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Add Whose Name? The Hidden Histories of “Human Rights Are Women’s Rights”

Amid post-election rifts, the radical histories & activists behind the phrase should not be erased

Photo by Jim Lawrence

Hillary Clinton did not coin the phrase “women’s rights are human rights,” but that did not stop a controversy over the phrase from brewing on the internet just days before Saturday’s historic Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches nationwide. The hashtag #AddHerName began to trend on Twitter as Hillary Clinton supporters responded to what they believed was an intentional slight of the former Secretary of State by the organizers of the march. Clinton, who chose to attend Trump’s inauguration and not participate in the march, did not appear on the event program and was not listed among the women activists recognized in the event’s mission statement on “why [they] march.” Supporters argued that Clinton’s “commitment…to help women across the world is unparalleled.” Not citing her for the phrase “women’s rights are human rights,” which appears throughout the Women’s March on Washington program, added insult to injury. The Clinton supporters who took to the web to air their frustration held at the heart of their grievances the concern that not only was Clinton’s name being left out of this historically important moment, but her legacy as well.

Ironically, however, beyond these complaints lay a history these supporters were actively erasing. In an act resulting from a frequent and toxic combination of historical revisionism and ignorance, these incensed supporters had obscured a set of “hidden” histories in their attempts to restore Clinton’s honor. In order to recover the radical history behind the phrase at the center of the controversy and contextualize the unfortunate events the erasure of its rich history has precipitated, I break things down in this modern drama in five acts.

Act I: Linda Sarsour

Palestinian-American activist and Women’s March Co-Chair Linda Sarsour (Source: Women’s Freedom Conference website)

The first of these hidden histories centers around the significant contributions made by one of the event organizers whom the disgruntled Clinton supporters had made their primary target. Upon first glance, the tensions that arose online appeared to be the inevitable spillover of what had been bubbling feverishly under the surface for months leading up to the “peaceful transfer of power.” Some of these supporters were understandably upset about Trump’s win – even more so that it had come by way of the grossly undemocratic Electoral College system – and dead set on turning anyone they considered even partly responsible into a scapegoat.

Enter Linda Sarsour, Palestinian-American activist, former Bernie Sanders surrogate, and one of the organizers called upon in an attempt to make the Women’s March on Washington a more inclusive event. Her presence as one of the organizers had already attracted the barbs of Emma-Kate Symons who, writing for the New York Times, argues that “organizers bent on highlighting women’s differences” had “hijacked” the march. Her use of the term “hijacked” in her title would be considered neutral under normal circumstances had she not spent half of the essay railing against Muslims and Sarsour, whose choice to wear a headscarf Symons contends diminishes her feminism. Surprisingly, that is the least offensive aspect of Symons’ prejudiced screed. But Symons was not the only person to set her sights on Sarsour. On the contrary, other so-called feminist journalists and, in a particularly nasty fit of tone deaf “solidarity,” men who cloaked themselves in support of Clinton to hide otherwise sexist tendencies, contributed to the pile-on as well, reserving their ire for Sarsour, despite many other organizers having worked on the program together with her.

Missing from the attacks, of course, was not only an acknowledgment of the work Sarsour had done to organize and promote the march, but also the magnanimity that characterized her approach to the Clinton campaign. Though Sarsour served as a vocal surrogate for Bernie Sanders and worked on pivotal campaigns to get out the vote among Muslims and Arab Americans during the primaries, Sarsour – herself Palestinian American – encouraged people to vote for Hillary Clinton during the general. This act is key considering that not only had she been snubbed by the Clinton-aligned New York State Democratic Party in June but, most importantly, she, her family, and her peers were targets in Clinton’s structural Islamophobia and reductive views of and policies toward Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians as expressed in multiple speeches and debates during the campaign. The Islamophobic language and policy for which several of Clinton’s most vocal surrogates and donors had advocated likely did not make Sarsour’s decision any easier.

