"If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it." --Sojourner Truth, former slave, abolitionist, Methodist minister, and early U.S. women's rights leader
International Women's Day began 99 years ago. With so much progress accomplished since 1911, yet so much more remaining to be done, it seems to me that it's time for women to change our approach to something closer to Sojourner Truth's.
Her advice to women as she stated it in the above quote to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the influential anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, when they met in 1853, comes from a position of knowing her own power. Despite being been born into slavery and experiencing oppression, poverty, and discrimination far greater than most women reading this blog in 2010, Truth was way ahead of many of us in her perspective about how to advance equal rights.
Without question, in many places around the globe, women remain as oppressed as Sojourner Truth -- born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, and once sold for $100 and a herd of sheep -- was before she "walked off" from her master.
But even in the most gender-repressive societies such as Yemen, there are Sojourner Truth-like women and girls such as ten-year-old Nujood Ali, who was married off to a man three times her age but had the idea of a different, more just life, the intention to get it, and the courage to divorce her husband despite male dominant customs.
In the U.S. as in many highly industrialized nations, women have become not just free to choose their mates and manage their own fertility, but we are the majority in the workplace and almost 60% of college graduates, we make over 80% of consumer purchasing decisions, and own over 50% of start-up businesses -- just for starters.
Yet we hover around 15% of corporate board memberships and top executive positions, we earn 78 cents to a man's dollar, and though we're 52% of voters, we're only 17% of Congress and around 25% of state legislatures. Why the disparity?
I have been researching the question for over a year now, and I keep coming up with the same answer as Sojourner Truth. We need to just take what we want.
All indicators are that our learned behavior has not yet allowed us to break free, or to see ourselves as fully powerful. So women don't put ourselves forward for those top slots in numbers and with intention sufficient to break through to parity once and for all. We don't assume equality at all levels as our perfect right, as boys and men are socialized to do from birth.
At See Jane Do's Passion Into Action conference recently, a woman shared this story as an insight to how we might break the bounds that keep us from reaching equal rights and responsibilities: it seems that trainers of baby elephants tether them to a posts soon after birth. After a couple of weeks, the newborn stops trying to break free, for she has come to believe she lacks the ability to do so. Once grown, the elephant has plenty of strength to pull up the post or break the chains. But because she doesn't realize she has the power to free herself, she remains tied to the post, held back by her own previously inculcated experience.
Women can only be disempowered from reaching full equality if we stay tethered to old constraints of custom and behavior that remain in our thinking. We need to understand our own strength, embrace it, and have the intention and courage to use it, for our own good and the good of the world.
What IWD started in Copenhagen as a Socialist movement for better working conditions and voting rights for women at the turn of the 20th century has unquestionably helped to change the world for the better. Now it's up to today's women to finish the job -- no excuses if we don't.
In her most famous speech, delivered to a women's rights convention in 1851, Sojourner Truth proffered another piece of advice that we would do well to heed: "If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!"
Let us pledge to turn the world aright, with equal rights, by IWD's 100th anniversary next year. All we need to do, after all, is "just take them."
Gloria Feldt is author of three books. Her fourth, No Excuses: Nine Power Essentials for Women to Lead an Unlimited Life, will be published by Seal Press in October. A teen mom who rose to become president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she continues her advocacy for women as an independent keynote speaker and commentator. Vanity Fair named her one of "200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers," and she's been honored as a Women's e-News "21 Leaders for the 21st Century." She serves on the board of the Women's Media Center. Visit GloriaFeldt.com to learn more. Contact her at Gloria@gloriafeldt.com or @heartfeldt on Twitter.