Women now lead the fights for labor and civil rights
Some of the women leading the way in the labor and civil rights movements of today: From left, Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign; Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign; Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union; and Ai-Jen Poo, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. | Photos: AP / Graphic: People's World

WASHINGTON—Filling a gap that went unmentioned 60 years ago, more than three dozen woman activists, including union leaders, spoke out for jobs, workers’ rights, civil rights, voting rights, and women’s rights at a conference the Poor People’s Campaign called.

The session, held on August 28, marked the actual anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, led by Dr. Martin Luther King. While women, including Coretta Scott King, played key roles in organizing and marshaling the estimated 250,000 participants back then, not one woman spoke from the podium that day at the Lincoln Memorial.

They were “the missing heroines of the movement,” said the Rev. Liz Theoharis, the Poor People’s Campaign Co-Chair.

Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees spoke for unionists at this session, while Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute added data about the wage gap, especially between women of color and white men. All the speakers filled that prior chasm from 1963 on this August 28 at “She Speaks: A Moral Monday Call To Conscience.”

There’s still a lot to call the nation on, all said, including at least 140 million poor and low-wealth Americans, the need to stop funding the war machine in favor of education, housing, universal health care and other services, and worker rights.

“The promise of this nation has yet to be realized,” said Rev. Theoharis. We are “not in the land of the free and home of the brave where millions of people are still under attack” for being female, Black, brown, LGTBQ, Native American, and other “out” groups.

“We are fighting to have people thrive, not just survive. Fight poverty, not the poor.”

“The spirit of the [1963] March on Washington is carried by millions of Black, brown, and white working people,” Henry said. The current demand of “Respect us, protect us, pay us” closely parallels the jobs and justice themes of the original march.

“That’s why we demand a seat at the table of the most profitable corporations in the world,” Henry added.

Ai-Jen Poo reminded the others and the zooming-in audience that the foundation of all work rests on that of 2.2 million domestic workers. Their work in child care, elder care, and similar occupations “makes other work possible” for both women and men.

“Yet most earn less than $12 an hour,” Ai-Jen Poo said. “They have no job security, no health insurance, and no paid time off. Yet many of the people in the March on Washington were domestic workers.”

More than 80% of domestic workers are women of color. They’re also victims of discrimination. For racist reasons in the 1930s, domestic workers—black women–were exempted from federal wage and hour laws and other worker protections. So were farm workers, of all genders, because they were Hispanic-named.

The 1963 march “was about dignity,” Ai-Jen Poo said. “We continue in that fight for good jobs, livable wages, health care, and child care.” And as SEIU has accomplished in California, the right to organize.

Other speakers added other points, including violence against women (and men) of color, including from the racist, misogynist, hate-filled right.

Leaders like Coretta Scott King played key roles in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, but not a single woman appeared at the podium that day. Here, King speaks at the Solidarity Day rally of 1981. | AP

Children still dying

“Children are still dying from police violence, gun violence, and poverty,” added Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. “And women are not considered equal in our own Constitution.” That’s a reference to the languishing Equal Rights Amendment.

Katz added a notable death to the current rolls: Emmett Till, the Black teenager from Chicago whom white nationalists murdered and dumped in a river in Mississippi exactly 68 years before.

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay group, promptly followed Katz by noting “14 transgender people have been killed by political violence this year.”

“Housing is more segregated” than it was in 1963, Rev. Theresa Hord Owens, president of the Disciples of Christ, added. “And people fight societal change if it benefits people of color.”

“There was the missing voice” of women in the 1963 march, said Latosha Brown of Black Voters Matter. “We will have to make a commitment that we will never be marginalized again.” To accomplish that, “we have to be engaged on every single level on voting rights.”

Politics and the threat to democracy were also themes. Several women sharply denounced the racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and radical right, and its threat to women’s rights and U.S. democracy, too.

“We don’t have the time or the place” to list all the “dictatorial tactics and scare practices” the right-wingers undertake, said Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, president of the National Council of Churches of Christ. “Our democracy is not only endangered but on life support.”

McKenzie and League of Women Voters Executive Vice President Virginia Kate Solomon added the constitutional right to abortion to the mix. “We will do what we want to do, not what we are made to do,” McKenzie said.

“Today our children have fewer rights than we had 50 years ago,” Solomon added, referring to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court Dobbs ruling, by its five-justice Republican-named majority, overturning abortion rights.

“Women of America must rise up and call for America to be the nation we say we are,” Rev. Hurd ended.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.