Women on the Front Lines for Justice: Striking & Protesting throughout History
On January 21st, 2017, NARAL members joined the Women’s March to send a message of equality, tolerance, and acceptance. On that day, nearly 3 million people at marches across the globe showed President Donald Trump, his administration, and the world that we will not go quietly when our fundamental rights are threatened.
Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, as well as the #DayWithoutAWoman strike — and it falls right in the middle of Women’s History Month. This is no coincidence.
The resistance is female — and it always has been.
Today, we’re taking a moment to draw inspiration from the many moments in history where women have spoken truth to power, pushed back against oppression and injustice, and fought to make our country and our world safer and more equitable.
The abolition movement worked diligently to emancipate all slaves. Women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were on the front lines, working towards the goal of ensuring freedom for every American
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland, where she was beaten and whipped by her masters as a child. In 1849, she escaped to Philadelphia — and then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Throughout her life, she guided dozens of other slaves to freedom by traveling by night and in extreme secrecy. Called “Moses” by many, she “never lost a passenger.” She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement.
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom. She went to court to recover her son in 1828, and won — becoming the first black woman to win a case against a white man. In 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, she gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech advocating for gender equality.
On election day in 1920, millions of American women exercised their right to vote for the first time. It took activists nearly 100 years to win that right, and it was no walk in the park. The campaign for suffrage began before the Civil War, when suffragists gathered in Seneca Falls, New York and agreed on a simple principle: “All men and women are created equal.”
You probably learned about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott in school, but the movement was also lead by incredible women like Ida B. Wells, a journalist and activist who refused to accept the status quo. When she and other African-American women were told they would be segregated from the male group at a 1913 march, Wells refused, waiting until the procession started and joining the block of women from her state. She joined women like Lucy Burns, the founder of the National Women’s Party who spent more time in prison than any other suffragist, and Mary Church Terrell, the first African-American woman to earn a college degree and who demanded in a 1904 speech that Suffragists also stand up for racial equality.
Working for peace
In times of war, you can be sure that it is often women on the frontlines demanding peace. At the start of World War I, Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others formed the Women’s Peace Party. At the height of the Cold War, the Women’s Strike for Peace brought together 50,000 women to demonstrate against nuclear weapons — the largest national women’s peace protest of the 20th century.
During the Vietnam War, women were a major part of the anti-war movement, although they were often relegated to second-class status. Though they were met with sexism, they gained important organizing experience and they used it to help advance the women’s liberation movement.
Women in the labor movement
As in the anti-war movement, women in the labor movement were often met by sexism and denied an official platform by men in the movement. They didn’t let this dissuade them from working for workers’ rights. A few of our favorite instances from throughout history:
- 1843: Female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts form the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Led by organizer Sarah Bagley, they testify before the Massachusetts legislature about workplace risks to health and safety, and petition for a 10-hour work day.
- 1866: Newly freed black women working as laundresses in Jackson, Mississippi, form a union and strike for higher wages.
- 1899: The National Consumers’ League is founded by Jane Addams and Josephine Lowell to improve working conditions for women.
- 1900: International Ladies Garment Workers Union is formed by the amalgamation of seven local unions. Lucy Parsons is a key organizer for the new union.
- 1909: When female sewers in garment factories were dismissed for union activity, Leonora O’Reilly helped organize the “Uprising of the 20,000” among garment workers.
- 1912: The Bread and Roses strike, started by immigrant women in Massachusetts, ends with 23,000 men and women and children on strike and with as many as 20,000 on the picket line. Thanks to the efforts of many in the labor movement, the Department of Labor was created this year, and Massachusetts also established the first minimum wage law in 1912, protecting pay for women and minors.