Though we may never know the full depth of Sarsour’s motivation in choosing to encourage voters in swing states to pull the lever for Clinton (albeit reluctantly and with considerable reservations), what is obvious is that she saw Trump as a more frightening alternative and responded accordingly. Attempts to erase the difficulty that lay behind Sarsour’s decision and the work she put into organizing a response to Trump’s incoming presidency rest on little more than thinly-veiled bigotry by those on social media who called for Sarsour to “rot in hell,” referred to her as a “Bernie Bro,” and laid all blame for the program omission at her feet.

What is most fascinating about this spat, however minor its reach, is how quickly lines from the campaign regarding solidarity with other women had come to mean nothing if those women were not white, wealthy, or standing in unwavering support for Clinton. The blatant disregard at best, and vitriol at worst, reserved for women who had expressed dissent regarding Clinton’s campaign messaging during the primary had spilled over into the general election and now well into its dark aftermath. The burden of extending an olive branch should not be placed upon the women who were actively marginalized by messaging that came from Clinton and some of her supporters, and those who opted to “go high” like Sarsour, despite their detractors’ opting to “go low,” should most certainly not be demonized.

And now, as the dust appeared to have settled in the afterglow of the march, as organizers and participants reflect on their experiences and where to go from here, historical revisionism continues to rear its ugly head. In response to the Islamophobic harassment Sarsour has received after her speech at the march, the hashtag #IMarchWithLinda emerged in response. While the intentions of the hashtag were positive, the gesture nevertheless worked to sweep the march program controversy entirely under the rug. In write-ups on the hashtag, there is no mention of Symons’s Bill Maher-esque rant against Muslim women or the disproportionate targeting of Sarsour for not including Clinton’s name in the program. Now all the anger geared toward Sarsour by self-proclaimed liberals and feminists has been washed away, left only to the bowels of social media and scattered across screenshots. Yet, for better or for worse, the internet never forgets.

Act II: Berta Cáceres

Honduran environmentalist and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

The second “hidden” history that complaints of Clinton’s erasure obscured relates to her troubling past regarding Honduras. During Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, Honduras underwent a 2009 coup that removed center-left, democratically elected President Manual Zelaya. At the time, Clinton and the State Department refused to acknowledge the gravity of the political situation in formal terms and, much like their subsequent mishandling of the situation in Egypt in 2013, never referred to the act of deposing Zelaya a “military coup” despite the Honduran military’s direct involvement. In failing to declare the Honduran situation a military coup, related cables and memos revealed, the U.S. government was able to continue providing aid to the Honduran military to protect the economic interests in the region. One casualty of the political turmoil and resulting expansion of violence by both the state and gangs alike was indigenous activist and environmentalist Berta Cáceres. Cáceres, followed by several of her colleagues from the organization Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras (COPINH), met a tragic end at the hands of armed groups believed to have been backed by businesses seeking a lucrative share of the Agua Zarca dam Cáceres had long opposed.

Clinton’s record on the Honduran political crisis haunted her 2016 candidacy, despite having excised previously published content justifying the 2009 coup from the paperback version of her book Hard Choices. Cáceres’s fate became one of many symbols of Clinton’s abusive relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean while Cáceres herself became memorialized as the foil to Clinton’s style of privileged feminism. Likewise, the refugee crisis resulting from political instability and rampant violence throughout Central America overshadowed Clinton’s attempts to portray herself as a friend to immigrants. Despite this dark history looming above her campaign, Clinton remained steadfast in her justification of her 2014 opinion on deporting Central American refugee children by arguing she wanted to “send a message” to families in the region about the dangers of border crossing. And either in a fit of amnesia, hubris, or perhaps both, Clinton called for further military expansion in Central America based on Plan Colombia, despite the well-documented human rights violations of women and children during its implementation:

Berta Cáceres’s name is fifth on a list of twenty-seven women activists– many of them hailing from marginalized communities here in the United States and from nations far beyond its borders. Including Cáceres on the program but not Clinton, especially since Cáceres famously blamed Clinton for the deteriorating political situation in Honduras that led to countless assassinations of activists, political leaders, and journalists and an exponential increase in femicide may have simply been a matter of respect.

