Tag Archives: Civil and political rights

Misogyny and Masculinity in the US Military by Jacob Steele

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed. So we are now allowed to be as misogynist and violent as they are. Well, good job. We can now hate women and outside cultures as good as the next man. Just don’t call me “fag,” or I’ll kick your fuckin’ ass.

We’re now allowed to serve the military machine, the clearest and finest example of patriarchy our country has to offer. Is this really a step forward? African-American men were allowed to serve in all specializations some time ago. Women of all races could serve fully in 1981 (just not in combat, because women can’t kick ass or take names like a man can). And now women and men of whatever sexual orientation, in 2011. Have those oppressed groups that went before us, integrating into the military, changed the institution from the inside? Have they made it a less oppressive, less violent expression of the hegemonic masculinity? Or have those souls who have already been admitted only been subverted into that masculinity themselves?

Fully a third of military women will be sexually assaulted or raped during their time on active duty. Of those, a mere 8% of their assailants will be brought up on charges, and basically none of those that are actually charged will be convicted or face penalties stronger than a short-term pay cut. And this is how we treat our own soldiers! Imagine what happens to those that are labeled “enemy.”

But this is the institution that we can now serve, outly and proudly. As this bill—the culmination of years, even lifetimes of work on the parts of many of us—goes into effect, it’s past time to think about what we’re asking for when we ask to be part of the old boys’ club. What exactly will membership get us? And what, precisely, is the price of that membership card?

The answer already seems clear. From the personage of Lt. Dan Choi, who was the de facto figurehead of the movement until the bill was passed earlier this year, to the ongoing efforts of Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the main thrust of the movement has been to prove that gay men and lesbians are just as good, just as hard, just as military, as their heterosexual counterparts. Lt. Choi, for example, once challenged a friend of mine to a push-up contest at a speaking event—but the self-styled leaders of our movement lack a critical lens at much deeper levels than this sort of machista bravado.

The masculinity that dominates the military and seeps into every aspect of our culture is itself pathological and destructive. This is borne out statistically, as above, and anecdotally, by thousands of stories of men soldiers’ violence against their wives and girlfriends, against women soldiers, and against other men. By pushing so hard to have the same rights that those straight white men take for granted, we have underplayed our hand. The question has not been and should not be “How can we get the same rights as them?” but “How did they ever get the right to rape, to batter, to destroy?”

Hopefully, the LGBTQ movement entering openly into the military will shed light on the fact that, right now, military men (and many non-military men) have those rights—rights which no one should ever have or want. Hopefully, our serving in the military will change the masculinity displayed by so many military men into one that is less violent, less misogynistic and (more obviously) less homophobic.

I fear, however, that our military service will only make those that are serving more violent, while the institutions we serve gain an air of “tolerance” and openness. I fear that gay men and lesbians will come to be seen as “normal” not because of an embracement of diverse sexuality in the public sphere, but because gay men and lesbians serving in the military will become closer to the norm—that is, violent and misogynistic. It’s up to us to not let the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell (and, soon, Defense of Marriage Act) be the end.

It’s up to us to keep living and discovering and activisting a new masculinity, to keep calling out, in the streets and in the courts and in our homes, the pathology of the dominant masculinity. And it’s up to us to explore, become, and teach ways of being men that exclude violence as a legitimate way of interacting with our world in the day-to-day, and certainly, at the least, exclude perpetrating sexual violence in any of its myriad forms. It’s up to us.

Jacob discussing life with una vieja in a 'retirement home' in Nicaragua as a member of the NGO Project HOPE, where he a group of sailors from the hospital ship USNS Comfort and other civilians were doing maintenance to the infrastructure of the retirement home

Jacob Steele is a former Navy Officer and veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom. He holds a Master’s degree in Media, Peace and Conflict studies from University for Peace, Costa Rica, and is currently rediscovering his native United States by motorcycle, bus, and car. He is 29.

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Day 5- Native American Women’s Activism

2005 Powwow

Image by Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

Native American women, like their Arab, Asian, black and Latina sisters, have also struggled in naming their own identities. Christopher Columbus’s geographic muddling typed the indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians” for centuries. Today Native American and Indian are used fairly interchangeably, but there is growing awareness as to the number and diversity of remaining tribes.

Many Latinas of indigenous heritage, from tribes that reigned from Central America up into modern-day Colorado, unlike activists in MEChA, do not identify as indigenous people or Native Americans because of the racism that plagues American societies. This is largely due to white supremacy and linguistic bigotry–Spanish-speaking indigenous people do not identify with English-speaking indigenous people and vice versa, but again, white, patriarchal society also has a stake in keeping minorities from unifying.