Women in the civil rights movement battled both racism and sexism, and as a result, the contributions of many women involved in the movement were overlooked — like Ella Baker, a longtime leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and charismatic labor organizer; Vivian Malone Jones, who defied segregationist Alabama Governor George C. Wallace to enroll in the University of Alabama in 1963; Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper who was beaten and jailed for trying to register to vote; Grace Lee Boggs, a prominent writer who worked closely with black power leaders like Malcolm X and her husband, James Boggs, during the Civil Rights movement; and Angela Davis, iconic activist, author and professor targeted by the FBI who today focuses on battling the prison industrial complex.
The fight for civil rights and racial equality didn’t end in the 1960s, and women today are still at the forefront of the movement. In 1997, African-American women hosted the Million Woman March, where 750,000 women gathered together to march on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to focus on their trials, circumstances and successes. In 2013, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been at the forefront of organizing and resisting institutional racism and sexism — especially in the era of Trump.
The movement for women’s liberation
In the 1960s, the feminist movement hit a crescendo: the movement had been growing rapidly, and as a result, more and more women were joining and speaking up. A variety of protests, organized in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, saw us advocate in new, bold ways for our rights.
- Miss America Protest, 1968: New York Radical Women organized a demonstration at the 1968 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. They objected to the commercialization and racism of the pageant, in addition to the way it judged women on “ludicrous standards of beauty.”
- New York Abortion Speakout, March 1969: The feminist group Redstockings organized an “abortion speakout” in New York City where women could share their experiences with then-illegal abortion, as a response to government hearings where only men had spoken about abortion. As a result, speakouts spread across the nation, and the Supreme Court’s famous Roe v. Wade decision four years later in 1973 helped advance the fight for women’s equality.
- Standing Up for the ERA in the Senate, February 1970: The National Organization for Women picketed the Senate, disrupting a hearing on another topic and demanding a hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment. While the ERA was never actually added to the Constitution, more than 20 states ratified the amendment in a show of support for women’s equality. The fight isn’t over — feminists continue to fight and advocate for its passage to this day.
- Women’s Strike for Equality, August 1970: The nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality on August 26, 1970, was credited as one of the biggest turning points in the wave for Second Wave Feminism, and saw women using various creative tactics to draw attention to the ways in which they were treated unfairly. In places of business and in the streets, women stood up and demanded equality and fairness. August 26 has since been declared Women’s Equality Day.
- March for Women’s Lives, 2004: The March for Women’s lives was a protest demanding increased access to the full range of reproductive health care services — contraception, abortion access, paid family leave — across the world. NARAL Pro-Choice America sponsored this protest in Washington, DC.
Native American representation & rights
Resistance by Native American women is an old story, since government violation of the land rights of Native Americans is an old story too. Native American women have long been at the forefront of the fight for equal rights, respect and justice for their community. At the 1973 Protests at Wounded Knee, 200 people occupied a town in South Dakota to protest corruption in tribal leadership and bring attention to the U.S. government’s failure to honor treaties.
Native American women have lead the resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock, which will carry crude oil underneath the main water source for the reservation, and have been leaders in the fight against racist team mascots, with one activist saying “I think that as Native women that’s probably why we do work harder — because we’ve struggled more.”
Women in the LGBTQ movement
We know that the fight for LGBTQ equality and gender equality are intertwined. Our right to have control over our own bodies and lives is integral to being seen as equal members of society, and nobody knows that better than women in the LGBTQ movement.
A decade before Stonewall, out lesbian Barbara Gittings was working to secure rights for queer people. She is credited with leading the movement to end the psychiatric and psychological professions’ categorization of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Tammy Baldwin became the first out lesbian and first out member of the LGBT community elected to the U.S. Senate in January 2013, and Marsha P. Johnson was a fixture in the gay and transgender community in New York and threw one of the first shot glasses in the Stonewall riots that “kickstarted the LGBT liberation movement.”
Today, LGBTQ activists like Laverne Cox, transgender activist and TV star, and Ellen DeGeneres, who came out publicly as a lesbian in February 1997, are leading the fight for LGBTQ equality and freedom.