Returning from a three-week summer getaway, I find my e-mail box crammed with political updates — and instructions for me to sign and send petitions in cyberspace. Though I may grit my teeth in annoyance because eighty of my closest friends have sent me the same petition, thus adding my academic e-mail address to multiple left-leaning web lists, I acknowledge that it’s never been easier to be an activist.
Once upon a time you had to leave the house, fully-clothed, and take the Metro to attend an actual rally or sit in on a Gay Activists Alliance meeting or stuff envelopes and catch up on anti-choice gossip over at NOW. These days, nestled cozily at home, perhaps even stark naked with a cookie and milk mustache while a lover hovers over your shoulder whispering erotic suggestions in your ear, you can nonetheless meet your obligation as a citizen in a democracy and register dignified opinions by keyboard.
Politicians express mixed views on signed petitions. “They’re the lowest form on the political food chain,” I once heard Barney Frank remark during a 1993 hearing on gays in the military. “Real letters are what your representatives read.” Of course, ten years ago few could have predicted the coordinated activism of true e-mail politicos: flooding congressional offices with yes-or-no opinion poll responses, shutting down or altering opponents’ websites by cyber piracy. Today, most business is conducted by e-mail, and petitions garner more signatures when circulated conveniently to millions.
As a feminist scholar, I teach my students that colonial American women had no political rights other than the right to petition, and thus for women activists in particular, this format has an ancient resonance. In her moving letters to husband John Adams, founding mother and colonial feminist Abigail Adams demanded that women’s rights be included in the new laws and Constitution of the United States — they weren’t. When her hopes were mocked by John, Abigail wrote to pal Mercy Otis Warren (often called “the penwoman of the American Revolution”) and declared in April of 1776, “He is very saucy to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him. I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress.” Two hundred twenty-seven years later, we’re still heeding Abigail’s advice. But has individual letter-writing, like penmanship, died as an art?
Most of my Georgetown and George Washington University students would rather stage a rally or take over a building than write a letter to the Washington Post or their senators — although they may personally intern for senators, sorting the letters of others. When I press them to go beyond e-mail petitions and compose personal testimonials for the causes they defend, some confess to being unsure how one actually goes about writing a protest letter. Several years ago the entire GWU women’s basketball team crammed into my office to get advice on how they might write a letter to the Post defending women’s sports. Though e-mail activism is at an all-time high, personal confidence and commitment in letter-writing lags behind. That’s a shame, because we badly need the initiative and leadership symbolized by letters.
During the 1970s and 80s, my friends and I actually set aside one night a week to draft letters on important political issues. Most often, we were responding to images of gays and lesbians in the media, either positive or negative, a citizen-watch that has since been assumed by the good people of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). I treasure my scrapbooks from those days, which include letters of response from my senators and representatives, and a plethora of my own provocative letters-to-the-editor published in various newspapers from D.C. to New Hampshire to California. I might have been young and overly passionate in style, but look, Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Rep. Patricia Schroeder and television producer Sara Davidson read my gay rights letters and wrote back!
I’m happy to add my voice or name to the petition campaigns I care about, but I still prefer drafting my own letters. I hope that others will follow the example of Abigail Adams, whose petitions to the first Continental Congress were perhaps jeered at and ignored, but whose fiery letters made such a mark that they are still studied today in college history courses. Personal letters, after all, may also be sent by computer e-mail today — you don’t even need to go out to the post office for a stamp. You can compose and send in your pajamas, but clothe your words in style.
Bonnie Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.