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Peering over the podium at a Washington, D.C., fund raiser last July, the tiny dark-eyed child in the white satin dress flashes her audience a disarming smile--then proceeds to annihilate them with comic timing worthy of Johnny Carson.
"Right now I know exactly how Susan B. Anthony felt," announces the small visitor from Phoenix. Pause. "I CAN'T VOTE!"
The audience--a gathering of Capitol Hill activists involved in a battle to have a controversial statue of Anthony and two other suffragettes moved from the Capitol basement to the Rotunda--goes wild.
With the crowd now eating out of her hand, the 9-year-old adroitly segues into meatier matters.
"I've heard some people say that the statue is UGLY!" she continues. "To that I say . . . IT WAS AN UGLY TIME! The three women in the statue have their arms pinned in marble, because they were TRAPPED in SLAVERY! The marble mountain behind them symbolizes the women who continue fighting today . . . one of them is ME! And if this mountain represents ME, then I don't want to be in the Capitol crypt! I want to be out of the dark and into the LIGHT! . . . and so does Susan B. Anthony!"
When the huzzahs finally die down, this baby Bella Abzug brings it all home with a flag-waving finale. "If we all PUSH together, WE WILL MOVE THE STATUE OUT OF THE CAPITOL CRYPT! If anyone is standing in our way, THEY'RE GOING TO GET RUN OVER!"
Gasping, applauding, cheering, the audience rises to its feet.
Out of the mouths of third-graders.
Sitting amid the collection of dolls and teen-idol posters that decorates her bedroom in northwest Phoenix, Arlys Angelique Endres would appear to be an unlikely roar in the arena of women's rights. She just turned 10, and her normal speaking voice scarcely carries past the second floor of a dollhouse.
Yet pull her string and she'll push all the right buttons, delivering the stirring sound bites ("Susan B. Anthony is worth more than $1!") that have during the past year transformed her life into something resembling an inspirational Afterschool Special. And if this improbable tale--a quirky parable about a kid who unwittingly becomes a symbol of the next generation of the women's movement--ever does come to the small screen, the self-assured young crusader already knows exactly who she'd cast in the lead role.
"Me," she answers matter-of-factly.
Stranger things have happened. A year ago, who'd ever have guessed that this otherwise unassuming youngster would parlay a routine grade-school assignment about Susan B. Anthony into a national fund-raising campaign, not to mention an expense-paid family trip to the nation's capital?
Or could have dreamed that she'd forgo school lunch hours to do phone interviews from the principal's office, resulting in stories about her cause to appear in publications ranging from Harper's to Coin World to Scholastic News--where her name even turns up as a puzzle-page clue?
Or dared to imagine that her training-bra-burning rhetoric would turn the dynamics of her Cleaveresque family upside down?
Certainly not the object of all this fluke celebrity, who becomes insulted when anyone suggests she's doing anything but carrying on the work of her illustrious foremother.
"This isn't about me at all," she insists. "It's about Susan B. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't have the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to own property or the right to keep my children after a divorce."
Arlys Endres' curious trek to suffragette city began in February of last year, shortly after she completed a report about Anthony for a class at Roadrunner School. That's when her mother showed her a newspaper article about a campaign to have a statue commemorating the U.S. women's suffrage movement transferred to the Rotunda from its ignoble resting place in the Capitol's basement, where it's been parked since 1921.
And right next to a public rest room, to boot. "I think it's disgraceful where it's placed now!" says Arlys, who tends to bracket her suffrage comments in exclamation marks. "I was furious when I heard about this!"
She is not alone. Advocates insist that the 13-ton statue--the dour visages of suffragettes Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton rising out of a tublike block of marble--is an inspirational reminder to every woman who's ever drawn the curtains of a voting booth. (There are currently no statues honoring women in the Rotunda.) Opponents, meanwhile, argue just as vehemently that the piece--nicknamed "Ladies in a Bathtub" by its detractors--is a monumental eyesore and should stay just where it is.
Denied federal money to move the statue in time for the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the National Women's Suffrage Statue Campaign set out to privately raise the $75,000 needed for the transfer.
Enter Arlys Endres, girl activist. Exit life as it was previously known around Chez Endres.
"I thought she'd get my purse, we'd send two dollars, and then--just like the American way--we'd leave it alone and let someone else do it," says Arlys' mom, who shares her daughter's first name. "Little did I know."
A child obsessed, young Arlys began devoting every spare moment to a letter-writing campaign, urging recipients to donate Susan B. Anthony dollar coins to the cause. Switching tracks after discovering the relative scarcity of the coins, she came up with the idea of having donors submit dollar bills marked "SBA." The initials, she explained, would continue reminding people about the statue when the bills later circulated through the economy.