On a fair June morning one hundred years ago, the Washington Herald published a small, condescending article amid a hundred others describing the then-raging Battle of Verdun:
“Women ‘suffs’ ready for party gathering—two thousand voters crowd Chicago on eve of big convention.”
It was on that day, now a century past, that Alice Paul and Lucy Burns founded the National Woman’s Party. Exhausted by the ineptitude of state politics, they took the fight for the right to vote to the national level. In contemporary American politics, the concept of women voting, owning property, practicing law, holding office or speaking in public is now so ubiquitous it is rarely a point of conflict, unless you’re a Southern conservative or the 45th president of the United States.
Suffragettes organized enormous marches through the main streets of major cities across the U.S., established silent vigils which lasted for years and endured horrific punishment by violent policemen and cruel prison guards.
Despite the leaps and bounds made in the name of legal equity between the sexes in the past century, one must not forget the long and arduous march towards liberty made by these fearless women.
In the same year that the National Woman’s Party was founded, Margaret Sanger founded the first birth control clinic in the U.S. Less than 10 days after, she was arrested and jailed for 30 days, convicted of breaking the Comstock Laws, which made the distribution of reproductive health information illegal. But Sanger didn’t stop or slow down, and now, 100 years later, the fight for reproductive rights continues for women.
Two-thousand miles away from the hubbub of East Coast politics, the great state of Oregon had already established a strong economy, thanks in large part to the contribution of hard-working, frontier women. By the 1950s, Oregonian women had served as congresswomen, mayors and shipbuilders, and were contributing to the massive packing and fishery industries on the coast. The first policewoman in the U.S. was sworn in right here in Portland. We’re led by the esteemed Kate Brown, a progressive whose career began as a warrior for women’s rights in the workplace and at home, the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, who was sworn into the governorship after John Kitzhaber stepped down amid controversy. Thankfully, Governor Brown is true to her word, a gem in the rough who takes issues related to marginalized communities and women’s reproductive care personally.
It’s important to remember, despite recent gains in equity, that while women have advanced greatly in the past century through legal, political and cultural victories, the rights of black women were long curtailed and eschewed from public discourse or consideration. The establishment of the 19th Amendment did not end black women’s struggle for legal or political equality, with many being unable to freely vote until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Black feminism sought to establish, in many regards, an intersectional perspective of oppression, which incorporated numerous conceptual categories. The historical and often racist schisms between branches of feminist thought have long divided what would have been a broad female electoral coalition. Many to this day believe the struggle for racial and sexual equity to be far from over, and rightly so: even the legendary leaders of the suffrage movement, of early reproductive care and especially early feminists, were extremely racist and exclusionary. Black women were occasionally allowed to march with the crowd, but only in the back. It’s time we elevate the voices of marginalized women, enable them to speak truth to power, and establish a discourse inclusive of all races, classes, and creeds. Beneath the veil of intersectional analysis lies the remnant of Marx’s greatest concept: class struggle.
To outsiders, many of the issues and histories related to feminism appear dense to the point of redundancy. Those who oppose feminism from the newly born “alt-right” merely stigmatize the entire field by fixating on poorly-versed and extremely provocative voices on social media, failing to realize the plight of women across the world who suffer greatly from otherization as the “Second Sex.” Luckily, Portland State offers a wide variety of classes which help illuminate the minutia of feminist theory and gender studies. The Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at Portland State turned 40 this year, their legacy engendered by an uphill battle for funding against disinterested administrations. Today, the department offers a diverse interdisciplinary program which covers a wide variety of theoretical and historical scholarship.
Moving into 2017, the largest economy in the free world has elected a man whose record of mistreating women needs no introduction. As the nation grapples with a now-stacked Republican congress, one which seeks to defund Planned Parenthood and upend the progress made by women, progressives and the LGBTQIA community, it is very clear that the fight ahead will be long and hard.
We cannot afford to lose any ground, lest progress be set back by decades. Our nation stands truly divided, thus, as PSU Vikings, we must emulate the culture of our namesake: we must hunker down, raise our shields, bare our teeth and hurl our spears. The rights our newly elected government seeks to abolish will not be taken easily, nor will the women and LGBTQIA citizens of our state quietly proffer obeisance to single-minded religious conservatives. In the coming years, we will struggle. There will be losses, but we will remain unbent and unbroken. For while the locus of power in Washington may have swung far-right towards a single, extraordinarily influential leader, it is different here.
It is time for the fractured groups of the feminist movement to stand together, as leaders of distinctly different but united groups. Oregon’s marginalized communities have too much to lose for ideology to interrupt their struggle for equity. As the Vikings said to Frankish diplomats when asked to present their leader, “We are all leaders.”