“Women who wish to share their similar experiences ought to be able to do so but [they should] do so within the context of being mindful that we are part of a larger body of people under siege and all of us are needed in the struggle.”[1]

Native American women were the first people to experience the violence, racism and sexism the English, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Germans brought with them from Europe. Very few women’s histories have been recorded from the time of European invasion and those stories that have been retold are suspicious in their details.

“Along with Pocahontas, Sacajawea is the best known of Native American women; the fact that both are remembered for the assistance that they rendered to white men is an aspect of national history that deserves more thoughtful attention than it has received.”[2]

These two Native American women have received the highest “honors” available in U.S. culture: Sacajawea was immortalized on a coin and Pocahontas got her own Disney movie.

“By implying that ‘noble’ Indians like Pocahontas recognized the superiority of non-Indian culture and consequently wanted Europeans to overrun their lands, it allowed whites to rationalize their illegal and immoral seizure of Indian lands.”[3] Indeed, the whitewashed storytelling about Native Americans nearly always places European culture in a superior role, and only when the “savages” recognize this are they “saved” and brought into Christianity.

The sheer number of people who were killed by violence and disease after the arrival of Europeans limits the available historical examples of Native American women but, anthologies of Native American women have recorded stories from tribes across the country about remarkable and heroic women.

Among them is Lozan, “the only Apache woman known to have devoted herself fully to the life of a warrior.”[4] Because she took on a traditionally masculine Apache role she disregarded the traditional feminine role she would have taken on if not for her prowess as a warrior.

Many Native American cultures were far more accepting of variation in gender roles than Europeans ever were. Most Native American cultures throughout North America recognized and often revered the possibility of gender variation. The modern term for those people who felt both masculine and feminine is two-spirit. A transgender person, or two-spirit, is one who is born with one sex but feels that her/his gender role should be closer to that of the other sex. Two-spirits and those who are born intersexed, were historically seen as special, intellectual beings in many Native American cultures because they embodied both masculine and feminine spirits. In essence they were more whole as a person than anyone who was solely male or solely female could be. Recognition of this cross-gender identification has been documented in over 155 tribes in North America.

It was not uncommon for a woman who dressed and acted like a man to engage in sexual relationships with other women and historically there was much more acceptance of fluidity within identity and orientation in Native American cultures. While Europeans often conflate gender roles and sexual orientation, many two-spirit people were celibate, and therefore would not fit into the modern “homosexual” box.

Today Native Americans who identify as two-spirit “face homophobia and sexism from [their] own people, racism from lesbians and gays, and racism, homophobia, and sexism from the dominant society, not to mention the classism many Native Americans have to deal with.”[5]

Many Native Americans who identify as either lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or two-spirit are active in combating homophobia in hetero-normative societies, including Native American societies, and in combating racism in predominantly white societies, including the LGBTQAI society.

Those Native American women who are now fighting for equality and an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and ableism have an amazing repertoire of heroines to look up to from the middle of the 17th century on. Unfortunately the oral traditions that would have carried stories of heroes and heroines from before the European invasion were lost to racism, disease, and death.

One of the first Native American women to make it into the European historical records was Cochacoeske, the village leader of the Pamunkey, who signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation of 1677. “Unlike most agreements between whites and Indians, it attempted to be fair to both sides…. During the negotiations, she insisted that the treaty identify her as the leader, not only of the Pamunkeys, but also of several neighboring tribes.” Cochacoeske “chose to use negotiation rather than weapons to realize her ambition.”[6]

Another historical sister Native American women can look to is Molly Brant. The sister of Joseph Brant, a Mohawk chief, she “was perhaps the most politically powerful Native American woman during the late eighteenth century.” Even if she had not been the sister of the chief, “In traditional Iroquois society, women enjoyed a good deal of economic and political power,”[7] and were the owners of the land and what it produced.

While women did not commonly perform the same tasks as men, the tasks they did perform were generally as valued as men’s–something very different from the way women’s work is valued in modern American society. The status of women in many Native American societies was such that “suffragists regularly cited their status as evidence that women and men could and should have balanced roles.”[8]

Native American women, like all women of color in the United States, have historically been forced to choose whether their primary fight is against racism or sexism. Possibly because women already had some political sway within their own communities and had rights that were denied most white women, many Native American women chose primarily to fight for their rights as Natives.

Susette La Flesche Tibbles, an affluent woman of mixed Ponca, Iowa, and French descent, fought for the rights of Native Americans as a reporter and interpreter during the case of Standing Bear v. General George Crook in 1877 when, for the first time, Native Americans “were legally recognized as human beings.”[9] This landmark ruling was a major step forward for Native Americans, but legal recognition as human beings did not necessarily result in more humane treatment by the U.S. government.

Since the European invasion Native Americans were pushed off their land and forced to sign treaties that reserved only a small piece of their homelands for them and still today Native American reservations have some of the highest crime and poverty rates in the country.

