Women’s History Month: How Women Have Fought

This article has been cross-posted from The New Agenda.

Women’s History Month 2012  is winding to a close, and no doubt this was an odd one. As the month opened, the nation was involved in a lengthy conversation about the sexist treatment of women in the media vis-à-vis our discussion to Rush Limbaugh, Sandra Fluke (among others), Bill Maher, and his many victims. Considering we just happened to be on topic as March started, I’d hoped that we might see a higher profile for WHM. We didn’t. Just about every article I read about International Women’s Day, for example, took the uncreative approach of informing me of the history of International Women’s Day, information to which I am treated each and every International Women’s Day. Next year, I’d like to see an article about what women can do, or what they want for IWD. It seems as if women’s history, like women themselves, are in a rut.

In the wake of that fizzling conversation about how we treat women and how that might reflect on our culture and nation, I wanted to offer a few examples of how women have fought in the past. Modern feminist discourse is heavily focused on telling our culture what’s wrong and what needs to be done, while lost is something we used to intuitively understand: showing the effects of our status through action. This is what’s missing in these debates that keep popping up about how far women have come and how far we all have to go: models for protests and organization. I’ve selected three stories that demonstrate the qualities currently missing in our push for progress: stamina, fearlessness, and a willingness to put the body on the line. First we’ll look at the Silent Sentinels, followed by Rosa Parks, and finally we’ll take a look at the Swim Suit Protests of Chicago (1922).

Silent Sentinels

Sentinels at The White House, 1917

After much activism and dialogue with many national leaders which led to no progress whatsoever, The Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, in conjunction with Alice Paul’s efforts, started a campaign to picket the White House until they persuaded President Wilson (or some subsequent president) to support women’s suffrage. They called their campaign activists The Silent Sentinels (PDF). The year was 1917, and the White House had never before been picketed. That our suffragists set the mold for this kind of protest, one which would be used time and time again since, is an important fact of history, and one aspect of the legacy of our hard-working foremothers. But it is not why I share this story today.

I share this story today because these are the salient facts: The silent sentinel protests demonstrated stamina. This was not a one day dog and pony show, nor did it last merely a week. No, these women, 6, 12, 24 at a time, stood sentinel every single day except Sunday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., for two years. Can you imagine the organization this called for? Protesting for suffrage come rain, shine, snow, or hail? In Victorian dress, no less, on those hot 95 degree July days in Washington D.C.? Wielding giant homemade flags of heavy cloth? It all started innocently enough, with the men of Washington DC gently rebuking or making fun of the sentinels. It ended two years later with physical abuse, invectives hurled, imprisonment for some, and a shiny new 19th Amendment for us all.

Can you think of a single woman alive today who would be willing, let alone have the time for that kind of commitment? I can’t. Women didn’t work then in the numbers they do now, and that may explain part of why we don’t pursue these techniques. Another reason might be that, without a unifying political goal in mind–such as universal suffrage–women’s attentions are split between competing visions of what progress for us means. Still, we can learn something about stamina from these women, because stamina is what we’ll need to truly change the trajectory of women today and the women to come.

Rosa Parks

Parks on the bus, post-integration.

Rosa Parks is a Civil Rights icon, and her legacy is enduring. There are few Americans alive today who are not aware of her story, and the memory of her actions continues to inspire the fight for Civil Rights to this day. Her fight has a lesson for women today, too: how to be fearless. Rosa Parks was fearless. She could have faced physical batter or worse. She found it worth it to take the risk anyway.

I want you try a thought experiment. Close your eyes and put yourself in her place on that bus. Recognize what she faced. Feel the hammering of her heart as she chose to defy law and convention, and take a stand for basic human rights. Do you think she was afraid? Do you think no one said anything? Do you think they just let her do it?

They didn’t. She was manhandled and arrested, invectives flying in the Montgomery evening. After she was released from jail, she had to face the displeasure and hostility of local whites who supported segregation. She lost her job and so did her husband. She and her husband eventually had to leave Montgomery. These are the costs of standing up and confronting for justice. Are you ready to pay them for the sake of your daughters and granddaughters? Is any woman today? If we are not willing to confront our own fears and take action regardless of the consequences, then we have little hope of making progress.

