icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

History in the Making

I expected that the anti-inaugural Women’s March would exceed the puny attendance at The Donald’s swearing-in – but I had no idea of how large it would be and especially how far the marches would extend. I knew lots of my local friends were going to Washington, while others went to the one here. Some Minnesota kinfolk planned to go to the Minneapolis one, and old friends in Boston went to theirs. But that there would be almost 400 such demonstrations involving millions of people across the globe truly was awe-inspiring.

As I said last week, when I titled part of this column “Mourning is Breaking,” it is greatly gratifying to see people get over narcissistic grief and turn to political action. We Americans are waking up to rising fascism, and it’s even more exciting to see that this example was followed all around the world. That alone confirms America’s place as the global leader: We always have been great, and we need no corrupt braggart to make us great again. This is especially true of women’s rights. In the long history of the human race, the first gathering for equality of its female half was here: in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Although some women in more homogenous nations actually achieved voting rights before we did, American women always have been leaders in protesting the status quo.

I excused myself from marching because my right leg has been aching since I sat cross-legged on the ground and held a child on my lap at Christmas. I nonetheless would have gone, even in a wheelchair, had the occasion been the inauguration of the first woman as president -- but that would have been a celebratory and singular event, and I’ve been to lots of protest marches. They started back in Arkansas, when I joined a few white friends willing to take on segregationist politicians. When we lived in Boston, Hubby and I went down to Washington to march with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. There were several parades in Tallahassee for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). That was first filed in Congress in 1923, and like the election of the first female president, is yet to be achieved.

But It Ain’t Over ‘Til it’s Over

We wore white during those ERA demonstrations in Tallahassee, and did you notice that Hillary wore white on Inauguration Day? Classy woman that she is, she did the duty of a former first lady, while also sending a subtle signal through her dress. She’s no tweeter who uses vulgarities to get attention from her followers; we understand her wordless message. And yet, as I’ve said before, a big part of me is glad that she lost. I want the outliers who voted for Trump to discover how hard governing is, how complex and difficult it is to lead a world with many diverse and divisive interests.

Diverging goals. That in itself is a continuing political question: should reformers concentrate on one issue or many? Last weekend’s marches certainly were the latter, with countless individuals holding signs that expressed views on a range of personal passions. All were anti-Trump, but there was a large variety of what they most disliked about him: his plan to end the Affordable Healthcare Act; his outspoken sexism, racism, and xenophobia; his ruthless, anti-labor business practices; and much more, including attacks on reproductive freedom.

It was purely coincidental and yet ironic that the march was on January 21, and January 22 is the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that struck down Texas’s strict prohibition on the termination of pregnancy. This is its 44th anniversary. The ruling is older than my daughter, and conservatives have campaigned against it since the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980 – but they have yet to come up with any alternative. The court’s decision could be reversed with an amendment to the Constitution, but in more than four decades, they haven’t even drafted a proposed amendment. They just take the votes of sincere pro-lifers to the Republican bank, laughing all the way.

In contrast, feminists filed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, just three years after the 19th Amendment granted full voting rights. The amendment applied only to voting, though, and discrimination against women would continue to prevail on a range of other issues. State, not federal law, governed women on everything from inheritance rights, divorce and custody, jury duty, and much more. By ignoring the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, congressmen (and they were and remain largely men) left women’s rights to the states. That still is the case, as a woman can have more or less reproductive freedom when she crosses a state line – something that never has been true for men.

Strategy About Strategy

The final victory for the vote used single-issue strategy, while the ERA aimed to address multiple issues. Multiplicity also was the approach adopted by the first truly big organization of and for women: the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which grew out of Ohio in the 1870s. Eventually WCTU women came to be portrayed as zany, largely because journalists took joy in associating it with hatchet-wielding Carry Nation and her saloon invasions. The WCTU’s original leader, however, was Frances Willard, an educated and well-traveled woman who was president of the women’s college that soon was absorbed by prestigious Northwestern University. Elected president of the WCTU at age 40, she was a miracle of multi-issue organization.

Her “Do Everything” platform not only advocated the curtailing of alcohol and drug abuse – which was perfectly legal almost everywhere at the time -- but also included ending prostitution and venereal disease, prison reform, an international organization for peace, arbitration as an alternative to lawsuits, and many other non-feminist goals. Indeed, the WCTU at one point had 39 different issued-oriented departments. By 1891, it had collected 7,000,000 names on a “Polyglot Petition” to governments throughout the world.

Many WCTU members supported the vote for women, but not all. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) that arose in the same era thus decided on a single-issue approach, with the sole aim of enfranchising women. It rose to two million members by the time the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 – a much larger proportion of the population than anything we have today, despite our convenient connections via social media and our instant access to publicity with many formats of electronic news.

Even with the single goal of the vote, however, the NAWSA split over methods. More conservative members wanted to emphasize lobbying in state legislatures, not the national capitol, and they often compromised for a half-loaf of the right to vote in school or municipal elections. More radical women wanted an amendment to the US Constitution that would apply in every state and for every election. That was first introduced in 1868 and was known as the “16th Amendment.” By the time it finally was adopted in 1920, it was the 19th -- and most of its authors were dead.

The First Big March on Washington

History is full of peaks and valleys: we rise to achieve democratic gains, and then we put it all at risk by becoming apathetic. It was our apathy that stopped American women from winning the pinnacle of elective office recently -- and that was a repetition of the apathy that struck the women’s movement a little more than a century ago.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in 1902 and Susan B. Anthony in 1905; their successor was the Reverend Doctor Anna Howard Shaw. She held degrees in both medicine and divinity and reputably was a great orator – but she lacked political sense. Five western states had enfranchised women by 1896 – but under Shaw’s leadership, there would be no more until 1911, when California women ran a campaign that deliberately excluded eastern “leaders” and won a tight race.

The next year, 1912, would be not only a game-changer for women, but also in traditional national politics. With the exception of Grover Cleveland -- who was very conservative, especially on women’s issues – no Democrat had won the White House since Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president in 1860. By 1912, however, Republicans had split into conservative and liberal camps. Former president Theodore Roosevelt represented the progressives, and he ran as an independent against the incumbent Republican, William Howard Taft. Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson, a Virginia native who was governor of New Jersey, and the three-way race was on.

Even though they lacked the vote in most states, women worked for each of these candidates, and Wilson won. At the same time, women won the vote in Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon, as well as the Alaska Territory. Seeing new opportunity, some 8,000 people descended on Washington for its first big march of women, coinciding with Wilson’s inauguration. (He had four daughters, by the way, and the oldest one soon would be a leader in the movement.) Some marchers drew attention to their inauguration intentions by walking all the way from New York.

Although there had been a few parades of women in New York and especially London, Washington remained a genteel Southern city. The capital police never had seen such unladylike behavior as marching women. Police assumed the women were akin to streetwalkers, and they sided with the (often drunken) men who lined the parade route to jeer and even physically attack. The result was a swell of sympathy for women so willing to risk their safety. The police chief lost his job, and even though there would be more debate about the efficacy of this tactic, there also would be more taking to the streets in more cities. Just seven years later, the goal was won.

And police, at least in Washington, have almost completely gotten the message. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly hold first place in the Bill of Rights for good reasons. We should exercise them as often as needed to remind the president, Congress, and others that we, the people, can never be defeated. This is especially true of the women’s rights movement, which has demonstrated historical persistence unlike any other. It’s time to move again. No more apathy.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author