A Conversation with Nancy Hewitt about Women's Equality Throughout U.S. History

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History is more than just a study of past events. It's an interpretation of people, artifacts and events that allows us to find a path forward. With an important milestone that just passed, the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, we discussed women's equality with acclaimed historian, author and instructor Nancy Hewitt.

Marisa Bluestone: How do you think that the women’s marches in 2016 will be remembered in our history books 100 years from now?
Nancy Hewitt: Among women’s historians, I think the 2016 women’s marches will be highlighted as part of a new wave of activism touched off by Donald Trump’s election as president but rooted in a much longer shift in progressive women’s activism. The repeated attacks on abortion rights since Roe v Wade, the snail-like pace in achieving equal pay, the continued devastation caused by sexual assault and domestic violence, the continued issues of sexual harassment in workplaces of all kinds, and attacks on immigrants and Dreamers fueled the 2016 marches. But so, too, did the expanding power of women in law, academia, medicine, journalism, and many other professions, the increasing power of Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, and Asian American women’s activist organizations, the expansion of LGBTQ rights and organizations, and the growing importance of women elected officials from diverse backgrounds.

Among American historians, it’s likely that the women’s marches will be viewed as part of the wave of protests in the 2010s and early 2020s inspired by women and men, young and old, working-class and middle-class, from diverse racial and ethnic communities. These activists have demanded racial, environmental and economic justice; gender equality; indigenous rights, LGBTQ rights, and universal healthcare. This extended period of progressive activism, in which women play central roles, will follow on stories of similar moments in the decades before the Civil War, the Progressive Era, and the Sixties (really the 1950s into the early 1980s).

Among both women’s and American historians, this progressive activism will be examined alongside the rise in conservative and alt-right activism among women and men and fueled by many of the same issues. This, too, echoes earlier periods, particularly the Red Scare of the 1910s and 1920s, the McCarthy era and the anti-feminism and New Right of the Sixties.

Marisa: What role have students played in women’s equality movements?Blog quote 1.png
Students, especially college students, have been critical to women’s equality movements since at least the late nineteenth century. Before that, education at all levels was a key demand of women, including writer Judith Sargent Murray and educators and activists Sarah Mapps Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd, Mary Lyon, Catherine Beecher, Elizabeth Peabody, and Fannie Barrier Williams. It was also one of the key demands of women’s rights advocates from the 1840s-1880s. African American students, such as Rosetta Douglass (Rochester, NY) and Mary Jane Patterson (Oberlin), played key roles in movements for women’s educational equality movements by demanding access to predominantly white schools.

The success of these educational campaigns allowed female students at women’s colleges and a growing number of coeducational institutions to become deeply involved in women’s equality movements over the next half-century. Associations of college students joined the suffrage movement, fought for improvements in public health, advocated for temperance and peace, labored in settlement houses; and, as journalists and writers, they investigated conditions in prisons, asylums, workplaces, and impoverished neighborhoods. Photographs of massive suffrage parades in New York City, Washington, D.C. and other cities in the 1910s show young women marching under student and sorority banners. Black sororities were especially important in training young women for careers in civil rights and social justice efforts. In this decade, white and Black college women volunteered for overseas work supporting American troops during WWI or banded together at home to assist the Red Cross and other organizations.

It’s also important to think about the children who did not get to continue their education because of the economic needs of their families. Even when public education was widely available, many African American and immigrant children had to leave school early to earn money. Many native-born white children in rural areas had to miss school as well to help plant and harvest crops. Some of these young people, too, participated in social movements, including labor movements in cities and populist movements in rural areas. This part of the story continues today for children of recent immigrants, migrant workers, and impoverished families of all races.

In the post-World War II period, as the college population increased significantly, students remained central to movements for peace, women’s rights, civil rights, farm workers rights, and social justice. More high school students joined their ranks. The southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s offers one of the most powerful moments of student activism from Black children who integrated white schools amid rising violence to white and Black college students who joined efforts to integrate transportation, stores and lunch counters. They testified about the sexual abuse of Black women and pushed for voting rights across the South. Farmer worker movements across the West politicized Chicana students, many who worked the fields themselves, a necessity that limited their access to education.

