Today was complicated. What began as a march for women in the capitol of the United States turned into a worldwide show of solidarity. Judging by pictures, hundreds of thousands–probably even millions–of people walked for justice, their heads, fists, and handmade signs held high. I was not one of those millions of women. I was one of the other [probably] millions of women with a weird work schedule that includes Saturdays. Despite having spent the last eight years studying and teaching women’s history and devoting my life to growing as a feminist, I was that boring, invisible person in my office. And I’m being such a John Adams about the whole thing.
(Nerd alert: in 1807, Adams wrote a scathing review of Mercy Warren’s history of the American Revolution, mostly because he wasn’t included. “I ought to have been considered as a figure on the stage,” he whined. “Call it the figure of a doorkeeper, a livery servant, a dancer, a singer, or a harlequin, if you will; but I ought not to have been shoved off the theater and kept behind a screen…” In other words: the lack of me legitimizes the entire operation; screw you.)
What blossomed across the globe is truly a beautiful thing, and it should be celebrated. But I wasn’t a part of it, so every single atom in my body is pushing me to disparage it. I will be honest. The ugly, green monster in my head wants to call it performative, glib, and empty. This is a lie, and saying such things does not make me feel any better. Who even am I? What kind of feminist tears down the productive compassion and empathy of millions of other feminists?
A bad one…
Or maybe just a jealous one.
Like I said: today was complicated.
I know I can be better.
The purpose of this post is to find my own productive way to reach out to other women by focusing on what I can do, rather than griping about what I couldn’t. So, I’m sharing some stories from history that inspire me. These ten articles for tense times are presented in the form of links to Wikipedia articles and brief summaries to pique your interest. Read one, or none, or all–it’s up to you. I only hope this can serve as an olive branch, extended in apology for my absence and with the hope that I, too, can be a part of the many, the visible, and empowered.
Deborah Sampson Gannett was the first woman to take a bullet for the United States. Sampson joined the Continental Army under the name Robert Shirtliffe, and served for about a year and a half before an illness revealed her gender. She was honorably discharged in 1783. Later, she turned her experience into an autobiography and a speaking tour, revealing how she had kept her secret, and even that, to her embarrassment, she had unintentionally seduced a young woman! Petitioning Congress with the help of Paul Revere, she became the first woman to be awarded a U.S. army pension.
Mercy Otis Warren, the daughter, sister, wife, and friend of Revolutionary patriots, was was a foremost patriot herself. Her writing career began as private letters to her friends and confidants, but quickly developed into the public expression of her politics. She wrote satirical poems and lampooning dramas, and her discerning eye was well trained for documenting history. In some of the most badass advice of the 18th century, Warren told a young woman: “My dear, it may be necessary for you to seem inferior, but you need not be so.” She had no time for the haters. When John Adams claimed her presumption in writing history made him “blush,” she shot back: “As you seem to be in a blushing mood,…I advise you to add one more item, and blush for yourself.” In other words: screw you.
Lucy Stone, aka my hero, muse, and overall queen of the earth, graduated from Oberlin College in 1847. She attend the college in the hopes of becoming an orator. Oberlin frowned on this career choice, so she spent her time there blatantly breaking all the rules. She didn’t wear a bonnet in church. She started a secret debate women’s debate club in the woods. She fought for equal pay for female student teachers. When her soon-to-be best friend and kindred spirit, Antoinette Brown, was just starting at Oberlin, a college Trustee warned her against Lucy Stone, who he said was “a bright girl, but eccentric, and far too talkative on the subject of women’s rights.” After graduation, she was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. She was a founding member of the American Women’s Suffrage League, refused to pay her taxes, and famously kept her name after marrying fellow feminist Henry Blackwell.
Ain’t I A Woman? is the commonly-used name of a speech given by Sojourner Truth, a former slave, at the 1851 Akron Women’s Rights Convention. It was an early call in uniting the disparate threads of abolition and women’s suffrage into an unstoppable tornado of human progress. (This, as you well know, has not been easily achieved.) There were two recorded versions of the speech–one by a man and well-known abolitionist, who published the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle. It is written in plain English, and does not include the famously repeated question. The second transcription was published during the Civil War, by Frances Dana Gage. This version distorts Truth’s famously well-spoken English into a Southern dialect and includes commentary on the reactions of the crowd. Gage’s version is the one most often referenced by historians and “quotographers,” but we may never discover a pure, unadultered copy of Truth’s words.
