl might be erupting. Seamus took Doyle by the hand, shook it firmly and with a smile simply said, “A good evenin’ to ye, John. As always, it’s been a pleasure.” Then, he headed for the back door with head erect. Kinney, being restrained with his hands clenched, blurted out to the departing man, “You’re going to be sorry, O’Rourke!”
Doyle announced that those restraining Kinney could escort him off the premises via the front door. With his hands on his aproned hips, the pub proprietor bellowed, “I’ll not be havin’ a couple old stags butting heads in here like it’s ruttin’ season!”
On the walk home, Seamus ruminated on the circumstances that had put him into the evening’s confrontation with Kinney. He thought, Why the hell did I have to have a daughter that wants to be different?Then, just as quickly, he found himself thinking, At least I have a daughter that wants to stand for something more than just money, like greedy ol’ Kinney.Though he preferred the interaction with Kinney had not occurred, he was pleased that he had defended the family’s honor. And he was coming to grips with the reality that Julia was starting to be more assertive, more independently minded. The Irish were known for being feisty and always having a cause to stand for. Why shouldn’t his Julia have one, too?
But he had to admit to being stunned and perturbed with her on the day when the freight wagon owned by Starin’s Hardware in Johnsonburg delivered ‘The Wheels’ from the Syracuse Cycle Company. He had no idea then that this, more than the bloomers she made herself from a store-bought pattern and wore when riding the damned thing, was becoming another metaphor for women assuming mastery over their own lives.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph deliver us!” he had exclaimed as he found Julia had ordered the two-wheeled device with crimson rims. “What is this all about, darlin’?”
Excitedly, Julia announced, “This, Pa, is a bicycle manufactured in Syracuse! Isn’t it beautiful?”
“I know what it is, darlin’. Tell me what it’s doin’ here.”
“I’m goin’ to be learnin’ how to ride it. A bunch of us in the Temperance Chapter are goin’ to be learnin’ how to ride so we can take them to Syracuse by train and ride them in the suffrage march the end of June. It will be a first…a real novel way to attract attention to the cause.” She had never been this excited about anything before. “And Tom and I are goin’ to teach each other how to ride. It will be great fun!”
“You don’t say?” Seamus responded. “I suppose you’ll be havin’ your brother wearin’ bloomers next and participatin’ in a suffrage parade.”
Julia laughed and kidded back. “No, he won’t be needin’ bloomers. Trousers don’t usually get caught up in the wheels and gears. Dresses and skirts do. So, bloomers are practical for riding ‘wheels’ and you avoid injury. Dressed properly, women can now enjoy something men have enjoyed. Once we have parity with men in this activity, just maybe we can get parity with the men politically. What do you think, Pa?”
“I think it’s nonsense…but you know me, I’m old school. It must be expensive, darlin’. What’d it cost you?”
“Less than one hundred dollars, Pa. And I saved up from the chickens and eggs I been sellin’ to O. B. Andrews,” she answered with more than a tinge of pride in her voice. If Seamus did not know better, he would have thought his daughter was intoxicated. She was downright giddy about her ‘Wheels.’ She looked approvingly upon its gleaming crimson metal and shiny spokes radiating from two wheels covered with pneumatic tires.
But once she and Thomas had mastered the device, her exuberance was even more pronounced. To be sure, learning to ride had not come about without some falls. Balancing took some getting used to and steering proved to be not so easy. More than once, while practicing on their country lane, she had hit a rut or a small stone in the road and taken a spill. A couple times she had skinned herself and drawn some blood. She had felt like crying but managed to not give into weakness in front of her brother. Even Thomas had found himself flipping head first over the front handlebars. Fortunately, he landed in the tall grass at the side of the road. He looked up from the ground at Julia and said, “We have to learn another skill—how to safely take a header.” Julia laughed and nodded in agreement.
When they both felt they were ready, they asked their Pa to see what they had mastered. Taking turns, they maneuvered the ‘Wheels’ before his eyes, as he sat at dusk on the front porch. He found that what Julia said about cycling was true. She had told him, “Here, Pa, is an activity that all can share in regardless of one’s station in life—men and women, rich and poor, young and old. It’s a healthy activity that everyone can participate in Pa.”
Furthermore, Seamus could see how cycling was liberating for Julia. It allowed her greater mobility. She could visit Mrs. Lucey more readily or go into the village without having to rely upon a horse. She thrilled to the rush of wind past her head as she sped along. There was a newfound freedom to be enjoyed; freedom from reliance upon men, freedom from impractical and restrictive clothing, freedom of movement. He could see how a new woman was emerging in his daughter—a woman in whom his Katie would have felt great pride.
And when Julia returned from the suffrage march in Syracuse, all she could talk about was the joy she experienced in riding her ‘Wheels’ with other women down the length of Salina Street. She shared with Seamus and Thomas how she had met Frances Willard, the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a leading suffragist.
“I wish you could have been there. Frances Willard shook hands with us and congratulated us upon mastering cycling. She told us how she felt certain that cycling was increasing in popularity across the land and was going to do so much to emancipate women of the stereotypes to which they had been harnessed for too long—even the stereotype of being politically inferior to men. She told us that Susan B. Anthony had written ‘I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.’ Anthony called it ‘the freedom machine.’ Then, all of us marchers and riders cheered after Willard proclaimed ‘A new day is dawning.’ Oh, it was thrilling!”
Julia was so fired up. She laughed and hugged her Pa when she heard him ask, “Do you think I’m too old to learn to ride this contraption?” But now her father had prematurely gone to his eternal rest, and Julia felt that she was to blame.
“If I had not joined the temperance and suffrage causes, might Pa be still alive?” This was the nagging thought Julia shared with Mrs. Lucey. “Maybe robbery was not the motive for his being bludgeoned.”