Category Archives: Herstory

On Women’s Equality Day, Which Women Do We Mean?

Today is Women’s Equality Day in the United States, celebrated yearly since 1971 on August 26th to mark the certification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that extended the right to vote to women.

While this is an occasion to celebrate, there are a few myths, lies, and blatant rewrites of history that pop up every year that should be addressed. This is by no means an exhaustive list or a full, intersectional history of the battle for suffrage, but rather an attempt to muddy the conversation about which women we’re really talking about when we speak of “women’s equality.”

Myth: The 19th Amendment “gave” women the right to vote.

Fact: No one “gave” or “granted” women anything. Suffrage is a right one is born with in a free democracy, a right that was denied to women by the founders of our nation who did not see white women and all folks of color as human enough to deserve it. Organizers endured heckling, ostracization, beatings, force feedings and, in some cases, even death to get the 19th amendment passed — it was a fight for justice too long denied, not a polite request finally granted.

Lie: The 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to women.

Truth: This is only true if your definition of “women” is “white, cisgender, documented women.” Women and men of color, especially in the South, continued to face barriers to voting in the form of literacy tests, “grandfather” clauses, and Jim Crow laws until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. The Voting Rights Act was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, which means that many folks of color will again be disenfranchised under the same ideology that assumes elected white people get to decide who “deserves” the right of suffrage. (See: North Carolina and Texas.) Additionally, undocumented women and men, who contribute to the nation as a whole and their communities specifically, are still denied the right to vote on the policies that impact their lives and those of their families. Women who have been convicted of felonies are also barred from voting. Voter ID laws, which require the gender one was assigned at birth to match the gender one actually is, prohibit many trans* folks from accessing the polls as well.

Historical Rewrite: White women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul thought up, led, and won the battle for suffrage.

Historical Truth: While those names are the ones most often mentioned in history books, those same texts both fail to recognize the women and men of color who fought for suffrage and cover up the fact that many of the white women leaders of the suffrage movement were pretty damn racist. They also fail to mention that early white suffragists like Stanton and Anthony were radicalized by interacting with Iroquois women, who were voting members on tribal councils and had the final say on the appointment of village chiefs. The suffragists who actually credited Native women’s influence on their organizing did so only to position indigenous cultures as “savage” in order shame white men into being more “enlightened” than Native peoples. The same white women who were spurred to action by Native women’s roles later aligned themselves with organizations that fought for the disenfranchisement of “blanketed Indians.”

Many of the staunchest advocates for universal suffrage were abolitionists. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, all Black women, were leaders in the suffrage movement who faced discrimination from their white “sisters” in the fight. The National Women’s Suffrage Association’s official position was that suffrage for white women should come first, at the expense of voting rights for women and men of color. During the famed 1913 march, Alice Paul ordered Black women to march at the back in order to avoid offending racist white Southern women — Ida B. Wells refused and slipped out of the line to take her rightful place in the Illinois delegation at the front of the parade. Susan B. Anthony, in just one of her many racist oppressions, was instrumental in the exclusion of ardent women’s rights supporter Frederick Douglass from a suffrage conference in Atlanta.

Myth, Lie, and Historical Rewrite: “Women’s Equality” and the continued fight for women’s rights in 2013 is inclusive of all women.

Sad but important truth: It’s not.

The “mainstream” feminist movement of today — meaning the writing, organizing, and other work that gets the most attention, resources, and privilege — remains centered on the rights, lives, and experiences of white, non-Native, cisgender, documented, straight, able-bodied women. Women whose identities match these privilege sets, women like me, actively appropriate the work of women whose do not, erase their histories, assail their identities and set up fiscal, political, social, and cultural barriers in order to interrupt and negate the organizing of women of color, trans* folks, disabled people, undocumented people, and those who live their lives at the intersections of those identities. Just check out #solidarityisforwhitewomen, started by Mikki Kendall and explained here, and #dearcispeople. Google Cece McDonald and #girlslikeus. See women’s groups that claim to be fighting for all women who endorse candidates who voted for Stop and Frisk and refuse to support comprehensive immigration reform or go to the mat for Native women’s inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act. The list goes on and on.