Ten years after Standing Bear the Dawes General Allotment Act was signed into law. In trying to compel Native Americans to assimilate to white culture it did irreparable damage to the tribal structure of Native American communities by allotting small parcels of land to individuals in each tribe and then distributing the “surplus” amongst white colonizers. Heads of household received 160 acres, other adults 80, and minors 40, but until an 1891 amendment to the act married women were ineligible to receive land. After the amendment all adults regardless of sex or marital status were treated equally but the size of the allotments was halved.[10]

“The allotment policy depleted the land base, ending hunting as a means of subsistence. According to Victorian ideals, the men were forced into the fields to take on what had traditionally been the woman’s role and the women were relegated to the domestic sphere. This Act imposed a patrilineal nuclear household onto many matrilineal Native societies. Native gender roles and relations quickly changed with this policy since communal living shaped the social order of Native communities. Women were no longer the caretakers of the land and they were no longer valued in the public political sphere. Even in the home, the Native woman was dependent on her husband. Before allotment, women divorced easily and had important political and social status, as they were usually the center of their kin network.”[11]

“By dividing reservation lands into privately-owned parcels, legislators hoped to complete the assimilation process by forcing the deterioration of the communal life-style of the Native societies and imposing Western-oriented values of strengthening the nuclear family and values of economic dependency strictly within this small household unit.”[12]

Until the Indian New Deal overturned the act in 1934, some 90,000 Native Americans were made landless and an estimated 90 million acres of treaty land was taken from tribes across the country.[13]

“By the late nineteenth century U.S. policies toward Indians had deeply impoverished most tribes, particularly those confined to reservations in the West.”[14]

During the period in which the Allotment Act was active many women were working for more fair and just treatment of Native Americans such as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, a mixed Nakota Sioux and white activist who worked in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the government agency responsible for dealing with tribes in America.

Bonnin supported the Society of American Indians, an organization established by Oneida activist Minnie Kellogg in 1911 to support pan-Indianism, or the unification of Native Americans for the rights of all tribes. The pan-Indianism movement began strong steps towards organizing various Native American tribes in 1912 when the Four Mothers Society, made up of people from the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw nations banded together to take political action against the policy of allotment. In the same year the Alaskan Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood was formed to protect tribes’ natural resources.

Meanwhile Bonnin continued to be active in working for Native American rights until her death in 1938. She worked with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs to form the Indian Welfare Committee in 1921 and with the help of the Indian Rights Association persuaded the government to begin what would be the Meriam Report. Even though all Native Americans were finally granted U.S. citizenship in 1924, because Bonnin still felt Native Americans were being severely discriminated against by the government, she formed the National Council of American Indians in 1926.[15]

The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, also known as the Indian New Deal and the Wheeler-Howard Act, restored some sovereignty to Native American nations by allowing tribes to create their own governments and have input into reservation schools.

Even after this Native American children were forced to live in boarding schools far from their families. “The government still operates a handful of off-reservation boarding schools,”[16] and some students who attend them now are grateful for the opportunity to be surrounded by other Native Americans and practice their cultures. The reality of today’s Native American boarding schools lies in sharp contrast to the program implemented in 1879 that was based on a prison education system.

When Army Captain Richard Pratt opened the first Native American boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, he did so with this philosophy: “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”[17]

Indeed many students were killed in the century in which Native Americans were forcibly removed from their parents, renamed, forbidden to speak their own languages, and imprisoned in off-reservation boarding schools. Hard manual labor and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were rampant in these schools and rules and discipline were often inappropriate and dangerous.

The Problem of Indian Administration, commonly referred to as the Meriam Report, published in 1928 was a scathing review of the U.S. government’s handling and treatment of Native Americans in all aspects of life. One comment on the teaching methods utilized in the boarding schools stated:

“If there were any real knowledge of how human beings are developed through their behavior, we should not have in the Indian boarding schools the mass movements from dormitory to dining room, from dining room to classroom, from classroom back again, all completely controlled by external authority; we should hardly have children from the smallest to the largest of both sexes lined up in military formation; and we would certainly find a better way of handling boys and girls than to lock the door to the fire-escape of the girls’ dormitory.”

After the Meriam Report, in the 1930s, “educated Indians were determined to fight for the rights of Indian people…. Indian women, such as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin and Ruth Muskrat Bronson, rose to prominence in this movement, which became known as Pan-Indianism because it encouraged Indians of many different tribes to work together to solve their common problems.”[18]

Bronson, a Cherokee woman who worked for the BIA, wrote Indians Are People Too and “she cautioned non-Indians that romanticizing Indian people could be just as destructive as stereotyping them. In the 1940s she also became involved with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), a national tribal organization dedicated to defending Indian rights.” Formed in 1944, today the NCAI is one of the largest organizations working for the welfare of Native Americans in the UNited States. [19] She also worked to improve living conditions on Native American reservations through her creation of the women’s group Ee-Cho-Da-Nihi.

Another Native American woman who was actively fighting for civil rights during this time was Alice Mae Jemison, of mixed Cherokee and Seneca heritage. Because the BIA had “promoted several policies that were meant to ‘protect’ Indians but that had ultimately helped to make them the poorest minority group in the nation,” Jemison published a newspaper article in 1933 which demanded the government “Abolish this bureau with its un-American principles of slavery, greed and oppression and let a whole race of people, the first Americans, take their place beside all other people in this land of opportunity as free men and women.”[20] In 1935 Jemison also served as the official spokesperson for the American Indian Federation.

The latter half of the 20th century saw major participation by Native American women in fighting for justice. Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, of mixed white and Seminole heritage, made history in 1967 when she became the first elected female tribal chief of any Native American tribe.[22] Her success helped to pave the way for other Native women.

The American Indian Movement (AIM), “Largely composed of young urban Indians inspired by the African-American civil rights movement of the early 1960s… advocated a renewed respect for Indian traditions and sought to make the U.S. government live up to the treaty promises it had made to Indians throughout the country.”[23] Also known as the Indian Rights Movement and Red Power, AIM included many female activists who were integral to its key campaigns such as the occupation of Alcatraz Island, the Trail of Broken Treaties–a protest march at the nation’s capital, and the occupation of Wounded Knee, amongst other activities.

One young mixed Lakota Sioux and white activist, Mary Brave Bird, even gave birth at Wounded Knee as “a symbol of renewal, a tiny symbol, a tiny victory in our people’s struggle for survival.”[24]

Wilma Mankiller, a disabled, mixed white and Cherokee woman, was vital in organizing and fundraising for the occupation of Alcatraz by Native Americans. She would go on to be elected the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985-1995, despite concerns that “electing a female deputy would be an affront to God and would make the Cherokees a laughingstock among other Indian groups.”[25]

Other prominent Native American women active during the 1970s included Ramona Bennett, chairperson of the Puyallup Tribal Council whose “combative brand of activism during this turbulent period helped prevent the dissolution of her tribe,”[26] and Ada Deer who founded Determination of the Rights and Unity of Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS) and has thus far been the only woman to head the BIA as the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs, from 1993-1997.[27][28]

Choctaw activist Owanah Anderson was also an integral member of the fight for Native American women’s rights in the 1970s. She served in 1977 as a co-chairperson of the Texas delegation to the Houston Women’s Conference, and then joined the Committee on the Rights and Responsibilities of Women under the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. “From 1978 to 1981, she also served on the Advisory Committee on Women organized by President Jimmy Carter, [and she] founded the Ohoyo Research Center in 1979.”[29] In the past she also served as a project director for the National Women’s Development Program and on the board of directors of the Association for American Indian Affairs. While Anderson is well known throughout Native American communities for her activism, her Micmac contemporary, Anna Mae Aquash has achieved legendary status.

Aquash participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties and was married during the Native American occupation at Wounded Knee to showcase “her commitment to the fight for Indian rights.”[30] Aquash was an effective organizer and leader, drawing Native American women into the causes of AIM when its male leaders could/would not. Tragically, Aquash was murdered shortly after participating in Wounded Knee with AIM leadership claiming it was the work of the FBI and many Native American women claiming it was the work of the male leaders of AIM “who incorrectly believed she was a traitor.”[31]

Today the group Indigenous Women for Justice[32] fights for an answer in Anna Mae Aquash’s murder and follows the events of the trials of those men who have been accused with involvement in her murder nearly 35 years ago.

Native American women today are just as active in fighting for their rights as Native Americans and as women as they were 40 years ago. In 1970 white and Comanche activist LaDonna Harris created Americans for Indian Opportunity and has served as its president ever since. Her active involvement in environmental issues and feminism in conjunction with indigenous issues have made her a force to be reckoned with. She chaired the National Women’s Advisory Council of the War on Poverty in 1967; served as a representative of the Inter-American Indigenous Institute; was a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year,[33] the National Council on Indian Opportunity, the White House Fellows Commission, and the Commission on Mental Health; has served on dozens of national and advisory boards dealing with women’s and indigenous issues including NOW and the ACLU; and participated in the founding of the National Indian Housing Council, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, the National Tribal Environmental Council, the National Indian Business Association, Common Cause, the National Urban Coalition, and the National Women’s Political Caucus.[34]

Another environmental activist, Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe and Jewish woman, founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project,[35] the Indigenous Women’s Network, and Honor the Earth.[36] She was previously involved, as were many of the above-mentioned activists, with WARN– Women of All Red Nations, to prevent forced sterilization among Native American women.

