Well + Good: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO CELEBRATE WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH IN 2020?
By Abbey Stone
In the photograph below, a woman unfurls a banner with two neat rows of stars down the center from a second-story balcony. On the ground beneath her, a group of women raise their arms and clap their hands in celebration. It’s August 18, 1920; the woman on the balcony is Alice Paul, women’s rights activist and chair of the National Women’s Party; and the 19th Amendment has just been ratified by Tennessee, the 36th and final state needed to make it federally illegal to deny voting rights on the basis of sex in the United States. The image is joyful, victorious. It’s also very white—from the ratification banner’s long, crisp, panel to the women’s long, crisp, dresses—and the undoubtedly white skin beneath those dresses.
This homogeny may have been by design. “The suffragists purposefully distributed portraits and other images, visual propaganda, all of white women…so that people at the time would think of suffragists as white,” says Allison K. Lange, PhD, an assistant professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and author of the forthcoming book on the suffrage movement, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. “That has shaped the way that we think about the suffrage movement.”
The women of color who were part of this movement—because there were many (Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Terrell Church are names to remember)—have been erased, quite literally, from history books and, in turn, public understanding. And so, captured in this image of Alice Paul and her banner are both the triumphs and the failures of the woman’s suffrage movement.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, we feel the weight of the 19th Amendment’s centennial and honor all who fought and risked so much to give women a voice in politics. While we look back in this way—clearly seeing the whole picture beyond what’s included in the frame—at those who paved the path, we also look forward to November and feel the urgency of an election year. So we ask: How can we improve the way we celebrate ourselves, as a united group of women, and use that renewed, rejuvenated power at the polls to make a future that lifts up all women, not just the privileged few?
Why we celebrate Women’s History—and why we need to do it better
In the early 1970s, Molly Murphy MacGregor was working as a high school teacher in Northern California when her students brought to her attention the upsetting fact that there were scarce few history books about women available. In the elementary schools, “there were three books out of 400 in the library that had anything to do with women,” MacGregor says. “Harriet Tubman was even absent from the history books.”
With the help of fellow women teachers and scholars, MacGregor made it her mission to dedicate a week of lessons in her county’s schools to women’s history. By 1979, she was speaking to President Jimmy Carter about the possibility of a nationwide Women’s History Week to coincide with International Women’s Day, which has been observed on March 8 since 1914. In February of 1980, Carter proclaimed March 2 to 8 to be the first National Women’s History Week, writing, “From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this Nation. Too often, the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength, and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.” In 1987, Congress declared March would be recognized as Women’s History Month each year.
“The whole point of women’s history is not necessarily to know dates and facts and specific women, but to understand that inspiration comes to our life by knowing what women have done, knowing the extraordinary obstacles they’ve overcome, and celebrating them, recognizing them,” MacGregor says. “[I wanted to] make women visible because invisibility is the number one form of bias. If you don’t ever see anybody that looks like you or know what they’ve accomplished, it’s just not part of your consciousness.”
And that’s why it’s a major problem that, as Dr. Lange points out, “women’s history” has for so long looked like white, straight, cis-gendered women’s history. Women of color, women in the LGBTQ+ community, have been largely written out of the narrative.
“It’s okay to celebrate history and criticize it at the same time,” Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College, said at a recent event hosted by the institution on the topic of intersectionality and the woman’s suffrage movement. “It’s so amazing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment because it’s a perfect time to celebrate its legacy. But it’s also a perfect time to criticize it, and to understand who was left out of the conversations, largely women of color,” Beilock said. “And then you throw in issues around sexuality, non-binary identities, immigration, labor status, and many other identities and it’s clear we all have more work to do.”
We need to talk about the 19th Amendment
“This anniversary is an opportunity to remember that the suffrage movement was about the right to vote for all women,” Marilyn Sanders Mobley, PhD, professor of English and African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University said of the Amendment’s centennial while lecturing at the aforementioned Barnard College event. “And it’s an opportunity to remember the history of that same movement for the ways that we can expose how women of color were often excluded from the narrative, even as they were very much a part of the struggle.”
Take, for instance, Mary Church Terrell, who wrote to Alice Paul, asking Paul to fight for Black women’s voting rights, only to get a reply essentially amounting to, “that’s not my problem.” And Ida B. Wells, who led a tireless anti-lynching crusade in the 1890s before turning her attention to women’s suffrage, only to be told she (and all the other Black suffragists) would need to march in the back of the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade, organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
The 19th Amendment is often held up as this watershed moment for women’s equality. And while it was certainly an important symbol and did empower many women, for so many others, very little changed. “After the 19th Amendment, Chinese women still can’t even become citizens, Japanese American women still can’t even become citizens,” says Dr. Lange. Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship until 1924. And after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, “Black women had to contend with white supremacy, Jim Crow, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, intimidation, poll taxes, literacy tests, school segregation, voter suppression, and all kinds of structural institutional efforts to disenfranchise,” said Dr. Mobley. It wouldn’t be until the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—just 55 years ago—that Black people would gain full voting rights.
