Bean and I weren’t invited to participate in the Right Wing News “20 greatest Americans” survey (see my previous post for more info on that).
If I had been, I definitely would have included Alice Paul on my list. Alice Paul was a suffragist – possibly the most famous suffragist in the world in her heyday, although today she’s not remembered very much compared to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But Paul was probably the single most important activist working for the 19th Amendment; while Stanton and Anthony concentrated on getting women the vote at the state level, Paul focused unerringly on the grand prize of a constitutional amendment emancipating all women, nationwide.
Paul is also a hero of mine because of her considerable courage. To shame President Wilson and other Democrats into supporting suffrage, she staged protest after protest, including hunger strikes – actions that might seem extreme, but that kept the issue in the front pages and on the minds of American voters. She was arrested three times, held without any contact to friends, family or even a lawyer; she was isolated, force-fed rancid, worm-ridden food, sometimes beaten. But she was never deterred.
Intellectually, Paul is also an important foremother to modern feminist thought. While other suffragists argued that women deserved the vote because of women’s special feminine nature – women were inherently more honest, would vote unselfishly and thus clean up government, etc etc – Paul insisted that women deserved the vote because women were equal as human beings, not better or worse.
My second choice would probably have been Ella Baker - a woman who, despite being virtually unknown to the larger American public, may have the most important person in the civil rights movement. While Martin Luther King Jr. was out being a spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Baker stayed out of the limelight and organized the SCLC – despite the sexism that made many male civil rights leaders object to a woman in charge.
Although her backstage work was essential to the SCLC’s success, Baker objected to the “top-down” approach to activism the SCLC practiced; Baker felt that grass-roots organizing to build stronger communities was a better long-term strategy. Baker went on to be a vital organizer of the SNCC.
A few other women I would have had to consider including on my list (in no particular order):
- Betty Friedan. I’m not sure that it’s possible to point to any single figure and say “she was the most responsible for starting the modern feminist movement” – but if there is such a figure, it would be Betty Friedan. Friedan not only wrote the book that kick-started the second wave, The Feminine Mystique, she co-founded NOW and NARAL.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman. There’s been a recent wave of feminist books pointing out that economic equality between men and women is probably impossible until the institution of motherhood is re-examined. What few of those books point out is that it was all said by Gilman over a century ago – and that’s just a tiny portion of Gilman’s work. Most famous now for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman – as a suffragist, lecturer, novelist, and social scientist – may have been the most important female intellectual in American history.
- Do you personally know anyone who died in childbirth? A century ago, most Americans would have answered “yes”; now, most say “no.” That’s an astonishing change – and the person most responsible for it was Margaret Sanger. Every American who has ever had heterosexual sex should thank Margaret Sanger – her work in favor of birth control made sex safer, enabling women to control their reproductive health more than ever before. Sanger was involved on every level – health policy, political campaigning, lawsuits, even securing funding to help develop the pill – and her work revolutionized American reproductive life. Towards the end of her life, Sanger concentrated more on international reproductive health, and continuing her work remains vital today.
- Kate Mullaney, who organized the first women’s labor union in US history.
- Jane Addams What can you say about someone for whom helping to found the ACLU was the least of her accomplishments? In the first third of the 20th century, there was virtually no progressive movement that Addams didn’t play an important role in.
- Harriet Tubman. Anti-slavery activist, women’s rights activist, smuggler of slaves to freedom, spy for the North during the civil war, builder of housing for the elderly… It’s hard to believe how much Tubman did in only a single lifetime.
- Victoria Woodhull - one of the nation’s first female stock brokers, the very first female candidate for the US Presidency (she ran in 1872; her vice-presidential candidate was Frederick Douglass), and an important suffragist.
- Frances Wright was at least a century ahead of her time. While other white anti-slavery activists were too-often arguing that blacks were of course not equal but should be freed anyway, Wright argued for absolute equality – including sexual equality and mixing between the races, a position that made her widely hated. Wright was also involved in the Workingman’s movement of the 19th century and the women’s movement.
- And some better-known folks who would honor any list: Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Of course, there are many, many more notable women in American history… (and much more to be said about the few women listed here), but these are the women who came to mind first for me.