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The generations of women who led the way for Saturday’s march

Julie Scelfo
A crowd of women joining the National Woman Suffrage Association, which was led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony in 1869. (Photo: MPI/Getty Images)
A crowd of women joining the National Woman Suffrage Association, which was led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in 1869. (Photo: MPI/Getty Images)

On Saturday, when as many as 2 million women — and men — take to the streets in Washington, D.C., and around the world for the Women’s March, they will be following in the footsteps of women who have marched for progressive causes and civil rights at least since the late 19th century. Those who will be marching in New York have some especially distinguished predecessors.

In 1862, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began working on Park Place in Manhattan across from City Hall, a street then known as Newspaper Row, to publish a periodical promoting suffrage for women. For decades, they organized meetings, rallies and speeches, and it would take many more large-scale marches after their deaths — including the famous Women’s Suffrage Parade at the U.S. Capitol on the day before the inauguration of President-elect Woodrow Wilson—before voting rights were finally extended to female citizens in 1920.

At the end of the 19th century, Rose Schneiderman, one of four children of Polish immigrants, was forced to go to work in a cap-making factory after her father died; she was only 13 years old. Having experienced firsthand the risks of working with dangerous machines, pay inequality and sweatshop conditions like windowless rooms and locked doors, she became a labor activist, and in 1909, organized a landmark strike of garment workers, which led many factory owners to implement what we now consider basic workplace safety measures. Owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory refused; two years later, when 146 people — mostly young women — died in a fire there, Schneiderman and thousands of other New Yorkers again took to the streets, leading to the establishment of a pioneering safety commission and eventually the first comprehensive set of workplace health and safety laws in the nation.

Frances Perkins, who headed that commission, later became the first woman to ever serve in a presidential cabinet, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During 12 years in Washington as the country’s first labor secretary, Perkins spearheaded the New Deal and the expansion of workplace health and safety standards across the country.

Beginning in 1910, Margaret Sanger, a nurse, began a lifetime of advocacy for women’s health, starting with the ability to openly share information about sexually transmitted disease, methods of contraception and relevant products — all of which the 1873 Comstock Act had outlawed.

In the 1940s, Ella Baker, a granddaughter of slaves who had moved to Harlem in 1927, began spending six months a year traveling the South to help blacks achieve the right to vote. When she returned to Manhattan, where she became president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she organized rallies to end police brutality and school segregation.

In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) saw fit to codify homosexuality as a form of mental illness; in the 1960s, Barbara Gitting, a Philadelphia native who founded the New York chapter of one of the first gay-rights organizations in the country, marched on picket lines calling for gays and lesbians to be accepted and for the APA to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders; in 1973 it finally agreed. A few years later, Audre Lorde, who would later become the poet laureate of New York, marched in Washington, D.C. for LBGT rights, where, in a speech, she recalled visiting there 30 years earlier and being unable to eat ice cream in a drugstore with her family because they were black.

As history makes clear, women from New York City have been instrumental in building nearly all the social justice movements that continue to dominate the headlines today, from feminism to civil rights, from refugee resettlements to public education.

And while each cause was distinct, another New York woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations by President Harry Truman in 1946, worked tirelessly to define these causes not as political issues but as a set of fundamental human rights. After heading up yet another commission (which undertook hundreds of hours of research and difficult, complex international negotiations in the shadow of the cold war), Roosevelt’s team created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and still widely considered the preeminent statement on the subject. Every word, comma and period was haggled over by representatives of dozens of countries, and even American politicians hesitated to take a stance. A set of timeless ideals that has since been translated into more than 500 languages, the documents sets forth that “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [are] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

This history presents an inevitable questions: would all the rights now largely taken for granted in American society have happened if women hadn’t joined together and taken to the streets?

The answer seems clear: unlikely.

On Saturday, when marchers assemble throughout the U.S., and across the world in at least 616 sister marches that registered as of Friday morning (in places as far away as Tanzania and the Antarctic Peninsula), the spirits of New York’s outspoken women will lead the way.

Photo by Sarah Saffian
Photo by Sarah Saffian

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Julie Scelfo, a former staff writer for The New York Times, is the author of The Women Who Made New York.

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