Tag Archives: Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month: 2015

1 Mar

Womens-History-Month-300x153Today marks the 29th year we celebrate National Women’s History Month. My dear friend Molly Murphy MacGregor led the pioneering effort to recognize how women have impacted, shaped, and influenced our world. Molly — always very humble — is the co-founder of the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) and a key force behind why we now celebrate Women’s History Month in the United States. The not insignificant move forward started in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the Week of March 8th 1980 as National Women’s History Week.  Finally in 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity.

Sadly, we still see enormous resistance to treating women equally and equitably. The Republican controlled house sent a very clear message when they voted no on the equal pay act. This past February we saw Representative LaVar Christensen and Representative Brian Greene trying to defend rape, a very sad echo of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock talking about “legitimate rape.” Yes, we continue to witness myriad vicious attacks on women and their bodies.  John Boehner and his ilk seem to want property rights to every vagina in America.

Over the course of the month we will look at women pioneers and women who fought for civil rights, while we also examine the continued hypocrisy and double standards that exist, as we witness right wing extremist policing women’s eggs.  Reproductive health is debated by men (Catholic Bishops? Darrel Issa‘s all-male birth control panel?) with paternalistic moralizing and no reference to women at all. Sadly, it is not just men that are trying to control women’s bodies, but a faction of self-loathing women — who have internalized male oppression — are also hurting women. Are you listening Susan G. Komen Foundation? Helping everyone learn Women’s History is the best preventative for creating any new Phyllis Schlaflys or Karen Handels.

We have much to celebrate and much work yet to accomplish.

Advertisements

Women’s History Month 2014: Anita Hill

28 Mar

Anita HillToday it is an honor to have the opportunity to celebrate a woman I treasure, someone who is an amazing role model for women in the United States. Today SJFA celebrates Anita Hill. I also need to thank my dear friend Jennifer Carey for inspiring me to write about  Ms. Hill.

I actually had the great pleasure of meeting Ms. Hill several years ago. No surprise, she was absolutely brilliant, gracious, and far more compassionate than I would have been. I was able to have breakfast with Anita Hill shortly after the bizarre phone message left on Ms. Hill’s answering machine demanding an apology.  I have no clue as to what kind of “Tea” our Ginni was drinking during that Tea Party.  I can hardly believe it has been nearly 23 years since they put Anita Hill on trial for being sexually harassed by the now Justice Clarence Thomas.  I suspect many of us share Ms. Hill’s feelings regarding his appointment:

“I believe in my heart that he shouldn’t have been confirmed,” she said in a recent interview, acknowledging that it irritates her to see Justice Thomas on the court. “I believe that the information I provided was clear, it was verifiable, it was confirmed by contemporaneous witnesses that I had talked with. And I think what people don’t understand is that it does go to his ability to be a fair and impartial judge.”

Although she is a very private woman whose life was practically destroyed after the hearings in 1991, we can finally learn more about this amazing woman in the documentary of her life that was released on March 21, “Anita.”  While the documentary does not reveal her current impressions of Justice Thomas’ history sitting on the High Court, it does show how far we have yet to come regarding how we treat women and how sexual harassment is still a very real issue. How terribly sad that we still blame women and worse yet, we have devolved into a culture where we try to justify rape.

I hope people get to see the documentary and I hope we can stand in solidarity with women who experience the horrific violation of sexual harassment.  Thank you, Ms. Hill for being a hero to so many.

Women’s History Month 2014: Rosie O’Donnell

21 Mar

RosieToday I would like to wish a happy 54th birthday to a woman who has always used the power and voice of her celebrity status for social justice. Rosie O’Donnell was born in Commack, NY, the third of five children. She was popular in high school, known to be outgoing and funny. She began exploring comedy with Gilda Radner impressions and took that passion with her to college.

After stints at Dickinson College and Boston University, she left college to build on her promising standup career. She got a slot on Star Search and won several weeks in a row, giving her a national profile. O’Donnell built that opportunity into a series of TV and movie appearances. After 15 years of increasing success, she launched her own daytime talk show. The Rosie O’Donnell Show (I really loved this show) quickly took over, with her outspoken, open personality and sense of fun capturing the hearts and minds of millions of viewers.

During this time, O’Donnell became a foster parent, adopting her first child, Parker, just before her show took off. A strong advocate for children’s rights and quality foster, adoption, and care programs, Rosie always took time to share her views and her dollars to support these causes. She gained additional fame in 2002. After appearing as a lesbian single mother on Will and Grace (fantastic episode), she announced at a comedy show to support Ovarian Cancer Research, “I’m a dyke!” While her coming out was not a huge surprise, she was among the first of the early 21st Century wave of celebrities to come out.

