Free speech and protest brought us here

First Amendment

Like most of the country, I watched the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris yesterday. Like most women, politics aside, I was SO excited to see a woman Vice President. Especially a minority one, for that matter. It’s one thing to know that you can be anything when you grow up, it’s another to see it. 

Kamala Harris, backed by the America flag, with the caption “make sure to wear your shoes ladies. There is glass everywhere.”
Kamala Harris

So I definitely got the feels when I saw this going around on social media. While I agree with Ashley Cleland that Harris’s election is not a magic bullet that will mean sexism is magically gone from the land, her ascension is clearly a huge moment for women. And it’s also a huge moment for free speech and intellectual freedom, not only for women, but for all of us. 

As the NY Times pointed out, it hasn’t been that long since women were unable to vote. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920; just squeaking past the 100 year mark last year. Women still celebrate the right to vote on election day by plastering Susan B. Anthony’s grave with their “I Voted” stickers. In fact, for a period of time in the United States a woman could lose her citizenship by marrying a “foreigner.” 

Suffragettes parade down 5th Avenue. From Wikimedia Commons.
Suffragettes parade down 5th Avenue.

So, we’ve clearly come a long way. And a huge part of that is due to women exercising their right to free speech, assembly and expression. Women’s marches and parades are well known. Suffragettes actively engaged with President Woodrow Wilson and often picketed. Suffragettes also engaged in hunger strikes while in prison. “Dunlop and other suffragists sought public sympathy when they refused to eat, playing on popular ideas that white female bodies were vulnerable and passive. 

Hunger strikers made their starving bodies a form of speech that could breach prison walls,” says Victoria Wolcott

It’s also worth noting that most suffragettes were also outspoken on issues related to race. 

Protests have been a hot button issue in the United States lately, and I think it’s important we reflect on the positive legacy that non-violent protest and speech has in our country. We, or at least I, have been seeing a lot of chatter conflating protesting and rioting, which are not the same thing. The progress made by women – and minorities – in the last 100 years clearly shows the important role speech and protest play in our country. Without those marches and those protests, would we have a female Vice President today? I suspect not.

In a profession still largely skewed toward women that strongly embraces the value of free speech and equal access, the Inauguration was a big day. I think we librarians can also be optimistic about the potential inherent in having a first lady with a strong education-related background – I for one hope to see more focus on critical thinking and genuinely preparing our children, as well as properly funding education and libraries. I am hopeful Jill Biden uses her influence to support all educators, including librarians. 

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