By Mervyn Solomon
Until the Story of the hunt is told by the Lion [Lioness], the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. – African Proverb
This message will appear at the end of Black History Month and the start of Women’s History Month in March: perhaps not a coincidence. Both celebrations provide time for us to honor women historically as heroines for social justice who challenged official white male domination. Black History Month (BHM) was originally known as Negro History Week in the nineteen thirties; Women’s History Month (WHM) was formally recognized by a Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980 as Women’s History Week. Later, by a series of Presidential Proclamations, the Week was extended to the now familiar Month of celebration. Here, comparisons between the celebrations end, except for the common thread of social injustice.
Today we take it for granted to see women in every aspect of American public life. Let us not forget, however, that it took several decades of intense political struggle to progress to the point where a woman’s right to vote, as well as to benefit from higher education, are considered routine. As America became a capitalist industrial giant in the nineteenth century, employment in mines, factories, or by Southern sharecropping, determined the fate of workers – both male and female. Women especially were not allowed to be educated as professionals. In addition to being mother or wife, many women earned wages as waitresses, seamstresses, factory hands, maids or nannies – not doctors or lawyers. The more fortunate ones became school teachers with access to educational sources. They would produce pamphlets or magazines to publicize the unequal conditions under which women were forced to exist for their livelihood. In her famous Seneca Falls Speech of 1848, Elizabeth Cady Canton responded simply to the claim of male academic and physical superiority: “Physically, as well as intellectually, it is use that produces growth and development.”
While Canton’s speech captures the imagination, it significantly represents a line of women’s resistance that continues to the present century. By the early twentieth century, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn exemplified the force of radical, purposeful protest. She was a lecturer who led the Workers Defense Union; she was arrested in various states seventeen times in about twenty years. Amazingly, Helen Keller added her powerful voice to the demand for social justice. The Civil Rights Movement of the mid- twentieth century connected collective voices against war, racism and sexism. Today’s National Organization for Women (founded in 1966) continues fighting to protect the equal rights of all women and girls. But it was Betty Friedman who best articulated women’s sense of historic injustice: “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.”
Understandably, the way for a Black woman “to find herself” in a slave society was made more difficult because of race, male dominance within and outside the black community, as well as pervasive social class discrimination. Having been thus excluded or misrepresented historically, Black women still found ways to shout to the deaf, or if necessary, to say quietly, Me too. Sojourner Truth, unable to find any of her thirteen children sold into slavery, would assert anyway, Ain’t I a woman? Fannie Lou Hamer, herself a sharecropper like her father, would tell the world how sick and tired she was of being sick and tired of waiting for human respect. However, the political history of Florida, Miami in particular, is blessed by the life and legacy of Gwen Cherry who died accidentally in 1979 at the age of fifty-five. In the tradition of many women of her generation, she faced and overcame barriers to education and professional advancement. She taught high school biology and math before graduating as a lawyer to become Dade County’s first black woman attorney. Other “firsts for Black women” were to follow: National Women’s Politics Caucus, Florida Women’s Political Caucus, and Legal Counsel to Dade County National Organization for Women. Her crowning legislative initiative, she said, was persuading the Florida House to pass the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment which banned discrimination based on sex. You’ll never know, she said, what it meant to her “to be a black woman in the South and to be able to do this.”
As we celebrate Women’s History Month we can be mindful that women’s quest for equal justice, like Dr. King’s moral arc, bends slowly. For the many ancestors of struggle who reside in our literary imagination, Alice Walker’s thoughts retain their echo and reach beyond black writers in the South to whom her remarks were directed. Nature has bequeathed, “a compassion for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge of evil, and an abiding love of justice. We inherit a great responsibility as well, for we must give voice to centuries not only of silent bitterness and hate but also of neighborly kindness and sustaining love.”
Walker, Alice. “The Black Writer and the Southern Experience.” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt, 1983. pp. 21
Zinn Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present. Perennial Classics, 2001
pp. 119-23, 184-85, 342-46, 504-14
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