By Lindsay Yates, NCEDSV
March is Women’s History Month, which is widely celebrated in the field of domestic and sexual violence prevention. It is a time to reflect on the accomplishments of those who came before us, and the tireless efforts that got us where we are today. The movement for women’s rights and push for prevention of domestic and sexual violence that we know is widely attributed to the efforts of white, cisgender, heterosexual women; but that is only a small piece of the true history of the movement. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many women of color and queer women who fought for women’s liberation; those erased from history, who are still fighting diligently for their own liberation and rights to this day.
Women of color, specifically Black women, have been involved in the movement for women’s liberation since the beginning. Early intersections of women’s suffrage and abolition were spearheaded by Black women. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are the two most famous Black woman abolitionists, but many more were lost to history. Frances E.W. Harper was one of the first Black women in the United States to publish a short story, her writing specifically focused on voicing the experiences of Black people. Working alongside Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells, Harper launched the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Early abolitionist Elizabeth Freeman, born in 1742, was compelled to seek her own freedom after hearing talk of the Bill of Rights, and escaped from enslavement to seek legal counsel. In the case of Broom & Bett vs. Ashley, which challenged the legality of slavery in Massachusetts, Freeman won, and the monumental case set a precedence for the abolition of slavery in the entire state.
Sarah Parker Remond spoke out specifically about the sexual exploitation and abuse that enslaved Black women faced. We are often taught that the movement to end sexual assault started in the 1970’s, but that is a widespread misconception that erases the long-standing work of Black women. Remond spoke out about this in the mid 1800’s, when such a topic was considered even more taboo than it is today, especially when talking about the rape of enslaved women. Followed by women such as Rosa Parks, who advocated for Recy Taylor in 1944, Black women have always been at the forefront of the movement to end sexual assault.
Queer women are also often erased by history for their critical roles in the women’s rights movement. Many early suffragists were part of the LGBTQIA+ community; they were not just few and far between. Molly Dewson, the first president of the League of Women Voters, was in a long-term, committed relationship with Polly Porter, and made political and career decisions based largely on how it would affect that relationship. Field organizer Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote in her diary about the thriving lesbian and bisexual subculture that existed amongst clubwomen and Black suffragettes, as well as her romantic and sexual relationships with both women and men.
Lucy Anthony, niece of early suffragette Susan B. Anthony, had a decades-long relationship with Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, one of the presidents of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Susan B. Anthony reported concern for her niece’s long-term well-being, due to the age difference between Shaw and Anthony, but understood the kind of relationship Lucy was in, and was assured by Shaw that she would take good care of Lucy. Susan B. Anthony herself had relationships with women, writing romantic letters to Anna Elizabeth Dickenson, and referring to Emily Gross as her lover in a letter to a close friend.
Women’s suffrage is hardly framed as the major social and political movement that it was, depicting suffragettes as boring, chaste and dowdy. Choosing not to marry not only allowed those participating in the movement more time to dedicate to liberation, but it was also a deliberate choice to challenge gender and sexual norms in their everyday lives. The major roles that Black, brown, and queer women played in securing rights for women are only now coming to light, increasing our understanding of how diverse the women’s rights movement has always been. Despite the fact that women of color have not been granted the same rights as white women at the same time, and that they continue to experience the harsh intersections of racism and sexism, they played pivotal roles in women’s suffrage and liberation.
During the second wave of feminism in the 1970’s, queer women continued to play a pivotal role in the women’s liberation movement, despite exclusion by heterosexual women who claimed that the movement was not theirs to participate in. Lesbians were considered hypersexual and oppressively male by some feminist leaders, called “lavender menaces,” and claimed to have threatened the political efficacy of feminism. Despite the intersection of sexism and homophobia that put lesbians and other queer women at a disadvantage politically, socially, and a heightened risk for violence, their contributions to women’s suffrage and liberation have been largely scrubbed from history.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is critical that we remember the women who were excluded, and continue to experience marginalization, or are not adequately credited for their work. White women, even those who claim the title “feminist” can get so caught up in their own experiences with oppression that the experiences of women of color, queer and transgender women are pushed aside. These populations are fighting hard for their own rights and liberation. Consider how your activism includes, or doesn’t include the concerns of women of color, queer and trans women, and if it doesn’t, how you can be a better ally to these communities, who were spearheading the movements for the rights that exist today.
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