PLATTSBURGH — The work of women suffragists — Lucy Burns, Alice Paul, the Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters — was radical, Dr. Michelle Cromwell said.
“It was radical and it was courageous and the actions that these women took really heralded the call and demand for women’s suffrage,” they told attendees of the virtual Women’s Equality Day Forum co-hosted by the Clinton County Historical Association and the League of Women Voters of the North Country Wednesday.
“And if we think about it, this was truly an onslaught to male dominance, to patriarchy, and to the general oppression of women.
“All of this at a time when oppression in various forms was not just legal, but it was also sanctioned, and today I want to recognize and applaud the long way that we have come because we have come a long way.”
'NOTHING WAS GIVEN'
About 35 people participated in the virtual forum which featured a keynote by Cromwell, SUNY Plattsburgh’s vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as remarks by former Clinton County District Attorney, Plattsburgh City Court Judge and current league member Penny Clute and a video detailing the final push toward women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century.
Each year, Women's Equality Day marks the anniversary of when the 19th Amendment was adopted to the U.S. Constitution.
“I can't stand it when I see articles saying that we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of when women were given the right to vote,” Clute said.
“Nothing was given at all. There was a great deal of opposition that took thousands of people fighting for many many decades to achieve … the right to vote for women.”
Clute pointed to how the video acknowledged the presence of Black Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters from Howard University at the 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C.
While true, she said, white organizers of the parade refused to let any of these Black women march with white women, instead requiring them to march in the parade's rear.
“They did that, but it’s not all as rosy as depicted and I think it’s important for us to learn and to realize the racism that was present in the women's suffrage movement.”
Cromwell's message focused on the intersection of social justice, democracy and civil rights.
They said that, when talking about social justice, it was important to acknowledge historical and current injustices rooted in systems like racism, sexism and classism.
While the good work of the suffrage movement was occurring, “it was also battling with America’s unjust ethos of structural racism, of institutionalized racism and of other forms of oppression,” Cromwell said.
“The very workings of the system, I think, really helped to stall the way that this movement could have ended up had things been a little different.”
Cromwell asked attendees to imagine what would have happened if the process that led to women’s right to vote had been radically altered — essentially, if the women’s suffrage movement had worked in concert with the later civil rights movements.
“Imagine where we could have been and imagine what the web of experiences for many people, especially people in the margins, what would those experiences be like?”
INTERSECTION OF IDENTITIES
Cromwell described an “oppression cocktail” of racism, sexism and sexist racism that served to economically and socially oppress women, their children and their families.
That particularly impacted those who lived in rural areas, were poor and/or were of color.
“The thing is when the suffrage movement spoke about women, it usually referred to white women as the subject and that very often is an inconvenient fact that we really must speak about," they said.
"Black, indigenous and other women of color were often relegated to tangential positions."
Cromwell said race was only part of the equation, and that in order to have a comprehensive understanding of the experiences of women, citizens and all voters, “we have to see the ways that people's varied identities intersect to reinforce and realize oppression in so many different forms.”
“We have to understand the ways that social forces intersect and come together to prevent citizens from being free, from being American.”
Cromwell said evidence points to an increase in oppressive practices, including voter suppression, and she questioned the effectiveness of interventions and opportunities for equality and freedom.
“As we consider a response to this question, I also ask you to consider what is getting in the way of equality and what is getting in the way of freedom?”
Cromwell described structural racism as an inescapable, insidious system that supports and affirms domination and oppression.
“We have to be able to name it, we have to be able to see it and we have to be able to understand when it morphs, when it changes its shape and when it hides.
“We have to openly and honestly affirm that this system affirms that whites as a group benefit at the expense of Blacks, African-Americans, Latinx and other people of color.”
Cromwell said racism presents a challenge since it operates historically to inform the present, and in ways that seldom leave a track or enable people to see what is happening and do something about it.
Cromwell encouraged everyone to do some self-examination.
They shared a quote from Black feminist writer Audre Lord: “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within us.”
“While we have little difficulty assessing our own victimization or the oppression of others, we very often fail to acknowledge how our own thoughts, our own words and our own actions hold others subordinate and oppress others,” Cromwell said.
“What this quote is really asking us to do is to do some self-examination for how each of us holds the oppressor within us.”
Cromwell urged white women to simultaneously see the oppression of women and not resist seeing the dominance and privilege that comes with being white, and how that may disadvantage those they work with and for.
“This is not just work for white folks,” they continued. “Also, people of color similarly can sometimes engage in very eloquent explanations of racism, but people of color also need to understand and to see how poor white people can be both oppressed and privileged.”
Speaking as a Black, non-binary woman, Cromwell said they had to be aware of many parts of their identity that privilege them.
“I have to not resist seeing the ways that I’m dominant because when I resist seeing the ways that I’m dominant, I’m also resisting seeing the ways that I subordinate people and that is a problem when I am trying to do this work of social justice, of democracy and of civil rights.”
CALLS TO ACTION
Cromwell closed out their talk with three calls to action, first asking attendees to recognize the differences they all have in power and privilege.
Secondly, they advocated for the creation of coalitions around common causes to defeat common ills experienced by many and, also, those on the margins.
Lastly, Cromwell wanted people to build their capacities for empathy, acknowledging that apathy can prevent us from seeing the troubles and lives of others.
"Let us try to see how race, class and gender intersect and create an intricate web of experiences for people.
“When we do that, we can see the special tapestry of someone’s personal biography, but this time from an equity-minded lens.”
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