Feminists’ first ally: free speech

By Shelby Emmett, director of free expression initiatives at the Charles Koch Institute

It is hard to believe that 100 years ago women were not allowed to vote. Today women make up more than half the voting population, and both major parties know that courting the female voter is necessary to win any election.

But well before the vote, women of all economic backgrounds, colors, and social standing used their voices to support the causes they believed in. They created new associations and organizations to address issues ranging from the abolition of slavery to the prohibition of alcohol. As these organizations grew, so too did the importance of women’s perspectives in public policy. These individual women and the organizations they created led to major reforms many of us take for granted today—child labor laws, sanitary conditions, juvenile justice, and NASA scientists. 

Yes, the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women a new tool to turn their advocacy into fundamental change. But it was free expression that was women’s first ally.

Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in New York around 1797, Sojourner Truth was the first black person to win a lawsuit against a white man, successfully securing the freedom of her son. After a religious conversion, she changed her name and became one of the nation’s best-known abolitionists and, later, women suffrage advocates. Truth was so influential during her time that even President Abraham Lincoln listened to what she had to say. Although she could not read or write, Sojourner used her voice to force America to see the immorality of slavery. She is most known for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman.” The title is actually a racist caricature of her original words, but the substance of her message resonated throughout the country and strengthened the abolitionist movement.  

Elizabeth Jennings was the original freedom rider. A teacher and advocate, Jennings took a stand against public transit segregation in New York in 1854 — 100 years before Rosa Parks did in Alabama. After being manhandled and kicked off a trolley car for being Black and late to choir practice, Jennings, with the help of a young attorney, Chester Arthur, sued the trolley company and won. The settlement was so massive that other trolley companies did not think it was financially prudent to continue the segregation policy. Jennings ignited the beginning of the end of segregation in New York. Although it would take more than 100 years for Jim Crow to finally come to an end, 19th century black women like Jennings and Truth understood the power of their voice and advocacy.

Betty Friedan—writer, feminist, and women’s rights activist—understood the power of freedom of speech and association to advance women in every area of life. Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique (1963) and co-founded the National Organization for Women, NARAL and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Her ability to take full advantage of the First Amendment has had a legendary impact. Today many female leaders and politicians owe their careers and place in history to Friedan and the organizations she helped create. Her advocacy helped women find meaning outside of traditional social structures and helped change the course of political history as women became an increasingly important demographic in American policy and politics. Friedan deployed free expression to fight for the equality of women in everyday life and propel women into national politics.   

Instead of decorating the White House, hosting dinner parties, or kissing her husband after a speech, Eleanor Roosevelt used her status as first lady to amplify her belief that racism and segregation were both immoral and un-American. During the Second World War, Roosevelt argued that the United States could not claim to be a democracy if African Americans did not have democratic rights. These “radical” views caused a lot of headaches for the president, and people across the country even insisted J. Edgar Hoover “silence” her. She persisted. In 1939, Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Daughters of the American Revolution announcing her resignation from the group in protest of the group barring Marian Anderson from performing at DAR Constitution Hall. But Roosevelt did more than just send a letter and quit the organization. She worked with the White House to move Anderson’s performance to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Roosevelt could have just sat back and enjoyed the privileges of being first lady. Instead, she teamed up with free speech and used her position to amplify the call for equal rights.

Founded in 2017, the #MeToo movement brought alleged incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination to light. Instead of women talking about their individual experiences only among trusted friends and colleagues, the movement ‘put it all out there’ and sparked greater discussion of women’s treatment in the workplace. The movement demonstrated the power of association and speech in the virtual space and invited debate about how society views sexual harassment in the 21st century.

Founded in 2013 by three African-American women, Black Lives Matter has sparked controversy, advocacy, and uncomfortable conversations about the value of Black life in America. The movement highlighted America’s love/hate relationship with cultural influencers like professional athletes who used their celebrity to take a stand (or knee) for the causes they care about. BLM led major protests across the country and sparked some of the nation’s largest boycotts. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is now a part of the American lexicon. 

Although for a good portion of American history, women did not enjoy equal protection of the law, we still had voices to use, ideas to share, and men to hold to account. For almost 250 years, American women have demonstrated the power of free expression, freedom of association, and the freedom to run our mouths to make real change. So the next time someone tells you free speech should be restricted or that people should not be able to freely associate and join organizations to fight for the causes they believe in, think of the “radical,” often times “unpatriotic” and “dangerous” women like Truth, Friedan, and Roosevelt. As women across America celebrate the centennial of our right to participate in the democratic process, let’s also give a shout out to women’s first ally — free speech. 

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