Other women like Paula Gunn Allen, a mixed Laguna Pueblo, Sioux, Lebanese and Scottish author, worked to increase tolerance for gays and lesbians within Native American communities. Gunn Allen did so with her work The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions[37] while Chyrstos, a Menominee, Lithuanian and French two-spirit has done so with her work Not Vanishing and by contributing to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

Another two-spirit activist, Ojibwe Carol LaFavor fights for Native Americans with HIV/AIDS and founded Positively Native to support the Native American community. Other organizations in which Native American women fight for their rights include the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation,[38] the American Indian Institute,[39] and the Native American Rights Fund.[40]

Native American have fought since their first interactions with white invaders for their rights and will continue to do so within whatever women’s/indigenous/women of color framework they choose. “Like women everywhere, indigenous women do not want others defining for them what it means to be a woman.”[41]


[1] Camper, Carol ed. 1994. Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women. Sister Vision: Toronto, Canada.

[2] American Women’s History Doris Weatherford. 1994. Prentice Hall General Reference: New York.

[3] Sonneborn, Liz. A to Z of Native American Women. Facts on File, Inc.: New York. 1998.

[4] Sonneborn, Liz. A to Z of Native American Women. Facts on File, Inc.: New York. 1998.

[5] Laframboise, Sandra and Michael Anhorn. 2008. The Way of the Two Spirited People: Native American Concepts of Gender and Sexual Orientation. Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society. 30 June 2010.  http://www.dancingtoeaglespiritsociety.org/twospirit.php

[6] Sonneborn, 1998.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mankiller, Wilma. 2004. every day is a good day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women. Fulcrum Publishing: Golden, Colorado.

[9] Sonneborn, 1998.

[10] “Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) (1887).” Major Acts of Congress. Ed. Brian K. Landsberg. Macmillan-Thomson Gale, 2004. eNotes.com. 2006. 1 Jul, 2010 http://www.enotes.com/major-acts-congress/
indian-general-allotment-act-dawes-act

[12] Gibson, Arrell M. “Indian Land Transfers.” Handbook of North American Indians: History of Indian-White Relations, Volume 4. Wilcomb E. Washburn & William C. Sturtevant, eds. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

[13] Case DS, Voluck DA (2002). Alaska Natives and American Laws (2nd ed. ed.). Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press.

[14] Sonneborn, 1998.

[15] Sonneborn, 1998.

[16] Bear, Charla. 12 May 2008. “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.” National Public Radio. 1 July 2010 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865

[17] Bear, 2008.

[18] Sonneborn, 1998.

[19] Sonneborn, 1998.

[20] Sonneborn, 1998.

[22] Sonneborn, 1998.

[23] Sonneborn, 1998.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[29] Sonneborn, 1998.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[33] Sonneborn, 1998.

[37] Sonneborn, 1998.

[41] Mankiller, 2004.


Day 4- Latina/Chicana Women’s Activism in the US

Like their black sisters, women of Spanish/Hispanic/Latina/Chicana/Tejana heritage in the United States grapple with the naming of their own identities, and in the past, faced overt racist violence in the form of segregation and lynching. While northern cities may not have had “White Only/Black Only” signs (usually because there were too few blacks) many businesses had signs that read “No dogs or Mexicans.”

Like their Native American sisters, Latinas have been robbed of their land, deprived of their language, and marginalized where they were once the majority. States from Florida to California have large Latino populations, due in large part to the fact that these states belonged to Spain and Mexico for many years, but Latinos are still routinely discriminated against in healthcare and education.

Like their Asian sisters, Latinas have struggled and continue to struggle with sweatshop labor practices, racist attitudes and immigration laws. Latina women earn the lowest income out of any other group, and face ridiculous obstacles to legal immigration to America.

Like their Middle Eastern sisters, Latinas in the United States are assigned an identity. Mexican on the West Coast y en la frontera or Cuban or Puerto Rican in Florida, any Spanish-speaker in the U.S. is assumed to be from one of these three places, with white Americans completely disregarding the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Latinas are also extremely racialized when they are (rarely) seen in the media and almost exclusively objectified as sex symbols. In fact, Selma Hayek was turned down for the role of El Salvadorian Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind because she was seen as too sexy, and the casting director thought it would be unrealistic for a Latina to be that intelligent (never mind that the film is based on a true story).

Despite the fact that the economy of the United States runs on the hard labor of ill-paid Latino immigrants, states like California have made bilingual education illegal, and Arizona is taking the lead on legalized racism.

