EDITORIAL: History matters

For casting a vote in the 1872 presidential election, women’s rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony was arrested, tried, convicted and fined $100 (which she never paid). In a famous 1873 speech to the court titled “On Women’s Right to Vote,” Anthony drew a profound connection between the struggles for African American rights and for women’s rights.

“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men.”

This week, as February, African American History Month, segues into March, Women’s History Month, it is fitting and essential to remind ourselves that these two struggles to expand and strengthen democracy are intertwined in our country’s history, and continue to be intertwined today.

The fight for the abolition of slavery and for the rights of the former slaves produced some of the greatest women our country has known, Black and white — such as the Grimke sisters, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell. This “second American revolution” was the fertile soil in which the movement for women’s rights blossomed.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became one of this nation’s foremost abolitionists and moral compasses, was a leading advocate of women’s rights. Despite differences over tactics among abolitionists and women’s rights leaders after the Civil War, Douglass was later hailed by Anthony as a women’s rights pioneer, and upon his death in 1895, she delivered his eulogy.

We do well to remember this history as we contemplate the big struggles we face today to decisively defeat the far-right and to advance peace, democracy and social justice.

Commenting on the 2008 presidential race in a recent New York Times op-ed, Gloria Steinem, a prominent figure in the modern women’s movement, said progressives should refuse to be drawn into an “irrelevant” and “destructive” debate pitting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama against each other — “forcing a choice between race and sex.”

Steinem said, “We can accomplish much more if we act as a coalition.”

That’s a good history lesson to keep in mind.