Want Equal Rights? The Truth Is – Just Take Them!

by Gloria Feldt on March 7th, 2010
in Women's History, Women's Rights and tagged , ,

“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 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.

IWD, which 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 21st Century 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.”

xx

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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10 Responses to Want Equal Rights? The Truth Is – Just Take Them!

  1. actually, Ms. Truth would make 69 cents on the dollar.

  2. Gloria Feldt says:

    Zoe, you are so right! Thanks for that add.

  3. RosieRed23 says:

    How do you tell a woman in Saudi Arabia who, by law, cannot even go anywhere in public without a man, to “just take” her rights?

  4. Gloria Feldt says:

    RosieRed–As I indicated, I am primarily speaking to women in the U.S. I made the comparison with Nujood to reinforce the idea that with the progress that has been made here, we here have no excuses not to move more intentionally toward full equality in all spheres.

    That said, when you think about it, Sojourner Truth is an example for women globally too. She didn’t stay with her slave master–she left with nothing and made a new life. And all American women at the time she made those statements I quoted were little better than slaves–in most states, they couldn’t own property in their own names, they were legally extensions of their husbands, they couldn’t vote or attend most institutions of higher learning, couldn’t inherit, couldn’t get most jobs, their husbands could beat them with impunity as long as they didn’t kill them, and they were expected to have sex any time he wished but had no sexual rights themselves.

    None of those things changed without women taking the risks to work for change both inside and outside the system and often at great risk to themselves. Change does not come easy.

  5. Aletha says:

    I like that analogy of how baby elephants are tricked into believing they are powerless to break free. It seems to me that a large part of what holds women back is the belief that women must remain tethered to the Donkey, i.e. the Democratic Party, which has demonstrated time and again that it does not necessarily place a high priority on the rights and best interests of women.

  6. Gloria Feldt says:

    Aletha, I have another suggestion re the Democratic party- we ought not to let them trick us, but rather we should use our strength to uproot the current power system. I know you are going to say that’s hopeless. lol.

  7. Aletha says:

    It might be hopeless, but if the current power system continues to be in power, the future of the world looks bleak. There are so many looming potential crises, and the powers that be have their heads firmly buried in the sand, as if denial will make them go away. Pursuing business as usual, with minor cosmetic changes to make it seem like our leaders are doing something to stave off these crises, might as well be saying, bring them on! That might sound extreme, but meanwhile the UN sets up a new climate change financing group, all men. Obama convenes his summit on health care, inviting one woman, the Speaker of the House, and 21 men! Three other women were invited by Congressional leaders, so women made up about ten percent of that group. Where is the change I can believe in?

  8. Politics says:

    medical school:- This is very nice posting There are so many looming potential crises, and the powers that be have their heads firmly buried in the sand, as if denial will make them go away. Pursuing business as usual, with minor cosmetic changes to make it seem like our leaders are doing something to stave off these crises, might as well be saying, bring them on student aid! That might sound extreme, but meanwhile the UN sets up a new climate change financing group, all men. She didn’t stay with her slave master–she left with nothing and made a new life. And all American women at the time she made those statements I quoted were little better than slaves–in most states, they couldn’t own property in their own names, they were legally extensions of their husbands, they couldn’t vote or attend most institutions of higher learning. thanks by Politics

  9. To be frank i think in developed countries women does have equal rights in almost every step compared to the developing or poor countries. At many places in the world. Women still are considered just for reproductivity, to fulfill sex desire, and for household work. Man ego cannot really accept the fact that women can also do their job and run their house without needing their help.

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