Tag Archives: Women’s history

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: 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!

Women’s History Month 2013: bell hooks

29 Mar

bell_hooks_wikimedia_commons_cmongirl_pdToday we honor and celebrate one of my personal heroes, bell hooks.  Our bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.  hooks changed her name to honor both her grandmother (whose name she took) and her mother. She earned her B.A. in English from Stanford University, and her doctorate from University of California, Santa Cruz.  hooks’ career has centered around the intersections of oppression, with a focus on race, gender, power, and privilege–a woman after my own heart!

Every diversity training or mediation my company, EqualityWorks,NW, does starts off with this bell hooks’ quote:

For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?

I think all of us that are doing any type of social work have to believe we are all capable of a transformative experience; that we can experience each other and ourselves in new ways that benefit the greater good. I do admit that on my worst misanthropic days, I have difficulty believing this, but I do strive to have hooks’ strength of character.

It is not a small wonder that hooks was strongly influenced and inspired by another hero of mine, Paulo Freire.  hooks talked about how Preire allowed her the, “right as a subject in resistance to define reality.”  We see this philosophy of hooks in her book, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism.  We also see this philosophy in how hooks addresses the power and influence of pop culture:

Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is. So I think that partially people like me who started off doing feminist theory or more traditional literary criticism or what have you begin to write about popular culture, largely because of the impact it was having as the primary pedagogical medium for masses of people globally who want to, in some way, understand the politics of difference.

 My ulterior motive in celebrating bell hooks is that I want more people to read her work and be impacted by her wisdom.  Of course, I also hope I eventually get to meet her in person.  We are all exceedingly fortunate to have bell hooks!

Women’s History Month 2013: Melissa Harris-Perry

27 Mar

harris-perryToday we honor and celebrate another wonderful voice for equality. Many thanks to my friend and regular TSM commenter Christine for recommending Melissa Harris-Perry. Melissa is multi-racial, having  a black father and white mother.  She is originally from here in the Northwest, Seattle. The family moved to Virgina when she was young, with both parents involved in education.

Harris-Perry is an author, scholar, and professor as well as host of a successful, thought-provoking program on MSNBC. She received her B.A. in English from Wake Forest University and her PhD in political science from Duke. Due to her interest in the influence of the black church on political movements, she also received an honoris causa doctorate from Meadville Lombard Theological School and was a Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary.

While at Wake Forest, she encountered her mentor, the wonderful Maya Angelou.

As her student I watched as she influenced public discourse, taught students, and shared ideas in a way that seemed to truly matter for people’s lives.

Harris-Perry taught political science at the University of Chicago, then moved to Princeton where she was an associate professor of politics and African-American studies. She is currently a professor of political science at Tulane, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South.

She is the author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought on the methods African Americans use to develop political ideas through ordinary conversations in places like barbershops, churches, and popular culture–sounds like good social work to me. Her book won the 2005 W.E.B. DuBois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

After years as serving as a commentator, she was offered her own MSNBC weekend show a year ago. She looks at the program as a way to expand her education career, focusing on issues of politics and equality.

All I’ve ever wanted to be is a teacher. Phil Griffin and MSNBC are giving me the chance to have a much bigger classroom.

She is also an outspoken advocate for gay rights and marriage equality. Her work in this area won her an Ally for Equality award from the Human Rights campaign last month.

As a biracial woman with a passion for education and a fascination with religion, Harris-Perry has a firm understanding of the intersections of oppression. She has made it her mission to share that understanding with others with a firm commitment to social justice. Thank you Melissa Harris-Perry for being such a strong advocate and ally!

Women’s History Month 2013: Nancy Pelosi

25 Mar

Nancy-PelosiToday we honor and celebrate a powerful and effective leader who provides a great example for women everywhere. Nancy Pelosi was born in Baltimore in 1940 and has politics in her blood. She received a B.A. in political science from Trinity College, where she met her husband. They moved to New York and then to San Francisco, where she quickly established herself in local Democratic politics.

She entered national politics in 1987 when she was elected to the House of Representatives, a hand-picked successor to the outgoing Representative, Sala Burton. Although her district number has changed, she has held the seat for a quarter century, making her one of the most senior members of Congress. She quickly rose through the ranks, assuming various leadership positions, culminating in her term as the 60th Speaker of the House in 2003.

Known for her adroit collaborative skills and her indomitable spirit, she is considered one of the most effective Speakers in history. As Vice President Biden has observed

If you ever want a partner to get anything important done, call Nancy Pelosi.

That effectiveness was very threatening to the petulant old white boys club in the GOP, who have demonized her for decades. Pelosi is quite gracious about the personal impact, but very concerned about the larger message.

It didn’t bother me, I figured they thought I was effective and therefore they had to take me down. What does concern me about it is that women that we want to be involved in politics, women who have options to do other things and we say, ‘Come over here and do this!’ And they’re saying, ‘No, I don’t want to subject myself to that. Why would I do that? I have a great life, I have plenty of opportunities.’ So what I’ve said is that if you lower the role of money in politics and you increase the level of civility, you will have more women running for office, elected to office, and that would be a very wholesome thing for our country.

What a perfect observation! Sadly, we see both men and women vilifying our Nancy.  I am often caught off guard at women committing lateral oppressions and internalizing misogyny, but when they act on this internalized misogyny, they become hypocrites of the first degree.

Nancy Pelosi is the highest-ranking politician in U.S. history. Of the 200 nations in the world, 50 have had elected women leaders and 22 do today. Why are we so far behind? Even with a record number of women in the Senate, there are still only 20, perpetuating a male-dominated discourse and allowing the GOP War on Women to proceed as diatribe, even when it fails as policy.