Nellie Bly‘s real name was Elizabeth Cochran[e] Seaman. She is best known as a pioneering American journalist, who would do anything–even put her life on the line–to get at a good story. At the beginning of her career, her editors expected her to write about fashion, which she disdained. So, at 21, she traveled to Mexico on her own to become a foreign correspondent. She was deported back to the U.S. after criticizing Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz, and moved to New York for more daring investigations. In 1887, she famously had herself committed into an insane asylum so that she could expose the poor treatment of the female patients. She traveled around the world (literally), started charities, and even patented special milk containers. It may, at this point, be easier just to list the things she didn’t do: go skydiving, use the Internet. There. That was easy.
Hull House was founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and her college friend (and lover) Ellen Gates Starr in a run down Chicago neighborhood on the west side. This was the age of the so-called “New Woman,” who sought to weave the role of her mother seamlessly into the tapestry of a new and exciting world. The compassion, care, and empathy inherent to Addams’ notions of womanhood were intrinsic to the mission of Hull House. Her philosophy forged new civic responsibilities for women, and deepened the bond of sisterhood between educated and working-class women in the community. Addams was also an outspoken advocate for peace, even during World War I, making her the target of the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover even went so far as to characterize her as “the most dangerous woman in America.” Talk about radical!
Ida B. Wells is just amazing. She was a teacher turned activist, who wouldn’t stand for the injustices of the world. As a teacher, she experienced the double burden of racism and sexism–paid less than men and also less than white women. She was proud of her femininity and called men “weak, deceitful creatures.” She was proud of her race, and, when she was asked to leave a ladies train car on account of her skin, she had to be forcibly removed by the conductor and two other men. When her friends were murdered in the streets on the basis of hearsay, Wells refused to be silent, instead becoming a prominent voice in the crusade to end lynch mobs. She was also an outspoken suffragette who was not afraid to call white women out when they tried to relegate her to a lesser role. Truly, it is hard to imagine a woman with more energy and fire than Ida B. Wells.
The New York Shirtwaist Strike began in November 1909 and lasted roughly until February 1910. It is also known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” because that’s how many women walked off the job. Most of the strikers were Jewish immigrants in the garment industry, already poverty-stricken, but willing to give up bread for the promise of a better tomorrow. They were beaten, arrested, and sentenced to hard labor. They starved and froze on the streets while facing ridicule, but they never gave up, eventually winning better wages, hours, and working conditions. The movement serves as an example of the necessity of intersectionality in feminism, resting at the crux of working-class socialism and women’s suffrage.
Zitkala-Sa, known also as Gertrude Simmons Bonin, was a Native American author and activist. When she was eight years old, missionaries took her from her home and placed her in a boarding school in Indiana, the purpose of which was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In her striking piece, Diaries of an Indian Girl, Zitkala-Sa writes about the heart-wrenching experience of having her heritage and culture–her entire sense of belonging–literally torn from her body. She loved to read and play the violin and continued her education into college. Her writing career focused on both Native American culture and politics.
Black feminism is a movement that arose in the late 20th century and established the concept of intersectionality. All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men but Some of Us are Brave is the title of a 1982 black feminist anthology, emphasizing the singular position of black women as both intrinsic to and, yet, ignored by modern civil rights movements. The idea, that womanhood and race belong, not to a single experience, but to a multitude of unique individual experiences that inform and reinforce each other, has expanded over generations. Scholars like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Alice Walker, and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw have been important pioneers in this movement.
To conclude, dear ones, I say…to those who marched and those who could not…thank you. Thank you for putting up with me, for being my friends. Thank you for refusing to remain silent, today and all the days you raise your voice. Thank you for being kind and simply for existing in this often difficult world. You are like a lighthouse in a storm, and you will bring us safely home.