Ain't I Still A Woman

This September, I spoke at the March on Washington Film Festival for the documentary Chisholm ’72 – Unbought & Unbossed, which highlighted Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign. As the first Black congresswoman and the first woman to vie for the Democratic presidential nomination, Chisholm left a legacy on the political history of this country. I revisited her incredible journey from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant to Capitol Hill. As a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971, Shirley Chisholm tried to lead her largely male colleagues to a new vision.

Chisholm’s passion and diligence to achieve both racial and gender equality reminded me of the longstanding history of the resistance to acknowledging Black women as pioneers for social change.

“This ‘woman thing’ is so deep,” Chisholm observed. Despite how far we have come in the 400 years since the arrival of the first enslaved people, this remains the ultimate bind for many Black women.

Historians and storytellers have made strides in recent years to recognize the contributions of Black women to Black American narratives. The digital age makes it easier to recognize and celebrate these great lives, and to acknowledge the resistance that women of color have encountered, not only from the White male establishment, but also from progressives and colleagues within the women’s movement.

We know the names of some of the freedom fighters: Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate famous for her Ain’t I a Woman? speech at the Women’s Rights Convention in 1851; Ida B. Wells, journalist and suffragist, who fought for anti-lynching legislation and helped establish civil rights organizations such as the NAACP. Dorothy I. Height, former president of the National Council of Negro Women and known for her vital work on school desegregation, equal pay for women and voting rights. Ella Baker who was a key architect of the Civil Rights Movement and mentor to those in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lawyer and women’s rights activist, Pauli Murray coined the phrase "Jane Crow" to define discrimination faced by Black women, worked alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and wrote a book that supported the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. And Diane Nash helped organize lunch counter protests and Freedom Rides. She was also a key organizer during the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights marches in 1965.

Yet despite tireless organizing and advocacy efforts, their stories are too rarely told. And the narratives in this country and in our movements around leadership are too limited. Those narratives track the reality that there are too few women of color and even fewer Black women in leadership roles across professions. As a result, the issues that most affect women of color are not addressed with the urgency they require from people who hold the most influence.

"Despite our tireless organizing and advocacy efforts, the stories of Black women activists are too rarely told There are too few women of color and even fewer Black women in leadership roles across professions."

The United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates among wealthy countries, and Black mothers have a higher pregnancy-related mortality ratio than women of other races. In a 2018 report, The New York Times found that Black infants are more than twice as likely to die as White infants and often register low-birth weights. It observed that this racial disparity is wider than in 1850, just 15 years before slavery came to an end.

Consider the epidemic of gender-based violence. Black girls, women and non-binary people are especially vulnerable to abuse. About 22 percent of Black women in the United States are raped, while 40 percent are projected to experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Black women are murdered as a result of intimate partner violence at a higher rate than any other group of women, and financial abuse is one of the top reasons why women are often unable to leave.

Research shows that women are typically paid 80 cents for every dollar paid to their White male counterparts. For Black women, when their salaries are compared to White men, this falls to only 61 cents. This gap, amounting to a loss of $23,653 a year, means unnecessary economic hardship and unfulfilled potential for millions of Black women and girls.

Yet even under grim data, the tides are slowly changing. Shirley Chisholm would be encouraged by the record number of women in Congress, especially Brown and Black women. Issues that impact the health and well-being of women are central to our national discourse. And they are leading the charge for policymakers to respond. We have been proud to join with Tarana Burke to launch #MeTooVoter, a campaign to pressure political leaders to put forward meaningful solutions to address and prevent sexual violence.

Sojourner Truth famously said, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again.”

Sojourner Truth famously said, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again.” Black women are showing up in ways their mothers and grandmothers (indeed my own mother and grandmothers) could only have dreamed of, guiding us all through this especially precarious moment where the very fabric of our democracy is at risk.

The stakes are high, and Black women leaders are in a unique place to keep the momentum going. They can speak up for values of respect, inclusion and integrity. They can strategize for progress. America needs this leadership more than ever.

— Fatima Goss Graves is the president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center.

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