The Heroines of 34justice

In case you haven’t heard yet, the United States Treasury Department decided in April to overhaul how our currency looks.  The new $20 bill will feature Harriet Tubman, an amazing abolitionist who, in addition to bringing hundreds of former slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage.  She won’t be the sole occupant of her new real estate – despite ceding the front of the twenty to Tubman, the bill’s current (and rather despicable) mascot, Andrew Jackson, is just migrating to the back – but Tubman will be one of the first women since Martha Washington and one of the first Black people ever to appear on American paper money.  The qualifier “one of” is only necessary because the Treasury Department will also be adding Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, and Sojourner Truth to the back of the $10 bill and Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. to the back of the five.

Since the design of the new bills won’t be completed until 2020, White men can continue to revel in their exclusive hold on U.S. paper currency for quite some time.  We try to move a little faster here at 34justice, however, and, thanks in part to a reminder from a Twitter commenter, we’re going to see the Treasury Department’s delayed modifications to the dollar and raise them a change, effective today, to our website banner.

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The new 34justice logo features (from left) Ida Wells, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai, Cesar Chavez, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Authentically celebrating the achievements of women (or any other group of people, for that matter) requires far more than visual representation.  We are consistently humbled by reminders from our female partners, friends, and family members that women have played a tremendous role in advocating for power-balancing policy while occupying a marginalized position even within their own movements, and we plan to continue to look for opportunities to elevate women’s voices on this blog.

In the meantime, we hope our revamped banner better highlights both the diversity of the people who have fought for social change and the interconnectedness of their respective challenges to power.  History is replete with examples of courageous women who, like the following four newcomers to the 34justice logo, have made vital contributions to social justice movements and left indelible marks on the world.

Helen Keller

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Many people know that Helen Keller, despite being a “wild and unruly” child after becoming blind and deaf when she was 19 months old, was very bright, mastered sign language, and eventually learned to speak.  Fewer people know that she was an an active leader of the American socialist movement, a suffragette, an ardent advocate for people with disabilities, and an anti-war activist (not to mention a strong supporter of birth control).  In fact, Keller helped found the ACLU and was a renowned author and speaker on social justice issues, emphasizing the intersectionality of various struggles in her work and earning the well-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

Aung San Suu Kyi

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In 1988, after spending most of her life in India and England, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to her native Burma to take care of her mother, who had suffered a severe stroke.  That same year, Burma’s longtime military dictator stepped down and a pro-democracy movement – along with backlash from the military junta that killed thousands of protesters – took the country by storm.  Suu Kyi emerged out of the “8888 Uprising” (termed as such because it began on August 8, 1988) as a prominent member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), advocating for “a non-violent movement towards multi-party democracy” as well as “human rights and the rule of law.”  The NLD won 59 percent of the vote in a 1990 election and should have taken 80 percent of the seats in parliament, but the junta nullified the election results and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for a total of 15 years between 1989 and 2010.

In 2010, the Burmese government finally held an election.  It was unfortunately a sham and the military-backed party won in a landslide, but Suu Kyi was released a week after it took place.  She met with the country’s president and helped facilitate some long overdue political reforms, and in 2012, the NLD won in a landslide in the country’s first “free and fair” elections in over 20 years.  Suu Kyi, who continued her social justice advocacy, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from the United States and was finally able to collect the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991.  Burma (officially known today as Myanmar, though there is considerable controversy about its name) is far from where it needs to be, but the NLD, with Suu Kyi at the helm, won another decisive victory in 2015 that sent “a clear message that civilians are now in charge.”  While technically banned from the presidency because of the country’s military-designed constitution, Suu Kyi has assumed the position of “state counselor” – created just for her – and is effectively the leader of the new government.

Ida Wells

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In 1884, 71 years before Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat to a White man on a bus in Alabama, Ida Wells refused to give up her seat to a White man on a train in Tennessee.  After being forcibly removed, she sued the railroad and initially won her case, though Tennessee’s Supreme Court overruled this decision.  Wells, a teacher, began to write about that and other injustices.  When she highlighted the unacceptably poor conditions of the schools serving Black students in Memphis, she lost her teaching job.  But that didn’t discourage her; instead, it further invigorated her passion for social-justice-oriented investigative journalism.

Wells began to debunk myths about lynchings; at the time, many people thought they were appropriate responses to rape or some other heinous crime.  She documented how they were actually White supremacist murders of people who competed with White businesses, had consensual relationships with White women, or were even viewed to have looked at White people wrong.  Forced to move north by the anger and death threats her writing provoked, Wells continued to speak out about these injustices, touring Great Britain and successfully drumming up some European opposition to lynching.  She was also a founding member of the NAACP and several women’s organizations.

Malala Yousafzai

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The Taliban controlled much of northwestern Pakistan in 2007 and aggressively suppressed women’s rights; girls were banned not just from “cultural activities like dancing and watching television,” but from attending school as well.  That didn’t sit well with Malala Yousafzai, who at age 11 delivered a speech entitled “How dare the Tailban take away my basic right to education?”  Soon thereafter, Yousafzai began to blog and speak out about her experience under the Taliban regime for the BBC, garnering worldwide attention and a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

In response, the Taliban tried to kill her; she was shot in the head on a bus in October of 2012.  The assassination attempt sparked a massive outpouring of support for her cause and led to “the first Right to Education Bill in Pakistan.”  Amazingly, Yousafzai survived and immediately resumed her advocacy, kicking things off with a speech at the United Nations in 2013 and eventually co-winning the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.  When she turned 18 on July 12, 2015, she opened a school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and “called on world leaders to invest in ‘books, not bullets.’”

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