Rock the Votive: “I Voted” Stickers at the Grave of Susan B. Anthony
By Jordan Conley.
Since at least 2014, women have been leaving their “I voted” stickers at the grave of Susan B. Anthony in Rochester, New York. After the state’s primary, photos of the headstone covered in stickers went viral. The Smithsonian, in an article about the tradition, called it “a small tribute to a big leader in women’s suffrage.”
This deployment of the stickers is striking, and such practices are evocative of a larger votive tradition. The commission and dedication of votives (in the form of figurines, anatomical body parts, paintings, lamps, and inscriptions) served as a common feature at ancient Greek and Roman healing sanctuaries, and throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages at Christian saints’ shrines. They also remain operative at modern Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox sites of healing in Europe and North and South America
Recently, for a paper, I considered how such objects are ritually indexed to specific persons, and yet also come to demonstrate broader agency and efficacy. In their capacity not only to represent or express but also to extend beings and events, votives demonstrate a range of individual and social functions. In pushing against the notion that such objects are only a means of symbolic communication, or exterior manifestations of interior states, I suggested that the votives do more work in connecting different locations, time periods, and subjects.1
There is, of course, an etymological relationship between “vote” and “votive,” as both stem from the Latin votum—“a vow, wish, promise to a god, solemn pledge, dedication.” In my work, I’ve expressed reservations about the term “votive,” as it seems to deflect attention away from the material object itself. However, reflecting on “voting” in this election has given me pause. In an age where the most ubiquitous forms of political engagement take place within the realm of social media, the near-constant implorations to vote remind us that voting is, in fact, material. After submitting one’s vote, however, one is left grasping. Our votes cease to be entirely ours as they leave our hands, and yet, paradoxically, they only become fully ours upon being cast and counted—otherwise they are hollow.
Acquisition of the “I voted” sticker is contingent upon physically casting a vote. It reflects an act rather than a stance, a fulfillment rather than promise. It marks the transformation of a potential voter into one who has voted. It is a memento, yes, but also a continuation of the vote and/or the state of voting. The sticker serves both to overcome the ever-widening distance between our votes and ourselves, and also to identify us as members of a broader community of voters. The potentiality and efficacy of the stickers is enhanced by their language: the ambiguity of the “I” and the open-endedness of the “voted.” The stickers are simultaneously anonymous and intimate, generic and yet capable of personalization. Cheap, mass-produced, and portable, they are affixed to human subjects, but also assume social “lives” that set them apart from their intended referents as they are featured in selfies, transferred to subway benches and diaries, disposed of and saved. As they disseminate beyond their rolls, beyond the polling places, they both come together in various assemblages of material and human agents, and yet also remain in a network with one another.
This election is particularly significant for female voters as they prepare (the majority of them anyway) to cast their votes for Hillary Rodham Clinton and against a candidate known for his misogny, whose supporters have called for the repeal of the 19th amendment.2 In such a context, the “I voted” sticker is not merely symbolic, and depositing the stickers at the grave of Susan B. Anthony is not merely a tribute. Instead, the stickers are operative at many different levels in the move from voting to votive to devotion. They assert presence even while attesting to absence. They stand for both entities and events. They negotiate the relationship between the individual and the collective, the part and the whole. They facilitate attempts to reconcile the specificity of this election with the larger history of the fight for women’s rights. The physical and grammatical properties of the sticker grant it the capacity to connect separate times, locations, subjects, and experiences. Dedicating a sticker at the grave highlights the object’s functional flexibility in that the “I” is a particular, if anonymous, voter, but the placement of the sticker on the headstone also connects the “I” with Susan B. Anthony herself. “I voted,” she affirms from the grave, as indeed she did (illegally) during her lifetime—an act that continues to resonate in this and every election.
1 Underlying these claims are theoretical investments regarding the agency and social lives of objects, such as those advanced in the field of Materiality studies and by “New Materialisms” scholars.
2 Whether they do so “in jest” or not is irrelevant.
Jordan Conley is a Ph.D student at Boston University, specializing in Ancient Christianity within the Graduate Division of Religious Studies. She graduated with a BA in Religion and Classics from the University of Puget Sound in 2009, and in 2014, she earned an MTS from Harvard Divinity School with a focus on New Testament and Early Christianity. Her research interests include ancient and late antique discourses of affliction, practices of incubation, pilgrimage to healing sites, and the social function of monasteries, with attention to the themes of agency, instrumentality, and performance.