College students were among the groups that supported the grape and lettuce boycotts launched by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta through the United Farmer Workers. While Chavez missed school for weeks at a time as he moved with his family picking crops across California, Huerta left her job as a school teacher to organize farmer workers after seeing the devastation on children’s education caused by the system of migrant farm labor. Huerta was also active in campaigns for voting rights among Mexican American/Chicana/o workers across the Southwest.

In the 1970s, college students from diverse backgrounds were central to the rise of women’s liberation, women of color feminism, and lesbian feminism. They remain at the heart of battles for women’s equality today, building on efforts to increase women’s presence in law, medicine, journalism, the arts, and academia. Photographs and videos of women’s rights marches from the 1970s to 2020 document the participation of large numbers of young women, many organized through college and high school networks.

The field of women’s history emerged, of course, on college and university campuses. It was launched by women and a few good men trained in other areas of history. Fortunately for me, I entered graduate school at University of Pennsylvania in 1975, when it was possible to claim women’s history as a major field in some graduate departments. When I entered the job market in 1981, 9 history departments were hiring their first women’s historians. I was hired at the University of South Florida, and continued to teach both the American history survey and women’s history at USF, Duke and Rutgers University.

Marisa: What woman in US history do you think students should learn more about?
Nancy: There are so many that it is hard to choose just a few. Many more women appear in high school textbooks than when I attended high school or college.

I remember when Harriet Tubman became a standard figure in high school textbooks. I was teaching the early American history survey at the University of South Florida. I began each semester by asking students to list the names of 10 notable Americans between 1600 and 1865, and then asked them to create a second list of 10 minus political and military leaders. The second lists were often much shorter than the first, and some included authors, explorers and scientists. Frederick Douglass appeared with some regularity, and a few women, most notably Pocahontas and First Ladies. But in the late 1980s, Harriet Tubman started appearing regularly. When I asked my students why, they said she was one of the people featured in boxed biographies in their high school textbooks. Now, high school and college textbooks include a much more diverse cast of characters, and I suspect my opening gambit would be easier for students, at least I hope so.

So let me highlight a few women in this early period who are starting to appear in college textbooks and whose stories help us think broadly about women’s roles and women’s equality.

Weetamoo, a Wampanoag sachem in 17th century New England, worked to save native lands through deeds and diplomacy. She married into a prominent Wampanoag family, and Metacom (King Philip) was her brother-in-law. Weetamoo was an important diplomat, seeking first to negotiate with English colonists and in the 1670s joining Metacom in King Philip’s War against the colonists. Only recently have historians begun to understand the full significance of her role in native and New England society.

Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) was born into slavery in New York and was sold to John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, as a child. She was allowed to marry and had a daughter before her husband joined the Continental Army. Mum Bett’s owner was an active patriot, who often held meetings in his home. In 1773, the group drafted the Sheffield Resolves, the first manifesto of individual liberties. In 1780, after hearing a reading of the Massachusetts Constitution, she asked one of Ashley’s fellow patriots, Theodore Sedgwick, to help her sue for freedom. He did so; and in winning her suit, she helped ensure the end to slavery in Massachusetts.

Jessie Benton Fremont was raised in a prominent political family and spent much of her young life in Washington D.C., where her father Thomas served as Senator from Missouri. She met Lieutenant John C. Fremont, a military officer and explorer. Despite her family’s objection, the two married and Jessie became a critical assistant to her husband as he mapped parts of the western frontier and sought military and political fame in California. She helped him write dramatic accounts of his explorations, putting her husband at the center of the story. When John received the nomination for President from the new Republican Party, Jessie rallied women to his campaign, illuminating the expanding role women played in political campaigns well before they gained the right to vote. 