Latinas have faced racism in what is now the United States since the 1840s, before much of the western territories even became states. As early as 1911 Mexican women, like Jovita Idar, in the United States were working towards equality with La Liga Feminil Mexicanista (the Mexican Women’s League).[1]

In the same year Puerto Rican feminist and socialist Luisa Capetillo wrote Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer como compañera, madre y ser independiente, (My opinion about the freedoms, rights and responsibilities of woman as companion, mother and human being) in which she analyzed “the situation of women in society, focusing on what she viewed as the oppression and slavery of women and affirming that education is the key to freedom.”[2] She fought for universal suffrage and had an uncanny ability to “interweave the issues of the private world (such as the family, single motherhood, and women’s rights in general) with those of the public world (such as politics, wages, and education).”[3]

In 1915 the Plan de San Diego was drafted, it “called for a force of Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Japanese to liberate the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Colorado from the United States and create a free society comprised of people of color.”[4]

From then on Latinas have been active in the fight for social justice and equality in the United States.

Because Mexican Americans form the largest portion of the Latino population in the U.S, nearly 65 percent,[5] their activism is the most visible with groups such as LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, forming in 1929.[6]

Although LULAC was formed by Mexican Americans today the organization fights for the advancement and rights of “all Hispanic nationality groups.” This trend is common throughout Latino organizations, most of which sprang from the Chicana/o (Chican@) rights movement or El Movimiento.

El Movimiento began in the 1960s as an extension of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s. Mexican American veterans returning to the United States after WWII formed the American GI Forum (AGIF)[7] in 1948 to fight for medical benefits they were being denied because of their ethnicity. AGIF is still active today and has expanded their cause to serve all Hispanic veterans and fight for all civil rights.

In both LULAC and AGIF, women’s participation in auxiliary groups soon transformed the organizations themselves to fight for equality for all people. These two organizations were also actively involved in the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1954 of Hernandez v. Texas, which extended equal protection under the 14th Amendment to all racial groups.

The Chican@ movement, though fraught with controversy, has been an important part of the fight for all people’s civil rights since the mid 20th century. The term Chicana, (sometimes Xicana) once used to degrade children of Mexican immigrants, is now a label of pride for many Mexican and other Latino Americans. Tejanas are women of Chicana heritage from the state of Texas.

“Almost from the very beginning of the Chicano Movimiento, Chicana activists and scholars criticized the conflation of revolutionary commitment with manliness or machismo….”[8]

Chicana feminists are largely responsible for the push for women’s visibility within El Movimiento; a clear example of this is the use of Chican@ to mean both Chicano men and Chicana women. Because in Spanish the male form of any adjective is assumed to be applicable to women, Chicana activists rejected this linguistic sexism and pushed for the use of Chicana/o to identify any group made up of Hispanic men and women. The @ symbol came to simplify the term.

Many organizations that originated in the 1960s Chican@ Rights Movimiento started out working for the rights of Mexicans in the United States but soon expanded their reach to all Latino Americans. MEChA is one such group.

Formed in 1969, the Movimiento Estidantil Chican@ de Aztlán is a student group that fights for the rights of all people of Aztlán (the Southwest United States that was annexed from Mexico during the Mexican-American War and was named in recognition of the fact that the Mexica and Aztec people were indigenous to this area) and strives “for a society free of imperialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia.”[9] Though the MEChA website urges political participation and education, mainstream, white America sometimes sees them as a militant group.

La Raza is another controversial term used by Latino Americans, meaning “The Race.” Within El Movimiento it is understood to be a term of endearment for Mexicans but is sometimes interpreted as racism against non-Latinos. Again, ideas, terms, and political goals that once applied specifically to Mexicans in the U.S. now apply to all Latinos in America.

Other important and active groups in the fight for civil rights from education to legal issues include the National Council of La Raza (NCLR),[10] the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF),[11] both founded in 1968, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO)[12] formed in 1976, and the National Hispanic Institute (NHI),[13] established in 1979.

While the above organizations and others like the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) created in 1967 and the Raza Unida Party (RUP) created in 1970[14] had women in their ranks, some, like the Chicana/Latina Foundation formed in 1977[15] and the Association of Chicana Activists (AChA) established in 1991,[16] were specifically formed by Chicanas to work for the needs and rights of Latina women within the United States. Both the Chicana/Latina Foundation and AChA were formed by college women in California who recognized the need to support other Latina women who may not have the same opportunities they had, while fighting against the racism and sexism of the educational system in the United States.

The work of Chicana feminists both within and without the university system has been key to cross-class activism. Much of the criticism faced by the Chican@ movimiento, especially by groups like the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA),[17] formed by Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, and Dolores Huerta,[18] related to the educated, middle-class position of many Chican@ activists. The UFWA remains a powerful working-class union and a strong bond between the Latino and Asian farming communities.

Chicanas have used many types of nonviolent action to realize their goals, from marches, rallies, strikes, boycotts and walk-outs to the highly successful “Day Without a Mexican” campaign and are learning just how much power they wield. All of the moderate and liberal Latino organizations in the United States have voiced their opposition to Arizona’s new discriminatory laws, with some supporting a full boycott of the state.

