Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020
By Elizabeth Griffith
Review by Vicky Downs
“Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020” reminds us of the truly formidable women who fought for equality over the past one hundred years. Unlike many such histories that routinely focus on white women, Elizabeth Griffith ensures that women of color are equally included.
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Griffith says, “American women had long sought equal legal rights, education, and economic opportunities. White women wanted the same rights as white men. Black women wanted the same rights as white citizens; theirs was never a women-only movement.” Unfortunately, equality for women and Black Americans was elusive, as sexism and racism have been deeply entrenched in our society.
Soon after women won the right to vote, other issues appeared. In Oregon, Emma Gotcher, who worked at a cleaners, sued the owner for requiring her to work longer hours than men because she was a woman. Meanwhile, the “legal terrorism of lynching, dismemberment, and burning in the Jim Crow South,” was the most important issue for Black women at that time.
In 1972, many put aside other issues in order to “pass a bill to grant women the same rights and privileges as men.” This became the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In following years, some states ratified it, and occasionally a state rescinded its decision. Finally, in 2020 the ERA was fully ratified, but the question of whether its protection of women’s rights would actually be added to the Constitution remained unanswered.
This book recalls decades of tension between Black and white women. Griffith reminds us that American history cannot be whitewashed. In the South, “slavery sanctioned the violent sexual assault upon Black women by white men,” and many men enslaved their own children who were born of the enslaved women they had raped.
In the past century, major anti-Black events have taken place. Students were tortured while sitting at lunch counters in drugstores, occupied buses and churches were bombed, white mobs spat on schoolchildren and Black activists were beaten.
Between the 1960s and 1990s, the women’s movement expanded and fractured. New organizations often focused on narrow issues such as food availability, maternal mortality, and women’s disabilities or on shared identity groups such as lesbians, Latinas, or women on welfare.
This was also the time when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade and Ruth Bader Ginsberg said that abortion was “central to a woman’s life, to her dignity […] And when the government controls that decision for her, [they treat her as] less than a fully adult human, responsible for her own choices.”
Griffith makes it clear that the struggles of the past one hundred years are ongoing. “Racial discrimination was still a factor in the 2020 election,” she writes. In fact, “polling indicates that race played a stronger role in voting than gender.”
She explains that soon after WWI, many Americans were “anxious about immigrants and alien ideas like Bolshevism.” A hundred years later, we’ve become anxious about COVID-19, police violence, racial reckoning, immigration, economic uncertainty, and most recently, reproductive rights.
Today many people are “no longer willing to settle for the customary inequities of sexism and racism.”
“We have not done enough,” Griffith says.