Last week, I joined a group of twenty amazing women from around the country for the #RubyWooPilgrimage2018, an experience exploring the intersectional struggle for women’s suffrage. Though I got home nearly a week ago, I am still reflecting on my time and the impact it had on me.
As a pilgrimage, this experience took our bodies and our spirits to sites that were significant in both the women’s suffrage movement as well as the Civil Rights Movement.
We started off by visiting the Wesleyan Chapel, where the famous Seneca Falls Convention was held in 1848. We learned more about the role that black leaders such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass played in that movement, the skepticism that many key players had about pursuing a woman’s right to vote, and the legacy of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel- a faith space created for the inclusion and uplifting of diverse voices. We also learned about the tension between fighting for the black vote OR woman vote in the ratification of the 14th-15th amendments, and the constant ways that race has been a wedge in women’s movements.
We explored our nation’s stories of immigration while visiting Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum in New York. We saw the longstanding impact of white supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiment on our country, and how those forces have impacted enfranchisement of particular groups in this group. We also reflected on the resilience and courage of millions who have fled violence, persecution, war, genocide, environmental disasters, and other harms, and made connections between the historic backlash against immigrants, and the current rhetoric around immigrants seeking refuge in this country.
We visited Atlantic City, where the Democratic Convention of 1964 took place, and learned more about the struggle for voting rights and political voice for Black Americans. We learned about the courageous work of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the powerful leadership and soul force of black women such as Fannie Lou Hamer. We also heard from some women in local politics about their experiences trying to catalyze change. We then visited a Civil Rights Memorial Garden that helps preserve the powerful words of many Civil Rights figures throughout history.
We visited Washington D.C.- particularly the Belmont-Paul Monument- which served as the home office of the National Woman’s Party and was where much of the battle for the 19th amendment was housed. We learned about the courageous resistance of many in the NWP, the radical strength of leaders like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the controversy around their militant tactics, and the prison hunger strikes they participated in. We also mourned some of the ways that black women were erased from the narrative and not present in the museum.
Throughout our pilgrimage, we also spent time honoring the foremothers who have gone before us. Of course, we learned the stories of well-known women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But we also learned of lesser known women like Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, or Lucy Burns, as well as the role of black women in the suffrage movement, such as the Forten sisters, Ida B. Wells, or Mary Church Terrell. We also had some significant experiences sitting at the feet of more current elders, such as Mama Ruby Sales and Rev. Jacqueline Lewis, and learned about their struggles and experiences as they shared their wisdom with us.
Moreover, having this pilgrimage during an election week gave us ample opportunity to talk about present-day attacks on voting rights in our nation. We talked about the current administration’s attacks on birthright citizenship, the history of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the implications of the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013. We talked about the parallels between both historic and present-day suppression efforts of the Black vote in our country, as well as the implications of voter requirements such as ID laws, ballot purges, exact-match systems, and address laws on voters of color throughout the country.
While there is much to be digested from our time, here are a few of the major themes and questions that stuck with me from our time:
- The importance of knowing history, as well as the narratives that drive history: There was much that I learned about the history of voting rights during our time together. I barely knew anything about the National Woman’s Party, or the contributions of black suffragettes, or the tensions between the abolition movement and the suffrage movement. It felt significant to remember (especially during Election week) that the right to vote is something that has been highly contested throughout U.S. history, and to honor those who struggled so that we could vote today. Moreover, it was striking to notice the ways history seems to repeat itself, and led me to contemplate a quote from Soong-Chan Rah: “When you don’t deal with the narratives that fuel a system, the system will keep repeating itself.” It is clear that narratives of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy continue to create barriers to voting for particular groups in our country, and I feel compelled to honor our foremothers by continuing to resist voter suppression efforts throughout the country.
- The power of ordinary people, coming together for collective liberation: When Ruby Sales was asked about her legacy, she said, “I am neither a legend nor an icon. I am an obedient child who has an obligation to my people.” In many of the stories we heard over our pilgrimage, the theme of ordinary people being obligated to fight for their people really stood out to me. The women we learned about were generally not driven by fame or ego, but by a faithfulness to God and to the collective liberation of their people. It was helpful to realize that one’s simple and ordinary acts of faithfulness could one day make history, and it made me more committed to seek faithfulness over fame, and to fight for the common good of my (new) community in San Leandro.
- The need for new ways of thinking about power: One of the more painful realities surrounding the history of voting rights was the lack of intersectionality in these movements. I was pained to hear about marginalized groups fighting each other in order to determine who was more deserving of “going first” in getting the right to vote. This dynamic made me think about how white supremacist heteropatriarchy is built upon both hierarchy and scarcity. It causes oppressed people to step on each other in order to move up on the social ladder and gain a little bit more power. It creates the illusion of a zero sum game and makes people feel like they have to grasp for what little power they can get, even if it means others lose out. But what would it look like to create movements of resistance that dismantle hierarchy and create a new social reality based on mutuality, shared power, and beloved community? Do we have the imagination to dream of new ways of using power and relating to one another? Can we change narratives around power and profit in this country so that history doesn’t keep repeating itself?
- The invisibility of the Asian American experience: As each day passed, I generally noticed the lack of Asian American history, voice, and representation present in our pilgrimage. I was saddened by this reality, as well as the familiarity of the question, “Where am I in this story?” I often feel lost in the midst of white/black conversations, and during the pilgrimage I had to mourn the ways that language barriers, cultural dynamics, generational trauma, and even racism have led to the loss of collective memory for many Asian Americans. I had to mourn the ways that the project of history in the U.S. will always center English, and how the inaccessibility to many historic, primary documents in Asian languages has led to the silencing of Asian American voices in this country. Through my experience, I also grew more resolved to learn and write down the stories of my own family, and to research the journey to voting rights for Asian American women.
- The reality of our belovedness: During one of our morning prayer sessions, our spiritual director led us in an exercise of declaring to one another how loved we are. We named each person and shouted out, “ ________, you are loved!” This experience, while slightly awkward at times, was also very powerful for many of us. It was beautiful to see a group of gifted women affirming each other’s belovedness and choosing to love and honor each other, not for our gifts or talents, but simply because we are chosen and loved by God. And throughout our pilgrimage, the Spirit’s voice of “You are loved” was our guide.
Overall, I am grateful for my experience on the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage, and especially thankful for the many people who gave generously so that I could participate in it. I am resolved I to keep fighting for everyone’s right to vote in this country. I hope to share what I learned with others. And I commit myself to the work of being obedient to God, and fighting for the common good of my community.
I close with some words from Fannie Lou Hamer- the closing of her famous speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention. May we honor her legacy as we continue to fight for our collective liberation:
“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.
Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”