Act III: Hillary Clinton

The entangled histories of Cáceres and Clinton prove far from the only controversial aspects of the program’s omission of Clinton’s name. Clinton’s use of the phrase “women’s rights are human rights” has a fraught “hidden” history of its own. Despite the progressive nature of the line in isolation, Clinton’s use of the phrase when examined in context was not the act of “standing up against the Chinese government” that she claims, much less representative of her record on human rights.

Since Clinton delivered her speech at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, she and her supporters have cited it as a testament to her humanitarian bona fides, noting that her speech had directly challenged the Chinese government to the degree that it “spurred real action” in their move to providing more rights to women. In a detailed assessment of the speech in 2008, Politifact found these claims to be “half true,” arguing that while the Chinese government had censored Clinton’s speech, the move was “routine,” well in line with common local practices to limit political “confrontation.” Furthermore, it bears noting that at the same time Hillary Clinton was in Beijing, Bill Clinton, then in his first term as President, “was trying to engage China and tone down U.S. condemnation of human rights abuses.” In other words, Hillary Clinton’s speech fell in line with the infamous Clintonian practice of triangulation by giving a nod to the human rights community while going through with political engagements that summarily ignored their concerns.

Noted leftist feminists take this view of Clinton’s politics a step further, panning out to review her stances on issues contemporaneous to her 1995 speech. Reflecting on the speech, journalist and activist Laura Flanders (who attended the conference as a speaker as well) notes in her contribution to the book False Choices that despite Clinton’s recognition of violence against girls, she continued her support of her “‘good friend’ and predecessor Madeleine Albright” who, “not quite a year later […] was telling Leslie Stahl that half a million children dying as a result of U.S. sanctions in Iraq was worth the price.” Flanders goes on to ask, “So what: it’s a violation if you’re starved simply because you’re a girl, but A-OK if it’s simply because you’re Iraqi?” reminding the reader that Clinton’s consideration of womanhood, of girlhood, and even of humanity, is contingent upon one’s nation of origin and the U.S. political relationship thereto.

Scholar Zillah Eisenstein elaborates further, bringing Clinton’s tenuous support of human rights struggles to the local level and into the present. In her article “HRC and U.S. Exceptionalism,” Eistenstein ponders why Hillary cites her Beijing speech and her “No Ceilings” project as proof of her commitment to human rights, but early in her presidential campaign “did not take the opportunity to go to Selma [during the 50 year anniversary of Bloody Sunday] to stand against the rampant racism in our country then and now” or discuss more issues that affect marginalized men, women, and children here in the United States. Eisenstein goes on in her article and more detailed chapter in False Choices to argue that Clinton’s failure to recognize human rights violations in the United States closely aligns with a belief in a form of American exceptionalism that obscures human suffering in which she is implicated:

Clinton assumes the “exceptional” status of the US because of its suppose just and democratic practices, especially toward women. […] Interestingly, despite some campaign efforts to talk about paid family leave in the United States, she has usually located the problem of women’s oppression elsewhere, and not here. But what about safeguarding access to medical care, demanding a living wage and alleviations to poverty, improving day care, lessening incarceration rates, and increasing contraceptive coverage for women of color, right here in the US?

[…] Too many Western feminists similar view women’s rights as primarily an agenda to pursue on behalf of the particularly oppressed abroad. Critiques of women’s rights in Egypt, in Venezuela, in Nigeria, and so on often overlap with similar indecencies here. Data shows that the US is well behind many countries when it comes to [rights for women]. There are women presidents now in several African and South American countries. We are hardly exceptional; in fact, we trail behind.

There is no need to commit more space to discussing Clinton’s extensive betrayal of marginalized women in the US and abroad that countless scholars, journalists, and many others (myself certainly included) have already addressed. It bears noting, however, that attributing “women’s rights are human rights” to Clinton as if to bolster her allegedly solid position on rights for all women hinges on little more than exaggerated projection, regardless of the hope that saying it enough might somehow turn this fiction into a reality. What Clinton’s record demonstrates instead is that often more has been made of what she says than what she actually does.

