What a notorious year 2020 has been, one we will all remember for how it has turned our lives upside down. The word “notorious” is actually a perfect word for this year as it is one of those vague words, like “interesting”, which can evoke both positive and negative sentiments.
As Merriam-Webster dictionary describes, “Although notorious can be a synonym for ‘famous,’ meaning simply ‘widely known,’ it long ago developed the additional implication of someone or something unpleasant or undesirable.”
Indeed, 2020 has been unpleasant with its myriad losses related to Covid-19 and other natural disasters across the world. To add to this list, 2020 has witnessed the loss of two American civil rights legends, whose legacy shaped the world: the late Senator John Lewis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
The loss of these two great human beings feels extra sad and heavy given all of the other things happening in our world, but the best way to channel our grief is to channel their notorious, dissenting, equalizing spirits to engage in some “good trouble”, as Lewis was known to say. Lewis’s and RBG’s legacies of “good trouble” remind us that the civil rights struggles for basic human emancipation, and equal civil rights and protection under the law, for Black Americans and for women are deeply interconnected and not yet finished.
American history has sidelined and segregated the women’s movement for civil rights as something separate from the larger movement of equal rights for all. In reality, at every juncture in the history of the march for civil rights, these two movements have been unfolding together in a more fluid manner than we often acknowledge.
As the New Yorker describes, in the span of RBG’s 87-years (the age of many living women we know and love) it’s been only recently that the law has given right to grown women as full adults worthy of basic human and civil rights. And even then, the movement to remedy these wrongs has been not fully known or embraced and, even worse, has been stigmatized.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg, scholar, lawyer, judge, and Justice, died on Friday at the age of eighty-seven. Born the year Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady, Ginsburg bore witness to, argued for, and helped to constitutionalize the most hard-fought and least-appreciated revolution in modern American history: the emancipation of women. Aside from Thurgood Marshall, no single American has so wholly advanced the cause of equality under the law.”From Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Great Equalizer How a scholar, advocate, and judge upended the entirety of American political thought by Jill Lepore, September 18, 2020
Thankfully this is changing, but we have a long way to go to fully mainstream the women’s movement into the civil rights movement writ large. This past summer, it was so encouraging to see the widespread coverage of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage in the U.S. This should be a “but of course!” but most people know very little about the global movement for women’s suffrage and the names of its leaders are by and large unknown. As RBG and women her age show us, this date did not mark the actual gaining of suffrage for all women because of the persistence of the very mindset which, from the beginning, excluded women, Black people, Indigenous people and many others from being seen as sovereign, freeborn human beings who are rightful members of “We the People.”
Today, it is remarkable how little people know about how recently American women were not able to own and inherit property, open a bank account, or divorce on equal terms, and were not seen as separate legal and political agents in our own right. Or that this mindset still exists around the world in varying degrees. In addition, women leaders for racial justice find their names and voices “erased from the very same social justice movement for which they continue to risk their lives” (from an open letter from the newly forming Black Girl Freedom Fund). Likewise, the women’s movement from the beginning has had racial issues to work through to truly walk side by side together as sisters of all ethic and racial backgrounds.
We still have much work to do to get our movements for justice out of the silos we’ve erected and take an intersectional approach. Working for freedom and justice is all about breaking down walls that divide us from one another and instead building bridges that affirm our shared humanity. We need to join together in common cause to stop throwing anyone to the back of any bus. As Nelson Mandela said, “freedom is indivisible.” And as Martin Luther King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We need to work to get our minds out of their comfortable silos to cultivate a more intersectional approach to walking our world this next mile on our shared long walk to freedom.
2020 has been a sad year with many shared losses, but not without some accomplishments with regards to women’s civil rights. This year, women in Afghanistan have finally been granted the right to be included on their children’s birth certificates, and married women in Botswana finally gained the right to own land. The women’s movement globally has advanced at different paces around the world and still has many miles to walk.
If you want to do something this fall to learn about the persistence of the attitudes behind the laws RBG worked to change, consider joining us for some good trouble on a reading journey—The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom. The journey begins on International Day of the Girl Child on October 11th and ends on International Women’s day on March 8th. Please join us!