Women’s Equality Day has a noble goal: uplift the history of the struggle for women’s rights and highlight the continued work toward gender justice. But if we aren’t committed to problematizing the history we’ve been taught, to centering the work of marginalized folks and learning the histories that have been erased from textbooks, and to coming to terms with the fact that when many feminists say they work for women’s equality but really just mean some women, then we’re just celebrating and continuing oppression.

I don’t have the answer to ending that continued oppression but I do know that it’s not the feminist movement that I want or that anyone needs. As a counterpoint to the unexamined celebratory links going around today, I’ve begun to compile a list of resources that celebrate the heroines who’ve been erased from history and examine the history of oppression within the suffrage movement that continues today. If you have other links, please put them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

Woman Suffrage at the Turn of the Century: The Rising Influence of Racism — Angela Davis

How Racism Tainted Women’s Fight to Vote — Monée Fields-White

How Native Americans Influenced the Women’s Suffrage Movement — Jessica Diemer-Eaton

Not All Women Won the Right to Vote Today — Renee Martin

Homespun Heroines And Other Women of Distinction — compiled and edited by Hallie Quinn

African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965 — (book) Cynthia Neverdon-Morton (Author), Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Author), Martha Prescod Norman (Author), Bettina Aptheker (Author), Ann D. Gordon (Editor), Bettye Collier-Thomas (Editor)

African American Women In The Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 — (book) Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

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Introducing The Radical Women’s History Project

If you follow me on Twitter, you might know that each morning I do a series of “this day in women’s history” tweets, marked with the #wmnhist tag. What you might not know is that each morning I open ten different tabs in a window to comb through pages and pages of HIStory to find the couple of morsels pertaining to women that wind up on my Twitter feed.

I started doing this Twitter thing a little less than a year ago and I didn’t initially mean for it to be a regular thing. Frankly, I looked up women’s history for myself on days I felt I could go no further, claw no harder against overwhelming inequalities in their overlapping, insidious forms that just keep popping up all over. I looked up the lives of the women before me because I needed to know that women before had faced obstacles seemingly as insurmountable (and most often much more so!) and come out triumphant. I looked up the lives of the women before me because I needed their sisterhood, their guidance, their solidarity, their example.

The more I did this, the more I realized how much of my history as a woman I’d been denied – I would have seen myself as so much stronger so much sooner had I been taught about the goddess religions, the matrilineal cultures, about the female warriors and peace makers, business people and inventors, healers, scribes, and artists. The more I was nourished by my history, the more I realized sharing the lives and voices and stories the patriarchy wanted silenced and disappeared was a revolutionary act. (And no, this is not an original thought – reappearing women’s history has been a feminist project for years. There’s just nothing like your own mind-blowing, wonderful and sometimes enraging “AHA!”)

BUT. I’ve realized this year of hunting down women’s history facts that the “women” in that phrase are most often white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and Western. Just as women have been mostly left out of the broad discourse we call “history,” women of color, indigenous, queer, trans, disabled and non-Western women (and women living within all the intersection thereof) have been further marginalized, mostly left out of or tossed in as an afterthought in feminist attempts to add women to existing history.* This is as damaging as leaving women out entirely, servicing kyriarchy by silencing the very voices deemed most threatening and marginalizing the women most threatened due to that fact. These women, ALL women, have a valiant and complicated history – one that women and men of all identities would be better served by knowing.

All these words are to say that the ten sites I go to a day that celebrate mostly privileged white women don’t cut it. I want a real women’s history. I need it and so do a lot of other women and men. It shouldn’t be radical to want ALL women to get equal and deserved credit for adding to this planet we share but it is right now so I’m calling this the Radical Women’s History Project. What that means is that every day this year, starting on January 1st, 2011, I’m scouring the internet and books and any other source I can find to chronicle the lives and the accomplishments of the world’s women, explicitly centering women of color, indigenous, queer, trans, disabled, and non-Western women, and I’m posting them here for whomever would like to use them.

