March 8, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Women’s month needs a caveat

The celebration’s race-neutrality buries the lede, writes Allison Wiltz.

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We’re told women’s history month is an opportunity for Americans to honor women. Pick a woman, any woman, and give her a round of applause. While it seems reasonable to celebrate women, a marginalized group, who fought for the right to be considered full citizens, to vote, to have bank accounts and make decisions about their bodies, the truth is this: America’s annual celebration of all women, often overlooks the plight of Black women and women of color whose experiences vary widely from white women.

What is Women’s History Month to Black women, who have been consistently undermined, sidestepped and belittled?

Fredrick Douglass gave a speech in 1852 to an audience at the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester entitled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Nearly a decade before the Civil War began, Douglass exposed America’s original faux pas, that they could set aside a special holiday to celebrate independence from Great Britain while holding Black people in perpetual bondage. “Freedom for some, but not for all” would have been a more accurate slogan, though less catchy. “Here, you will see men and women, reared like swine, for the market,” Douglass said, shedding a light on the injustices of a system rooted in human trafficking. So, why was Douglass speaking to a room full of women, many of whom were white?

Black Americans and white women found themselves in the midst of a common struggle against inequity and, as a result, sought to amend the US Constitution to include rights originally preserved exclusively for white men. The often unsaid problem with Women’s History Month is that it paints a rosy all-women-matter version of the women’s rights movement as if white women were consistently on board with fighting for equal rights and justice for all Americans when that’s historically inaccurate. For instance, research suggests approximately 40 percent of southern slaveowners were white women. Far from being powerless, dainty damsels in distress, many white women were just as guilty of maintaining the chattel slavery system as their white husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

Don’t bury the lede
Of course, not all white women were self-serving. For example, the Grimké Sisters, a pair of abolitionists, wrote essays advocating for the abolition of slavery. Angelina Grimké suggested that even though white women did not “make the laws which perpetuate slavery,” they were the “wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do,” and had the privilege to educate themselves about slavery, speak out and act decisively against an unjust and immoral system. And while the Grimké Sisters’ advocacy is a refreshing example of the type of solidarity between some Black and white women, it’s also true that many white women had no qualms about perpetuating racism against Black women if it meant elevating themselves.

While women’s rights activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton will be honored this month for their work as suffragists, they intentionally segregated their women’s marches, prohibiting Black women from joining their organizations and distanced themselves from Black women fighting for their right to vote. They even went so far as to oppose the passing of the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote. 

Throughout American history, white women made unreliable allies for Black women and the Black community, so a month dedicated to all women needs a caveat.

Douglass fought to end slavery, not just for Black men but for women. Black women like Sojourner Truth fought not only for women’s right to vote but for all Americans marginalized in a system created to benefit landowning white men. Black women were determined to be included, but not at the cost of others’ rights. 

“There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before,” Sojourner Truth said. 

Black women deserve freedom and equality, and giving rights to Black men was an essential but insufficient response to their pleas.

Certainly, women deserve their flowers, and Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to focus on the contributions women have made to the culture and our modern way of life. However, the race-neutrality of the month’s celebration often seems to bury the lede.

What is Women’s History Month to Black women consistently undermined, sidestepped and belittled by American society? Black women still make less money than white women working the same jobs, and even a college-educated Black woman is more likely to die of childbirth than a white woman whose a high school dropout.

Black women are often “invisible victims of a broken criminal justice system” that disproportionately punishes them more than any other racial group of women. Before reaching womanhood, Black girls are the most likely to be kicked out of school programs, attend under-resourced schools and live in low-income communities. 

Black women and girls have unique challenges in American society, but we can’t see the big picture as long as society pretends that a rising tide lifts all women’s boats. Even praising the 19th Amendment, which gave many women the right to vote, is incomplete without acknowledging Black women and women of color who were still disenfranchised decades after the bill passed.

No fan fiction, please
How can we place women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, abolitionists as well as suffragettes, on the same level as women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose legacy is tinged with racism, who fought against the rights of Black men? 

We can’t. 

Our nation’s first woman senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, advocated for lynching to continue in the south. White women have consistently fought for their rights, but we shouldn’t pretend as if they didn’t do so at the expense of others.

Any conversation about women’s history that ignores white women weaponizing their privilege to diminish Black women is fan fiction. 

Allison Wiltz is a womanist scholar and the editor of Cultured. Find her @queenie4rmnola.

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