The Role of Women in America’s Freedom Struggle

Chargé d'Affaires a.i. David J. Young
Chargé d’Affaires a.i. David J. Young  

March 25, 2014

As a student, Patricia Due was arrested for ordering food at a lunch counter. Today that would be unthinkable! But when this incident occurred in 1960, African Americans like Patricia were expected to abide by laws mandating racial separation that existed in many parts of the United States. She had ordered at a “whites only” lunch counter in Florida, instead of the window designated for people of color. Despite her non-violent actions, she and the ten university classmates who joined her were all arrested that day. Patricia and dozens of other students gathered a few weeks later for sit-ins at similar restaurants and were also arrested. Undeterred, a crowd of students, including Patricia at the front, marched from campus toward downtown Tallahassee. The police fired teargas, stopping them in the street. The teargas hit Patricia in the face, searing her eyes and causing permanent vision damage. This woman’s brave leadership and peaceful actions were among many similarly courageous efforts that advanced a new understanding of civil rights in the United States, leading to the landmark 1964 signing of the Civil Rights Act.

In the United States we commemorate Women’s History Month in March, celebrating the accomplishments of women like Patricia Due. Her name is not commonly known, and there are many others like her, who were integral to the betterment of society, who are still largely unrecognized for the important role they played. Since Women’s History Month was first established in the 1980s, Americans have been pulling these faded histories into the sunlight for a better look. A tapestry of women’s stories has emerged, united through a common commitment to better their communities and their country, made vibrant by the women’s diversity of race, wealth, age and myriad other characteristics.

Among the ranks of ground-breaking American women was investigative journalism pioneer Nellie Bly who faked mental illness for an undercover newspaper assignment in 1887, reporting her first-hand account of human rights abuses inside an asylum in New York. Her exposé led to reform and increased funding to protect the rights of these patients, while also launching a new type of journalism. Labor reformer Mary Harris “Mother Jones” shocked the public in 1903 by organizing a march of maimed children past the city hall in Kensington, Pennsylvania, calling attention to the atrocious factory conditions in which they worked. In 1916 and 1917, suffragists picketed the White House, with one silent demonstration leading to the arrest of 218 women from 26 states. The women were jailed and force-fed at a prison in Virginia. Their mistreatment led to public outrage that ultimately spurred their campaign; women finally earned the right to vote in the United States in 1920.

Zambia too has its heroines. Zambia became a free and independent country in large part due to the commitment and sacrifices of brave women like the late Mama Betty Kaunda, former First Lady and a freedom fighter in her own right. The late Princess Nakatindi Yeta Nganga is remembered as the first elected female Member of Parliament after Zambia gained independence. Mama Chibesa Kankasa mobilized women to carry out non-violent protests against colonial rule, alongside other prominent women including the late Julia Chikamoneka. Mama Kankasa went on to serve in a number of government roles, including as Minister for Women’s Affairs. Dr. Mutumba Mainga Bull made history by becoming the first female member of the Zambian Cabinet after independence as Minister of Health. Zambia is stronger, and democracy is more vibrant for all of these women’s efforts.

Women’s History Month pays tribute to the generations of women around the world whose unflagging determination and vocal expression of opinions have contributed invaluably to the fight for freedom everywhere. By coming together in private and public, courageous and visionary women continue to shape our history by bettering our future. We all owe them a great debt of gratitude.