Rose O’Neal was born in rural Maryland in 1813 or 1814 to a poor farm family. After her mother died, she was sent to live with relatives in Washington, D.C. Rose gained the friendship of Dolley Madison, ensuring her entrée to the best social and political circles in the city. There Rose met Dr. Robert Greenhow. After their marriage, she began holding her own “at home” gatherings. By the time Civil War erupted in spring 1861, Rose was widowed and mother to a young daughter. A supporter of the Confederacy, she gathered political and military information from numerous admirers, who had no idea she was passing it to the Confederates. To avoid suspicion, she appealed to the chivalry of men on both sides. She was finally arrested and imprisoned in the Old Capitol Prison with other female enemy agents. She was eventually released and sent to Virginia. Although considered a traitor to the United States, Greenhow used her femininity, intellect and political commitments to claim a significant role in the Confederate cause. 

Marisa: Many (like Macmillan Learning author Betsey Stevenson) believe that COVID-19 may set back women’s workplace gains. What does history tell us about how the pandemic may impact women in the workplace?
This is a hard question to answer given the dramatically different economic situations of American women. Many frontline workers—from hospital cleaners and laundry workers to nurses and doctors—might improve their position in the workforce because of the critical character of their work during the pandemic. But they are also more at risk of infection. At the same time, many service workers—such as cashiers and secretaries—are likely to lose their jobs with the collapse of brick and mortar stores and small businesses. Those jobs may never recover given that shopping malls and traditional consumer shopping were already in economic trouble with the rise of online shopping. 

While women have made huge strides in recent years in terms of access to the professions, entrepreneurship and other fields, they remain a small percentage of workers in high tech companies, which are likely to expand as a result of the pandemic. Moreover, the pandemic is likely to increase disparities between college-educated and non-college educated workers and between women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds whose access to education and job training differ as much as among men. Thus, women of color are likely to be especially hard hit by the economic effects of the pandemic as they are by its medical effects. Thus generalizations are hard to make.

Finally, the smaller percentage of wealth held by women (versus men) and of Black, Native and Chicana/Latina women versus white women means that racial inequities will continue to effect women not only in the workplace but on the home front. This is especially true since homeownership is much higher for native-born white women than for other racial groups, providing them with a foundation (literally and figuratively) that allows them to survive economic downturns more easily than those who rent.

Marisa: Is there anything else we should be asking you about women’s equality but haven’t?Blog quote 2.png
Nancy: I think it’s important to remember that in almost any time period, in the United States and elsewhere, advances for one group of women have not automatically meant advancement for all groups of women. This year with the centenary of the 19th Amendment, the differential effect of that amendment has been the focus of a number of talks, articles and books. Most white women who hadn’t already been enfranchised by their state governments did gain the right to vote in 1920. But Native American and Chinese American women did not gain citizenship rights until 1924 and 1943, respectively, thus making them ineligible to vote. Korean American and Japanese American women were not granted citizenship until even later. And Black women in the South were largely disfranchised alongside Black men until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Other groups—including Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans—also had to fight for the vote for more than a decade after 1920. And many Spanish-speaking women did not gain full voting rights until the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, when bilingual ballots and voting information was available. Of course these limits were generally shared by women and men, but they make clear that the 19th Amendment did not enfranchise all women, which has been the popular understanding for far too long.

As the students we teach in colleges and universities become more diverse, it is important that we incorporate the many stories that contribute to American/US history into our textbooks. It has been incredibly enlightening for me to see how focusing on different groups can shift an entire story. That has been clear since becoming a women’s historian, but I have tried this year to be even more attentive to how women from different backgrounds develop their own histories and relate to other groups of women in forming American histories. The same is true for men, of course. How do their stories differ across race, ethnicity, place and time; and how do those stories relate to each other and to the histories of women.

This summer, as I worked on the 4th edition of Exploring American Histories, the addition of Weetamoo and Elizabeth Freeman, giving equal attention to Powhatan as to John Smith, and adding more stories of Mexicans and Tejanos to the period from the 1830s through Reconstruction alongside those of blacks and whites helped me see new aspects of the American past. I hope these stories will also encourage students from diverse communities to understand their part in the historical development of the United States and in struggles for the equal rights promised in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Nancy Hewitt is the co-author of Exploring American Histories franchise, published by Macmillan Learning. She is Professor Emerita of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Her publications include Southern Discomfort: Women’s Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s; Women’s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822-1872; and the edited volume No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism. Her latest book is Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds.