Speaking of Women's Rights: 03/17

Friday, March 31, 2017

Women Making History: Sojourner Truth

By Philip Bouie

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Sojourner Truth, abolitionist, feminist, evangelist and women’s rights activist, was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in upstate New York around the year 1797. Blessed with a powerful voice, inspired by religious conviction, and standing almost six-feet tall, Truth used an aggressive platform style of engaging her audiences that attributed to her personal charisma. Legend has it that Truth would bare her breasts before crude audiences who challenged her womanhood. Harriet Beecher Stowe once said that she had never met anyone who had more of a subtle and powerful presence than Sojourner Truth.

The state of New York began emancipating all slaves on July 4, 1827. However, Sojourner Truth didn’t wait for her freedom to be granted. In late 1826, Truth escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia, while her other children stayed behind. After her escape, Truth learned that her five-year-old son Peter had been illegally sold to a man in Alabama. She eventually took the issue to court and won the case. The trial was one of the first cases in the United States in which a black woman successfully challenged a white man in a court of law.

In 1844, Truth joined forces with notable abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and David Ruggles at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Massachusetts. The members of the Association lived together on 500 acres as a self-sufficient community and supported a broad agenda that also included women’s rights and pacifism. The Northampton community disbanded in 1846, but the legend of Sojourner Truth was just beginning.

In 1850 her memoirs were published under the title of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. William Lloyd Garrison wrote the book’s preface and Truth’s friend, Olive Gilbert, dictated her recollections because Truth could not read or write. After Truth spoke at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, she began touring the country, speaking to large audiences about slavery and human rights.

In May of 1851, Truth delivered her most famous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, a speech that would later be known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” The original version of the speech that was published in the Ohio newspaper The Anti-Slavery Bugle did not contain the phrase at all. The phrase would not appear in print until 12 years later, when a “southern-tinged” version of the speech was reprinted.

Truth toured Ohio from 1851 to 1853 and as her notoriety grew, the abolitionist movement grew with it. Even among fellow abolitionists, Truth’s positions were considered radical. Sojourner Truth was sagacious and outspoken, she sought political equality for all women and chastised the abolitionist community for not actively seeking civil rights for black women as well as men. Truth was also a staunch advocate for prison reform and the elimination of capital punishment. She eventually settled in Michigan where she would testify before the Michigan legislature as an opponent of capital punishment.

During the Civil War, Truth recruited troops for the Union Army, collected food and clothing for black regiments, and met with President Abraham Lincoln, who gave her permission to become a counselor at Freedman’s Village. After the Civil War, Truth immersed herself in securing land for ex-slaves during Reconstruction and dictated many letters, which would later provide pivotal details about Reconstruction.

Sojourner Truth died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883. Embraced by a community of reformers including Amy Post, Wendell Phillips, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, her funeral and burial in Battle Creek was the largest the town had ever seen at the time. That her journey began as an 11-year-old slave who was sold for a flock of sheep and $100, and her life was commemorated with an unveiled statue at the U.S. Capitol in 2009, is a testament to her character and her place in the history of the United States. Sojourner Truth was the personified confluence of women’s rights, civil rights, prison reform, property rights, and universal suffrage. She is one of the most remarkable people this country has ever known.

Philip Bouie is the Development Officer for Legal Voice. He is steadfast in his commitment to women’s rights, marginalized communities and eating desert on a daily basis. He’s also black like Sojourner Truth.

Photo from Creative Commons.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Extraordinary Ordinary: One Korean 20th Century Life

By Janet Chung

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

You wouldn’t know it, to look at her. This tiny, wizened, polite lady, with age spots on her face and hands. She loved to dress in the fanciest suits for church, her size 5 feet clad in fine Italian leather. She ate slowly, precisely, like a bird, carefully selecting each bite with chopsticks. Unfailingly patient, she tended her African violets, turning snips from one plant into many more, until they covered nearly every windowsill.