Let’s face it – this isn’t going to be easy. For one, most of the easily available sources  focus on that white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, Western woman. And two, perhaps more importantly, the woman spearheading this project claims most of those privileges in the previous sentence – I only speak one other language (Spanish, badly) and my privileges has certainly made me blind to some sources that are right there in front of me. So I need your help. Send me sites that chronicle daily women’s history. In whatever language, I’ll get it translated. Send me one fact on one date with a source. Go do some digging in your library and send me book titles. Tell your professor there’s this obsessed girl on the internets doing this thing and ask if they could please share their research. Ask your mom and grandma and your great-grandma to reach back and think of the women who stood out in their lives.

I believe with all my heart Gerda Lerner, a pioneer of women’s history, when she says “women’s history is the primary tool for women’s emancipation.” And I believe that means ALL women and this collective history is not only the key to women’s emancipation but a primary resource for all men and women and those who don’t identify with this arbitrary thing called gender in our journey toward whole humanity. So, I invite you, let’s see where this journey takes us, together.

 

* There are wonderful notable exceptions that I know about in English, mostly by feminists and womanists of color. Alice Walker’s In Search of My Mother’s Garden is a beautiful examination of not only Black women’s history but what an effect searching for and discovering one’s feminine lineage has on the searcher. Audre Lorde also explored Black women’s history, in her poetry and while sorting out her relationship to her mother in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Paula Gunn Allen wrote the feminine back into Native American history with her book Sacred Hoop: Rediscovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions.

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Is it ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’? Does it Still Matter?


Yesterday I received a tweet from the Oxford University Press account inquiring as to my feelings about the use of ‘Miss’ versus ‘Ms.’ in relation to myself and modern feminism. The question was accompanied by a link to this article by University of Illinois Professor Dennis Baron, which traces the term ‘Ms.’ to all the way back to 1767 and chronicles its’ various political meanings or lack thereof henceforward. He notes an instance as early as 1913 of feminist attempts to institute a title for women, like Mr. for men, that was free of reference to age or marital status, a goal that didn’t meet with much success until the Second Wave of feminism and the release of Ms. Magazine in 1971.

Like being able to sit unaccompanied in a bar or get credit in my name without a husband of male relative as a co-signer, the pretty much universal understanding that women as well as men should and do have a title that doesn’t convey marital status is one of those wins of the feminist movement for which my generation often seems ungrateful because it’s been a matter of fact our whole lives. Actually, the New York Times — about sixteen years late to the party as per usual – finally declared Ms. “fit to print” in 1986, the year I was born. Long before I consciously identified as a feminist, and even while I was calling myself a good Southern Baptist girl, I preferred the term ‘Ms.’ to ‘Miss’ simply because I didn’t want any part of anything that encompassed both Miss America and Little Miss Muffet.

It wasn’t, however, until I began to strongly identify as a feminist in college that I used ‘Ms.’ as a political statement, though not the straightforward one against the, to my millennial eyes, blatant sexism of the titles that Professor Brown and the Oxford University Press would probably expect. I read Gloria Steinem’s quip, “I refuse to be referred to as Miss Steinem of Ms. Magazine,” as both an example of the humor members of an oppressed group must possess while fighting that oppression and a reminder of the battle feminists before fought for me to be able to take for granted that women should have an equivalent to ‘Mr.’ Since I was deprived of this important piece of feminist activism in even my college classes, I began using the title ‘Ms.’ as a gentle point of re-education on women’s history as I traveled across the country speaking at universities.

