One way to get an inkling of Amy Canfield’s conception of history is to compare, say, the Wikipedia photos of two of her favorite historical figures.
From 1915: Alice Paul, the iconic suffragist, sits behind a writing desk and stares solemnly at the camera, as if rebuking the stubborn old men standing in the way of the 19th Amendment.
From 1957: Elvis Presley, the iconic rock ’n’ roller, languidly seduces the camera as he dances with splayed limbs for a promo poster for the movie “Jailhouse Rock.”
Canfield, a history professor at Lewis-Clark State College for the past dozen years, was deftly juggling observations about Paul and Presley during a recent phone interview when she made a curious announcement about them: They died the same year. Incredulous, her listener later checked those Wikipedia pages and, sure enough, Presley left us at age 42 in August 1977, five weeks after Paul had given up the ghost at 92.
“That’s weird,” Canfield said.
The coincidence reminds us that seducing cameras and shaking one’s hips can be a far quicker route to success than trying to shake loose the foundations of social inequity. But it also testifies to the underappreciated resolve of Paul and other early- to-mid-20th century leaders in the women’s movement.
Paul will be celebrated this month as the U.S. recognizes the centennial of the 19th Amendment, of August 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Indeed, she had played a crucial role in that triumph. But her devotion to the quest for women’s rights went far beyond that milestone — into and beyond the heyday of Presley — even if history tends to view her as a one-hit wonder.
Just three years after the passage of that amendment, while much of America was settling into the foxtrotting vibe of the 1920s, Paul co-wrote the original draft of the Equal Rights Amendment, launching what would prove a long, futile personal quest to get that passed as well.
“She spent the last 57 years of her life fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment,” Canfield said. “After suffrage passed through, that became her goal — and not successful. She had something in mind and she went for it, no matter what was thrown at her. She suffered failure after failure for the ERA. It didn’t stop her.”
Canfield understands the types of forces that thwarted Paul. She grew up in southeastern Idaho in the 1980s and ’90s, a third-generation feminist in a politically conservative region whose resistance to measures like the ERA differed in degree but not in kind to that of the nation as a whole.
“My grandmother passed away a few months ago,” Canfield said. “She shook her head the last time I talked to her and said, ‘I can’t believe your daughters are going to have to fight for the same things I fought for back in the ’50s and ’60s.’ And I haven’t forgotten that. We’re still fighting for those things.”
The disappointments begin to seem inevitable — even the coincidental ones. Canfield, an expert on the 19th Amendment, had planned to commemorate it with a series of speaking engagements throughout Idaho this year, but the project was interrupted when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Ditto a plan to unveil an amendment-themed mural in downtown Lewiston.
“Some of us in women’s history were joking: How appropriate is this — that we have to pause to deal with emergencies, and then we’ll get back to the other things?” Canfield said.
The “other things” are a big part of Canfield’s approach to education, not to mention parenting. She and her husband, Lewiston Tribune reporter Joel Mills, have two daughters (their middle names are Presley and Alice, natch) who are involved in the Lewiston Civic Theatre, one of several beneficiaries of Canfield’s volunteer work. Those projects are a big reason the state of Idaho last year gave her an Idaho’s Brightest Stars Award in the education category.
Her lifelong interest in Presley no doubt serves as icebreaker in that regard. Her students take bets on when and how she’ll next reference the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. He’s not widely hailed as a champion of feminism, but somehow she doesn’t compartmentalize him. She believes his enormous popularity in the 1950s is subtly connected to the social changes that helped revive the women’s movement during the next two decades.
Presley also, it seems, helps Canfield vivify the other historical figures in her pantheon, like Alice Paul.
“I think people see history in terms of the sepia photos from the 19th century, frozen in time — those people don’t even seem real,” she said. “My goal is remind them of the humanity of history — that it was regular people who were experiencing it, who were shaping it. They had the same joys and fears as we do today.”
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