By Loretta Kensinger, Ph.D.
During Women’s History Month, we should do more than celebrate achievements of those women “firsts” who make it into the halls of power.
While individual milestones are important markers, it is women’s quest not for themselves as individuals alone, but their quest for a more egalitarian society for all that is imperative to understand. It is the power of our acting as a political force seeking extension of economic, political and social justice, often with male allies, that most needs remembering.
This force was shown on International Women’s Day in 1917 when Russian women desperate for food to feed families, conscious of the vast inequalities in their society, marched into the streets of Petrograd. Spontaneous and disruptive, their courage was a spark that would topple the tsar.
Historians often talk of three waves, or periods, of U.S. women’s rights activism. Nancy Hewitt in No Permanent Waves suggests the metaphor captures women’s activism more accurately if we think of radio waves, not ocean waves.
Radio waves are overlapping and simultaneous, moving in all directions. Larger stations have more bandwidth to be heard but smaller stations, on the edge of the dial, are sometimes where more interesting stories are found think KFCF). Stations share towers, but static and storms can disrupt transmission.
To look at the women’s movement waves in this sense is to look at multiple women’s movements. To catch a wider set of waves, one needs an intersectional and feminist receiver, wired to pick up nuances and complexity.
Below is a focus on a few examples, mostly from the earliest U.S. “first wave,” that we should tune into more often.
To tune in to a variety of women’s rights movements, we need first to recognize Native American feminism. There are a multitude of unique stories to trace within each of the many nations that comprise Native America.
After colonial contact, we will find indigenous women have been central to the organized struggle protecting cultures and land, up to and including recent organizing by groups like Idle No More and seen in the work of well-known activists like Winona LaDuke and activist-scholars like Fresno State’s Leece Lee-Oliver. Paula Gunn Allen and Sally Roesch Wagner have shown how contact between groups of women influenced thinking of first wave women.
Matilda Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott (early White activists for women’s rights) found inspiration observing the egalitarian structure of the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois confederacy of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca, and later Tuscarora). Haudenosaunee women had a clear voice and vote in their governing and spiritual structures, strong rights within the family and were important in the economic life of the community, all lacking in dominant U.S. society.
When we recognize intersectional movements for women’s rights in the United States, we can pick up signals from both groups: Native American women worked to protect more egalitarian democratic and communal traditions from colonial incursion, whereas colonizing women sought to gain rights their neighbors experienced.
Women are often found organizing for their rights as women in locations without “women” in the title. Using an intersectional receiver, we will also tune into the voices of abolitionist women as a vital site where U.S. women first forged organizing skills and movements for their rights.
Maria Stewart (1803–1879), a free-born African American, was one of the first U.S. women to dare speak publicly to mix-sex audiences. Among other topics, in her speeches and pamphlets she spoke out for rights of African American women.
A diverse group of women would join the struggle to end slavery, and in that struggle many would be forced to defend their rights to speak in public and from the pulpit, as well as assert rights to petition government. In 1838, 10 years before the first women’s rights convention in the United States, one of these abolitionist women, Sarah Grimké (1792–1873), would pen Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman.
While some women learned early lessons in organizing for democratic change within the anti-slavery struggle, other women were entering the first factories in the United States, where they would struggle for economic and labor justice.
In 1834 and 1836, some of the earliest industrial strikes in the United States occurred, organized by the female workers at the Lowell Mills. They would go on to found one of the earliest labor organizations for women.
These women too represent the early wave of the women’s rights movements. Women’s anti-slavery and labor organizing are important stations to tune to if we want to fully hear women’s movements for political and economic rights.
This year, we rightly celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment. Organizing for this amendment required a massive, multigenerational, multicultural struggle. It was also an effort fraught with racism and classism, realities we must acknowledge and learn from.
And still, it is a movement full of heroes who worked to forge a broader, national, understanding of this most basic political right, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Frederick Douglass. In addition, as Lillian Faderman argues in To Believe in Women, lesbians were strong contributors to suffrage, as they have been to all women’s movements.
And if we are to fully account for the history of women’s right to vote, our study cannot end with the 19th Amendment. While this amendment took away the constitutional barrier to women voting, we cannot say the fight for women’s right to vote ended there as racist laws and practices made this right unavailable to many women of color.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act is, in this sense, an important event in women’s suffrage. Acknowledging this reminds us that fighting voter suppression and retrograde voter I.D. laws today is part of this generation’s suffrage campaign.
As Benita Roth asserts in her book title, women’s movements for justice have often taken Separate Roads to Feminism. But still, in all their varied forms, one thing is certain: When women organize for social justice they exert a powerful force that has changed worlds.
Dr. Loretta Kensinger is a professor in the Women’s Studies Department at Fresno State.