That’s the political significance that influenced, in part, my choice to use ‘Ms.’ in the title of my blog. It serves as a short but meaningful signifier to my readers that everything in my life, and therefore the blog’s content, is shaped by my feminism. It’s also a reference to the humorous and common mistitling of the film made on my high school activism as ‘The Miseducation of Shelby Knox,” as if my journey from conservative Republican to feminist activist was an ill-fated comedy of errors. Most importantly, however, ‘Ms.’ in my blog title is a conscious homage to the Second Wave women who continue to be invaluable in my evolution as a young adult feminist activist.

I know there are women who choose to use ‘Miss’ for a variety of reasons, including as a rejection of the feminism that’s inextricably, at least in modern times, implied in choosing ‘Ms.’ instead. This is an exercise of the self-determination that’s inherent to feminism and I don’t take issue with these women or their decisions. I am less tolerant of companies, like Vista Print, that refuse to offer ‘Ms.’ as an option in the dropdown menu of possible titles when ordering a product online. Which feminine title is a lesbian woman who is prohibited by law from marrying her life partner supposed to choose? What possible relationship could one’s marital status have to a desire to order cheap business cards? As Professor Brown notes, ‘Ms.’ is now a commonly accepted manner in which to refer to half the population and modern companies should get with the times, if only to indicate to consumers like me that they’re not endorsing the sexism and homophobia underlying a forced choice between ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’ (For the record, Vista Print, me and several friends have taken our business elsewhere because of this issue.)

Am I going to spend much of my time lobbying companies to provide all three title options for women or monitoring media outlets to make sure they use ‘Ms.’ to refer to female newsmakers without regard to their marital status? No, mostly because that work was done by feminists of previous generations. Instead I’ll fight the sexism endemic in a society that still correlates a woman’s worth with a ring on her finger by getting rid of gendered pay disparities and establishing more social services for single mothers. And I’ll be Ms. Scary Feminist as I do it, thank you very much!

***Question to readers: Do you use the term ‘Ms.’? Why or why not? If you speak another language, what are the feminine titles that traditionally differentiate between a married and unmarried woman and is there an alternative similar to Ms.?

CORRECTION: Post updated at 2pm EST on 8.17.10 to correctly cite Professor Dennis Baron, the author of the Oxford University Press blog post, who was misnamed in the original post.

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Searching for America’s Invisible Women

Amelia Earhart and her famous plane to be made into a parade balloon.

Saturday marked the 113th anniversary of the birth of Amelia Earhart, the pioneering female pilot who blew the world’s assumptions of women’s abilities out of the sky by becoming the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Saturday also marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Alphonse Mucha, a Czech Art Nouveau painter known for his images of delicate white women with long flowing hair that you’re most likely to have seen on greeting cards.

Which one Google did decide to honor with one of it’s homepage Google Doodle designs? If you guessed the man who drew women instead of the woman, you’re cynical –  but rightfully.

Yes, 150 is a much rounder and bigger number than 113 – and that number seems a little sinister to the superstitious considering how Earhart died –  but 110 is also a much, much bigger number than 8, which is now the ratio of male to female historical figures Google Doodle has featured since it’s inception in 1999.

When I first wrote about the almost complete invisibility of women in Google Doodles, I explained why parity in internet graphics should concern feminists:

…we’ve lived with the myth that men created the world and everything good in it for long enough. As long as men get to designate who and what in history is important, young women will continue to learn that all their sex has contributed throughout all of history is their wombs. If we can’t see ourselves as the inventors, artists, revolutionaries and creators that came before, how the hell are we supposed to fashion ourselves into the modern versions?

