In Honor of Women's History Month, Here's What We Owe to Feminism

The Seneca Falls Convention began in July 1848. At the convention, 68 women signed the Declaration of Sentiments demanding various rights for women. Included were property rights, representation in government, the end of domestic violence, and the right to vote. At the convention was Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist and black rights activist. At the time, the women hosting the Seneca Falls Convention--Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to name a few, were staunch abolitionists as well. However, when black men won the right to vote in 1868, this relationship soured. Prominent feminist activists began to see the success of black rights movements as threatening to the cause of women’s rights and the anti-racist sentiments of the Seneca Falls Convention were forgotten.

Women of color and poor women have been for centuries integral to the success of the feminist movement. They have fought in the most difficult of circumstances for the rights women like me take for granted: the right to vote, to choose, to work. But these women usually aren’t the feminist heroes in most people’s imaginations. Those heroes--Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem--are white. While these women certainly created immense progress for women’s rights, their perspectives were white, educated and affluent. Although women of color eventually became more important figures in the movement, their goals--welfare, civil rights, subsidized education--were superseded by goals affecting the white middle class. Historians and modern feminists alike generally agree that the first two waves of feminism centered heavily around the experiences of these women and lacked recognition of the contributions of women of color to the movement.

For some context, “first-wave feminism” refers to the suffragettes of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Second-wave feminism” is the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. These “waves” were groundbreaking: there had never been an organized feminist movement prior to them and they changed American life and culture in a fundamental way. There are people alive today who were born before women were allowed to vote--or be citizens at all, for that matter. My grandmother was in her thirties before she could apply for a bank loan or lease an apartment without a man’s permission. But while the progress was sweeping, it affected mostly women like my grandmother: white, educated, middle-class.

Poorer women weren’t necessarily affected by things like bank loans and credit cards. Working-class women of color had different needs and perspectives which often weren’t reflected in the mainstream feminist movement. Today, feminism is finally getting around to these issues. Hollywood and the media have reckoned with the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace, but it’s still rampant among agricultural and domestic workers--jobs held disproportionately by women of color. Women who rely on Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings, pap smears, and sexual healthcare are constantly in danger of losing this basic necessity. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t require employers to pay women on maternity leave, which leaves working-class women with a horrific choice: come back to work a week after giving birth or end up in an incredibly precarious financial position. Childcare--in most other countries, subsidized or paid for by the government--is out-of-reach for many lower-income women. This severely limits their ability to work and damages their job security.

It’s time we make up for the mistakes of earlier feminist movements. The progress made was important, but it left out millions of women who desperately need advocates in government and civil society. Women like Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, and Audre Lorde, intersectional poet and activist. Leaving out women of color from both the ranks of feminist heroes and from their goals altogether is the greatest injustice of a movement designed to fight for justice. The issues facing nonwhite and poor women are immediate and severe and they need the voices of every single feminist to demand change.