Intermission

What is most fascinating is that while Clinton has made a point of repeating the phrase and her supporters have likewise attributed the phrase to Clinton as though she was the first and only person to ever utter it, there is a history of feminists from all walks of life, genders, and racial backgrounds who have used the phrase for decades. In what becomes a microcosmic representation of the ways a privileged and predatory form of feminism has relentlessly shut out (and, at best, tokenized) marginalized groups, the dispute over including Clinton’s name on a list of women whom many of her political stances and selective silences harmed seeks to credit Clinton for a phrase that predates her public use thereof. The association between Clinton and the phrase in popular discourse has worked to divorce the saying of its origins, all far more radical than Clinton’s Beijing speech. The present internet scuffle provides a smaller example of the much larger problem of mainstream feminism’s incorporation of subversive movements toward gender equality for the sake of neutralizing them.

Act IV: Angela Davis

Thankfully, the women who are part of such radical movements refuse to be silent bystanders as the suffering of others continues. Indeed, on a day that some have heralded as so peaceful there was no need for police involvement (ignoring, of course, that other peaceful protests, such as those in Ferguson, Missouri or at Standing Rock, North Dakota were met with disproportionate police responses because of the race of the majority of the participants), former Black Panther, feminist, and activist Angela Davis took to the stage and reclaimed a phrase she knew well. “Women’s rights are human rights all over the planet,” she declared in her short, but incredibly rich speech, “and that is why we say freedom and justice for Palestine!”

Davis’s intersectional, internationalist approach to feminism came through every word of her remarks at the march, where she laid out before the crowd a progressive platform for a future firmly in opposition to what Trump and the state represent. She encouraged a “feminism against state violence” and against “capitalist exploitation” that continues to destroy social safety nets like a living wage, job and housing security, and healthcare. She reminded those willing to listen of the plight of activists who remain unjustly imprisoned and of the fight ahead for the recently freed. Furthermore, Davis linked the ongoing struggles of the residents of Flint, Michigan, Standing Rock, and Gaza to various forms of discrimination and violence inherent to systems of oppression rooted in what began and continues as an occupation of indigenous land.

Davis did not stop there. In fact, one of the lines most closely tied to our discussion of erasure was her assertion that “we are agents of history, and history cannot be deleted like web pages.” Though her statement likely refers to the Trump administration’s new version of the White House web page, which is scant on references regarding social justice and environmental protections, it applies rather neatly to the “hidden” histories that have been virtually wiped from public discourse.

Davis has personal experience with this problem, more specifically the act of destroying radical histories in hopes of protecting the honor of women with far more economic and racial privilege. In her book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, Davis attributes the popularization of the phrase “women’s rights are human rights” to a 1985 conference for women in Nairobi, Kenya that grassroots organizations and NGOs had organized in protest of the UN World Conference on Women happening simultaneously in the same city. At the heart of the grievances that prompted the protest was Maureen Reagan, daughter of then-President Ronald Reagan, who had been assigned to lead the US delegation. Davis argued that as the daughter of the president who had turned the United States government into “the most sexist, the most racist, [and] the most warlike” the nation had ever seen, Maureen had no place as the person to “represent the masses” at the conference. Interestingly enough, it is this conference in Nairobi, the very conference that Davis and her fellow activists had protested, that Clinton credits in her speech in Beijing for having turned “the world[’s] focu[s] for the first time on the crisis of domestic violence.” Though she uses a popular phrase from the protest conference, Clinton never refers to it directly.

The alternative conference proved a key moment in the history of intersectional feminism before it even had a name. Forum ’85, as the protest conference was called, hosted “for the very first time…a very large delegation of US women of color” and happened at a time activists were engaged in debate over how to address the perceived “universality of the category of ‘woman’ [and of] ‘human” and to re-center “groups and communities” in place of the individual in discussions of human rights.  In Davis’s reflection of the event, she notes that including a group of women that was racially diverse was not enough to “have addressed the problem of exclusively of the category [of women]” but “that [they] would have to rewrite the whole category, rather than simply assimilate more women in to an unchanged category of what counts as ‘women.” As feminists continue to grapple with these questions in the present, the history and discourse of movements like those of Davis and her peers should not be erased in acts that parallel the very motivation of Davis’s 1985 protest, that is reducing the struggles of women facing a vast degree of adversities into the avatar of one.

