Fighting for Space: Women in Activism
Columns / February 16, 2016
Women in Activism
Feminism as it stands in 2016 is under fire—and from a wide range of opponents. You’ve got people who hate women in general, you’ve got people who think that gender equality has already been achieved, and you’ve got the crown jewel of it all, the internet. Feminism, now more than ever, has been pushing to be actively intersectional: inclusive of all races, of all genders, and all identities.
This is a crucial shift, but it’s certainly far from over.
What is important to remember about feminism is that there have been fantastic women who’ve existed all throughout history, but they rarely make it into the dominant narrative because “mainstream” history is so often written by men who want to write about themselves and their own triumphs. With this column, I want to make space for the stories of those who don’t benefit from the heteronormative patriarchy, and highlight the lives of people who were taking action without widespread acknowledgement.
There is a growing discussion in academia that suggests women are frequently in influential roles in activist movements, often specifically as leaders, but their integral role was often downplayed or ignored altogether. One such example exists within the American Civil Rights Movement, where Houck and Davis demonstrate in their 2009 book, Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965, that women often “led movements in their own communities, regions, and across the nation.”
Since around 1990, there has been a conscious effort by historians to seek out and record the histories of the women of the Civil Rights Movement, and though some notable gaps persist, there are growing archives in place to ensure these women are not forgotten.
Marable Manning, who has written extensively on African-American history, suggested in one of his books that, “Women are far more likely than males to emerge as the critical leaders in most working-class and poor neighbourhoods. Women activists are far more prevalent than males in the building of civic capacity.”
When we think of the March on Washington, the predominant image is the circulated soundbytes of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. However, numerous accounts have suggested that women played an integral role to the organization of the event, yet were kept on the sidelines. There were many women who were prominently involved in the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, and the Black Panthers, yet it is King and Malcolm X that are household names.
Ashley Farmer, who earned her Ph.D in history and African American studies from Harvard, conducted research which demonstrated how women’s participation in the black power movement, specifically with the Black Panthers, formed new political models that allowed for the creation of spaces where women could be revolutionary figures as well. She looked at publications like The Black Panther newspaper and noticed that artwork produced by women showed women as powerful, gun-toting revolutionaries. This portrayal was important in reframing the narrative around who could be considered a revolutionary, and a leader of a movement.
One of these revolutionary women was Daisy Lampkin. Although she was not involved with the Black Panthers, she spent much of her life as an activist and organizer. She began in the Negro Women’s Equal Franchise Federation, and later joined the National Council of Negro Women, the National Association of Coloured Women, and the NAACP as a national field secretary.
Lampkin was also the vice-president of the Pittsburgh Courier, where she worked as a writer, editor, and executive. Soon the publication became the top circulating newspaper in the world by the 1950s.
In the NAACP, Lampkin was a fundraiser and organizer, and helped get a federal anti-lynching bill passed. In her efforts, she focused on the local aspect. “Anytime you organize, get grassroots people,” she said. “They’ll help you. But big shots do not help anybody. They want you to help them.”
A well-voiced concern of some in the Civil Rights Movement was that having women take vocal roles would shift the goal of achieving racial equality to one of gender. This was by no means exclusive to this movement—white feminists once also suggested (and sadly, sometimes still do) that including race would dilute a message of gender equality. The women in the Civil Rights Movement, however, demonstrated that there are ways to reframe the narrative that intersect issues of race, class, and gender—which in the long run, arguably creates a stronger movement for any social justice initiative.