Desperately Seeking Susan B.

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!"

Rim shot!
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.

If the cash registers of America aren't awash in SBA bucks, it isn't for lack of trying on Arlys Endres' part. The girl mailed out more than 2,000 letters when she finally stopped counting.

A co-chairman of the National Women's Suffrage Statue Campaign claims Arlys' devotion was invaluable in bringing attention to the project. Referring to the youngster's speech at last summer's D.C. fund raiser, Karen Staser says, "[Arlys] definitely held her own and stole the show. You know how children have a way of cutting through the bull? She looked at this and said, 'This is not right!' When a child 'gets it,' there's nothing but true justice going through their heart."

Still marveling over the memory of their little girl hobnobbing with the likes of Senator John Warner, Arlys and Jeff Endres continue to scratch their heads over their daughter's burgeoning activism and media savvy.

"She's certainly not getting this from her mother and I," says Jeff Endres, a stock clerk at Fry's supermarket. "We're dull as heck, Snoresville. When she was getting all that attention in Washington, we were really of two minds," he says. "Part of us was saying, 'Let her enjoy this, it's never going to happen again'; the other part was saying, 'Let's get outta here!'"

A self-described "conservative Republican," the 38-year-old dad sheepishly admits that he himself didn't even register to vote until just six years ago. "This is all her doing; we're just floundering in her wake," says Endres, who, along with his 7-year-old son, is increasingly becoming the odd man out in the mother/daughter "women's thing" that's taken over their lives. "Sometimes I can't help thinking that maybe Arlys is the reincarnation of Susan B. Anthony," he says, only half-jokingly.

His wife is equally bewildered by their daughter's newfound passion. "We are not political people," explains Arlys-Allegra Endres, an effusive, enthusiastic woman with a Bombeckian slant on life. "I mean, we vote and I always watch the political debates on TV. But not for very long--they're incredibly boring."

Arlys' 7-year-old brother David has mixed emotions about his sibling's day in the sun. "Sometimes I get jealous because she gets all the attention," he confesses. In fairness, he also points out that were it not for his sister, the family wouldn't have gone to Washington, a trip that represented both kids' first plane ride and first journey out of the state. Awed by the chandeliers, marble staircase and buffet reception in the women's history museum where Arlys spoke, David describes the ceremony as "being just like in heaven."

Except for the fact that her daughter was reading at age 2 and a half, Mrs. Endres claims that nothing in Arlys' background foreshadowed her self-driven publicity blitz. "She's actually a very shy little girl, not gregarious at all," says her mother. "At least that used to be the case."

Casting a glance into an adjoining room, she laughs. "I haven't seen the top of my kitchen table in six months," she says of a dinette set still strewn with Arlys' trademark hot pink envelopes. According to her mother, Arlys selected the color because it made her letters immediately identifiable on any TV news spots about the campaign.

"I finally had to put my foot down," reports Mrs. Endres, who laid down the law when her daughter began staying up as late as 11 p.m. to work on the project. "We told her, 'One hour per day--and not at all on weekends.'" A shrewd negotiator, however, Arlys quickly doubled that daily time allotment by forgoing her hour per day of television watching.

Cleverly turning the campaign into a family project, Arlys was able to multiply her manpower even further. Even though he found the task "boring," brother David dutifully stuffed envelopes. Dad made bank deposits. Grandma tracked down the addresses of politicians, women's organizations and entertainers. And in between tending a half-dozen preschoolers in her home day-care business, Mom somehow found time to coordinate Arlys interview requests, as well as play chauffeur for her daughter's frequent public speaking engagements on the ladies-league circuit.

So who's really behind Arlys' rabble-rousing rants? "Trust me," says Mrs. Endres, throwing her hands up. "I don't know how she's coming up with this stuff, but it's not from us. We don't have anything to do with her speeches."

Or at least not much--Endres admits she did dissuade Arlys from using the word "tenacious" in her Washington, D.C., address "because no one would believe a child had written the speech herself."

Big mistake. After Arlys mentioned the parental editing to Congresswoman Connie Morella (Republican from Maryland), the politico read the chagrined mom the riot act.

Recalls Mrs. Endres, "She told me, 'Don't you ever talk her out of a word again. If it's her word, it's hers--leave her speeches alone.' So, believe me, we do."

The tenacious preteener forged ahead, eventually raising more than $2,000, making her the largest single contributor to the statue campaign. Practically all of that money came from strangers who applauded her drive.

But with the exception of Christina Ricci--the teenage actress sent a dollar and an autographed photo--most of the celebrities to whom she wrote offered nothing more than a verbal pat on the head. Arlys' scrapbooks are filled with "thanks but no thanks" form letters from the famous, including one bearing the return address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Hillary didn't send anything," fumes Arlys. "She wrote, 'I'm sorry, but I can't help you at this time.' Huh, she's only the first lady."

And don't even get her started on the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who contributed one lousy buck.

"Arlys was outraged," reports her mother. So outraged that the girl fired back an angry letter. "Of all the people in the world who are now benefiting from Susan B. Anthony, it's you," wrote Arlys. "I should have gotten a dollar from each of you--if not more!"

On May 8, when the suffrage statue is scheduled to be rededicated in a ceremony at the Rotunda, Arlys Angelique Endres will finally realize the fruits of her labor.

Her mother, meanwhile, just looks forward to seeing the top of her kitchen table again.

But it probably won't stay clean for long. Arlys has just announced plans for a project that should keep her busy through junior high, at least.

"Arlys wants to go around to the different schools talking about racial discrimination and how it's not fair," reports her mom. "Whether it's going to go over or anyone will care, I don't know. I do think she'd be an inspiration to a lot of children that may have ideas in their heads but don't have an outlet or know who to talk to."

Arlys' stint in the public eye has already convinced at least one peer to hit the lecture trail. Namely, her younger brother David, who recently told a reporter he wants to give speeches about the importance of bicycle safety helmets--or slavery, he can't decide which.

At this late date, why slavery?
A stern look crosses the second-grader's face. "Because I'm still mad about it!" he booms.

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