Women Banding Together, To Win The Vote Then, To Make Social Change Now

When I first looked at GirlCrew.com, I likened it to Facebook for women — a website that facilitates reunions, eases life transitions and creates online communities. And it is all of that.

But the harder I explored this new “platform for women to make new friends,” the more I realized that it also promised the advent of a new generation taking the reigns, willing institutions to shed their crusty ways and embrace a diverse, pluralistic, humanistic vision of life throughout the world. One recent example: the decision by the U.S. women’s hockey team to band together to seek equal treatment with the men’s team — equal equipment, staffing, pay, per diems, publicity and travel. Without it, they threatened a boycott. Then, after achieving parity with the men’s team, they went out and won gold at the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyongchang. There is power in the unity of many.

In this new era of collective empowerment, there is an echo of the past. As a historian of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, I have researched this trajectory of collection action. For more than a century, women banded together to fight slavery, overcome racial discrimination, and win the right to vote.

One of my favorite suffragists was Lucy Stone — the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree (Oberlin, 1847) and the first to insist on keeping her own name on marrying Henry B. Blackwell in 1855. In fact there’s a Lucy Stone League, founded in 1921, that honors the decision by women to preserve their own identities, and to fight for their rights.

Lucy Stone defied gender roles when she lectured against slavery and for women’s rights in the 1840s. So rare, shocking and threatening was the specter of a woman speaking in public — women were to stay home and tend to domestic affairs — that men hissed, threw eggs or threatened violence. Lucy Stone never flinched, though once she had to escape. Later she and her husband formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, and its newspaper, The Woman’s Journal. But what especially interests me about Lucy Stone is her beginning. Looking back on her first forays in public activism in,the abolition movement, she credited the band of women in the 1840s who attended weekly sessions with her “to discuss educational, political, moral and religious questions, and especially we learned to stand and speak, to put motions, how to treat amendments, etc.” Learning to stand and speak — isn’t that what women are doing today?

I also treasure the stories of African-American women who, facing bigotry, intimidation and sexual degradation, banded together to fight for their community. Many of those who campaigned for the vote emerged from the crusade against lynching, that savage Southern custom of hanging black men for being black, often to crowds of cheering white onlookers. No one did more to end the lynchings than Ida B. Wells.

As a journalist in Memphis, Wells had gathered information on the frequency and cruelty of lynching, disproving the white claim that the targeted black men had raped white women. White supremacists burned down her newspaper, and she fled to New York, intent on continuing the fight from there. She did not have the funds to pay to print her report and distribute it widely, but a group of elite African-American women did. On October 5, 1892, in New York’s Lyric Hall, 250 black women came to honor Ida B. Wells and raise funds for a booklet that would galvanize a national crusade against lynching: “Southern Horror: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” One scholar called donors “a who’s who of the black Eastern establishment” — Boston’s activist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Dr. Susan McKinney from Brooklyn, Sarah Garnet, a New York principal, and Victoria Earle Matthews, who had founded a girls home that later served as a model for the Urban League. Perhaps understanding that their class was no shield from the wrongs of racism, they raised $500 (about $13,000 in today’s dollars). Wells called it “the greatest demonstration ever attempted by race women for one of their own.”

As I wrote in my book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, women won the vote when they graduated from talking to each other — the already converted — and began to talk to a wider public. In New York in the 1910s, they marched on Fifth Avenue, demonstrating the breadth of support for suffrage with contingents of women from diverse sectors — working class and wealthy, actresses and teachers, professionals and housewives. They also gave speeches from street corners, campaigned against male opponents and partnered with the New York Giants to host a “Suffrage Day” at the ballpark. In short, they embraced the tactics of the public square, sparking what one scholar called “a period of stunning political experimentation as innovative as anything they had attempted” in earlier campaigns.

The women of GirlCrew.com and other new sites of community are making their own way, banding together, much as the women before them. Hopefully, history will give them inspiration.

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