Once she was out, she became a strong vocal advocate for the LGBT community, building on previous quietly visible support. She especially focused on the challenges of LGBT parenting, notably shining a harsh light on Florida’s rabidly anti-gay adoption laws (and others like it). After ending her show in 2002, she wrote a book and launched a magazine, donating significant proceeds to children’s charities and cancer research. She also started a family-friendly LGBT travel company, increasing her focus on parenting for all.

Rosie joined The View in 2006. Somewhat ironically for a woman called “the Queen of Nice,” her outspoken views and willingness to speak truth to power ruffled many feathers. She regularly spoke out against the tragic residue of the George W. Bush administration and made sure the chats on the show were informative and thought-provoking. As a former Catholic and strong supporter of children, she came under fire for speaking out about the abuse scandals in the church. Undeterred, she famously observed,

I hope the Catholic Church gets sued until the end of time. Maybe, you know, we can melt down some of the gold toilets in the Pope’s Vatican and pay off some of the lawsuits because, the whole tenet of living a Christ-like life, has been lost in Catholicism.

She also gained attention for questioning Donald Trump’s attempts to assume a position of moral authority when his Miss USA Pageant faced scandal. Never mean but always willing to be honest and direct, her approach eventually led to her departure from The View — a significant loss.  Thank goodness they at least have our Whoopi!

Rosie O’Donnell is very present in the public eye with her wife and children, helping put a familiar, human face on LGBT parenting. She donated all the proceeds from her second book to her children’s charity and continues to spend millions on improving the world for the vulnerable and marginalized. She also donates her talent, helping headline Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours tours.

A strong voice, a fierce advocate, a caring parent, and a great example — Rosie O’Donnell is an easy woman to celebrate. Happy Birthday, Rosie, and thank you!

Women’s History Month 2014: Diane Nash

17 Mar

Diane_NashToday we honor and celebrate a woman whose signficant contributions to non-violent resistance,  desegregation, and social justice are significant but not widely appreciated. Diane Nash was born in Chicago in 1938. After high school, she attended Howard University for one year, then transferred to Fisk in Nashville, TN. Although she had experienced some racism, as most people of color do, her parents had managed to shelter her to the extent that they could. She was unprepared for the harsh, segregationist realities of the Jim Crow south.

Rather than return home or quietly accept her new circumstances, Nash began to look for ways to push back and create some much needed resistance. She attended a non-violent civil disobedience workshop offered by the Rev. James Lawson and took the lessons to heart. Quietly determined and eloquent, she became a leader in the local movement, helping organize sit-ins. She insisted on being arrested and refusing bail whenever present at an event that the police broke up. These actions bogged down the corrupt justice system and helped to spotlight the problems  as the nation began paying closer attention.

Nash worked with a young John Lewis and participated in solidarity protests for the Rock Hill Nine. She famously confronted Nashville’s mayor on the steps of city hall, simply asking, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” The mayor hesitantly agreed that it was wrong, opening the door for lunch counter desegregation in Nashville–Brava, Ms. Nash.

In 1960, Nash helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) a major force for civil rights change in the South. She helped organize the Freedom Riders and was a driving force in continuing the rides after violent opposition by officials in Alabama. Reflecting on the importance of refusing to back down, Nash has observed,

It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.

She was also involved in the planning of the Selma to Montgomery marches, participating in the Petrus Bridge march that famously injured John Lewis and spurred President Johnson to speak out against segregation.

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Nash returned to Chicago. She worked in education and real estate, becoming a local force for fair housing advocacy.

No one person is responsible for the powerful growth and action of the civil rights movement. Historians and participants agree, however, that its ongoing success owes a great debt to this amazing woman. She risked long jail sentences in several states, put herself at personal risk, and encouraged the best forms of protest, helping ensure a cohesive, committed resistance to injustice.

Slowly Diane Nash’s role is becoming an important part of our nation’s narrative at this critical time in American History. She has received many accolades and awards, including the JFK Library and Foundation Distinguished American Award (2003),  LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights  (2004), and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum (2008).

Thank you, Ms. Nash.  Our country is in your debt.

Women’s History Month 2014: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

14 Mar

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to one of my personal heroes, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.  In 1973, Reagon founded the  a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Johnson Reagon started her music/social work career before Sweet Honey in the Rock.  She was a type of community organizer and performed with The Freedom Singers in her hometown of Albany, Georgia. The Freedom Singers was, in part, formed by Johnson Reagon’s husband, Cordell Reagon. How amazing and lovely that Cordell and Bernice were friends with Pete Seeger, who helped to support the founding of The Freedom Singers.

