Category: Feminism

So, it’s still Women’s History Month, and I’m still interested in and excited about the whole thing, but work has been busy, family has been busy, and has only gotten busier… so daily blogging (or even weekly) has fallen to the wayside, especially blogging that requires finding, reading, and summarizing biographies. So I have some thought that I will go back and fill in the days I have missed, but I don’t know. I am disappointed that I wasn’t able to keep up with this, and it’s still hugely important. The religious right is still trying to limit women’s freedom every day, and successfully passing draconian, anti-woman legislation in state legislatures. We must be ever vigilant, we must be aware of the women who struggled to make this world better for their daughters, how well they succeeded, and how much work remains to be done. We must also be aware of the women who accomplished great things in other fields throughout history, doing things men said they couldn’t possibly do, and doing them better than the men. Anyway, it was a good two weeks, so I made it half way, and here are a couple of links to sites I’ve been using for inspiration and research for you to peruse until I get back to this project (if I do):


I’m a bit behind on this. I’ll try to get back on track at some point, but for now I’m just going to drop this article I came across today here for your reading pleasure it has nothing to do with history:

Wu Zetian was a concubine in the courts of Emperor Tai Tsung in Tang Dynasty China and later in the court of his son, Emperor Kao Tsung. Through cold, calculated, and brutal maneuvering she convinced the emperor that his wife had murdered his son. Wu replaced her as empress and maneuvered again to have her weakest son succeed Kao Tsung as emperor and effectively ruled in his stead until he removed himself leaving her in complete control as empress. Confucian teachings held that women were unfit to rule so Wu set about changing this view of women by elevating women to high government positions. She also replaced the existing system of government positions going to aristocratic families with testing for merit.

Elizabeth Tudor or Queen Elizabeth I was the third Queen to rule England, but things didn’t turn out so well for the two who preceded her and it was generally assumed that the best thing she could do was to find a good husband to rule as king. Elizabeth had other ideas. She remained single and reigned for 45 years. The time of her rule became known as the Elizabethan period and is known for a great flowering of arts and fashion in England. Elizabeth’s rule also saw the defeat of the mighty Spanish Armada, turning England into the mightiest sea power in the world and setting the stage for it to become a colonial power and a globe spanning empire. Elizabeth also started the Church of England, a major turning point in the crucial conflict between states and the power of the Roman Catholic Church.

At a time when the power of men and the unsuitability of women to rule were unquestioned, Elizabeth became one of the greatest rulers England ever knew and changed the course of world history.

Women’s History Month, Day 14

By special request, today’s historic woman is Emma Goldman. Goldman was a Russian Jewish immigrant who was moved by the injustice of the Haymarket affair to become an anarchist. She would become perhaps the most influential voice of anarchism in the United States. Goldman believed that violence was an acceptable means to achieve political ends and helped plan the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, a manager at Carnegie Steel responsible for violent attacks on striking workers. She expressed support for Leon Czolgosz, who had killed President McKinley, but she had nothing to do with his crime. Nevertheless, she was arrested and held in jail until a lack of evidence forced her release.

Goldman’s main focus was education, and she strove especially to educate workers and women to fight against their repression. She was a strong supporter of women’s freedom, particularly reproductive freedom, but her anarchist politics led her to oppose women’s suffrage.

Women’s History Month, Day 13

How far in the past does a person have to be to qualify as a historical figure? I’ve already talked about Margaret Thatcher, who is still living, so the alive or dead threshold has been crossed. Today I’m going to talk about someone who is still actively making history. Hilary Clinton made history as perhaps the First Lady most involved in substantive policy issues during her husband’s term as president; as a senator, making her one of only 39 women to have served in the U.S. Senate; as the first serious contender for a major party’s nomination for president, and as the third woman to serve as Secretary of State. All of this has subjected her to some of the vilest sexist attacks of any modern women in the public eye. She has not defined herself as a victim though, she has instead stepped up and taken a strong role as Secretary of State, negotiating head to head with international leaders male and female and has made strong calls for women’s rights to be respected around the world. One can disagree with Ms. Clinton’s politics on any number of issues, but I don’t think anyone could reasonably deny that she is a strong and influential leader and a fierce advocate for the rights of women (see the video below) who has already earned her place in the history books.

Julia Howe was an abolitionist and suffragist who was a co-founder, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. Later that year Howe was part of a group that broke away from the National Woman Suffrage Association to form the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). They were a less “militant” group. I put that in scare quotes, but Wikipedia didn’t. I just don’t really like the word militant applied to people whose militancy amounts to strong speeches and carrying signs. If anyone could be considered a militant in the battle for women’s suffrage, it would be Alice Paul, and all she did was get arrested for picketing the white house and go on a hunger strike. None of these people were advocating violence of any kind. So really, the AWSA took somewhat less controversial positions and wanted to stick strictly to suffrage and not take on other issues. In any case the split lasted about twenty years, but the groups merged again in 1890, thirty years before they finally succeeded in getting the nineteenth amendment and suffrage for women passed. Howe is also known for writing the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

To a modern American Margaret Sanger’s courage and importance can be hard to understand. She lived at a time when condoms and diaphragms were the only forms of birth control in existence and they were illegal in the United States. Birth control was considered immoral and advocating for it made you look like some kind of a sex fiend to many people. In fact, the view of birth control in the early twentieth century is instructive to the current fight over contraception. Then most people were perfectly willing to say that they opposed it because it let women enjoy sex without the burden of childbirth. Fewer people will admit that today, but I suspect it still underlies modern opposition to birth control.