Currently the UFWA is heading the “Take Our Jobs” campaign,[19] a play on the complaint by white Americans that Latinos are taking all of the available employment in the U.S. They are encouraging unemployed white Americans to take to the fields and sustain agriculture in the same way the Latino community does.

The UFWA is unique among Chican@ organizations in that it clearly states its commitment to nonviolence and taking disciplined action as one of its founding principles. Other organizations do not promote violence but are not as explicit in their call for nonviolence as was Cesar Chavez who “had very little patience for expressions of machismo among his activists.”[20] Chavez’s commitment to nonviolence and equality made the struggles against classism, racism, and sexism more legitimate to the mainstream Chican@ Movimiento despite the fact that Chavez was so radical in his fight against classism and racism that he disassociated himself from El Movimiento.

“In his view, the idea Chicano/a identity promotes does not operate to ease racial prejudice in society but, rather, reinforces the patterns of thinking that underlie it. He takes the idea of Chicano/a identity promoted by such nationalism to be an oppositional identity. That is, Chicano/a identity derives its content primarily by defining itself against, or by rejecting, white mainstream culture.”[21]

By openly combating the dichotomous way Chican@s and other working-class people see race, Chavez and the UFWA helped open the door to fighting against other social constructions that promote bigotry.

Chicana activists and feminists have had much to fight for and against recently, including forced sterilization due to racism and linguistic discrimination. In 1983 the director of the National Latina Health Organization (now the National Latina Health Network, NLHN) Luz Alvarez Martinez, decided “to create a health information service for Hispanic women” because economically disadvantaged Spanish-speaking women were not being offered any other form of birth control besides sterilization.[22] She was also one of the first women in the Chican@ community to raise the need for services in Spanish in women’s shelters.

Journalist Yolanda H. Alvaro also combats racism, classism and sexism against Latina women within the fight for the rights of the disabled. She understands that “the women’s movement is a great training ground for Hispanic women in organizing and… a lot of women’s concerns are Hispanic concerns.”[23]

2010 was a historic year for addressing women’s concerns and Hispanic concerns in the United States as the first Latina woman was appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Like all their American sisters, Latinas have been subjected to sexism and misogyny under the hierarchy of patriarchy in the United States and have actively and strategically worked against sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism to create a more just society.


[1] Palomo Acosta, Teresa and Ruthe Winegarten. 2003. Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History. University of Texas Press: Austin, Texas.

[2] Notable Hispanic American Women Eds. Diane Telgen and Jim Kamp. Gale Research Inc. Detroit, Michigan. 1993.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Palomo Acosta, Teresa and Ruthe Winegarten. 2003. Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History. University of Texas Press: Austin, Texas.

[5] Pew Hispanic Center. 2007. “Table 5. Detailed Hispanic Origin: 2007.” Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States, 2007.  Pew Hispanic Center: Washington, D.C. 28 June 2010 http://pewhispanic.org/files/factsheets/hispanics2007/Table-5.pdf

[8] Orosco, José-Antonio. 2008. Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque.

[14] Palomo Acosta and Winegarten, 2003.

[18] See http://www.chicanas.com/chingonas.html for a list of other Chicana activists who have left their marks on the civil rights movimiento.

[20] Orosco, 2008.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Notable Hispanic American Women Eds. Diane Telgen and Jim Kamp. Gale Research Inc. Detroit, Michigan. 1993.

[23] Telgen and Kamp, 1993.


Day 3- Black Women’s Activism in the US

[Four African American women seated on steps o...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

The descendants of black slaves in the United States were deprived of their histories from the moment they were kidnapped. Given white names and forbidden from using their own languages or practicing their own religions, slaves were also often forbidden from learning how to read or write English.

While black history on the American continent has been preserved through oral history to the effect that black women today do have black heroines with whom they can identify, the racism black people face is an ingrained part of much of American culture.

“Racial prejudice against African Americans becomes part of the Americanization process for immigrants, and prejudice against immigrants becomes part of the ongoing struggle for equity in employment and education for African Americans, especially when it appears that immigrants are exploiting black communities.”[1]

Prejudice against black Americans is the deepest and most persistent racism alive today in the United States. Although the situation for blacks in the U.S. has improved drastically over the course of American history, especially in the past forty years, black people are still systematically oppressed and targeted for failure by the racist patriarchal system of capitalism in the United States.

With highly disproportionate numbers of black men imprisoned, the situation black women face as a consequence is unique. The stereotype of the strong, outspoken black woman has emerged in part because black women have had to be strong and outspoken, as heads of household, so that they can care for their families. The other side to this stereotype is the black Mammy, caricatured prominently as The Black Woman in U.S. cinema and cartoons for decades.

Much of the critique of white, mainstream feminism during the Second Wave came from black women pointing out that they had been working outside the home, out of necessity, for centuries.