Chicago Swim Suit Protests

Chicago, 1922

In a little-known book now out of print, called The Revolt of American Women, you will find the story and pictures of the Chicago Swim Suit Protest of 1922. In those days, women couldn’t legally swim in Chicago, or much of anywhere else for that matter, without wearing leg coverings. They also were required to wear bloomers, skirts, and hats. Think about that. What do you think happened to the thick fabric of such coverings in the ocean or in a lake? It soaked up heavy water, of course, putting women’s lives at risk while pursuing what was ostensibly leisurely activity.

Thus some young women in Chicago in 1922 decided to protest this convention by adopting men’s style swim suit, which they wore without stockings. The reaction was swift and astounding: as you can see from the picture, the women were mishandled by local males and police, and arrested for their stand to pursue leisure without risking their own lives. Ironically, they had to put their bodies on the line to make this point.

That’s what we don’t see much of today: putting our bodies on the line for progress. Yet that’s just what happened in each of these cases. The Silent Sentinel, Rosa Parks, and the swim suit protesters of 1922 were all willing to put their only capital up: their bodies. And look at what a difference it made. The Silent Sentinels brought us the 19th Amendment. Rosa Parks brought us integrated buses in Montgomery, a trend that spread throughout the South in the wake of her actions. And two years after the Chicago Swim Suit Protests, the winner of the Ms. California Pageant wore the same swimwear these women were arrested for, and thus solidified women’s right to swim in safe suits and eventually to embrace whatever fashion they chose.

Approaches such as these are not very often seen in our modern fight for women’s progress and equality. We could stand to take some lessons from these ladies and begin to organize for action that actually helps us realize some of our current goals. How can women cultivate such disciplined actions in the pursuit of equal pay, equal justice, and equal representation? Let’s talk about that in comments!


3 comments on “Women’s History Month: How Women Have Fought

  1. Women Rock! says:

    Anna Belle,

    Thank you for a wonderful recap of women’s inspiring history! This is an excellent piece for all women and men to read!

    I would add what I view as the most important ingredient not yet mentioned and that is UNITY. Women’s unity and racial unity were ultimately responsible for the successes you mentioned and the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. No one person could do it all and yet there had to be a leader with a plan that the masses could embrace and execute. I see this as the shortcoming of the Occupiers because they failed to deliver a plan folks could get their hands around and help move forward. However, all hope is not lost in their endeavor.

    Today, I encounter women in Washington clamoring for credit for past accomplishments – in Congress, in books and blogs and within our national women’s organizations. They step over one another, neglect to acknowledge their mistakes along with their accomplishments (so that women may learn from the past) and they quietly ostracize outsiders who threaten the power structure of the Old Gals Network. Oh yes, there is a network among women too. Small and dysfunctional but with a tremendous growth potential for doing good.

    A key challenge is information overload 24/7 that leads to a lack of focus and understanding that there is anything important to women beyond male approval. We have no knowledge of what the tools are to achieve it. Mainstream media does not produce an informed electorate. The world according to male media is violent and hate-filled towards women. We see it everyday.

    So putting our bodies on the line today with the backdrop of pornography, the sex trade, sexist advertisements, TV programs and video games is a deadly prospect. Most women are fearful and why shouldn’t they be? The mentality in modern day America is sick, sadistic and misogynistic. And women have little power to confront it or stop it. The law is against us.

    The President doesn’t protect us. Congress doesn’t protect us. Religions don’t protect us. Military doesn’t protect us. Law enforcement doesn’t protect us. Judges don’t protect us. Other women don’t protect us. Men do not protect us. Women don’t protect themselves.

    Women’s bodies have become the battleground in a civil war between men and women, conservatives and progressives, capitalism and socialism, oligarchy and democracy.

    Women have lost the battle. Let’s admit it. Because if we admit it – we can cry about it. We can discuss it openly. We can learn from one another. We can learn to listen to one another better. To lick our wounds, so that they can finally start to heal. Healing will strengthen our resolve. Our resolve to get back up on the horse of justice requires women to trust one another. All Women.

