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Grace Paley and The Great Hall at Cooper Union

Last night I went to “A Tribute to Grace Paley: An Evening of Readings and Remembrance” at The Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City. Paley was a poet, short story writer and political activist. Francine Prose, president of PEN American Center, opened the evening. She was followed by Paley’s daughter Nora. Other participants, including Katha Pollitt, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Michael Cunningham, and Vera B. Williams, read from Paley’s works and gave reminiscences. The program opened and closed with a recording of Grace Paley reading her poem Responsibility that includes these lines: It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the/Quakers say/It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the powerless/It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no freedom without justice and this means economic justice and love justice/. . . . It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on/this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be/listened to this time. The announcement of the event had this quote from Paley: Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world. Her dream for her grandchildren, Grace Paley said in a May 2007 interview was: It would be a world without militarism and racism and greed–and where women don’t have to fight for their place in the world. I was moved by the event and thrilled to finally be inside the The Great Hall of Cooper Union, the scene of many legendary speeches and meetings and events in American history. The Great Hall, which opened in 1858, has figured in several of my books, including Strike! The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Times to the Present–where I wrote about the mass meeting of striking workers on November 25, 1909, when Clara Lemlich, a teenage worker who had been badly beating during her stint on the picket line, electrified the meeting with her words: “I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now!” Lemlich’s call to action resulted in, what became known as, “The Uprising of the 20,000,” a strike that dramatically demonstrated the power of semi-skilled and unskilled immigrant women workers and catapulted women into prominence in the labor movement, which had traditionally ignored them.

The Great Hall was also the scene of the first meeting of the U. S. Sanitary Commission that organized the hospital transport ships during the Civil War. I wrote about Katharine Wormeley, a lady superintendent aboard the hospital transport ships in Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference. My essay about Wormeley includes excerpts of her letters. On May 31, 1862, from on board the Knickerbocker she wrote to her mother: It is a piteous sight to see these men: no one knows what war is until they see this black side of it. We may all sentimentalize over its possibilities as we see the regiments go off, or when we hear of a battle; but it is as far from the reality as to read of pain is far from feeling it.

And, of course, The Great Hall played a role in the fight for women’s rights–meetings were held there and most of the male and female leaders spoke there, including the women I’m currently writing about–Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. At one time, Anthony had an office in The Great Hall. p.s. I’m happy to report that two days ago I finally moved from the intense research phase to the writing phase of Stirring Up the World: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, a Biography of a Powerful Friendship.

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