“What we cannot acknowledge, we cannot address,” said Dr. Mobley. So when we whitewash the teaching of the women’s suffrage movement—when we homogenize our understanding of women’s history writ large—“we collude in perpetuating silence, ignorant stereotypes, and I believe, ultimately, bias.” The only way to have a more inclusive (and therefore accurate) understanding of women’s history going forward, says historian Sally Roesch Wagner, PhD, author of The Woman’s Suffrage Movement, is “by celebrating the victory while also taking accountability for the errors.”
The future history-makers
The suffragist Alice Paul once said, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.” One hundred years later, it’s clear we’re far from the end of the row: Despite the passing of the Voting Rights Act, there are still “outright efforts to suppress people’s right to vote,” says Jill Filipovic, feminist, lawyer, and author of The H-Spot: The Pursuit of Female Happiness. “There are plenty of people that are quite motivated to turn out to vote who are being systematically excluded from the ability to do that,” be it through discriminatory voter ID laws, illegal voter purges, poll closures, or other means. And many of the other rights that early suffragists fought for—equal pay, reproductive rights, violence against women—are still, somehow, some of the most pressing issues facing women today.
Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for EMILY’s List, an organization that works to help pro-choice Democratic women get elected to office, is betting on the next generation of women candidates to bring about change in these areas. “I think that your government should look like the people it’s governing. I think that to have people who have lived experiences like the people they’re representing is really important,” she says.
“Obviously having just a woman, any woman, in power does not solve sexism,” says Filipovic. “But not having women in positions of power also does perpetuate sexism and does perpetuate a vision of authority as male. And that has negative trickle-down effects across the population.” And while the most diverse Democratic primary race to date may now be down to two straight white men, Filipovic says, “I think we do have to bring a gender lens and a racial lens to questions of political power and authority. Ask: Who’s in the room? Who’s at the decision-making table? Who is the default person that the candidate is talking to and talking about?”
Reynolds says she’s inspired by the candidates she’s currently working with who are running for office at the local and state level. Seeing them, she says, gives her hope for the future of American women. “You get a little tired of looking at Congress and seeing a bunch of people who don’t look like you. And not every one of these candidates look like me, but boy, do they look like somebody,” Reynolds says. “It’s just exciting that they aren’t all the same. They bring different experiences, they bring different backgrounds. And I think we are all better for that.”
While important, the ballot isn’t the only way to make your voice heard. And Akilah Hughes, co-host of the news and politics podcast What a Day, thinks women can’t afford to wait until they’re elected to office in order to demand change—nor should women leaders be the only people responsible for fixing the broken systems that are keeping women down. “I think that the reason women have issues is because of men who are legislating around them,” she says. For hundreds of years in this country, women had no political power. “And so, to expect women to fix the problem they didn’t create—or to expect Black women to fix the problem that they didn’t create—I think that it’s emblematic of all of the problems in our society. It’s much easier to make someone else responsible and take yourself out of the equation and then just keep passing the buck, generation after generation,” Hughes says. “I’m encouraging women not take a back seat or to let the conversation be led by the same people who led the conversation last time.”
Reynolds says she’s seen more women step up to lead the conversation after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. ”Sparks caught fire around the country and women decided, ‘That’s it. I’m taking matters into my own hands,'” she says. “We saw women march; we saw them donate at record levels to causes around country. You have women activists demanding to be heard with #MeToo. We had more than 50,000 women reach out to EMILY’s List and say they might want to run [for office]. And I think that’s a really powerful moment.”
We’re at a tipping point: The course of the next 100 years of women’s history depends on the decisions made regarding women (and their bodies) right now. Now is the time to speak up, to advocate for yourself and for all of your fellow women. And when you look ahead to the election in November, do it with the knowledge of both the victories and the mistakes of our foremothers. As Filipovic says, “You had people literally putting their lives on the line for the right to vote…people who were beaten and abused and threatened for just wanting to participate in American democracy. I think walking with all of that, it gets awfully hard to say, ‘I don’t feel like going to vote today.’”
Before heading to the polls this November, educate yourself on the candidates’ positions. This is where Bernie Sanders stands on some of the key topics affecting women. And also, here’s why we desperately need a woman as president.