Who Does Women’s Equality Day Leave Behind?
Centring the Voices of Trans, Disabled, and Racialized Women
Byline: Written by Jessica Regan, Sr. DEI Advisor at Bloom
Women’s Equality Day celebrates the signing of the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920, a proclamation giving women the right to vote in the United States. However, this amendment really only benefitted white, non-disabled, cisgender women. The early suffragist movement was led by liberal — but often racist — white women who were passionate about equality for some but not for all.
While we Canadians (often smugly) like to believe we are more progressive than our American counterparts, please remember that Indigenous women and Two Spirit folks only gained their right to vote in 1960. Our own suffragist leaders, the Famous Five, also held deeply racist and xenophobic beliefs. So Canadians, as you read on, we encourage you to stay curious and critical of our own history.
Women’s Equality and its racist roots
The lack of intersectionality in the feminist movement has hundred-year-old roots. Often lauded as feminist heroes, suffragist leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony held demonstrably anti-Black, racist, and xenophobic beliefs when the 15th Amendment (the right for African American men to vote) was passed. Here they are in their own words:
“It will be more dangerous for Black men if they can vote and women cannot because women will resent them and they might face more violence, especially in the South.”
This excerpt is pulled from Stanton’s book Manhood Sufferage, co-written by Parker Pillsburt and edited by Susan B. Anthony. The sentiments shared in this book were often used as a tool to justify the lynching of Black men across the country, as well as xenophobic beliefs against Irish, German, and Chinese immigrants.
How did racism shape the suffrage movement?
It’s difficult to separate racism from the First Wave Feminist Movement. The suffrage movement consistently excluded racialized women from the pursuit of equality and centred instead the needs of middle-class white women. As this NY Times article notes, “Historians are rightly warning groups involved in suffrage commemorations not to overstate the significance of the 19th Amendment. It covered the needs of middle-class white women quite nicely. But it meant very little to black women in the South, where most lived at the time and where election officials were well-practiced in the art of obstructing black access to the ballot box. As African-American women streamed in to register, Southern officials merely stepped up the level of fraud and intimidation.”
Many suffragists actively chose to distance themselves from Black women suffragists out of fear of losing support in their Southern communities. White Northern suffragists regularly refused to join forces with Black women suffragists out of “fear of losing their Southern base.” This excuse was a tool that allowed white women to distance themselves from acknowledging the uniquely marginalizing experiences that racialized women faced in America, particularly Black and Indigenous women. In one especially egregious example, Black women were asked to march at the back during the 1913 suffragist parade in New York.
The suffrage movement not only intentionally excluded racialized women, but also benefited from their labour. Chinese suffragist Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee worked tirelessly to mobilize the Chinese community in America to support women’s right to vote, despite knowing she wouldn’t be able to vote after the 19th Amendment was passed. Due to the Chinese Exclusionary laws, Chinese women were not given the vote until 1943 after the passing of the Magnuson Act.
Representation during Second, Third, and Fourth Wave Feminist Movements
While slow progress has been made, many of the same exclusionary dynamics have been perpetuated during subsequent waves of the feminist movement. White middle-class women have historically led the pursuit for gender equality, and while gender equality is a central tenet in feminist ideology, the unique experiences of trans, disabled, and racialized women are often sidelined. The 2017 Women’s March on Washington — organized as a reaction and protest to Donald Trump’s presidential election — is a prime example of this. This event centred the needs of white, cis, non-disabled liberal women and certainly did not do enough to cultivate an equitable and inclusive space for racialized women, trans women, and disabled women to share their stories and experiences. There is irony in the fact that the 2017 Women’s March was overwhelmingly attended by white women. Let’s not forget that many American white women voted for Trump and both American and Canadian white women continue to vote for conservative politicians who actively work to undermine core issues that affect all women.
The future of Women’s Equality
Critically examining the roots of the feminist movement can help us to identify profound ways in which we can dismantle ableism, white supremacy, and transphobia within our current culture and the current feminist landscape. As Frances Ryan states, “Disabled women’s experiences reflect the bigger picture of what it is to be a woman in this society — and, in their own right, tell us about other women who also matter.”
From women’s marches to employee resource groups, too often the voices and experiences of trans, disabled, and racialized women are ignored or outright silenced. When they are acknowledged, the nuances of these intersecting identities are rarely understood to the depth required to make meaningful change. Don’t get us wrong, the women’s equality movement is getting there, but we have a lot of work to do.
Since coining the term in 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality is now widely regarded as a core tenet within the feminist movement, and many feminists and womanists are shifting their perspectives on what it truly means to embody women’s equality. In the spirit of this, here are three things to consider on Women’s Equality Day.
- Trans women are women. If you are not already including trans women in your Women’s Equality Day messaging, your women’s ERGs, or Women’s History Month celebrations, let this be a gentle reminder to do so. Creating trans-inclusive workplaces goes beyond your standard DEI training. It isn’t enough to work to understand the trans experience — creating truly affirming workplaces means building policies and practices that mitigate transphobia and that foster a genuine sense of inclusion. Challenging legacy ways of working and implementing change right at the systems level is a powerful way to do just that. For example, adopting basic gender-neutral dress codes, creating a culture that encourages pronoun sharing, and creating trans-inclusive employee health care benefits packages.
- Include women with disabilities. According to Lean In and McKinsey, one in ten working women has a disability. While many organizations have started the conversation about racialized women’s experiences at work, support for women with disabilities seems to be lagging. That lag has real-world consequences, especially as it relates to compensation. Discussions about the wage gap need to include women with disabilities. In 2016, an American Association of University Women report found that people with disabilities made only 68 cents for every dollar non-disabled people earned. If your organization hopes to discuss wage transparency and equal pay, it must also include the experiences of disabled folks.
* Note: You may have noticed that we use both person-first language (for example, “women with disabilities”) and identity-first language (for example, “disabled women”). This is intentional. We do this because communities are not a monolith. While some folks with disabilities prefer people-first language that centers their personhood rather than their diagnosis/disability, others strongly feel that their diagnosis/disability is a core part of their identity and should be given more focus. Using these terms interchangeably holds space for all experiences within the disability community. To learn more, check out this article.
- Include immigrant women. The compounding effects of racism, colonialism, and xenophobia create unique and overlapping barriers for women at work. From “You speak English very well” comments to the everlasting “Where are you really from?” question, these behaviours provide specific messaging to immigrant women at work. In a workplace environment historically designed for cishet white men, immigrant women of colour frequently receive the message that they don’t belong. Professional competency is often tied to one’s ability to assimilate or mask into the dominant culture — one that rewards whiteness (or proximity to it); sets English as the standard; expects Western notions of professionalism; and perpetuates the model minority myth. It sets immigrant women up for failure and sometimes even violence. (PS. If you aren’t sure what the model minority myth is and how it affects Asian women, read this article by Agnes Tseng, career coach and Senior People Ops Advisor at Bloom.)
If your organization is interested in learning more about the unique intersections of racialized women’s experiences at work, get in touch with us and ask about our session titled Exploring the Intersections of Women, Race, and Work.