When over a thousand women convened in Worcester, Massachusetts on October 23, 1850, it was the first national convention for women’s rights and the most broadly organized gathering of women activists in history. Attendees were asked to “give an earnest thought and effective effort to… the general question of Woman’s Rights and Relations [including]: Her Education, Literary, Scientific, and Artistic; Her Avocations, Industrial, Commercial, and Professional; Her Interests, Pecuniary, Civil, and Political; in a word Her Rights as an Individual, and her Functions as a Citizen.” The convention resulted in the first coalition of formally organized committees for women’s rights and, some seventy years later, eventuated in US women’s vote and a worldwide women’s movement.
When millions of women and men in the US and around the world marched for women on January 21, 2017, it was the largest protest in history. The organizers asked that we march for women’s rights as a key issue at a nexus of human rights, involved hundreds of organizations, a diverse array of constituencies, and moved forward in the US with targeted efforts to vote women into expanded political leadership, to stamp out sexual harassment, and to continue to advocate for women’s equality in all spheres of life.
Do we have a new women’s movement?
What many consider the first ‘wave’ of women’s movement of the 1800s and 1900s, has undoubtedly shaped the world we live and mobilize in over 150 years later. McCammon and Banaszak and colleagues (2018) apprise the 100 years of women’s activism following US suffrage, noting that women now vote at higher rates than men and hold significant new leadership in political, economic, and social roles. The organizations that formed the hundreds of coalitions supporting the movement of today would not be in existence without its development over the long twentieth century.
The same claims animate activism in new forms and for more equal measure; and, so too are many of the internal and external challenges of this movement the same- divisions over race, ethnicity, class, and citizenship; fractionalized approaches to conceptualizing which rights should be pursued and how. Backlash, repression, and resistance against women openly derided as inferior, unworthy, and even morally detestable on account of their resistance, seems devastatingly familiar as a so-called ‘leader of the free world’ flaunts his sexism, racism, classism, and so many other isms that women’s movements have long fought to dismantle.
Today’s movement incorporates activism that surged and gained significance in the second wave of the ‘personal is political’ for an end to sexual harassment, for equality and respect in the home and in childrearing, in healthcare, in sex and sexuality, for lesbian rights, in personal, relational politics, in the workplace and the public sphere. The development of feminist theory has challenged the categories of gendered personhood in new, more articulate ways.
The concept of ‘waves’ continues to hold salience among scholars and activists, (with healthy debate over when, how, and what constitutes shifts in mobilization), precisely because it denotes a palpable connectivity across mobilizing surges; even through the troughs, there is a definitive development and evolution of a long arc of women’s movement. A more pressing question we should ask of this long arc therefore, might be,
What obstacles and necessary changes exist between movement and the realization of movement goals at today’s crucial, historical juncture?
To answer this question, we must consider how the internal composition and external environment have shifted to present new challenges for women’s rights.
Several catalysts had to align to give rise to the historical marches of 2017 and 2018: the brazen and degrading public displays of Donald Trump’s hatred of a host of humans he has categorized as Other, the readiness of women and citizens to resist his manifest bigotry, and also the easy access toward connectivity in the internet and social media layered on over a century of women’s and human rights movements.
While century-long waves of movement have given us greater numbers, greater collective consciousness, and greater organizational strength, so too has the resistance to women’s rights taken on an uglier face with enduring and renewed popular support. The repressive nature of sexism has also gained force in waves as it has regained institutionalized grounding. This calls for deeper commitment, farther reaching activism, and a strengthened, collective resolve.
We saw in Hillary’s defeat, even upon her winning the popular vote, that the trend in women rising to national positions of power throughout the world by means of their familial networks is not enough and may be, in many ways, counter to more significant transformation. Much like our devastating realization on 9/11 that the funding of the Taliban to further Cold War interests had ultimately ended in more violence, a violence we could not control, Hillary’s coddling to networks of finance, those her opponents were also a part of, would not serve to liberate women or realize women’s rights in the 2016 election. Of course, it is imperative to acknowledge that racism and other ideological strongholds also played a big part in her election loss. For all of these reasons, it is apropos to recall what Audre Lorde once cautioned us, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We need more than the privilege of male power and the networks of big finance to win women’s rights. One important lesson from the study of nonviolent resistance is that most necessary for realizing effective social changes are broad-based noncooperation with institutions of power and judicious investment in alternative institutions that can facilitate the realization of participatory democracy.
Further, while the digital universe has afforded us a great opportunity toward easy, widespread diffusion and decentralized mobilization, this digital world is also symptomatic of a more fragmented consciousness and an insecure presentation of self that does not require the practice of that presented self in the non-digitized world. The movement of the 1850s and 1900s relied on life-long biographical commitment and the slow but devoted effort towards cultural and institutional change. We have a number of new challenges toward developing the mindfulness and discipline of a lived commitment to mobilization, the ways we rely on digital, fragmented social lives among them.
Finally, and relatedly, we live in an ever-expanding culture of materialism and conspicuous consumption. A women’s movement that is rooted in the fight for the protection of the sanctity of all human beings regardless of their social category or status, must realize that systems that directly affront that sanctity, that stratify us into more and less deserving, cannot be celebrated or befriended for strategic purposes, they are among the master’s tools which will never effectively dismantle the master’s house. As Martin Luther King Jr. once linked racism to materialism, Betty Reardon relates sexism to the war system, and Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor traces the poverty of the masses to the selective mobility of the few, so too do we need to undertake more regular, systemic analyses of these interrelated systems that degrade equality of personhood in related ways. The women’s movement that wishes to envision and live in a new house must fashion new tools of supporting each other, tools that do not pit us against each other. It was this vision that uniquely characterized the 1850 Worcester National Women’s Convention as a promise of a freedom, integrity and respect for all, and also this vision that led to its immediate castigation by privileged, upper middle class white feminists. These and other, new internal divisions exist in the movement today, alongside new opportunities for mass mobilization, altogether presenting new challenges and demanding new tools for dismantling the growing obstacles to women’s freedom.
McCammon, Holly J. and Banaszak, Lee Ann (eds.) 2018. 100 Years of the 19th Amendment: An Appraisal of Women’s Activism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reardon, Betty. 1996. Sexism and the War System. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yahmatta. 2016. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
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