[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of contexts. Leading up to this weekend post on our 21st century movement!]
We all know the myriad challenges facing American women in 2023, but fortunately we have a phenomenal group of activists of all types helping fight them. Here are just a handful of them (add more in comments, please!):
1) Terry O’Neill: The closest thing we have in the 21st century to the women’s rights conventions of the 19th is organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Any one of NOW’s recent leaders would be well worth highlighting in this slot, but I’m gonna go with O’Neill, the organization’s president from 2009 to 2017. Anybody who got their start in politics fighting against David Duke’s campaign for Louisiana Governor gets a gold start in my book, and O’Neill has also become a leading voice against transphobia, which it shouldn’t need saying is also a 21st century women’s rights issue (but too often seems to).
2) Judy Chicago: While this week’s series focused specifically on a social and political event, the women’s rights movement has always been driven as much by artists and cultural figures as by political ones. For more than half a century, one of America’s foremost feminist artists has been Judy Chicago, whose art installations in particular have traced many of the issues, debates, ideas, and identities at the movement’s heart across those decades. The upcoming New Museum retrospective promises to capture much of what has made Chicago such a key part of the women’s movement for so long.
3) Roxane Gay: One of my favorite not-yet-written ideas for a column or post or whateveryagot would be to put Fanny Fern, one of our greatest journalists and writers, in direct conversation with the late 1840s & early 1850s women’s movement (of which she was an exact contemporary as she was first rising to striking prominence). When it comes to 21st century journalists and writers, none are more talented nor more interconnected with the women’s movement than Roxane Gay—and that’s despite (or really more related to) her calling one of her first books Bad Feminist (2014). If historians and the world are around 150 years from now, they’ll be reading Gay alongside today’s movement just as much as I’d put Fern alongside her era’s.
4) Jane Fonda: Most of the women involved in organizing the Seneca Falls convention continued to be active in the movement for decades after, a reminder that any one moment is part of a much longer continuum (for individuals and movements alike). If anything, advances in medical care and other factors have allowed folks not only to live longer on average than ever before (and certainly than in the mid-19th century), but to remain hugely active as they do. And no one embodies that trend more than Jane Fonda, whose activism in her 80s—activism which has consistently been on behalf of women’s rights, although not limited to any one issue or angle to be sure—is as impressive as that of any 21st century figure.
5) Jacqueline Wernimont: Obviously I was gonna include a public scholarly voice and activist in this list, and I don’t know any who is doing more interesting and meaningful women’s rights public scholarly work (among many other subjects) than Wernimont. To cite just one particularly influential example, her co-edited (with Elizabeth Losh) book Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities (2018) offers a vital model for how to link feminism, DH scholarship and work, theory and practice, and more, reminding us that scholars and researchers have our own role to play in every social and political movement, including the 21st century women’s movement to be sure.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?