5 unsung women who changed feminism forever
Unsung heroes in the fight for gender equality
Conventional wisdom often tells us that one powerful woman is enough for the historical record. That's why we idolize the same women over and over.
Those who aren't cast as icons, however, no matter how influential or impressive, are forgotten or become footnotes in our collective memory.
Every year during Women's History Month, we acknowledge how such a narrow view of the past still burdens us today. Women who can't identify with the mainstream heroes chosen for them may feel they have no place in greater society or role in the struggle to achieve gender equality.
It doesn't have to be this way.
"Once we know a story, we can act differently," says Shelly Eversley, associate professor of English at Baruch College, The City University of New York. "Once we have facts, we can imagine new stories."
"Once we have facts, we can imagine new stories."
Eversley, who teaches about the intersections of gender, race, class and sexuality in American literature and culture, launched a free online resource called the Equality Archive last fall. The project, which currently has nearly 100 entries and continues to grow, is an inspiring year-round antidote to history by omission.
Here are just five of the women whose lives and work are documented and celebrated by the Equality Archive.
Over her long career, Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) wrote 26 books of poetry and 10 books of prose. Though Rich was an unforgiving critic of systems and institutions that oppressed those without a voice, she might be best known to a mainstream audience for the appearance of her poems in the memoir and film Wild.
When she died at the age of 82, the New York Times described her as "a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work...brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century."
Rich, a lesbian, popularized the term "compulsory heterosexuality" in a 1980 essay, which argued that heterosexuality is presented as the only acceptable form of sexual and romantic expression.
She did not shy from turning moments of professional recognition into political statements. When Rich received the National Book Award in 1973, she accepted it with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, her fellow nominees, on behalf of all women. In 1997, she refused the National Medal of Arts from the Clinton administration, citing its "cynical politics."
Grace Lee Boggs
The children of Chinese immigrants, Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) received her Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr in 1940, but struggled to find a teaching position. She ultimately became one of the most influential advocates of the 20th century, but her activism could never be contained to just one cause. Her commitment to human rights encompassed fighting for gender equality, civil rights, environmental justice and economic equity.
Boggs and her activist husband, James Boggs, supported the Black Power movement for many years and she also embraced nonviolent strategies to achieve social justice. Boggs, who lived in Detroit, created civic organizations, food cooperatives and a youth leadership program.
Boggs considered her many-layered identity a gift.
"Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I would have not realized from early on that fundamental changes were necessary in our society," she wrote in her memoir Living for a Change. "Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I might have ended up teaching philosophy at a university, an observer rather than an active participant in the humanity-stretching movements that have defined the last half of the twentieth century."
In 1987, Gloria Anzaldúa (1942–2004) published Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, a book of poems and essays that boldly challenged the notion of a singular identity.
A Chicana lesbian activist and writer, Anzaldúa looked at the border between Mexico and the United States as more than just a physical demarcation; it was instead a lived experience of existing between two or more worlds, cultures and languages.
This experience is defined by contradiction and ambivalence, Anzaldúa argued. In Borderlands/La Frontera, she coined the term "mestiza consciousness," which described an interweaving of multiple identities that allow people to transgress cultural norms and expectations.
Anzaldúa's inclusive and intersectional feminism had a profound influence on the movement for gender equality and the way we talk about identity today.
Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) was a pioneer on transgender issues long before the subject of transitioning was featured on magazine covers and television specials.
Rivera, a Puerto Rican drag queen who identified as a woman, is most famous for her critical role in the gay rights movement sparked by the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising.
Rivera belonged to the Gay Activists Alliance and cofounded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (later renamed to Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries), an organization that worked with homeless trans and drag queen youth.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization based in New York City, carries on the spirit of Rivera's work by providing legal services that ensure "all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence."
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005) became the first African-American congresswoman. Chisholm, who was a nursery school teacher, won her newly created district in Brooklyn by campaigning on a motto of "unbought and unbossed."
She advocated fiercely for the interests of her low-income and black constituency, sponsoring legislation to increase federal subsidies for longer hours at daycare facilities and becoming a key backer of the federal school lunch program.
Just four years into her political career, Chisholm became the first black woman to run for president on the Democratic ticket. She campaigned across the country and earned an impressive 152 delegate votes. By 1974, "Fighting Shirley" Chisholm was ranked among the top 10 most admired women in America, according to a Gallup Poll. In 1982, she retired from Congress.
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