You wouldn’t know that those hands had washed thousands of grains of rice. That those feet had walked hundreds of miles, from village to village, escaping encroaching Communist soldiers. That there were many days that a small bowl of rice was a blessing.

Born in 1910 in Japanese-occupied Korea, she probably could easily escape notice, as the second girl in a family with five children. Nothing in particular was expected of a girl in that time, in that place, but to get married. Maybe it was that ability to be hidden in plain sight that got her, at age 14, on a boat to Japan, determined to get an education.

Some dozen years later, she was a widow with a young daughter. Her husband’s family, in keeping with tradition, was obligated to provide for her. She could have spent her days among the other females in the family, consumed by the daily chores as part of a large multi-generational household. But she knew her daughter would be far down the pecking order among the many cousins when it came to resources.

So she worked, for pay, outside the home. This world was unknown to most of her women kinfolk, who rarely had occasion to leave the house or interact with strangers. The stories came out slowly over the years, the exact chronology uncertain. Your grandmother was a tutor to her brother’s children in Japan. She worked at a U.S. Army base, helping cook for the Korean workers. She was a telephone switchboard operator. She taught at a local school. She was secretary to the head of the largest hospital in Seoul. And somewhere in there, she managed to get a pig, fatten it up, and sell it for extra income.

Slowly, slowly, she squirreled away her paychecks so that she could send her only daughter to school – so she would have more opportunity than what her gender and her fatherless state would otherwise have allowed.

There were no stories about my grandmother in a dramatic moment – fighting off an attacker, giving a rousing speech, or even having a confrontation. I can’t remember a time when she so much as raised her voice or had an argument.

So this isn’t a story about your typical heroine. No one will ever make a movie about my grandmother. In point of fact, Eun Soon Lee was quite ordinary. But the life she led was also extraordinary. There are probably many like her, now, then, throughout history: each life unique in its details, but sharing the plot line of survival.

Eun Soon Lee with Janet's son (2001).
There is an aspect of the Korean character, a cultural and psychological characteristic widely accepted as central to “Korean-ness,” called han. Described as “a national torch, a badge of suffering tempered by a sense of resiliency,” han manifests itself at the social and national level, as well as the personal. It is a deeply felt sense that some injustice has been wrought. On the one hand, it is a “mixture of angst, endurance and a yearning for revenge,” yet also, “a sense of hope, an ability to silently endure hardship and suffering.” Han is also the name of a major river flowing through Seoul that has played a major role in Korean history.

My grandmother’s life was replete with this Korean essence, this han. She didn’t choose the circumstances that befell her – born into an occupied state, subjected to early widowhood, living through two wars resulting from forces well beyond her control. Yet she retained agency over her own life and, like a river, created a path that moved inexorably forward. That backbone, erect as ever, even well into her 90s, must have been forged of pure steel – strong, yet tempered by resiliency. Han.

Janet Chung is Legal & Legislative Counsel for Legal Voice. She did not inherit her grandmother's green thumb, but tries to channel her work ethic and steady persistence. She is passionate about removing barriers to opportunities for women through her advocacy for health care access and employment justice.

Photos courtesy of Janet Chung.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Women Making History: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

By Sara Ainsworth

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, born in 1862, was an activist, teacher, and writer who, despite death threats and the destruction of her self-built newspaper, never stopped demanding an end to racial injustice. She was one of the leading voices in exposing the terrorism that white people inflicted on Black families through lynching, threats, and Jim Crow laws.

At a time when women editors, journalists, and newspaper owners were rare, she was all three. After publishing an exposé of the lynching of her friends, white mobs destroyed her newspaper and threatened her life.  She fled to England, where she continued to campaign against lynching. She gathered extensive evidence of the lynching of Black Southerners, and authored and published a widely-distributed pamphlet, “Southern Horrors.”