Minority Leader Pelosi takes heart from the great diversity in the current Democratic caucus in the House, however. Laughing at the recent GOP rebranding efforts and outreach to women, she offers some simple advice.

I think respect would be a good place to start. We are fortunate in our House Democratic caucus — women, minorities, LGBT community members make up a majority of the caucus. We don’t need anybody to teach us how to speak to women, Hispanics, blacks, because that’s who we are. And not only do they have a seat at the table, they have a seat at the head of the table, because over half of our chairmen-to-be, our senior Democrats — people who would be chair if we were the majority — are women and minorities.

That’s a great place to start. Let’s hope her great example does inspire the next generation of women to enter politics and help keep positive change moving.  Let us hope that Pelosi keeps working to ensure that all voices are invited to the table of power and thus working to lift marginalization and oppression.

Women’s History Month 2013: Cyndi Lauper

22 Mar

CyndiToday we honor and celebrate a woman dedicated to civil rights for all and social justice, not to mention a personal hero of mine, Cyndi Lauper.  Lauper founded  the Give A Damn Campaign, which strives for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender equality.  What a lovely voice of solidarity for the LGBTQ community.  Her activism is greatly appreciated and she uses her celebrity for the greater good.

Lauper has been an outspoken advocate for multiple social justice issues since the start of her career. Her first solo album, She’s So Unusual, is a declaration of independence from the title to the cover photo to the crisp production and quirky vocals. She lends her voice to rockers, ballads, and anthems and makes them all unmistakably her own. She bounces from the feminism of Girls Just Want to Have Fun to the sex-positive message of She Bop to the wistful class analysis of Money Changes Everything, then retains the original pronouns in her cover of Prince’s When You Were Mine, making her lost love a bisexual or a gay man finding his truth. (She’s always had a great ear for songs to cover, including a lovely reading of Marvin Gaye’s social protest song What’s Going On.)  She consistently demonstrates her solidarity with the disenfranchised and marginalized–what a great role model for us all!

Launching from that strong platform, she’s been a powerful voice in music and civil rights ever since, confounding expectations and speaking her mind. She laments the way women are treated in the music industry, as demonstrated in this anecdote about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I always have been saying [the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame] should include women. I was in Cleveland and I took my cousin’s son to see it, because he wanted to see it, and they asked if I wanted a VIP tour and I said “Not really, because you don’t really include women in your curation here.” There’s hardly any women, and I feel funny walking this kid around, explaining who the women were who were around at the time.

Lauper’s True Colors tour — taking its title from her #1 ballad to being true to yourself —  is a wonderful spectacle of support for the LGBTQ community and for strong voices in the music community representing marginalized populations. She truly exemplifies the values she speaks. Activist neo-divas like P!nk and Lady Gaga owe a great debt to her bold example.

Even more remarkably, she manages to hold on to the spirit of her first big hit, remembering that even during the fight for justice, one must find ways to have a happy heart. She certainly doesn’t “just want” to have fun, but she wants us all to celebrate as we fight together for what’s right. She’s so unusual indeed, but the world could use more like her.

Women’s History Month 2013: Justice Sonia Sotomayor

20 Mar

JusticeSotomayorToday we honor and celebrate a woman dedicated to justice who is working hard to restore integrity to our nation’s highest court — quite the ambitious task while Scalia is on the bench. Sonia Sotomayor was born in the Bronx in 1954 to parents who had recently moved to New York from Puerto Rico. Her mother and grandmother stressed the importance of education, and she worked hard in school, initially hoping to be a detective (inspired by Nancy Drew). A Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis at age seven led her family and doctors to recommend a less strenuous career choice, so she decided she wanted to be a judge–I wonder if her parents detected the irony here?

She attended Princeton, where she was a distinct minority both as a woman and a Latina. She received her undergraduate degree in History, winning numerous scholastic prizes in her final year and graduating summa cum laude. She immediately started law school at Yale, where she was once again in the distinct minority. Attending on a scholarship, she was stunned when a major law firm suggested during a recruitment dinner that she was at Yale solely because she was Latina. She terminated the interview and filed a formal complaint, resulting in a favorable ruling from a campus tribunal and a formal apology from the firm.  Brava, Justice Sotomayor!

After receiving her J.D. and passing the New York Bar, she began work as an assistant district attorney, focusing on crimes against persons and police brutality. She developed a reputation for going wherever she needed to go to get evidence, regardless of the neighborhood. After a few years she went into private practice and was appointed to a number of Boards and task forces by New York governors and New York City mayors. She expanded her reputation as a strong advocate for the marginalized–a voice for social justice!

In 1991 she realized her childhood dream and became a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the first Hispanic federal judge in the state. Six years later she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District. She faced a brutal confirmation hearing, with Senate Republicans stalling for months and grilling her on her decisions favoring gay rights and due process. Once seated, she expanded her reputation as a strong, fair judge interested in protecting the rights of the most vulnerable; imagine that, a judge working for civil rights for all?

Sonia Sotomayor became a Supreme Court Justice in 2009. She settled in quickly and works hard to ensure that the loud, conservative voices on the Court don’t dominate when cases come forward. She made news recently for harshly criticizing  a Texas prosecutor whose argument relied on racist stereotyping. During hearings on a case regarding the Voting Rights Act, she refused to allow an Alabama attorney to hide his county’s racist history.

Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?

When Justices Scalia and Alito tried to bail the attorney out with far-fetched hypotheticals, she weighed in again.

The problem with those hypotheticals is obvious […] it’s a real record as to what Alabama has done to earn its place on the list. Discrimination is discrimination, and what Congress said is it continues.

Thank you, Justice Sotomayor, for standing up for those who most need it. May your time on the Court be long and productive!

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