I was first introduced to Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1991 at the Black Arts Festival at Piedmont Park, in Atlanta, Georgia. After hearing them perform Ella’s SongI went out and bought all of their albums and went to every concert when they came to Atlanta. Reagon earned her doctorate at Howard University and became a strong voice in the Civil Rights movement. Reagon has dedicated her life to issues of social justice and the intersections of oppression. Reagon, through her music, addresses issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and the intersections of oppression.  She reached many of us dedicated to civil rights through song:

I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song. To this day, I don’t understand how people think they can bring anybody together without a song…I came out of the Civil Rights Movement, and I had a different kind of focus than most people who have just the academic background as their primary training experience.

I am fortunate enough to stand on the shoulders of greatness, including Dr. Johnson Reagon.  Her work and the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock inform how I live my life and how I teach.

For me, Dr. Johnson Reagon is a musical social worker: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

Women’s History Month 2014: Janet Reno

11 Mar

Janet RenoToday I would like to honor and pay tribute to Janet Reno.  It was just 21 years ago today that Reno was confirmed as the first woman U.S. Attorney General by President Bill Clinton. The 75 year old Reno is from Miami, Florida where her father served as a police reporter for the Miami Herald.  Two defining moments in Reno’s career as Attorney General were: the standoff with David Koresh and his followers (known as the Branch Davidians) in Texas and the conviction of  Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh–two very dark and sad moments in our history. Reno took full responsibility for a bizarre turn of events in Waco with the Branch Davidians resulting in 76 deaths. Another defining moment under Reno’s tenure was the capture and conviction of Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, the Unibomer.

Reno became one of the most respected members of the Clinton administration in its first term, known for launching innovative programs designed to steer non-violent drug offenders away from jail and espousing the rights of criminal defendants.  How sad that we do the exact opposite today, trying to  steer all purported criminals to jail. In effect, we build a criminal system, rather than a justice system.  Not a big surprise that Reno suffered great misogynistic attacks from the Republican party.

Although she left public life after serving her tenure as Attorney General, Reno reappeared to testify before the federal 9/11 commission in 2004 and voiced her opposition to some of the nation’s antiterrorism policies (racial profiling) through a legal brief in 2006.  Sadly, we know that  racial profiling against people of color remains just as disproportionate as it did in 2006. The irony is not lost on the fact that some of the worst terrorist attacks in our country have been perpetrated by white heterosexual men.

Reno continues to fight for issues around social justice and tries to keep people OUT of prisons: she serves on the board of directors for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization which assists prisoners who could be exonerated through DNA testing. Brava, to our Janet Reno.  I wish there were more people working to address the disparities and inhumanity of the prison systems.

Women’s History Month 2014: Madame Sul-Te-Wan

7 Mar

MadamSulTeWanToday we honor and celebrate a pioneering actress, who sadly received little of the recognition or opportunity she deserved during her lifetime. Nellie Crawford was born in Louisville, KY on this date in 1873. Today would have been her 141st birthday. Her parents were freed slaves, her mother a laundress who worked for a number of stage actresses. Nellie would watch rehearsals with fascination while picking up and delivering for her mother. She determined that she would make the stage her career.

As Creole Nell, she moved to Cincinnati and formed the theatrical company Three Black Cloaks. She toured the east coast, gaining experience and a fascination with film. Deciding that she wanted to be part of the new entertainment industry, she wrote to director DW Griffith (who was filming in Louisville) and set up a meeting.

As a result, her breakthrough role was ironically in Griffith’s notoriously racist epic Birth of A Nation. Based on that work, however, she became the first African-American to sign a film contract to be a feature performer. During the early years of film she worked with many luminaries including Tom Mix, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, and Dorothy and Lillian Gish. She had dropped the name Creole Nell in favor of the mysterious moniker Madame Sul-Te-Wan. As a testament to her strong will and personality, Lillian Gish has observed of the name change,

We never did discover the origin of her name. No one was bold enough to ask.

Madame Sul-Te-Wan made a fairly smooth transition to talkies. She continued to work regularly, alongside a new crop of stars including Barbara Stanwyck, Conrad Nagel, Veronica Lake, and Lucille Ball. Sadly, Hollywood had little room for significant African-American roles and she was almost always cast as a Mammy, slave, or domestic, frequently acting without a screen credit. There were a few notable exceptions, such as her role as Tituba in the Salem witch trial film Queens of Salem, starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert.

She also starred in Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger’s musical adaptation of the opera starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and a cast of mostly African-American actors. As a testament to the underlying racism of the time her compelling performance as Dandridge’s character’s grandmother led to rumors that the actresses must in fact be related.

Working into her 80s, Madame Sul-Te-Wan had her last role in the Yul Brynner vehicle The Buccaneer. She died of a stroke in 1959, in her apartment at the Motion Picture Actor’s Home. She left behind an impressive, determined legacy.

Happy Birthday, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, and thank you!

%d bloggers like this: