Hand on Your Hatchet

 
 Photo by Chris Lawton

If history is doomed to repeat itself, let’s hope there is another Carry A. Nation in our midst.

 

Carry “Hatchet-Thrower” Nation was a prohibitionist, nicknamed for her weapon of choice – which she used to smash liquor bottles in pre-Prohibition saloons. “With one sweep she took the decanters from the bar,” the Wichita Daily Eagle wrote about one of Nation’s smashes, after she stormed into Topeka’s Hotel Carey in December 1900. “They broke to pieces on the floor. The liquor was wasted. The sight of the liquor on the floor evidently encouraged her.”

 

In her smashing career, the 54-year old mother – whose first husband died of alcoholism – was arrested more than thirty times, almost always on charges of disturbing the peace. But neither her arrest record, nor her particular obsession with the temperance movement, is what makes her relevant today. Rather, it’s how she fought for a cause she deeply cared about in a time when women weren’t encouraged to speak up, let alone make the noise needed to earn front page headlines.

 

More than just a saloon-wrecker, Nation was a crusader for women’s health, suffrage, and anti-smoking laws. She was on the cover of The New York Times, published a biweekly temperance newsletter called Smasher’s Mail, wrote an autobiography, and opened Hatchet Hall, a boarding house for abused and neglected women and children.

 

Her legacy stems not from the morality of her cause, but from the strength of her actions. At the turn of the century, Nation’s forceful nature helped to shift perspectives on the role women can play in society. There is no shortage of parallels to the contemporary feminist movement. None more so, perhaps, than the mattress-dragging then-Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz.

 

Like Nation, Sulkowicz turned to extremely unorthodox methods to raise awareness about her cause. Protesting how the Columbia administration had handled her rape case, she spent her senior year carrying a 50-lb. dorm mattress everywhere she went on campus, including graduation. The project, entitled Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), earned her both accolades and criticism, but her ultimate goal — to draw attention to rape culture on college campuses — was fulfilled tenfold. It was theater and protest in one, much like Nation’s bottle-smashing exploits.

 

Nation redefined gender stereotypes with her uncivilized behavior, unnerving citizens everywhere from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. The world expected women to be demure. Instead, “she was more upfront [than most women],” says Blair Tarr, curator for the Kansas State Historical Society. “I guess the term we would use today is ‘in your face.’”

 

“She knew how to get publicity,” Tarr adds.

 

Though Nation thrived off the headlines, she also maintained restraint. Women could be institutionalized for little to no reason: her mother had been put into a mental asylum by her brother. The primary reason for institutionalizing her? He owed her money and didn’t feel like paying. “This sort of frightened Carry off,” says Tarr. “She was afraid someone would put her in an institution simply because she wasn’t acting like a woman was expected to at the time.”

 

As soon as Carry took hold of her hatchet and voiced other unpopular opinions – she was so opposed to smoking that she was even known to stop strangers on the street and pull cigarettes from their mouths – she wasn’t fulfilling society’s feminine stereotypes.

 

Nation was divisive as a female exerting power in a male-dominated society. She crafted a persona that was high-octane and unusual; she was opinionated in a world where women were expected to be silent. Infamy came not just because she carried a hatchet, but because she captured the nation’s attention at a time when women were forced into near anonymity.

 

Nation lived a life that defied even today’s norms: she dared to stand out with her actions and to make it known that she was unsatisfied with the status quo. Carry is iconic: she was passionate about her cause and took action when few others would. She took matters into her own hands, bootstrapping a rebellion despite the backlash.

 

As we’ve learned from the women who have marched, campaigned, and refused to be silenced over the past year, it’s time to wield our own hatchets.  

 

Today, it’s never been easier to stand aside or behind a computer screen and to watch others take action. But it’s also never been easier to stand up and speak out. In the words of Nation, “with these efforts, we can carry a nation.”

 

Did You Know?

  • Bricks were Carry A. Nation’s weapon of choice until someone handed her a hatchet.

  • Carry’s given name was spelled ‘Carrie’ until she changed it, creating her iconic moniker “Carry A. Nation.”  

  • The recent 2018 Women’s March involved up to 2.5 million people in the United States.

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