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Sweatpants & Equality | 5 Powerful Women You Should Know

By Kerra Bolton

March is Women’s History Month.

Founded in 1911 in the United States to coincide with the first International Women’s Day, the annual event commemorates the achievements and contributions of women to history and contemporary movements.

Women’s History Month is celebrated in March in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Canadians observe the event in October to correspond with Person’s Day on October 18, the commemoration of a landmark legal case that allowed women to sit in the Canadian Senate.

It’s tempting during annual observance months like Women’s and Black History Month to reach for the same, spectacular women as role models – Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or Maya Angelou. Their achievements are monumental to be sure. However, when we fix our gaze to one type of female empowerment, we miss the phenomenal women around us like Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement, and Emma Gonzalez, the Parkland student who is challenging the nation’s gun laws.

Whether their names make the headlines, women all around the globe are challenging the status quo and demanding we think and reshape our world so that it reflects our deepest hopes, rather than our basest fears. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are five dynamic women (presented in alphabetical order) you should know.

Jane Elliott

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Jane Elliott hasn’t marched or protested like other women in this list. However, Elliott’s simple, and now famous, classroom exercise changed the way Americans looked at race.

The day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Elliott, a white woman, introduced her eight-year-old students in the mostly white town of Riceville, Ohio to what has now become the “Blue-Eyes, Brown-Eyes Exercise.” In it, students with blue eyes were given extra privileges and told they were superior to their brown-eyed classmates. Brown-eyed children were made to sit in the back of the classroom and criticized more severely when they made mistakes.

Elliott designed the controversial exercise to demonstrate the visceral effects of racism to children. The exercise is considered the forerunner of corporate diversity training programs. Since then, Elliott became a full-time diversity educator and traveled the world conducting her famous exercise.

For those who say, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be of another race,” Elliott’s simple, yet effective exercise, demonstrates that we must feel something to better understand it.

Rachel de Villa challenges the notion that positive social change must exclude capitalism. De Villa cofounded Cropital, an alternative investing platform in her native Philippines.

Predatory lending and climate change made it difficult for Filipino farmers to climb and stay out of debt. Farmers, for example, pay between 30 and 50 percent interest per month on loans from informal lenders and loan sharks. When crops are lost due to devastating natural disasters, it becomes even more difficult for Filipino farmers to break the cycle of debt.

For a minimum investment of $100, Cropital users choose a farm to invest in. Cropital pays farmers for their labor and uses investments to improve production. Once the crops are harvested, the profits are shared between the investors and farmers, who keep a much-higher percentage of profits than with other lenders. In addition to empowering Filipino farmers to get out of debt, de Villa wants to make farming appealing to younger generations of Filipinos.

Reducing crushing poverty in our communities can include alternative financial structures that emphasize compassion, and shared risk and responsibility.

Marielle Franco

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Marielle Franco was a Brazilian, civil rights activist, who was assassinated earlier this month. She was 38-years-old. Franco was everything you’re not supposed to be in Rio de Janeiro’s rigid, patriarchal society – black, gay, a single mother, and from Mare favela, one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Yet, she persisted.

Franco fought for the rights of other people like herself. She defied the odds in 2016 and was elected to Rio’s city council. There, she was a vocal opponent of policies that shielded the police, drug gangs, and unofficial militias of current and former police officers against the legal consequences of inflicting brutal violence in Rio’s poorest communities.

Her stance against militarized policing led to her murder, Rio residents say. Franco and her driver were gunned down while on the way home from an event encouraging young, black women to change the existing power structure. Franco’s life served as a beacon of hope. Tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in the wake of her tragic death to protest. Sometimes one life, however brief, can ignite a movement.

Dolores Huerta

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Dolores Huerta originated the phrase that has empowered generations of Latinx communities in the United States – “Si, se puede,” roughly “Yes, we can.”

Born in 1930 in New Mexico to a Mexican immigrant family, Huerta is a labor leader and civil rights activist who has dedicated her life to improving the lives of immigrants, farm workers, and women. Huerta co-led in 1965 a five-year, farmworkers’ strike that brought consumer attention to the nation’s lowest-paid workers and negotiated terms that resulted in better pay and working conditions.

She has also spearheaded voter registration drives in Latinx communities, pressed local governments for better conditions in the barrios, and lobbied for changes in California laws to support farmworkers.

Long before the media declared 2018 as the “Year of the Woman,” Huerta crisscrossed the United States in 1992, urging Latina women to run for office. More recently, Huerta served as an honorary co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to creating and mobilizing intersectional, feminist movements. We simply need to listen to our elders like Huerta and others to mine our shared heritage for models and strategies.

Kara Walker is a visual artist who employs the stark imagery of black, cut-paper, silhouettes against a white wall to depict the graphic and violent realities of the history of black slavery in the United States. Walker uses these images to confront the realities of history that some would rather ignore or white-wash while demonstrating how the legacy of racial stereotypes have bled into present-day concerns.

Walker’s art has the potential to reach hidden places where the rational mind refuses to go. It’s as if her art is a rebuttal against Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s famous quote, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Walker wants us to know history, the real history of the United States, not the sanitized version that most Americans read in Social Studies textbooks. She wants us to feel its violence and its rage and understand the damage that one human being can do to another.

As she once said, “Challenging and highlighting abusive power dynamics in our culture is my goal; replicating them is not.”

The future is not only female, it’s a blank canvas. May the women mentioned here, as well as the women in your life, inspire you to use your life to uplift others.

 

Creative Commons License
Councilwoman Marielle Franco (1979-2018) by Mídia Ninja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marielle_Franco#/media/File:Marielle_Franco.jpg.

Creative Commons License
Dolores Huerta speaking at an event in Phoenix, Arizona. by Gage Skidmore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolores_Huerta#/media/File:Dolores_Huerta_by_Gage_Skidmore.jpg.

Kerra Bolton is a political communications strategist, writer and artist. She is the founder of “Unmuted,” an online academy and consultancy that helps women build and sustain their activism. Kerra is a former television political analyst, journalist and political operative. In 2016, she gave that up to live in a small beach community in the Mexican Caribbean.

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