After returning to the U.S., she helped organize the National Association of Colored Women, and was one of two women who helped found the NAACP. She died in Chicago in 1931.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett contributed greatly to the future civil rights movement, to the end of Jim Crow laws, and to the movement to end lynching. Yet Black families continue today to experience threats, struggle, and violence—whether state-sanctioned or from individuals. Modern voices that echo Ida B. Wells-Barnett are critical.

Thankfully, the amazing leaders at Forward Together have provided a platform and a place of activism for the modern “Idas.” You can find their brilliant analysis on topics ranging from reproductive justice to the 2016 election to criminalization and public policy at Echoing Ida. Here, Black women writers and leaders in reproductive and racial justice provide insight, analysis, and brilliant writing on issues affecting Black women and LGBTQ people and their communities right now—and they publish that work in media outlets all around the country. As they explain, they are, like their namesake, “truthtellers.”

Women who have made history influence women who will make history, and Ida is surely no exception. I encourage you to read from Echoing Ida's ever-growing body of work, and support the women who are continuing Ida's legacy of justice.

As Advocacy Director for Legal Voice, Sara Ainsworth is committed to reproductive and racial justice, and to honoring and following the leadership of people of color. She is a huge fan of the Idas and jumped at this chance to promote their work.

Photo of Ida B. Wells-Barnett from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Women Making History: Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera (right) at the Christopher Street Liberation Day,
Gay Pride Parade, NYC in 1973.
By Lucy Sharp

This piece is part of a Women's History Month series of profiles and personal reflections—written by Legal Voice staff and volunteers—about women of color who have shaped history... or are on their way to doing so.

Sylvia Rivera was an activist fighting for racial and gender equality, the rights of transgender people, incarcerated people, and sex workers. While she had a very difficult life, she showed incredible dedication to her communities.

Sylvia Rivera had a difficult childhood. Her birth father abandoned her; her mother’s second husband was a drug dealer who showed little interest in her. When she was three, her mother killed herself with poison, and tried (unsuccessfully) to kill Sylvia along with her.

While she was assigned male at birth, she adopted a feminine gender presentation from a young age. She was subjected to colorism by her Venezuelan grandmother who disliked Sylvia’s dark skin that she inherited from her Puerto Rican father. Sylvia faced repeated verbal, physical and sexual abuse from her family and at school due to a combination of colorism, homophobia, and transphobia. This abuse eventually led her to run away from home and drop out of school. In Sylvia’s words she “basically grew up without love.”

At 10 she began working on the streets as a sex worker, later moving to live on the streets with other queer and transgender sex workers. In addition to abuse from her birth family, she faced racist, homophobic, and transphobic discrimination in employment, which kept her having to work as a sex worker. She simply couldn’t find a job that allowed her to express herself. Unfortunately, she was eventually arrested and wound up in jail for 90 days with men, who tried to rape her. As a preteen she attempted suicide and wound up in a mental hospital for two months.

However, during her teen years Sylvia also found meaning in participating in activism including on civil rights, the women’s movement, and protesting war against Vietnam. At 17, Sylvia Rivera claims to have been involved in the Stonewall riots, a rebellion against police and criminalization of queer sexuality which served as a focal point for a significant part of the gay rights movement.

Out of Stonewall formed many gay rights organizations including the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which Sylvia Rivera began attending. She soon found herself in conflict with other activists, however.  As one founding member of GAA described: “the general membership is frightened of Sylvia and thinks she’s a troublemaker. They’re frightened by the street people.” Syliva was also shunned by many lesbians who accused her of “parodying womanhood.” Sylvia once said, “[P]eople I called comrades in the movement, literally beat the shit out of me.”

Following her abuse and silencing by allies, Sylvia attempted suicide and dropped out of the more mainstream gay rights movement. She went on to co-found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) whose goal was to help kids living on the street by providing food, clothing, and housing at a home known as STAR House. STAR also participated in demonstrations against police abuses. While Sylvia attempted to get other organizations including the GAA to help fund STAR’s efforts, they showed little interest. Instead Sylvia and her friend Marsha P. Johnson funded the project through their sex work. Unfortunately, STAR house was forced to close after an intermediary embezzled months of rent and STAR was evicted.