Act V: Kalamu ya Salaam

Activist and educator Kalamu ya Salaam (Photo by Alex Lear)

Someone who likely understood and agreed with Davis’s message was Kalamu ya Salaam, a black activist, poet, feminist, and educator who published an article in The Black Scholar entitled “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights!” in 1979, six years before Forum ’85. In the essay, which Salaam wrote after a conference speech of the same name he had given at Xavier University in New Orleans, he discusses the roots of sexism and ties the problem to capitalist, imperial systems that had worked to destroy the matriarchal practices among indigenous peoples in regions beyond Europe. After outlining the meaning and history of such matriarchal societies, Salaam argues further that universalizing sexism as a historical “constant” tends to obscure respective histories of women’s equality that predate Western concepts of the same while simultaneously oppressing women of color at home.

Salaam’s arguments do not exist in a vacuum. On the contrary, the clear internationalist, socialist undercurrent of his essay reflects pervasive thought of his left-leaning contemporaries on the subject of inclusive feminism. Much like Davis, Salaam was on a mission to take the fight against sexism and patriarchy beyond the individual, to expand its scope to address the material needs of the women who experienced it in every aspect of their lives.

One year after he published “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” Salaam published a book of essays entitled Our Women Keep Our Skies From Falling: Six Essays in Support of the Struggle to Smash Sexism/Develop Women. Salaam continued to write prolifically and published many more articles and books in the years that followed, in addition to expanding his work to include filmmaking. He remains politically active in his hometown of New Orleans and lectures nationwide on social issues, culture, and politics.

For reasons one can only guess, his name has been left out of the debate on the history of “women’s rights are human rights.” Along with the women activists who used the phrase before, during, and after holding their alternative women’s conference in protest of the alignment of US state terror to the cause of women’s rights, the specific historical moments in which Salaam and countless others recognized the line as a rallying cry for equality for all women have been cast aside. These activists’ contributions to political discourse that precipitated Clinton’s mainstreaming of the phrase have been lost by way of a form of revisionism that places only one woman at the center of a history that involves decades of others’ work.

Whether the erasure of these figures was intentional is irrelevant when we consider the act as part of a much larger social pattern of failing to accurately credit those who are routinely marginalized on the basis of their lower rung on the social strata. As Davis argued in her speech at the Women’s March, we as a nation have yet to acknowledge that the land on which we stake claims of ownership is not even ours. It is no coincidence that in a society where such behavior is normalized, those calling to #AddHerName would decry what they believe is an act of erasure while committing one more grave.

Author’s note: At the time of its publication, the #WhyWeMarch section of the Women’s March on Washington website included the list of twenty-seven women activists, but has since been removed and replaced with the following quote from Audre Lourde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” The original list was as follows:

Bella Abzug • Corazon Aquino • Ella Baker • Grace Lee Boggs Berta Cáceres • Rachel Carson • Shirley Chisholm • Angela Davis • Miss Major Griffin Gracy • LaDonna Harris • Dorothy I. Height • bell hooks • Dolores Huerta • Marsha P. Johnson • Barbara Jordan • Yuri Kochiyama • Winona LaDuke • Audre Lorde • Wilma Mankiller • Diane Nash • Sylvia Rivera • Barbara Smith • Gloria Steinem • Hannah G. Solomon  • Harriet Tubman • Edith Windsor • Malala Yousafzai

References to the line “women’s rights are human rights” remain in the “Values and Principles” section of the website.

Written by Wendi Muse

Wendi Muse

Wendi Muse is a Writer for Progressive Army. Follow her on Twitter @MuseWendi.

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