The Year of the American Woman?Roundup
tags: womens history
You could say that the summer of 2016 was a historic summer for American women. For the first time in American history a woman heads the presidential ticket of a major national party. Celebrations of August 26 as Women’s Equality Day, the day the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote passed in 1920, inevitably conjures visions of its centennial in 2020 when the symbolism of a female president occupying the Oval Office would be apt.
In the realm of sports too, American women shone this summer. As in London four years ago, U.S. women at the summer Olympics at Rio brought home more medals than men even though fewer competitions are open to women than men. Katie Ledecky seems poised to inherit Michael Phelps’ dominance of Olympic swimming and Gwen Jorgensen won the US’ first triathlon gold medal. Within that subset, the achievements of African American women are noteworthy. Simone Biles became the most decorated American gymnast ever, Allyson Felix became the most decorated female sprinter in Olympic history, and Simone Manuel became the first black woman swimmer to win the gold medal. Perhaps the best answer to the misonygy and racism embodied in Trump’s ascent is the multi-talented U.S. women’s Olympic team.
The success of American women this year has been long in the making. In 1971, Congresswoman Bella Abzug of New York—-who founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman presidential candidate, and other leading lights of the modern feminist movement—-proposed the joint resolution that designated August 26, Women’s Equality Day. A year later, Congress passed Title IX, the law that prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded educational and sports programs. The fruits of these laws and the American women’s movement are being savored only now.
Countries all over the world have of course preceded the United States in selecting women to lead them. Many of them in Asia ascended to power the traditional way, as wives and daughters of male politicians such as Sirimavo Bandernaike of Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi of India, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Cory Aquino of the Philippines, and Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. In the west, they have been associated with conservative parties like Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May in Britain and Angela Merkel of Germany rather than with feminism. Some of the internationally most successful, those who have gained accolades far beyond the boundaries of their own nations, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, Mary Robinson of Ireland, and Graca Machel as First Lady of both Mozambique and South Africa, have fought for human rights, the rights of women and children, as well as the rights of working people all over the world. In a way, Hillary embodies all three paths to power for women, as the wife of a former President, the Clintons’ association with the centrist conservative politics of the Democratic Leadership Council, and her advocacy in the Children’s Defense Fund and of universal health care.
Office holding is a small measure of gender equality, but it is a measure nonetheless. Women politicians have ceased to be the anomaly even though women remain a distinct minority when it comes to office holding all over the world. Only in the Scandinavian countries, Germany, New Zealand, Rwanda, and Bolivia are they thirty to fifty percent of office holders. By this measure, the U.S. Congress at much less than twenty per cent falls dismally behind, barely above the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly, Vermont, the home state of Senator Bernie Sanders, has just over forty per cent of women legislators.
Most countries that approach gender parity in politics have done so through legislative and institutional quotas as in the 50/50 rule of the Green Party in Germany or in village governance in India. The United States, which lacks such political set-asides, does better with including women in civil rights and affirmative action laws opening up educational and employment opportunities for women. In politics, decades of lobbying by women’s groups like the National Organization of Women, the Feminist Majority, and Emily’s List have doubled the number of women office holders but the overall number remains woefully small. In a world marred by sexual violence, economic and political gendered inequality, attempts to control women’s bodies, education, and lives, increasing the representation of women in government is important. In Brazil, women’s groups have united to protest the impeachment of the country’s first democratically elected female President, Dilma Rousseff, which has been accompanied by an assault on women’s reproductive rights.
The success of the American women’s movement however must also be measured by its long history of grassroots activism. In the nineteenth century, “the woman question” emerged within the movement to abolish slavery. American women, black and white, were the best foot soldiers of the abolition movement. While their presence, especially as office holders and lecturers, became a source of division, women’s rights activists received their first political education in canvassing, mobilizing, and movement formation in abolition. Out-signing men in abolition petitions by a two to one margin, they also financed abolitionist newspapers and lecturing agents, holding antislavery fairs and selling goods made by their household labor. Controversy after the Civil War over the Reconstruction constitutional amendments that enfranchised black men and introduced the word male into the US Constitution tested the abolitionist-feminist alliance. In losing its moorings in abolition, a divided American women’s movement lost its antebellum commitment to racial equality. Eventually, the Nineteenth Amendment was modeled after the Fifteenth Amendment that had given black men the right to vote and had led to the emergence of an independent women’s suffrage movement. In the late twentieth century, the modern feminist movement replicated this genealogy, emerging from the Civil Rights Movement in the second attempt to reconstruct American democracy for blacks and women.
It remains to be seen whether Hillary Clinton, if elected President of the United States, will live up to the country’s history of feminist activism. Her pronouncement that women’s rights are human rights echoed the pioneering American abolitionist-feminist Angelina Grimke, “Human Rights not Founded on Sex.” In donning the all-white suffragist uniform when she accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary sent yet another signal to American women. When Trump accused her of playing “the woman card,” she quipped, “deal me some.” Trump’s unadulterated sexist criticisms of Hillary questioning her “mental capacity,” “physical stramina,” and recently claiming that she does not look Presidential, evoke arguments made by anti-suffragists nearly a century ago. Today, when women are still being forced into burkhas in the east and out of burkinis in the west, the idea of a woman heading the world’s most powerful democracy is significant. And one who is aware of the long historical trajectory of the American women’s movement is irresistible.
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