Ted Kennedy and Susan B. Anthony: The Curtain Falls Before the Play is Finished

Few would think to compare him to Susan B. Anthony, the great pioneer for votes for women, but their lives paralleled each others', a century apart, in startling ways.
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Edward Moore--Teddy--Kennedy was compared to many great men as he was laid to rest, most notably his brothers, President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy. Unlike his brothers, Ted received the gift of more than his Biblical three score and ten years. He used that time to pursue "the cause of his life"--quality health care for all.

Few would think to compare him to Susan B. Anthony, the great pioneer for votes for women, but their lives paralleled each others', a century apart, in startling ways.

Most notably, they both worked their entire lives for a cause whose final success they did not live to see. The curtain fell on their mortal days before the last act of their professional play was completed.

As Senator Ted Kennedy lies quietly at Arlington National Cemetery, more than a dozen health care reform bills rattle around the Senate and the House. President Barack Obama has planted his political flag on good health care for all, but it is not clear he has sufficient troops to follow that flag to victory. Few outside the beltway can give the TV Guide summary of the options. Achieving this goal will take policy clarity and passionate leadership.

Like Susan B. Anthony, Ted Kennedy was willing to move toward his goals piecemeal. Legislation for greater health care coverage came in many forms. He championed better mental health, sponsored COBRA (the ability to keep your health insurance--if you can pay for it--after losing your job), supported the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIPS), encouraged expansion of Medicaid to children with special needs, and tried, under Republican as well as Democratic presidents, to craft legislation that would make health insurance available to all, in the hope that universal health insurance would bring access to health care for everyone.

Susan B. Anthony, the great American suffrage pioneer, was born just over a century before Ted Kennedy. She too had a life's cause, what was then called "woman" suffrage. She spent over 50 years pursuing this cause, helping, in the process, to invent the mass petition as a form of civic engagement. In her prime, she gave 150 speeches per year, traveling by buckboard or carriage over rutted roads before the invention and availability of train travel. A devoted abolitionist, she supported voting rights for all freed slaves, men and women, hoping, unrealistically but nobly, that such rights would be the first step to universal suffrage. In 1878, Anthony promoted the first Congressional bill to give women national suffrage, certain it would fail, but believing strongly in the strategy of national legislation.

When she died in 1906, women had won the vote in only 4 of 45 states. It was not until the Tennessee legislature ratified the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920 that all American women nominally had the right to vote, although women of color, especially Black women in the South, confronted the prejudice and hatred that also blocked their men folk from the voting booth.

Both Kennedy and Anthony were flawed. Their limits reflected the cultures in which they lived.

Although a great supporter of women's rights in legislation, Kennedy's personal life through middle age showed disregard for women as equals. Advancing age, changing mores, responsibility for his and his brothers' children, and his happy marriage to Vicki changed his behavior, and, one imagines, his beliefs. But as a young man, he was doubtlessly a "boyo," a bit of a lad. He could easily have worked for the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency in the TV show Mad Men, as a hard-drinking rogue perpetually in trouble, some of it profoundly serious.

Anthony's faults reflected her time as well. When the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution enfranchised only male former slaves, she changed tactics. Publicly, she wondered why unlettered freedmen and immigrant men could vote, but educated women, virtually of whom were white at the time, could not? Yet Anthony did not support a state-by-state approach to woman suffrage, knowing its limits to women formerly in bondage, as well as believing it would take too long.

They were imperfect, Ted Kennedy and Susan B. Anthony. But, even imperfect, they gave their lives unstintingly to a more inclusive, more just world.

At a point in history characterized by instant messaging and term limits, the length of their efforts reminds us of the real pace of great social change.

Therefore, we should remember the best of them in their own words.

As Ted Kennedy said, "...the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

As Susan B. Anthony said, "Failure is impossible."

Only their heirs, the citizens of America, can make it so.

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