Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Saturday 22nd July 2017 | Manchester, UK

A Brief History of American Women

When considering people of historical significance in recent American history, we tend to think of men such as Barack Obama, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Neil Armstrong and, of course, the great Martin Luther King Jr. In a country that has only ever experienced male Presidents and where most leading politicians and activists are male, the actions of American women often go uncelebrated or unrecognised.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest serving First Lady of the United States, during President Roosevelt’s four terms in office from 1933 to 1945. In addition to this, she was also a politician, diplomat and activist in her own right. She was the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, and when doing so banned male journalists, opening the door for women in a male-dominated field. Roosevelt wrote regular newspaper columns, and advocated increased rights for women, Africans and Asian Americans. She faced much criticism for her bold views and beliefs, but continued regardless, even disagreeing with her husband’s policies on public spending, his decision to intern Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, and his decision to stop accepting refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Eleanor Roosevelt redefined the role of a First Lady, from mere presidential wife to political activist, allowing other First Ladies to follow in her footsteps. After the death of her husband, Roosevelt continued her trailblazing political career, becoming the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and as well as this he had an active role in writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Women’s influence has also been overshadowed by their male counterparts in the popular memory of the American Civil Rights Movement. The main actors that come to mind when thinking of the movement are Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and Andrew Goodman, with Rosa Parks often being the only female we remember after her Montgomery Bus Boycott. Known as ‘the first lady of civil rights’ or ‘the mother of the freedom movement,’ we are reminded constantly of Parks’ femininity, rather than focussing on her political impact. Many women in the Civil Rights Movement remain completely forgotten. Ella Baker was an organiser in the NAACP, and mentored activists such as Rosa Parks and Bob Moses; Septima Poinsette Clark was responsible for developing the literacy and citizenship workshops that drove the movement, and Vivian Malone Jones was made famous when she was blocked by Governor George Wallace from enrolling at the University of Alabama in 1963, only being permitted to enrol after intervention from President John F. Kennedy, and later becoming the first African-American to graduate from the University. These often forgotten women dramatically shaped the American Civil Rights movement and therefore American society today.

Increasingly relevant in the current political climate are the actions of women’s activist, Margaret Sanger. In 1914, Margaret Sanger began publishing a pamphlet entitled The Woman Rebel, informing readers on contraceptive methods. She was indicted under postal obscenity laws, but in 1916 opened the first birth control clinic in the country, leading to her arrest and sentencing her to 30 days in the workhouse. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, now known as Planned Parenthood, as well as opening a clinic in Harlem with an all African-American advisory council. Margaret Sanger was influential in the shaping of women’s lives, with Planned Parenthood still aiding American women today. She is widely regarded as a founder of the modern American birth control movement, helping not just white women, but African-American women too.

If Eleanor Roosevelt revolutionised the role of the First Lady, Michelle Obama certainly took advantage of this. Obama was extremely successful, and during her career earned almost twice as much as her husband – who was then a United States Senator. During her husband’s 2008 Presidential campaign, Michelle also turned her attention to politics. She supported her husband’s campaigns, and she herself became an advocate for poverty awareness, physical activity and healthy eating, leading her own ‘Let’s Move!’ initiative in 2010. Michelle Obama has become a widely accepted role model and inspiration for young women and women of colour, having spoken out against sexism and racism throughout her career.

The achievements of women in American history may frequently be subordinated to those of men, but women have been indispensable in the shaping of America. Given the achievements of First Ladies such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama, the question today is what will be the legacy, if any, of Melania Trump, as wife of the leader of the ‘Free World’?

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