Today, however, something like 98% of women use some form of birth control. In Sanger’s day that number would have been tiny. Sanger saw the effects of this first hand. Her mother had 11 children and 7 miscarriages, which took a terrible toll on her health and Sanger blamed all those pregnancies (and her father) for her death. Later Sanger became a nurse and saw many poor women patients in trauma due to illegal and unsafe abortions. Eventually she quit nursing and dedicated her life to making birth control available and effective. She started a number of clinics that would become Planned Parenthood with the purpose of providing birth control and was arrested for distributing diaphragms.

Eventually, largely due to Sanger’s work, the Comstock laws that made birth control illegal were repealed. Sanger was still unsatisfied because the only method of birth control that was controlled by women, the diaphragm, was awkward and difficult to use. She spurred and helped finance the research that led to the creation of the birth control pill. So if you’ve ever used a birth control of any kind, you owe Margaret Sanger a debt of gratitude for fighting to make it legal and easily acceptable. If you’ve used the pill you also should be grateful to her that it exists at all. And if you or anyone you care about has ever taken advantage of the wide range of health care services Planned Parenthood has made available to people who otherwise could not afford them, thank Margaret Sanger.

In the analysis of any historical figure one can find ideas they held that we clearly consider odious today. I’m a firm believer that history should be taken warts and all, but I also tend to think we shouldn’t judge past figures on present standards and that we shouldn’t throw out the positive legacy of a person because they were the product of a less enlightened time. Margaret Sanger actually fairs pretty well on this on any considered analysis of historical scholarship. Unfortunately, she is also the victim of a concerted effort to smear her legacy by a group of people who don’t like Planned Parenthood. To advance this agenda they take her statements out of context and in some cases, like Herman Cain, outright lie about her record. I’m not going to go into great detail on this, but what you need to know is that Margaret Sanger was associated to some extent to the eugenics movement, as were an extraordinary number of other progressive reformers of the time. They suffered from a gross misunderstanding of science and an excess of zeal to improve human life. Sanger’s involvement had nothing whatsoever to do with racism and, while she might have spoken in the language of a more racially insensitive time, her views on race were quite advanced for that time. The historical evidence absolutely shows that there is no evidence of her ever harboring any desire or plan to eliminate African Americans. Here is a good, brief debunking of such claims and here are three more sources on the subject.

Susan B. Anthony is perhaps the best known of the American suffragists. She had worked in the abolitionist and temperance movements for some time when she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and turned her attention to women’s suffrage and equality. Stanton and Anthony were close friends and a formidable team. Anthony was single and could travel freely to meetings and to lobby legislatures, while between trips she would baby sit for Stanton so she could write. Anthony was a great motivator and a key organizer who continued to work with other reform movements as well. She helped to smooth over political differences among suffragists and kept the focus on a constitutional amendment with the belief that states lacked the right to keep any American from voting.

I was planning to wait to mention Alice Paul until later in this project, even though a desire to learn more about her was part of my impetus in starting the project, but I’m so in love with this video that I can’t wait.

I’ve mentioned a few of the early suffragists already, but two of them have something rather sad in common beyond being suffragists: Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton died before universal women’s suffrage was achieved in the United States. Susan B. Anthony, who I haven’t mentioned yet, also died before suffrage was achieved. Alice Paul led the next generation of women’s suffrage activists and, while she stood on the shoulders of those who came before, she was the one who saw the job done. Stanton and Anthony had written the text of what would become the Nineteenth Amendment and it was introduced in Congress in 1878. It languished in committee until it was voted on and rejected in 1887. It was not considered again until 1914, when it was rejected again.

After it was rejected again in 1915, Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party got serious. It had been hoped that Woodrow Wilson would support the amendment, but he had not been the strong advocate many had expected. Paul led a picket in front of the White House, calling out Wilson for his failure to provide strong public support for the amendment. The picketers were arrested for “blocking traffic” and sentenced to seven months in prison. In the prison these women, arrested merely for marching with signs, were treated worse than violent criminals. Prevented from having visitors and exercise and given substandard food, Paul began a hunger strike until all the women received adequate food. Paul was taken to the prison hospital where she was offered milk and eggs by officials concerned that she would die on their watch. Paul refused until her fellow prisoners were offered similar quality food for the duration of their imprisonment. She was removed from the prison and placed in an asylum, where she was eventually force fed. As disturbing as the scene in the video above illustrating this is,  it is tame compared to the reality, in which a tube was forced into her throat and raw eggs poured down it.

The protest, arrests, and hunger strike finally had the desired effect, and Wilson appealed to the House to pass the amendment. It failed again, by one vote, but Wilson called a special session to reconsider and in 1919 the Nineteenth Amendment finally passed. It was ratified in 1920 when Tennessee became the needed 36th state in approval.

Alice Paul is still an inspiration to many protest movements. She also drafted the original Equal Rights Amendment that was introduced in congress in 1923. It would not be passed until 1972, and was never ratified. Sadly, 36 state legislatures could not be found willing to agree that: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” And we wonder why we’re still debating birth control now. Alice Paul died at the age of 93 in 1977.

A brief note about the video: It was produced by an education publisher, and I’m not really sure if they had political intent, or were just covering an important historical topic, but it is incredibly timely. The short version of my review is that I am amazed by how well they have taken the original song and video by Lady Gaga and maintained its unusual look and feel while at the same time using every element of the production, from costumes to sets, as well as the lyrics, to tell this story in a powerful way. You should really watch it, and also check out the educational resources on the company’s website.