By Pam Elam – The absolute heartbreak of Nov. 8th reminds us that learning from our history as women can be a powerful tool for fighting back against misogyny. Women don’t give up, we get going.

Anyone who works for social change is very familiar with the concept of “reinventing the wheel.” It simply means doing what others have already done because you didn’t know they’d done it. Had you known, you might have learned from it and acted differently. That’s what learning from history is all about. And for women it has a special meaning, because so much of our history has been hidden from us and has only been brought to light in the last few decades through the valiant work of Feminist historians, scholars and activists.

In THREE GUINEAS, a brilliant 1938 essay on the differences between women and men, Virginia Woolf described the history of the continuing fight for women’s equality this way: “Almost the same daughters ask almost the same brothers for almost the same privileges. Almost the same gentlemen intone almost the same refusals for almost the same reasons. It seems as if there were no progress in the human race, but only repetition.” Repetition, reinventing the wheel, and generations of women around the world who live and die as second class citizens – how can we change that? Much as history haunts and taunts us at times like these, it can also provide a light shining the way out of the darkness of injustice and inequality. Learning from a “history” which fully and fairly includes the vast and varied contributions of women and people of color offers a departure point in our search for social change. We re-think the past to re-shape the future.

Learning from a “history” which fully and fairly includes the vast and varied contributions of women and people of color offers a departure point in our search for social change.

Through the “gift” of Women’s History, we discover a historical treasure chest, overflowing with the stories of women who serve to inspire and energize us. We learn of their strategies and tactics in the battle for equality. We build on their work. We honor their memories. We vow to complete their journeys. We begin to understand the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression. We start to build coalitions across boundaries of any kind of “difference” that threatens to divide us. We begin to understand power: who has it, who doesn’t and how to change that situation. In the words of the women from the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, we begin “to move history forward.”

So at this moment in history, we will, once again, channel our rage into action. We will honor the extraordinary Hillary Clinton and her courage, grace, and strength. We will summon the inspiration of the valiant women who came before us and hope that the “Terrific Shock” that Susan B. Anthony predicted back in 1870 has, on November 8th, finally awakened more women. Anthony said:

“So while I do not pray for anybody or any party to commit outrages, still I do pray, and that earnestly and constantly, for some terrific shock to startle the women of this nation into a self-respect which will compel them to see the abject degradation of their present position; which will force them to break their yoke of bondage, and give them faith in themselves; which will make them proclaim their allegiance to women first; which will enable them to see that man can no more feel, speak or act for woman than could the old slaveholder for his slave. The fact is, women are in chains, and their servitude is all the more debasing because they do not realize it. O, to compel them to see and feel, and to give them the courage and conscience to speak and act for their own freedom, though they face the scorn and contempt of all the world for doing it.” 

And as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns wrote (May 20, 1916) in a newspaper editorial in THE SUFFRAGIST, “One thing is plain. If women do not put their freedom first, no one else will do so.” History has certainly taught us that.


About the author

pamPam made her first public speech in support of Women’s Rights in 1964 when she was 13 years old and has been organizing for women ever since, first in her home state of Kentucky and then in New York. She has organized and managed countless programs, conferences, hearings, and projects over the years including the first ever Presidential candidates debate on Women’s Issues in NYC in 1988 and over one hundred public hearings on Women’s Issues for the New York City Council from 1980-1989. In addition, Pam led the effort to get the New York City Council to approve legislation in 2004 naming “Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Corner” near the site where Anthony and Stanton wrote their newspaper The Revolution; co-organized the “Freedom on Our Terms Conference” in NYC in 2007 to honor the 30th Anniversary of the National Women’s Conference (to which she was a Delegate from Kentucky in 1977); and created “Women’s Rights, Historic Sites: A Manhattan Map Of Milestones” in 2008, to cite a few examples. Presently, Pam volunteers as President of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund Inc. to break the bronze ceiling to create the first statue of real women in the 163 year history New York City’s Central Park. She is also Vice President of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. In addition to a Master’s Degree in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College, Pam has a Juris Doctor Degree from the University of Kentucky College of Law and a B.A. Degree in Political Science from the University of Kentucky.

Lead image: Suffragists form a picket line in front of the White House, 1917. Via the White House Historical Association/Library of Congress

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