Since writing that, I’ve become hyper-aware of the almost complete absence of women, especially women of color, in every venue and form in which we as a society honor our political, artistic, and cultural forebears. A sampling:

  • Of almost 150 historical statues in New York City, only 5 are women and only 1, Harriet Tubman, is a woman of color. Of 29 sculptures in Central Park, 4 are female: Alice in Wonderland, Juliet of Romeo and Juliet, Mother Goose, and Mary from The Secret Garden.
  • Of the 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, DC, only 9 are women.
  • There is no national American holiday named for a woman. We’ve got MLK day, Columbus Day,  and Presidents Day (formerly Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays) – but not a single day for a woman who shaped America.
  • Despite being half the population, stamps memorializing men outnumber stamps memorializing women 3 to 1. Of the 55 stamps to be issues this summer, 16 will depict real people and 4 of those will be women. Puerto Rican poet Julia de Borgos will be the only woman of color honored, right alongside Kate Smith, infamous for singing the racist, pro-slavery song, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.”
  • The last time a woman’s portrait appeared on a U.S. currency note was in the 19th century, before the establishment of our modern monetary system. Martha Washington’s portrait appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891, and the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896. There hasn’t been a single woman’s face on our paper currency since then. Women don’t fare much better on metal money – the U.S. Mint issued 50 new state-themed quarters between 1999 and 2008  and not a single one included an image or tribute to a woman.

Thanks to the work of feminists, most American young women go through life without ever being told they can’t grow up to be doctors or scientists, politicians or aviators. Yet by refusing to equally honor the women who’ve made significant contributions to the country as we do the men, we show them that women don’t and haven’t ever done the things that are worthy of respect and replication. This is as damaging as it is untrue.

Which is why the work of a new non-profit called Equal Visibility Everywhere is so, so cool – and so very important. Formed in March of this year, the organization is “dedicated to achieving gender parity in the symbols and icons of the United States.” Included in their 8 target projects are efforts to get more women into National Statuary Hall and on stamps and coins, encouraging municipalities to name more streets and schools after women, and monitoring how women are portrayed and represented in museum exhibits.

EVE’s biggest project – literally – is raising money for a 40-foot balloon replica of Amelia Earhart’s red Lockheed Vega 5B, with Amelia in her aviator’s cap waving from the cockpit, to appear in parades across the country. (Women are definitely disproportionately represented in the balloon line-up – of 108 characters depicted in the 86 year history of the famed Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade, only 10 have been women.) If EVE reaches their $9,801 goal by the end of this month, the balloon will debut in the Philadelphia Labor Day parade, with TV announcers reading text about the organization and the near invisibility of women in cultural celebrations.

EVE is also looking for volunteers to help them complete their other projects – I, for one, am excited about pushing New York to represent our state with a statue of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for President, in the National Statuary Hall. How will you show your mother, sisters, and daughters women made and are making history?

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A Particularly Political Day in Herstory

Victoria Woodhull, first woman nominated for the U.S. Presidency.

1872 – Victoria C. Woodhull, Free Love advocate, passionate suffragist,  and the first woman to open a brokerage firm on Wall Street, was nominated by the Equal Rights Party for the Presidency of the United States. The Party broke more barriers by nominating abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her Vice President. The formidable pair of ‘firsts’ didn’t prevail on Election Day but signaled to the nation two truths: racism and sexism must be uprooted together and equality is inevitable.

1919– Ella Grasso was born. After becoming the first female Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives and serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, she became the first woman elected Governor in her own right, in 1974. Three women had served before her, as surrogates for husbands deceased or otherwise disposed. As of this date, 31 women have served as Governor.

2010 – President Barack Obama announces current Solicitor General Elena Kagan as his nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States. If confirmed, she will be the fourth woman to ever serve on the high court. As of 2010, 111 justices have served on the Court. If Kagan makes it through confirmation and takes the bench, women will have filled 1.8% of historically available slots on the Court.

Also on this date:

1840 – Elizabeth Cady, then 25, married Henry Brewer Stanton. Already acutely aware of the imbalance of power in the marital contract, she insisted the word ‘obey’ be rem0ved from the ceremony.

Quote of the day:

I now announce myself as a candidate for the Presidency. I anticipate criticism; but however unfavorable I trust that my sincerity will not be called into question.Victoria Woodhull


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