But they are anyway. Why I am afraid to use my voice, and how we can begin to raise our voices in solidarity.
History repeats itself
As a woman, I have always tried to become invisible. I was raised in a time when women don’t shout, don’t swear, don’t complain too much (Be a lady!), don’t say anything when a man is talking, and don’t, by all means, come across as shrill or bitchy.
We are all, even today, raising our girls with such expectations. Nevertheless, I would argue that women are the best activists. They are the ones, being women, who often know the injury of injustice and go for its throat.
It is women who agitated for suffrage. It was women who gave us “Ms.” It was women who began #Me too and BLM. And much, much more.
When Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors founded Black Lives Matter in 2013 they were a tiny voice in the wilderness. By 2018, a majority of Americans were still against the movement. It’s 2020. They persevered, and now a majority of ALL Americans finally say: Black Lives Matter.
More abolitionists of the 1800’s were women. More men are known to be, because as men they enjoyed a much more prominent voice, such as that of publisher William Lloyd Garrison. The best-known activists of the 1800’s were Garrison, Frederick Douglas, John Brown, and Elijah Lovejoy. For each of these celebrated men, who dared to be outspoken, there were more than likely thousands of more outspoken women who took much more abuse for their views.
Abraham Lincoln, although an abolitionist in his heart, was cautious and almost “ladylike” in his determination to not inflame passions. Never mind, that those passions would certainly conflagrate eventually, into an awful bloody war. Lincoln held a lofty position, but operated under political constraints, and tried to remain uncontroversial, despite it being an impossibility on the subject of whether rich people should own, whip, or rape, poorer people.
Write, and know the power of words
Meanwhile, in the build-up of the civil war, women were doing what they could. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s cabin. Like me, Stowe was determined to conform to the behavioral standards of her time, but she took up a pen, and Fearless, She Wrote. This much more socially accepted form of activism does work, but it’s slower. We must admit than raiding Harper’s Ferry, or having the power to sign an emancipation proclamation is more monumental.
I am a feminist, but also today, many people reject this position as being those awful words: shrill and bitchy. I do in fact hate the word “bitch” and would wipe it off the lips, even of Elton John or drag queens, if I could. But this takes me back to my point.
I was raised to not swear, or use unladylike language. I avoid it, because I think it’s overused to smooth the rough edges of misogyny. The B word, or just as bad, the C word, or even slut as in “Man slut” always harkens back to its sexist origins.
And, in my opinion, the B word is just as offensive to many Black women as is the N word. In fact, I think it has largely replaced it. Where many guys used to say “You are my N_____, now” Or “I won’t be your N____” they now say: “I won’t be your B_____.”
For me, this does not seem so much of a digression about language as it is a clear reflection that women are so often put in a position where they lose if they display their snow flakey sensitivity; or if they are outspoken, they lose then, too. Words have power.
Many Feminists of the nineteenth and twentieth century were anti-racists. Few people know that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Lucretia Mott were abolitionists. Few people know that writers such as Harriet Jacobs, wielded their mighty pens to write news articles, essays, and books. This begs the question of just how mighty is the pen?
As usual, the best way for a woman to really bring attention to inequality issues is to be absolutely outrageous or perceived as “dangerous” as was Carrie Nation.
The limelight, as always shines more brightly on those with the actual power to influence outcomes. Stanton and Mott, for example knew their personal views about women and LGBTQ rights, for example, were much too controversial to see the light of day in those overly dim days of open xenophobia. Even By the 1960’s, the most progressive women who pushed for acceptance of lesbian rights were shunted off to the side, famously called “the lavender menace.”
I have marched in so many protests now, and have been doing so since the 1980’s. But I am not entirely convinced my activism, or writing, has any influence at all. It feel as if it’s mostly a case of preaching to the choir. Still, if you are not activating for choice, science, climate, anti-racism, or LGBTQ rights, I tend to view you as being far too “ladylike.” When we are all distracted by caring so much about how we are perceived, progress meanders along at a snail’s pace.
Carry a nation toward enlightenment
An example of this is what I learned this week. Carrie Nation is described as both a feminist and a sexist. She is far better known as a temperance crusader than a feminist, but her concern for women was there. Carrie took her little hatchet to saloons to hack them into history. She was, admittedly a bit of a religious nutcase, but in 1870, what other higher power did women have?
Nation did what she did because in those days, alcoholic men routinely beat their wives and children with impunity. Women were not allowed in saloons, and more than half of all saloons were illegal, because again, male impunity. Women in those days had no say about sexual assault in marriage, (or even outside marriage). Women often died at the hands of drunk husbands, or in perpetual childbirth.
Carrie Nation, didn’t like that. She was left destitute and widowed when her first husband surrendered to the bottle rather than choose responsibility and her hero: anti-beer Jesus.
At first, she simply went outside bars and announced to men that she was sent by God to liberate them from devil drink. She was ignored. She wrote. She recruited. She preached. She got nowhere. One day, though, she picked up some bricks and rocks and began to break windows.
Carrie got noticed!
People sympathetic to her cause flocked to decry alcoholism. Her new, less drunk, husband told her to get a louder ax to grind. She thanked him for the advice. She began being noticed, at last, as the only woman in the bar — notably swinging a hatchet around.
I don’t think you should have to resort to vandalism, or carry hatchets everywhere. Yet, I am not 100% convinced that is not because it’s a bad look on a lady. Carrie Nation helped usher in prohibition years after her death. Of course, gangs took over bootleg alcohol and Carrie, not Capone or Machine Gun Kelly, got the bad rap.
Why? Well, this intimidating woman valued the lives of women and babies before bottles of beer and booze. Those Jazz age, gangsters? They were worshiped by many as prohibition heroes even though they bore machine guns and regularly trafficked women, drugs, and gambling. Such shenanigans destroyed many a family life, but it’s the prohibitionists — and early feminists — that were blamed for speakeasies, bloody murder, and all those scandalous jazz age flappers.
There may be a way to wield your power without a hatchet
My takeaway is this, be as strong of a woman as you can possibly be. If you write, keep your voice out there. If you suffer injustice, examine it, and speak it. If you know men who are not yet feminists, encourage them to ‘man up’ and lift all shame from the name. If you are a man, well God bless you! Maybe She’ll send you a vision to smash stuff up, I don’t know.
Discuss. Quibble. Squabble, even. We have racism and sexism to solve so we can then expand the circle of compassion to the dying biosphere.
If we are complicit in not speaking against injustice, we feed it. If we don’t examine history then we ignore our own bad habits of non-recognition. Being comfortable with the status quo just means you are not paying attention.