Deja Vu: Race Vs Gender 1870-2008

By Marilyn Fitterman
NOW NE Regional Director &
Past President NOW-NYS

The press, the media, the pundits, everyone is saying the Democratic presidential race should not be about race vs. gender.  How ridiculous is that? We look at Hillary Clinton and we see a possibility of the first woman in the white house. We look at Obama and we see the first man of color in the white house. Therefore, to say it is not about race vs. gender is to deny reality. Let’s get real, and from there it will be easier to make the right decision, which of course is to put women first in a women’s organization. We must, as women, unite.

If not for ourselves then whom are we for? If not us, who? If not now, when?

Back in the early 1820s and 30s there were numerous women fighting for and speaking up for abolition. Women saw the inhuman cruelty of slavery. Lucretia Mott, Maria Chapman, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to name just a few, spoke up against slavery at the very real risk of physical violence. In 1833 the American Anti-Slavery Society actually barred women from speaking. So what did women do? They started their own anti-slavery society throughout the country and even had conventions in 1837, 1838, and 1839. In 1840, when some of these women went to England to attend the International Abolition Convention, they were barred from attending and, after fighting to get in, were barred from speaking even though some were there representing an American Society of Abolitionists. It was not long after this that Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton realized that women had to unite and fight for themselves. They met to discuss a movement for equality and suffrage, and this historic meeting was the impetus for the 1848 first Women’s Rights Convention in SenacaFalls. Those women asked:

If not for ourselves then whom are we for? If not us, who? If not now, when? 

In that period married women had no right to their paychecks, their children, or their property, let alone the right to vote. For a time the women’s movement and the abolition movement worked together.  In fact, Frederick Douglas, a freed slave, was a frequent speaker at women’s conventions. While women were struggling to attain the vote, Douglas spoke for them and sided with them that women and Black men should have suffrage.

However in 1869, when Congress offered up the Fifteenth Amendment giving only Black men the vote, Douglas betrayed women by making the concession. Some women even agreed with Douglas that it was o.k. for Black men to leave us behind instead of holding fast for suffrage. In much the same way today, some think it is o.k. for Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, to support Obama. Back then, because of that betrayal, women had to wait another fifty years. Not until 1920 did we get the vote. That betrayal caused a split in the suffrage movement which is mirrored in today’s race vs. gender situation in the Democratic Party and in our current women’s movement.

If not for ourselves then whom are we for? If not us, who? If not now, when?

Recently, a famous TV personality declared that the United States owed more to Black men than it did to women, this being his reason for supporting Obama. I found that to be one of the most repulsive reasons for not supporting Hillary Clinton.  

Women have been second class citizens since recorded history. The internalized misogyny that rears its ugly head and so insidiously creeps into our everyday lives will never end until women stick together as do other oppressed groups. Recently I was reminded that pre Roe vs. Wade women had a great uniting force in that all could be forced to complete unwanted pregnancies. I remember how women who were strangers would help and support other women to find a doctor or a back alley abortionist. Women then understood the importance and the value of joining together to help each other control their own reproductive lives. However, since Roe vs. Wade many young women don’t have that very common problem of forced pregnancy, a problem which crosses all economic and social lines. They have forgotten the importance of uniting for each other. And with the loss of this camaraderie we have apparently also lost the knowledge that forced pregnancy could return with a single US Supreme Court vote. And to get Hillary elected, we could sure use a revival in some of that old girls’ club camaraderie. 

The current circumstances of race vs. gender are very much alive in spite of media denials. Just looking at the results of Super Tuesday one can see that Black communities were hands down for Obama. Meanwhile women, who are more than fifty-two percent of the population, did not do the same for their sisters. The charisma and preacher-like emotional speeches that Obama gives enrapture the younger generation. But there is very little information in the rhetoric. Were Hillary to show this same agitated style, she would be ridiculed for excessive emotion. She is caught between a rock and a hard place. If she shows emotion, as does Obama, she is vilified, as was recently demonstrated. So even though she is enormously qualified and experienced for the presidency, all that goes by the wayside when Obama enchants the youngsters with charming rhetoric that says little. If Hillary were to be “charming” she would be disparaged. Women just can’t get it right, can we?

If not for ourselves then whom are we for? If not us, who? If not now, when? 

Many young women today have forgotten or do not know of the sit-ins, the hunger strikes, the marches, the tears as we lost the Equal Rights Amendment, the thousands upon thousands of women, mothers and grandmothers who died having illegal abortions. Those many young women have forgotten the women’s movement and all the gains we have made. They have abandoned us and instead have fallen for the charisma and charm of a Black male instead of the experience, dedication, and proven life’s work of a White female. Will it take losing Roe vs. Wade to get back that old camaraderie?  We’ve got to realize that and ask:

If not for ourselves then whom are we for?  If not us, who? If not now, when?