    The business of dividing women by color is divisive. We are women first and foremost. Our experiences are not all that dissimilar – just shades of gray. All colors, shapes, persuasions, ages, classes, ethnicities make up this beautiful earth of women.

    Perhaps it begins with trusting ourselves that we will no longer accept ourselves as inferior human beings. We will demand respect for ourselves and our sisters everywhere. We will not give up or stop until we have our equality in writing from our government to be recognized forevermore.

    Abandon the tradition of the pedestal, Ladies. Men aren’t looking up at you unless its up your dress. Quit being Spectators of the feminist movement because Life is not a spectator sport. And don’t wait for Justice to be offered to us eventually. if it hasn’t come in 236 years (since 1776). As a matter of fact – 2,000 years since Eve was blamed for the Fall of Man.

    It’s time to level the playing field – America’s social contract and demand our equality in writing. Demand that our elected officials sign the social contract that affirms that all men and women are created equal and therefore are entitled to their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ERA is the first step – a major milestone in women’s history – begun so long ago – toward rebuilding a more humane and sane America.

    This silver bullet, called the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is ours for the taking. United 4 Equality, LLC (U4E) began 4 years ago to pave the way to victory. It achieved incredible success with two bills in Congress – HJ Res. 47 in the House and SJ Res. 39 in the Senate. With no money, no power, no influence and no recognition. But with Stamina, Fearlessness and putting its words into action.

    It is up to women to unite behind our grassroots movement, for feminist bloggers and press to promote the ERA 2015 campaign instead of just offer commentary, for activists to apply nonviolent strategies for unity-building and arriving at the finish line together to take our place at the table. Beside the men.

    This is the way to build a better America. Women must lead the change we seek. It is our torch for those coming after us.

    • Actually, women are more protected now than they were then. Remember that you could beat your wife with anything that was as big around as your thumb, and don’t forget that the Sentinels went to jail, suffered beatings, and were forced off their hunger strikes by being tied down and having maggot-laden porridge forced down their throats.

      Women don’t face that today. Yes, domestic violence is a problem, albeit a much smaller one than it once was. However we have recourse we didn’t used to have in the courts. If women were arrested for protesting today, it is doubtful they would be subject to beatings and force feedings, and if they were, it would be in the news immediately and the justice system would be at the ready.

      So I disagree entirely that women are more at risk than they used to be.

      I do agree about unity, and I am as frustrated as you are about the division with women of color. I don’t know how to bridge that divide. When I take a risk and speak out about it, I get accused of being white and privileged (even though I’ve been poor my entire life) and not understanding. I don’t buy it, but I can’t even get an opening for a discussion of it. My blond hair bought me nothing but more opportunities for rape and molestation in the hard-hit poor neighborhoods I grew up in, but try telling that to women of color who are convinced that I get whatever I want because of that blond hair.

      Anyway, good discussion and bravo to you for taking a risk and speaking up. It’s necessary.

  2. Women Rock! says:

    Women are more at risk than before because they don’t even know what they don’t have. You cite these sick examples in history that never should have taken place. It is beyond comprehension that men can do this. But don’t kid yourself that the equivalent of horrific incidents aren’t happening now in the pornography and sex trade industries as well as in homes, parks, schoolyards, workplaces, churches, etc…

    ERA is the weapon to defeat misogyny. Nothing short of that will. And it won’t happen overnight. Or without lots of women speaking out about it and demanding it be passed. But there will be a psychological shift when women finally know that we are safe under laws that don’t make distinctions based on sex. And the rapists and abusers will know the jig is up. I liken it to the lift that was felt by blacks when Obama was elected. They finally felt safe in our country.

    Women aren’t winning in courts. We aren’t equal under law. Ask Lily Ledbetter, Betty Dukes and Anita Hill. it’s women who get dumped on over and over again.

    We need to break the cycle of oppression for the women coming up after us. That is our responsibility as feminists.

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