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).
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 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
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!