But, it’s not too late.  It’s up to all of us who care about women’s equality to educate each and every young woman we meet, and remind her that all the freedoms she has can easily be lost if women don’t unite for full equal rights. We should remind young women that we have a long way to go because even today women are only making seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man earns. This pay inequity hits single mothers and retirement-age women. They should know that it’s about time young girls had the role model of a woman in the White House. Yep, women’s equality is very important and we’ve got a long way to go.   

DAMN IT, we woman have been at the forefront of every progressive movement in this country. It’s about time we stand together for ourselves and stand together at the forefront to elect the first woman president. After all:

If not for ourselves then whom are we for?  If not us, who? If not now, when?

We must unite for Hillary.

National Women's Equality Amendment
By Marilyn Fitterman
NOW Northeast Regional Director & Past President NOW-NYS
NOW-NYS Reporter - Summer 2007

ERA: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

In the 1970’s and early 80’s Phyllis Schlafly, backed by the right wing, organized a well financed campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment see ERA text above) which fell three states short of the thirty-eight required for ratification. Schlafly scared the hell out of people by informing them that we were serious and that women really did want equal rights with men. Maybe what they were really afraid of was that men would have equal rights and responsibilities with women. But they wouldn’t dare to say that. We cannot allow the Schlaflys of the right wing to deceive the public again.

The ERA has been introduced to Congress every year since 1923. This year the amendment was re-introduced as the Women’s Equality Amendment; and it is up to us to tell our elected representatives that we will be watching their votes. If we are going to win this battle for justice, and respect for women, we’re going to need ammunition and the Women’s Equality Amendment is just that.

Many of us believe that one way to reach out to the American people is to show we, as feminists, mean what we say about having equality. For example, upon reaching the age of eighteen, all young men must register for the draft.  Shouldn’t we be pointing out that equality means  young women as well should also register when they reach eighteen years of age?  It goes without saying that I am totally against war and the draft, however, while watching my grandson fill out the mandated registration I noticed the that women were not permitted to register. I wondered why his life was worth less to our government than that of my granddaughter?  I love them equally.

Ideally we would prefer that no one ever had to register for the draft, but things being what they are, let’s keep it fair.  In 1975 mandatory registration for the draft was suspended but was resumed in 1980 at which time President Carter sent to Congress a bill to include women in registration. But Congress refused this.  It came up again a few years later, but as we have learned by now, Congress does not necessarily use its power to insure women’s equality.  Even today, with Democrats at the helm, and with a woman as Speaker of the House, not much has changed.  Therefore, it is up to us, constituents in our respective districts, to hold their feet to the fire and to demand equal justice and equal opportunities for all.

Just a few years ago the Selective Service System proposed registering women for the military draft. But agency officials acknowledged that they would have “to market the concept” of a female draft to Congress, who ultimately would have to authorize such a step.  Can you imagine having to “market” a concept of including women?  I was insulted when I read these words and I hope you are too.

Another recommendation to Congress was an act to provide presidential authority to register, classify, and examine women for service in the Armed Forces. If granted, the President would exercise this authority when Congress authorized conscription of men. It goes on to say that women would become part of the personnel inventory for the services to draw from. Their use would be based on the needs and missions of the services.  Wow does this sound like the Handmaid’s Tale or what?

The exclusion of women was challenged in the courts; and although a lower court found that gender-based discrimination violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, the Supreme Court reversed the District Court decision and upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion. I’m proud to say that the National Organization for Women filed an amicus brief supporting the lower court’s decision.

In 1992 a Presidential Commission reexamined the issue but voted to maintain the status quo. In 1994 President Clinton asked the Secretary of Defense to update its mobilization requirements and as part of the effort to review arguments for and against continuing to exclude women, now that women were being assigned to combat roles. A survey was done at that time which showed that 52% of respondents indicated women should be drafted if there were a draft. Certainly today, with public consciousness raised that 52% number would be greater.

Back to the Women’s Equality Amendment.  The latest poll shows that 88% of Americans agree that we should add women to the Constitution. There really is no legal basis for this obstructionism, other than legislators’ misogyny. All of us who care about equality have a responsibility to contact our legislators to insure they vote yes when the time comes.

Elsewhere in this NOW-NYS Reporter is an informative piece about the New York State Equal Rights Amendment which, despite their similarity, does not affect the National Women’s Equality Amendment.

New York’s Governor Spitzer is a friend to women. We should let him know that when the time comes we want him to insist that our legislators grant women equal rights by voting yes for the National Women’s Equality Amendment and yes for an Equal Rights Amendment to the New York State Constitution. As Susan B. Anthony often said: “Failure is impossible!” Let’s make an honest woman of her and get it done.