Reclaiming Our Word

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute. Rebecca West 1892–1983

What kind of year was 2017 for feminism? On January 21 we saw the largest single-day protest in American history when an estimated 3 to 4 million people joined the Women’s March. Also in January Jeanette Epps was selected to be the first African-American crew member of the space-station. She’ll board the station in May 2018.

In February, Senate Republicans stopped Senator Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King in 1986 criticizing Jeff Sessions. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s defense for the action was: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted” creating the social media storm: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Nevertheless she persisted

Rosie the Riveter and “Nevertheless She Persisted” at San Francisco March for Truth

In March, an all-female Air India crew circled the globe supported entirely by female engineers, ground staff, and air traffic controllers.

In April of 1967, at the age of 20, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. In April, 2017, fifty years later, she ran it again. (She is pictured above in 1967 as irate race official Jock Semple tried to forcibly remove her from the race. Photo courtesy Boston Herald.)

In June, Lt. Col. Megan Brogden became the first woman Commander of an Army Special Forces battalion taking command of the Group Support Battalion, 3rd Special Forces.

In July, during a House Financial Services Committee meeting, when Representative Maxine Waters asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin why he had not responded to a written request for information about the President’s financial ties to Russia he tried to evade the question with vague ramblings and compliments. Waters was having none of it and used the phrase “reclaiming my time,” as a House floor procedure to keep him from using up her allotted time for questions. The scene and the phrase were an instant internet hit.

In August, Chile’s powerful women’s movement working with grassroots groups convinced the Constitutional Tribunal to ease the country’s total ban on abortion. The new law is a small, but vital step towards progress in women’s rights.

In October, Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened became an immediate best seller, and a single tweet, #MeToo, exploded on social media and created a movement to raise awareness of sexual harassment and assault. Women around the world continue to break the silence and speak out. The Me Too movement that began 10 years ago was the brain child of activist Tarana Burke who created Just Be Inc., a nonprofit helping victims of sexual harassment and assault. Her goal then, as it is now, is to amplify the victims’ voices.

For three days in November, Uruguay hosted Encuentro Feminista where feminist activists and members of women’s organizations came together for celebration, education and exchange of ideas and strategies.

In the US, November elections brought political gains for many “intersectional” candidates.  If you are not familiar with “intersectionality,” I highly recommend this Ted Talk with Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw who, in 1989, introduced the idea of intersectionality.


November victories for “intersectional” candidates:

  • Danica Roem was elected Virginia’s first transgender lawmaker.
  • Dawn Adams became the first openly lesbian member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota Andrea Jenkins became America’s first openly transgender woman of color elected to the city council.
  • Nashua, New Hampshire elected Shoshanna Kelly as the first woman of color as city alderman.
  • Michelle De La Isla became the first Hispanic mayor Topeka, Kansas.
  • Lisa Middleton was elected to the Palm Springs, California, City Council becoming the first transgender person elected in the state.
  • Vi Lyles became Charlotte, North Carolina’s first African-American female mayor.
  • Jenny Durkan was elected Seattle’s first openly lesbian mayor.
  • Mary Parham Copelan became Milledgeville, Georgia’s first female African-American mayor.
  • Kathy Tran became the first Asian American female elected to Virginia House of Delegates.
  • Mazahir Salih is the first Sudanese-American elected to the Iowa City Council.
  • Joyce Craig became the first female mayor in Manchester, New Hampshire.
  • Cathy Murillo was elected the first Latina mayor of Santa Barbara, California.
  • Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala become first Latinas elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.
  • Yvonne Spicer became the first black woman mayor in Framingham, Massachusetts.
  • Manka Dhingra won her Washington State Senate seat race.
  • In New Jersey Sheila Oliver became its first female African-American lieutenant governor.
  • Janet Diaz became the first Latina member of city council in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  • Laura Curran is the first female county executive in New York’s Nassau County.
  • My apologies to those I may have missed. Please feel free to add your/their name and the amazing accomplishment in the comments!

In December, black women lead the way for Doug Jones to win a special election for an Alabama Senate seat. The victory was an enormous win for not only Democrats, but for women whose sexual harassment claims have been disregarded. Also in December the Time Person of the Year was awarded to “The Silence Breakers,” the people who risked coming forward to report sexual misconduct. At the end of the year Emily’s List reported that over 22,000 women contacted them to either help in elections or run for office.

It was no great surprise that the Merriam-Webster dictionary selected “feminism” as its word of the year for 2017.

A “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests” sounds pretty simple and straight forward doesn’t it? So why does the mere mention of the word feminism send folks to their knees praying for salvation?

Feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. Rev Pat Robertson, August, 1992

Sadly, in the last few years we’ve seen a resurgence of ugly remarks about feminism in mainstream media. But what does it say about the current view of feminism when 53% of white women, many who claim to support the idea of equality of the sexes, voted for an admitted abuser? I can’t pretend to understand why people vote against their own interests, but I do believe that opposition to the word feminism is largely because the word has been hijacked. It has been maligned by radio and media hosts, twisted in tweets and memes to imply that feminists are women who hate men, and used to scare moderate or conservative leaning voters. If those tactics sound familiar, it is because they were also used against Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential race.

In my mind, it is past time for “reclaiming our word.” And while we’re at it, we must find healthy and inclusive ways of using feminism to serve all women. An important lesson I have learned since the 60s and 70s is that we are not all dealt the same hand. The feminist movement that supported me as a white woman with inherent privilege has not served the needs of many others. It is time for that to change.

We must work so that all women are included in the dialogue and that we listen, really listen, to each other. In recent years we have watched a political party under the guise of religion and patriotism whittle away at the hard-earned rights of women and minorities. That trend stops now.

Though it may not feel like it, 2017 has been a stellar year for feminists, and 2018 promises to be even more so. We are awake. We are strong. And we know that together we can restore order in this dangerous and troubling time.

I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept. – Angela Davis

Jean Sheldon

Jean Sheldon

Persistent by Jean SheldonJean Sheldon, activist, poet, writer, and a Woman On Purpose, is author of mysteries, many articles, and, most recently, a book of poetry (Persistent: Poems by Jean Sheldon). See more by her and about her on her website: http://www.jeansheldon.com. Follow her on Twitter: @penultimatepen 

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