Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to justify silencing Elizabeth Warren as she read the words of Coretta Scott King in the Senate chamber earlier this month: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Women have always persisted. In fact, we stand on the shoulders of women throughout history who, when silenced, continued to act against injustice. Some of their stories are well known while most remain in the background.
You may know the story of Sojourner Truth. Born into slavery, she became an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate standing strong against slavery. She gave her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.
You may know the story of Rosa Parks, civil rights activist who refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger, thereby sparking the Montgomery bus boycott.
Or you may know the story of Rachel Carson whose book, “Silent Spring,” discussed the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment. Her determination led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But do you know Ruby Bridges? In 1960, she was the first black child in Louisiana to attend an all-white school. She walked past the white harassing voices telling her she couldn’t.
Do you know Ida B. Wells? An early leader of the civil rights movement, she used her journalistic skills documenting the lynching of black people in the late 1890s. She worked tirelessly as a suffragette forcing white suffragettes to acknowledge that black women deserved equal rights.
Do you know Edie Windsor? Acting against great odds, her lawsuit against the federal government served as a pathway to marriage equality.
These are just the few of the thousands of women, who through their persistence have given women some of the basic human rights we enjoy today.
At this moment in history, we are at a crossroads. Scholars watching closely agree we are close to (if not already in) a constitutional crisis. According to the Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit, the United States has recently moved from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.” While the score takes into account 60 factors, a major contributor to this decline is increasing distrust in government.
The recent actions by the current president such as labeling the media the opposition party, denigrating the U.S. judicial process, and fabricating alternative facts have met with little resistance from the Republican Congress. McConnell’s actions on the Senate floor served as collusion with a system more interested in party politics than with adhering to what remains of our system’s checks and balances. Partisan politics aside, whether and how we continue as a democratic republic should be of concern to all of us.
Today, women continue to emerge as leaders of justice, speaking up and speaking out to preserve civil rights and protect our democracy. In addition to Elizabeth Warren, there is Sally Yates, who stood against the president’s immigration ban and in turn was dismissed from her job as the acting attorney general of the United States.
Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, joined three other attorneys general to sue the United States over what she calls a “threat to our Constitution.”
Munira Ahmed, a freelance writer from Queens, became the face of the resistance. Her image, a defiant look wearing a hijab, was carried by thousands at protests across the country. Despite increasing anti-Muslim sentiment her message remains: “I am American and I am Muslim, and I am very proud of both.” And there are countless other examples across the country.
After the election, Theresa Shook, a retired lawyer in Hawaii, posted on Facebook: We need a women’s march on Washington. Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Bob Bland now national co-chairs of the Women’s March, took that idea and created the largest one-day protest in history. Millions marched worldwide. Some wonder, will the movement continue? Can it sustain itself?
A few weeks ago, in my little corner of the world, I spent the evening with over 80 women and their allies who are committed to fight for justice and preserve our democracy. This group is one of thousands appearing all over the country—a movement is growing.
In the face of being silenced, I have no doubt, like the women who came before us, we will persist.
Gloria DiFulvio is a faculty member in the Public Health Sciences Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also is co-leader of Valley Action Group in western Massachusetts which has formed in response to the current state of our democracy and concerns for civil rights.