Sylvia Rivera also worked on a campaign to enact a New York City civil rights law that would protect queer and transgender people. She again faced disappointment when politicians and queer rights activists made a deal to remove the transgender protections from the final law. Sylvia, further disillusioned with the movement dropped out, and spent years being homeless.

Her life temporarily stabilized when she developed stable housing, a catering job and a relationship with her supportive transgender partner, Julia Murray. However, in 1992, when her friend Marsha P. Johnson died, she attempted suicide and returned to drug and alcohol addiction that had plagued her much of her life. She also returned to activism, criticizing the mainstream gay rights movement: “[A]fter all these years the trans community is still at the back of the bus”. In 2002 she died of liver cancer.

There is a tendency to try to oversimplify Sylvia’s story and make it simply about exclusion of the transgender community within the larger queer community. But this approach buries systemic problems of racism, poverty, severe trauma, and mistreatment of incarcerated people and sex workers that plagued her life as well.

Recognizing the tendency to oversimplify, nonetheless, I would offer a brief explanation of why I chose to write about her. There is a tendency in movements for the movement to be accessed and dictated by the most privileged within an oppressed group. Just as LGB people often exclude trans people, white trans-women often exclude or ignore concerns of trans-women of color. Often, the most marginalized or scarred people have their traumas buried and left unseen or unaddressed.

Sylvia’s experiences with drug addiction, suicidality, sex work, and incarceration marginalized her, and would leave her marginalized in many activist spaces today. But in spite of her suffering, she did not let that marginalization be the final word. She struggled with all of her heart to help her community, and those like her. She made it to New York City Hall to advocate for the trans-community, even if according to her, she needed to shoot up heroin in the restroom to get through it. I deeply admire her perseverance in the face of her pain, trauma, and oppression.

On a final note, discussing Sylvia Rivera as part of Woman’s History month might seem a bit odd, to those who know her history. While Sylvia Rivera is commonly labeled as an early transgender woman activist, it’s unclear whether she would feel comfortable with this.

Sylvia Rivera was assigned male at birth, and presented with a feminine gender expression that under many definitions would make her transgender. However, she bristled at being labeled as transgender or a woman. She tried hormone therapy, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. Like many transfeminine people I know, she found the label of “woman” restrictive, as it implied measurement against a cis-woman norm. Or as she put it: “I don’t want to be a woman. Why? That means I can’t f*ck nobody up the ass. Two holes? No, no, no. That ain’t going to get it.” Instead she eschewed labels altogether: “I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to be a woman. I just want to be me. I want to be Sylvia Rivera.”

So there is some irony in writing about Sylvia for Women’s History month, when Sylvia rejected the label of “woman” for herself. It is not to undermine or disregard that decision that I chose to do so. It is more that, she spent so much of her life suffering, being scarred by abuse for simply wanting to express herself as who she was, and help others do the same. I feel like that struggle deserves to be honored, even if the label “woman” per se is inaccurate. Maybe at some point in the future Woman’s History month will be relabeled to be more inclusive of more non-binary identities, but I do not wish to wait for that moment to honor Sylvia Rivera’s courage and sacrifice for her community.

Lucy Sharp is Volunteer LGBTQ Legal & Policy Analyst for Legal Voice. Her research focuses on some of the issues that are most pressing for the transgender community, including health care, discrimination, restroom equality, and access to legal documentation accurately reflecting gender identities.

Photo of Sylvia Rivera by Leonard Fink. Featured with permission on OutHistory.com.

Additional sources:
  • Transgender History (2008), Susan Stryker
  • Still at the Back of the Bus: Sylvia Rivera's Struggle (2007), Jessi Gan. From The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (2013).