First Tuesday of each month, my retirement neighborhood hosts a Round Table presentation. People from the community speak about their careers, hobbies, or travels. One evening, we listened to Donna speak of her 23-year experience as a US Air Force Intelligence officer. She titled her talk, “Women in the CIA, Sisterhood of Spies.” Another time, Kristi told us about the role therapy animals play in our society. And then there was the time when I spoke of the contributions women played in settling Iceland (beginning around 1000 AD). In the following days, a woman from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of North Florida called and asked if I’d consider hosting a class about women. I didn’t feel my knowledge of my ancestor womenfolk qualified me to speak of women, as in all women, so I declined. My interest in exploring women’s contributions, especially of how they enriched their sisters’ lives remains.
Society values certain achievements and achievers over others. White men’s history has dominated human (written) history. Bella Abzug and Dorothy Bolden are two of hundreds of women whose contributions were minimized, missed, or ignored. Reading about our sisters, we reclaim their story from the forgotten bin.
We also read history for a better understanding of the world and the events that shaped it into the world we inhabit today. Instead of ignoring, assuming, or guessing at the suffering, joy, and chaos others experienced for us to have the lifestyle we enjoy this moment, we read to learn the facts. History is a giant story that leads up to you.
My friend, Nan, and I, did the spit test for ancestry.com, hoping to uncover something about people in our family we didn’t know before. Each time a distant relative links to our “spit,” we receive an email from ancestry.com. Because we are women and women like sharing, we text one another. Recently, for the first time, I learned my Danish grandmother’s full name, Adeline Caroline Dagmar Andersen, and where she was born. Wanting to know our personal history grows stronger as we age. However, young children, before swept up in culture’s busyness, share this curiosity. Days ago, I heard my six-year-old grandson ask Tim, “Do I have a great-great-grand-papa?” But you may be thinking, who wants to read about dead women when we can read about British princesses and American movie stars living right now?
A friend disagrees with me on the issue of ERA. She claims that discrimination between the genders doesn’t exist. Let’s say my friend is right. Women enjoy all the rights men have. But wouldn’t that in itself be a reason to read about our sisters who earned us that right? Of course, this is a pet peeve of mine. It’s when my kids go, “Mom, don’t go there.”
Nevertheless, I persist. It matters that we take time to appreciate the sacrifices women made for us. It matters because the more women know their gender’s history, the more women support other women. The more we know, the greater our chances to upraise the human condition and spirit.
Bella Abzug’s (1920-1998) and Dorothy Bolden’s (1923-2005) lives demonstrate how women fought for fairness and smoothed the trail for women, in particular, and society in general.
Today, six women are running for the US Presidency, Bella Abzug paved their way. She was a New York attorney born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Bella started her law practice and worked on cases defending the rights of workers, immigrants, and African-Americans. She spoke out against the Vietnam War and helped launch the Women Strike for Peace (WSP) movement which called for a ban on nuclear testing in the United States. Abzug’s lobbying with WSP led her to run for Congress in 1970. She ran on an anti-war and feminist platform.
Bella Abzug’s famous campaign slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives,” earned her praise and protest. Her male opponents said she was disrespectful and brash calling her “Battling Bella.” Today they’d call her nasty. With an opportunity to influence policy at the national level, her resolve to support women went into full swing. When the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass, she spearheaded the organization National Women’s Political Causes, along with co-founders Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm. The NWPC worked to open doors for women in politics of both parties. When they couldn’t open them, they knocked them down. Throughout her life, Bella remained a strong advocate for peace, civil rights, and environmental protection. The same issues women (and some men) fight for today.
Dorothy Bolden was honest 100% of the time. She didn’t suffer fools or change her message, whether she spoke to a maid or a US President. With the spirit of God working through her, her words, she spent her life bringing attention to the plight of domestic workers, women underpaid and overworked.
Dorothy was born in Atlanta to a chauffeur and a mother who took in laundry, cooked and cleaned for white people. From Georgia State University’s Voices of Labor Oral History, Dorothy tells of falling from a third story window, cracking her head and being declared legally blind. But in time her eyesight mostly recovered. (YouTube)
Her work life began at age nine, washing diapers. Her grandparents played a large part in her life and “put the strictness inside me.” At 17, she traveled for work to Chicago, Detroit, and New York. “I was more mature than most people were. I was able to do what many girls couldn’t do, resist temptation.”
She returned to the South and continued working as a domestic worker, a role she was proud of. “A domestic worker is a counselor, a doctor, a nurse. She cares about the family she works for as she cares about her own.”
Dorothy spoke to her neighbor, Rev. Marin Luther King Jr., about the plight of the African-American housemaids, toiling 12 hours a day for $35 a week. Could he do something about it? He told her, “You do it. That’s a good job for you.” It was the motivation she needed. She went on to establish a union for domestic workers in 1968. To galvanize support, she rode every city bus speaking to hundreds of domestic workers. In time, her union organized in 10 cities and had 13,000 applicants for job referrals. To join, she required applicants to be registered voters. “I don’t want to be out here pushing for you and you not registered to vote,” she said. “We aren’t Aunt Jemima women, and I sure to God don’t want people to think we are. We are politically strong and independent.” (Legacy.com)
Bolden’s work resulted in higher wages and greater workplace protections for women. What started as a bunch of black women riding city buses sharing their woes emerged as a political force to be acknowledged. Dorothy’s reputation was such that anyone running for office in Atlanta needed her blessings.
Dorothy Bolden worked with Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter during their presidencies. After she retired in the mid-1990s, her group disbanded. She died in 2005 at the age of 80. Today, domestic workers work long hours for poverty wages, the very problems Dorothy worked to end. She’s handed the baton to future leaders to bring it to the finish line. Ratify the ERA.