The failure of white, middle-class feminists to consider any other race or class and their assumption that their own reality was universal put a deep rift in the Women’s Liberation movement but “other activists–notably feminists and lesbians of color–[lead] socially marginalized lives [and] demanded rigor in analyzing political tactics. These women, initially separate from the more mainstream elements of nonviolent action and feminism, represented a pool of sophisticated but down-to-earth clarity into which other women activists eventually dipped.”[2]

Black women were fighting for their rights even before the United States declared independence. Jenny Slew and Elizabeth Freeman both sued for their freedom from slavery in the state of Massachusetts, in 1765 and 1780 respectively, and won, but “As the future would prove again and again, legal action could take the fight for freedom only so far.”[3]

Slavery would continue to thrive in the United States until the Civil War and black men would still not Constitutionally have the right to vote until 1870. Women would not have the right to vote until 1920.

Even with these legal rights finally added to the Constitution, racist legislation like poll taxes and Jim Crow laws made sure that black men and women were highly discouraged or prevented from voting until the late 20th century.

While “the Civil Rights Act of 1875… stated that there could be no discrimination in public places or on means of transportation within the United States,”[4] the Supreme Court disagreed and in 1913 ruled that this act was unconstitutional. From the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson until the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education “separate but equal” was not only accepted but widely enforced.

Additionally, interracial marriage was illegal in some states until 1967.[5]

Despite America’s long history of bigotry, black women have always been a visible and vital force for equality. Sojourner Truth, Harriett TubmanIda B. Wells, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama are black women whose fame and notoriety span the centuries of American history and who act as role models to inspire all young women to greatness today. From actively defying unjust slavery laws and participating in the abolitionist and suffragist movements, to writing, organizing and protesting for civil rights and feminism, to representing the United States on an international scale, these women have dedicated themselves to the fight for justice and equality.

In 1831 black women formed the Colored Females’ Free Produce Society and “There were strikes among black women field workers as early as 1862.” The purpose of the Society “was to encourage the boycotting of goods produced by slave labor. It was part of a larger Free Produce movement, and it provided the public with the opportunity to buy products, such as cotton and sugar, that had been produced entirely by nonslave workers.”[6]

From then on African American women fought not only for their own rights, but also for the principles of freedom and democracy.

“When the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, saying that no citizen could be denied the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, black and white suffragists challenged the unwritten assumption that all citizens were male.”[7]

After slavery was abolished and all American citizens earned the right to vote, black women continued to participate in organizations promoting gender equality and fair labor practices. In the early 20th century black women were active in the Harlem Renaissance and responsible for the popularity of the Blues.

The participation of black women in strategic nonviolent action blossomed though, with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. “For a number of reasons–including sexism, the need to protect their jobs, and deference to a long tradition of community leadership by black ministers–female leaders [were] less visible and rarely if ever served as speakers at mass meetings or press conferences.”[8]

While few women represented the Civil Rights movement to the public, the strides that were made towards equality would not have been possible without the widespread participation of black women. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, publicly lead by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., owed its success to the “several thousand working-class women who, in the face of intimidation and threats, rode in the car pools or walked as far as twelve miles a day, even in the rain.”[9] In fact, if it were not for Jo Ann Robinson’s stellar organization and community outreach techniques, the boycott probably would not have had the impact it did on the economy of Montgomery.[10]

After the success of the Civil Rights movement black women recognized the backseat their needs had taken to those of men and joined in the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement even though black publications in the early seventies “would trivialize” the feminist movement.

“Black men did not want to lose Black women as allies. And the white power structure did not want to see all women bond across racial lines because they knew that would be an unstoppable combination.”[11]

Today, black women are an integral part of the economy of the entire nation and participate in all kinds of organizations fighting for equality from the National Organization for Women (NOW) to the Human Rights Campaign to Not Dead Yet and Disabled Veterans of America.

Other organizations that are more specifically focused on advancing black women include the National Organization for African-American Women (NOAW), the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW), The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Black Career Women (BCW) and the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH).

The names of these organizations alone show the painful history of black self-identification in the United States; Negro, Colored, Black, or African American, women who identify as descendants of African slaves still have to fight for recognition of their identities, both as black, and as women.


[1] Karim, 2009.

[2] Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women’s Sufferage Eds. Roger S. Powers and William B. Vogele. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York. 1997.

[3] Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Social Activism Ed. Darlene Clark Hine Facts on File, Inc. New York. 1997.

[4] Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Social Activism Ed. Darlene Clark Hine Facts on File, Inc. New York. 1997.

[5] See Supreme Court Case Loving v. Virginia

[6] Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Social Activism Ed. Darlene Clark Hine Facts on File, Inc. New York. 1997.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hine, 1997.

[10] King, Mary Elizabeth. Lecture.

[11] Smith, Barbara. “Across the Kitchen Table A Sister-to-Sister Dialogue,” in Moraga and Anzaldúa, 1981.


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