As February eases into March, Black History Month observances will soon give way to celebrations of Women’s History. Sadly, this may come as a relief to those who embrace a gender-based, yet colorblind, identity politics. As one who experiences marginalization at the intersections of racism and patriarchy, I am compelled to challenge any reading of Women’s History that obscures or otherwise reinforces racism, just as I resist narratives of Black History that reify patriarchal norms. This dual consciousness is captured in the title of the Black Women’s Studies anthology, But Some of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men: Black Women’s Studies. It reminds us that our power to disrupt structural oppression requires a capacity to build bridges, not walls, across identities, issues, and the movements they inform. Mainstream commemorations too often overlook the fact that categories of oppression that are experienced simultaneously can neither be understood nor dismantled in isolation. We must all be brave therefore and resist the temptation to frame justice in discrete and exclusive terms.
A couple of years ago, when the Enquirer invited my thoughts on the 90th Anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving “women” the right to vote, I responded in a similar vein. It seems appropriate to reprint my essay of August 22, 2010, here:
Women’s right to vote, codified in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, marks an important chapter in the long struggle to expand the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship. As a consequence of their participation in the political process women have made major strides towards representational parity with men in education and the workforce and are a significant factor in electoral politics, having contributed disproportionately to the plurality that elected the nation’s first African American President. At the same time however, celebration of that progress must be tempered by a realistic critique of its shortcomings. There is ample evidence that the mere right to political participation does not guarantee political power. Women are paid 77 cents for every dollar of male earnings. They experience higher rates of poverty than men. An astonishing 1 in 4 college-age and 1 in 6 women overall have experienced rape or attempted rape. They comprise a miniscule 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs. And this is just aggregate data. If women overall still have a long way to go, women of color, who constitute the largest share of poor, homeless, jobless, uneducated, and uninsured women, have even more ground to make up. Indeed, the persistent disparities among women highlight the instability of “women” as a category of political analysis.
The tendency to universalize women as “white” obscures the failure of the 19th Amendment to advance the rights of all women equitably. Indeed, though the women’s suffrage movement was spawned by the anti-slavery movement and had strong support from prominent black abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, it soon jettisoned the cause of racial equality and solidarity with black women when confronted with the prospect that the 15th Amendment would grant suffrage to black men before white women attained it. Ultimately, even after the 19th Amendment removed sex as a barrier to voting, black women (and black men and other persons of color) did not effectively gain the right to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and even, continued to face barriers to the exercise of that right. Forty-five years later, felon disfranchisement has replaced the poll tax as a major obstacle to black political participation.
As we appraise the gains of the past 90 years, we must not lose sight of the contradiction between “women’s” advancement and the disempowerment of millions of women, men, and children of color. The lesson is clear; women and their male allies must embrace a politics that confronts the racism, ethnocentrism, classism, heterosexism, and religious oppression that fracture coalitions and structure in-equality. Sojourner Truth’s powerful challenge “Ain’t I a Woman?” stands as a reminder that the standards by which we measure our rights must be the same for all.
It is in this spirit that I will observe this Women’s History Month, reminded that we can’t parse our common history and common destiny as neatly as we turn the pages of the calendar.
Cheryl Nunez is the Assistant to the President for Diversity and Equity at Xavier. Her enormous title still does not do justice to her presence on campus as she works to extend the benefits of a Jesuit education to as many people as possible. She went east for her undergraduate degree, to a big little school that starts with an H and ends with arvard. She has worked in educational, non-profit and corporate institutions all over Cincinnati, making this a better city for everyone.