Our Own Cause

On Saturday will be the anniversary of the memorial of Ida B. Wells, a pioneer in investigative journalism, women’s rights and black American civil rights.  March is also women’s History month, and to commemorate this monthly is only fitting that the life and legacy of Mrs. Ida B. Wells be celebrated.

Wells, was born into slavery and only received her freedom after the Emancipation Proclimation.  She is an example of the women who were co-architects of American history, culture and enterprise.  Wells was a serial entrepreneur and a prolific journalist,  respected and promoted often by her Black American male peers. 

It is why the examination of feminism, gender roles and tradition has more nuance than similarity.  This is not to say that there are not overarching themes in gender inequality among men and women.  Currently in earnings, women earn only 82 percent of what men earn, according to a 2023 Pew Research report.  But nuance is important, perhaps moreso than internationality. 

While women of all races and classes definitely have points of intersectionality on the spectrum of patriarchy,  gender roles, inequality and even feminism–they do not comprise the spectrum of female experience from one society and historical context to the next.  According to a report by LeanIn.org, Black women make 12 percent less than Anglo-American women and Black Men earn 87 percent of their Anglo-American male counterparts.

The modern conversations seeking to rush women back into the house and the kitchen are more nuanced than similar across time, culture and experience.   For instance, the Black American woman who emerged from slavery, much like Ida B. Wells, has always known work.  There were few stay-at-home-moms (SAHM) in Black America, up from slavery to present.

The definition also varies from Asia to the Middle East, to Native America.  Even in Africa, most women–even today work on the farms or in recent times hawk wares on city streets and markets.  According to data from the United nations women In Sub-saharan Africa comprise 60-80 percent of labor In the agricultural sector.  However, there are all sorts of talking-points floating around popular conversations, many that have never or rarely applied to certain groups, regions or cultures.   For many, it is the equivalent of Western-world liberal or conservative talking points in black-face. These are not contingencies specific ethnicities and regions truly faced.

Complicate that further with the plethora of voices from races, cultures and traditions around the world coalescing on points of feminism and gender roles that were not and perhaps never were shared by everyone.  In a way, the Western concept of the SAHM may not have as much applicability worldwide.  In fact, Ida B. Wells who worked her entire life starting at age 14, was also a wife and mother of six children. No one ever denied her the right to work, she had to work to survive.

The SAHM like many concepts in modern conversation are Western constructs from the golden age of American life.  We grab these notions from mainstreme media like, “I Love Lucy”, “Leave It to Beaver” and the “Andy Griffith Show”; and we try to appropriate them for narratives in our own lives. For many in various communities from Kenya to Sri Lanka and from Korea to Colombia, women were out working, harvesting organges, picking tea leaves, and selling homemade traditional food on the street.  Some were building houses and others were picking up the spear to go to war.

There is too much nuance in every community and culture to assume that it was the man who brought home the bacon, or that women were forbidden to work.  The truth is that for women in whatever society they live, they are denied equal pay for equal work, concessions for gender specific issues and equal protection and standing in society.

Conversations about gender roles, modernity and parenting can be negotiated by the society. However, too many are arguing a point from their society with someone from an entirely different cultural framework.  It is no wonder the cacophony is loud.

In America people argue the question of marrying for love or money. But this is actually only feasible in certain societies that even have the option.  Some have come from a very long line of marriages of convenience or practicality.  How does someone evolved from such unions, where mom and dad were y roommates; and where one has never seen otherwise?  They may literally not know how to marry for love.

For many African Americans, who come from a background of survival.  The survival of love, of family, of hope was a miracle.  And so, there was not a question of marrying for love–of course you married for love.   You married for love because you fought for that love, died for it and at times had that love was wrested from your arms by slavers, never to be seen again.  Many African Americans have stories of brave fathers who saved pennies fastidiously to buy his love out of slavery; or slipped behind enemy lines to steal his wife and children away to freedom.  From desperate circumstances emerged a fierce kind of love that is unimaginable not to have.

And like these very real stories of men and women risking life and limb for love, we must understand that much of the hardline rules prohibiting women were not constructs of a patriarchy that Black American men engineered.  In fact, Ida B. Wells was greatly helped and supported by Black Men inside and outside of the Black publishing and news industry.  She even co-owner a newspaper with a black man in her first publishing venture.

Therefore as we look at the plight of women through the lense of Ida B. Wells; as one of my foremothers, we must acknowledge the nuance.  And by doing so we acknowledge the nuance of women worldwide: some are forced into arranged marriages, married as child brides, robed with prohibitive clothing, paralyzed with financial dependency,  wrecked by physical abuse and devestated by sex-trafficking.  Women make up 65 percent  of persons trafficked, a 2023 U.N. Women report revealled.

The goal then, is not to infer that the struggle of every woman is the same.  Nor should we conflate it in pointless discussions on roles and expectations, that don’t take into consideration different sociocultural and historic traditions.  Theoretically, his grandmother was a SAHM, but her grandmother was a lifelong domestic worker.  Instead, the focus should be on the dignity of every woman as a human being in her societal context.  Every human deserves the right to be sovereign over his/her own body.  The right to recieve equal pay for equal work. To be respected and allowed to choose the path to their own destiny.  Unmolested and undeterred, women deserve to be full actors in their own life and society instead if cameos in a man’s world. 

There is no shame in being a SAHM or working at the dream you love.  The point is to have the freedom to do what you love–whatever that may be. The goal is to be uninhibited by society, simply for your sex alone.  We cannot deny women the right to flourish in business, media, academics, politics and every sector of society.  

Such calls like those by Ida B. Wells and other feminist of her time, should not be a threat to men. But it is a call to recognize the humanity of women. As fully alive and fully ready to actualize their dreams and talents, whether that is leaning in as a senior executive at a tech company or lying back with a baby on her lap in the house of her husband. Women need the freedom to be. The freedom to become,  with dignity.

We need.a world that respects the thoughts, boundaries and humanity of women. One that recognizes the nuance of female lives from one society to the next and the everyday negotiations men and women must make to navigate life together.

Women are not a monolith. We face different challenges in different societies and cultures.  So intersectionality won’t do alone. We need practical conversations about what it looks like to respect the wishes of women, the dignity of women and their ability to live a dignified life in each society.

The future of women begins with little girls. What option or choices are we offering them? How are we making the world a place they can grow up in protected and supported? It is about systems that do more than pay lip service to equality, but demonstrate that in the lived outcomes of women and girls.  It is not the hatred of patriarchy that the feminism of my foremothers protested–but the hegemony of patriarchy. 

Ida B. Wells will forever be one of my heroines for her dedication to the causes that mattered.  Her love for the work did not skew left or right, rather it pursued the highest aim of human society–justice.  And we cannot have true society without justice, or women.

Happy women’s history month!

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