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The Center on Colfax

Women's Activism Throughout History

Women's activism in the United States is as American as apple pie. From Abigail Adams asking her husband to "not forget the ladies" as he rode off to create this country's founding documents, to the state of Virginia becoming the 38th state to finally pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 2019 (over 30 years after the 1982 deadline), to the repeal of Roe V. Wade, women's activism has been wide ranging. For years, only the roles of white, heterosexal, cisgender women were highlighted and celebrated for their activism. 

Women of color and queer women have been shut out and systemically ignored for years in much of the historic literature. 

Many black women often felt "disrespected and discounted." As a result, many "black feminist organizations took advantage of cracks in the social movement and political opportunity structures to garner attention for black women's race, class and gender concerns." Some of these organizations, which "relied on social networks forged in the civil rights and women's movements," included such groups as the Third World Women's Alliance, the National Black Feminist Organization, the National Alliance of Black Feminists, the Combahee River Collective, and Black Women Organized for Action.

Margaret Sloan-Hunter at a meeting with the staff at Ms. Magazine. © Nancy Crampton.png

Margaret Sloan-Hunter at a meeting with the staff at Ms. Magazine 

© Nancy Crampton

After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, feminists split into two groups. One group was the "social feminists" who were in favor of "broad social reforms, including special protective leislationl for women and children." The second group, known by some as "hard core" feminists, included women like Alice Paul (one of the creators of the ERA), and opposed the social feminists and lobbied for the ERA so women woul dhave "the same rights and obligations of citizens as men." Lesbian-baiting was often "used to discourage women of all races from joining the women's liberation movement." Many groups were opposed to women's liberation. The ERA in particular was targeted by groups and individuals such as "the John Birch Society, right-wing writer Phyllis Schlafly, the Ku Klux Klan, [and] the National Council of Catholic Women and the Revolutionary Union." Queer women were also exceedingly politcally active in women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and disabiltiy rights. 

They were heavily involved in the AIDS crisis. It was in 1983 that the National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference met in Denver, CO. Out of this conference came the Denver Principles, which criticized how people with AIDS (PWAs) were often referred to "as victims and emphasized the rights of PWAs to have access to medical care and social services without discrimination, make informed decisions about research and treatment, enjoy full and satisfying sexual and emotional lives, have privacy and respect, and live and die with dignity." Many queer women were heavily involved in the National Organization of Women (NOW). But even there, lesbians in particular struggled to find acceptance. Betty Friedan, the head, and one of the founders, of NOW, told "the New York Times in 1973 that lesbians [had been] sent to infiltrate the women's movement by the CIA as a plot to discredit feminism."

This exhibit focuses on the stories of queer women through five major movements. These movements are women's suffrage, disability rights, LGBTQ+ rights, the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, and reproductive rights. While many of these movements are intimately connected and share activists between them, the focus here is to not only give the general history of these movements, but to highlight the involvement of queer women and women of color. From Laura Hershey to Loretta Ross, queer women and women of color played both major and minor roles in the women's movement, and pushed forward other social movements as well. This exhibit diverts from the more common emphasis on white, cisgender, heterosexual women by celebrating the significant contributions and enduring legacies of queer women and women of color to help inspire future activism for many years to come. 

Women's Activism Throughout History