NCNW joins the nation in observing Women’s History during the month of March. Coincidentally, or perhaps providentially, Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, President Emerita of NCNW, was born on March 24th and each year NCNW celebrates her legacy with a special program of activities.
Just as we pay special attention to the accomplishments of Black women and men during February, Women’s History Month provides an occasion to pause and reflect on how women of all colors and creeds have shaped the nation’s history and how they are influencing its future right now. We observe Women’s History Month to repair some of the damage the nation has suffered by stifling the talent and ambition of half of its population for centuries.
There is much for women to celebrate. Vice President Kamala Harris is the first woman (and first woman of African descent and first person of Asian descent) to ascend to the Vice Presidency. More and more women are being elected to public office, including Black women. Amanda Gorman, a young Black woman and the United States’ first-ever youth poet laureate, recited a powerful poem she wrote for the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. A nation hungry for optimism and seeking “light in this never-ending shade” was wowed and inspired by a stirring call to civic duty, unity, and national purpose. Ms. Gorman urged us to “Lift our gaze not to what stands between us but what stands before us.”
By decree of the National Women’s History Alliance, the theme for Women’s History Month is carried over from 2020 – “Valiant women of the vote refuse to be silenced.” There are so many untold stories of valiant women who have made and remade the nation, in spite of and because of a culture that prefers them silent and submissive. There have always been women who were willing, able, and compelled to go against the grain. And many of them urged more political independence for women. It is sad and too frequent that some women feel compelled by artificially assigned roles even today to vote against their own interests.
A cursory review of the history of women in the United States reveals that as a nation, we have been slow to share political power with women. Not because women did not want influence, or did not demand it, but in spite of the demands, demonstrations and campaigns. India, Israel, United Kingdom (Great Britain), Peru, Norway, China and many other nations have managed to achieve something that still eludes the United States – the election of a woman as President.
Historically, women in the U.S. have had to exert their influence from the margins. The old “leading from behind.” One of my favorite examples is Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams. Though she could not vote, she refused to surrender her voice. Abigail Adams wasn’t shy about expressing her political beliefs. Before the United States came into existence and long before her husband, John, became the nation’s second president, she wrote him letters advocating for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. “I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province,” she wrote on Sept. 22, 1774.”
Growing up in rigidly segregated Greenville, South Carolina, the main venue for family recreation was the Phillis Wheatley Center. It was our country club. You could swim, take dance and piano, play tennis and basketball. Eventually, I learned that the center was named for an 18th century Black woman poet who used her artistic genius to promote the abolition of slavery nearly 100 years before the Civil War. In the past decade, Wheatley scholars have uncovered poems, letters, and more facts about her life and her close association with 18th-century Black abolitionists. She was another woman who refused to be silenced. Often the price for speaking out has been heavy. Phillis Wheatley Peters died uncared for and alone on December 4, 1784, her husband John Peters having been incarcerated for debt.
NCNW’s very own founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune certainly fits into the mold of those women who refused to be silenced. She did enough good for two lifetimes – she started a hospital for Black folk in Daytona Beach, integrated Black women into the Women’s Army Corps, led FDR’s Black Cabinet and was instrumental in building the UNCF and ASALH. Once when a white man called her Auntie (a common slur of the time) and commented that she probably made good biscuits, she replied that she had started a college, led a federal agency and was President of NCNW and calmly added, and “I do make very good biscuits.” Still, the names of men like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois are known to nearly every Black person in the U.S. Bethune was a contemporary of both men and did a lot to synthesize their contrasting social and economic perspectives. Bethune understood that neither industrial education nor political rights alone would be sufficient to liberate Black Americans. Her life and work can be viewed as a study in combining both approaches in the practical way that many women approach problem-solving.
Throughout the history of this nation, we have been blessed with talented women who are now insisting that they come out of the margins and take their rightful place as leaders of the nation. It is altogether fitting that as a nation we should celebrate and amplify the voices of women leaders – not just to honor them, but to create a more perfect union. As Ms. Gorman reminds us, “Love becomes our legacy and our children’s birthright.” It is up to the women to “Rebuild, reconcile and recover.”