When women started standing up and speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, a very bright light of hope started to shine in the midst of what felt to me like some dark times. Like many others, I realized that as every woman was genuinely being heard we were experiencing a breakthrough that would create an opening for much more to be seen, heard, and understood.  At the same time I had the feeling that the narrative was incomplete. Too often, we treat the newest progression of social justice as if it is the beginning of something. In reality, all social justice progress is a marathon and each breakthrough offers the opportunity to gain perspective from the road that led to this point in the journey and take what is of value to prepare for the road still to travel. The incredible strength and courage of the “#MeToo” women must be acknowledged and celebrated. But, not in a way that makes it feel like a new thing.  Decades of the strength and courage of multitudes of women climbing the walls, building the bridges, and speaking their truths created the opening for this newest point of breakthrough.

March is Women’s History Month and, yet, there is so much about our history that is not widely known.  Generally, we know about the breakthroughs and achievements but not the stories that were catalysts for the breakthroughs and achievements. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848 and, in addition to the 68 women that attended, 32 men were there. The first National Women’s Rights Convention took place in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850 with 1000 in attendance.  In 1893, Colorado became the first state to approve an amendment granting women the right to vote. The National Women’s Trade Union League was established in 1903 to advocate for improved wages and working conditions for women. In 1920, The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor was formed to collect information about women in the workforce and safeguard good working conditions for women and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote, was signed into law. These are but a few of the events and achievements that occurred during the first wave of the women’s rights journey. The second wave, which is believed to have started in the 1960’s, is even less understood in context and detail.

“Although the second wave women’s movement was the largest social movement in U.S. history, it remains the movement least studied-and the movement upon which most false impressions remain”

Linda Gordon, Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975

“How did the women’s movement begin in the 1960’s? At the time, to young women like myself, it seemed to come out of nowhere…Yet it did not come out of nowhere. The great upsurge had been building for decades, its near antecedents being in gender equality efforts in labor unions and left wing activism during and after World War II, as well as in the longer campaign to write equal rights into the U.S. Constitution…”

Nancy F. Cott, Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975

Before “#MeToo” NOW was established, groups advocating for women of color and lesbian women were established, birth control pills became available, the Equal Pay Act passed in congress, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in employment based on race and sex and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In the text, Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975, there are more than 2000 biographies of the women that fought for these and dozens of other rights for women.  Some of the names are known but most are unknown. But it took all of them and more to summon up the courage, do their part, and pave the way for those coming behind them…inclusive of those who have summoned the courage today to say “#MeToo”.

“It was clear to me that feminists who had written books on our history, or had become high-level public officials, or had founded powerful feminist organizations will be remembered over time. But there are countless other women and some men who contributed to improving women’s lives. What about the women who took their employers to court to overcome job discrimination? Or those who helped other women obtain safe abortions when abortions were illegal? Or those who published radical feminist newspapers and newsletters across the country? What about the women who forced changes in the credit laws so that no bank would ever again tell a woman that, yes, she could have a mortgage-but only if her husband or father signed the contracts? And those who forced authorities to pass and implement laws punishing rape and domestic violence, or those who created shelters for victims? And the list goes on.”

Barbara J. Love, Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975.

Because of their courage, we were finally acknowledged, invited into the room, and sometimes had a seat at the table. Had these things not occurred there would be no genuine opportunity to say “me too”. Many of the women standing today and courageously saying “me too” will not be remembered by name but they too are paving the way and doing their part to strengthen and reinforce the foundation of courage that has been built and reinforced over decades.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not celebrate what I describe as quiet courage. For years, in most places of work, women have shown up and stood up in the face of dismissal, condescension, and outright disrespect. But they came back, they stayed, and they made a way. Many did it because they had to make a living. Others had to make a life in which career was important to them. And I am sure that there were many other reasons that were specific to each women’s journey. Over many years, as a Black woman executive, I had White male executives go out of their way to avoid being in the room with me alone because they were uncomfortable engaging with me. Yet I watched them engage with White women executives with ease. On some level, we have all felt this level of being treated in a way that de-values who we are and what we contribute. I stayed, I told myself that I deserved to be there and I kept coming back until I decided I no longer wanted to be there. While quiet courage looks and feels very different from activist courage it too has paved a way.

This year, Frances McDormand won the award for best actress in a drama at both the Golden Globe and Academy Awards. In both speeches, she invited all women in the room to know and be very clear that we are in this together and together we can make the tent bigger so that there is room in the tent for all of us. In our shared experiences, struggles, and triumphs we can all declare “me too”.

Donna Sams