Have Women Ever Been United?


At the Democratic debate Thursday night Hillary Clinton was booed when asked about former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s comment, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help women.” This remark has been widely interpreted as a message that women should vote for women because they are women, and as we all know, we have never had a female President.

Both Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright, feminist icons, have received considerable backlash for making comments that women should vote for Hillary, and they have since apologized or backpedaled there comments. However, the criticism of Steinem and Albright by many shows a lack of understanding of the history of the women’s movement and how long women have been fighting for their seat at the table. The topic and criticism and women helping women also underscores the fact that within the women’s movement, there has always been frequent infighting as well as criticism from outside female voices. Let’s look at a few examples of when women were trying to improve the lives of others only to be denied.

In 1848, Susan B. Anthony discovered that she was being paid $3.00 per month for teaching whereas her male colleagues were making $10.00 per month. Sound familiar? Yes, equal pay for equal work was an issue even back then. Anthony tried to speak out against this inequity at teacher’s meetings and this request led to a debate that went on for several hours as to if women should be allowed to speak in public. Anthony finally was able to speak, but did not make much progress. The issue of “equal pay for equal work” was not taken up by many women as women believed their place was in the home caring for their family, they could not understand women who would want to work.

Twenty years later, in 1869 when Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) with the sole purpose of winning the right to vote. At that time, the fifteenth amendment was being debated and this amendment would give the recently freed slaves the right to vote. Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe believed so fervently that the amendment would not pass if it included women that they formed a rival organization the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). And when Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President, testified to Congress that the fifteenth amendment grants suffrage to all citizens, several newspaper editorials supported her analysis. Yet hundreds of prominent women, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin, believed it to be beneath woman’s dignity to vote and they signed a petition asking Congress not to hold further hearings on the issue. Congressmen were more than happy to comply with the demands in the petition. Women were not granted the right to vote until 1920, fifty years later and that was only after President Woodrow Wilson went through an ethical metamorphosis when he witnessed activists being forced fed after hunger strikes.

In 1872, we had a woman, Victoria Woodhull, run for President on the Equal Rights Party ticket. She even had an African-American, Frederick Douglass, as a running mate. She had support from a rag tag team of immigrants, spiritualists, and socialists. But Susan B. Anthony did not support her. Jealous of the younger, more radical and electric speaker and appalled by Woodhull’s support of liberal divorce laws, Anthony campaigned against Woodhull. Both women ended up in jail over their behavior on Election Day. Woodhull was in jail for printing articles about debauchery and an extramarital affair of Henry Ward Beecher. Susan B. Anthony was in jail for voting….for Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant.

Fast-forward to one-hundred years later and we have the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA, a proposed amendment to the Constitution designed to guarantee equal rights for women, was originally introduced in 1923. Congress, never quick to act on behalf of women, took fifty years to discuss it. But by 1973, thirty states had ratified it, needing only eight more ratifications for passage. And yet it only took one woman, Phyllis Schlafly, to organize a campaign and defeat the amendment. Schlafly made the case that the amendment would repeal protective laws such as alimony, exclusion of women from the draft, and that mothers would no longer receive judicial preference when it came to custody hearings. While five additional states ratified the amendment, Schlafly’s campaign was successful in the remaining states refusing to ratify it. The ERA failed.

One can see from these examples that women have not historically acted in concert, and this is not likely to change. In fact, I dare say that if Bernie Sanders and Carly Fiorina were the two nominees than Steinem and Albright would not be admonishing women to vote for the female candidate.  Women are not a monolithic group that has one set of issues they agree on. Unlike African-Americans in the case of candidate Obama, women do not think their lives will improve or sexism will improve if there is a woman in the White House.

It is only when the majority of women across the political spectrum agree on an issue whether that be equal pay for equal work or paid maternity leave will we be able to pool our considerable political capital and force a change. Maybe. It has not happened yet.