On a Week of Feminist Heroes
I’ve seen a decent number of “Happy Birthday and thanks for everything, Susan B!” and “Happy Anna Howard Shaw Day!” posts in my social media echo chamber this week, but heard relative silence yesterday as Audre Lorde’s birthday came and went. I’m well aware that my newsfeed is full of people who consider themselves progressives and part of the #persisterhood and who have been demonstrating and resisting for at least the past month. As such, I think that many of our beliefs and goals align. With that in mind, I want to ask, even if you’re not the type to mark occasions with a Facebook post, that we take a moment to consider the entire legacy that is being celebrated with those posts .
A legacy that involves pandering to white supremacy in the name of white women’s suffrage.
If you’re not familiar with the alliance with white supremacists that many well-known suffragists sought that’s probably because it is not taught or glossed over in our history books. Here’s a relatively quick, but thoughtful primer by Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates. There is more to be said on this history. I will trust you to self-educate.
I point this legacy out, specifically, in light of a political climate, which demands our unity in resistance, and recent events, like the Women’s March, which have made it glaringly evident that aspects of this schism remain alive and well. These conditions I think make it doubly important for us to look critically at our history and learn its lessons.
It’s not a new insight that feminism should be inclusive and intersectional (if a primer is needed, I’ll direct you to This Bridge Called My Back), but I think in these difficult times when we often look to the past for guidance, we need to be discerning. We need to look honestly at why and how these women and their movement failed or succeeded, so we can make sure we’re heading down the path that truly serves us all.
I am resistant to blindly celebrating Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw because I don’t know that Susan B understood that her liberation was inextricably linked to the liberation of men and women of color in the US.
And I know that Anna Howard Shaw certainly did not.
I want to be mindful, today and every day, of the fact that part of the reason we are still fighting these fights over a century later is because of these outright failings and oversights.
If we know this history, then we know that we need to ask for more than just bearing out the legacy of Susan B. Anthony and her fellow suffragettes. We need to learn from them and understand what they did not.
“It is key to recognize that the first victims of white supremacy are white people, themselves. That to buy into a delusion and a false premise that certain kinds of humanity are more superior to others and then to construct structural and systemic and organizational systems of exclusion and use power then to oppress other people, that delusion first must degrade and efface your humanity.
[…]White people are the first victims of white supremacy and in joining solidarity with the liberation of other people, it isn’t an act of charity. It isn’t that you are serving those people over there who need you. It is first, a self-libretory [sic] and an evolutionary project for white people. And the ways in which to do that are to join forces with those of us who have recognized that, because we are born into it. We have no other choice. If we are to live and to exist, it means that we will and we must resist.”
I believe this message is fundamental to any effective resistance and one that too often has been absent from progressive work.
It can be argued that the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (and many others), who chose the expedience of abandoning the nascent abolitionist ties of the suffrage movement for supremacist pandering, were products of their time and could not have known better. Perhaps, today we simply have the gift of hindsight?
Unfortunately, this concept is predicated on the assumption that these thoughts and ideas were not available at the time. But in fact, they were. Women, like Sojourner Truth, Frances Harper, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell (to name just some of the most well-known) voiced the issue of exclusion from white suffrage early and often. These women put the sisterhood first and helped advance the Women’s Suffrage movement while being asked to stand at the back of rallies to appease southern suffragettes and fight battles against segregation, outright and systemic racism and lynching largely on their own.
All of this is to say, our most remembered feminist leaders, that which we call “heroes”, could have done right. These perspectives existed in their time. There were women (and men) over a century ago that understood the necessity of liberation for all, if true liberation were to occur for anyone. Therefore, ignorance of this necessity was not simply a failure of foresight, but a demonstration of the choices these suffragettes made about the voices to which they would listen.
We have the same choice today that these women faced at the turn of the 20th Century.
As marginalized communities call out for equity and representation at events, like the Women’s March, or solidarity and support in their own efforts, we have a choice to listen and center their knowledge and leadership.
If we do not learn from these past failures of the Suffrage Movement, then we are doomed to look just as shortsighted when history looks back on us.
So, please, let’s recognize that we do a disservice by ignoring the totality, including the shortcomings and mistakes, of “heroes” and strive to fully understand their legacies.
Let’s resist and persist. But let’s make sure we’re not repeating the wrong history.
[i] The full video begins at 46:55 and specific comments begin around 1:11:40 mark.