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FairfaxEducationQ&A: Former Madeira School head pens book on equality fight

Q&A: Former Madeira School head pens book on equality fight

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U.S. women have achieved greater autonomy since suffragists began agitating for the right to vote in the mid-1800s, but more hurdles remain, said author Elisabeth Griffith.

Griffith, who led the private all-girls Madeira School in McLean from 1988 to 2010, recently published a book showing how far women have come and what obstacles remain for them.

“Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality, 1920-2020” covers not only that century, but goes as far back as colonial times and forward to the early Biden administration. The book also details the parallel history of the civil-rights movement and brims with statistics on women’s advances – and sometimes setbacks – in the professional and political realms.

A resident of Chevy Chase, Griffith teaches courses in women’s history through Smithsonian Associates and Politics & Prose bookstore. Griffith previously authored “In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton” and discussed her latest book in this edited conversation.

How has life been post-Madeira?

I loved my Madeira job. It was the best job that anybody could ever have, especially if you enjoy the company of quirky adolescents and fabulous faculty in a stunning setting. It was a wonderful community to be in. But I’m glad to have returned to being a historian. It’s really my life passion to teach and write and think about history.

What sparked your historical interest?

My mom was a social-studies teacher in junior high. She was one of the most curious people I knew. She told me lots of stories about history growing up . . . I really think that part of it comes down to basic patriotism. I love this country and I think that if you don’t have a better sense of our history, our past, how our government was intended to work, we’re in trouble as a democracy.

Why did you write the book?

The title “Formidable” had a lot to do with the centennial of the 19th Amendment and women winning the right to vote. A lot of has been written about the long fight to get suffrage. I wanted to know what happened next.

Did women vote? Did they run for office? Were they able to pass legislation? Were they effective? And the short answer is no. They really did not have immediate success – white women not much success and black women no success, because of the ongoing discrimination that wasn’t resolved until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

What surprised you most when researching the book?

The surprise was probably my humility because I am a Ph.D. in American history, I’ve been teaching American history for 40 years and I’m still learning so much, especially the depth of segregation, the roles of black women in changing our country for the better, how risky it was for them.

Is the women’s movement too big to accommodate everyone?

I think it requires a big tent because women themselves are very diverse . . . Women differ not only by obvious things like race or geography or ethnicity or religion or class, but whether you’ve been married or had children or not. Your political perspectives are what your life experience might have been. Women are a very diverse cohort. It’s risky to make generalizations.

How have those various feminist cohorts differed in their objectives?

White-women change agents mostly focused on political goals – they wanted to vote, they wanted to change laws, they wanted to have rights similar to those of white men. Black women had a much wider, broader agenda.

Primarily, from the 1920s until today, it was to protect their communities from racial violence, initially from lynchings and now from police shootings. Most black women would say that the women’s movement needs to include things like unemployment, educational disparities, food deserts, rent discrimination – issues that really have to do with how less-privileged communities advance.

What are the book’s key takeaways?

The first is how important it is to be politically engaged, to register to vote, to show up and do whatever you can through the political system to advance your own agenda. Too many people went to jail, got beaten up and died for our right to vote, and it should not be disrespected . . . I hope the book inspires people to take their citizenship responsibilities seriously.

Any other key points?

It is incumbent upon the majority of our population, the white population, to learn more about the history of African-Americans in our country. It’s not up to them to teach us. We need to teach ourselves and not only about blacks, but about everybody we might not know so much about. We’re all in this together and sometimes we make assumptions that are ill-informed.

Will updates to your book discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision that overturned Roe v. Wade?

The paperback will come out in the new year and I’ve asked if I could revise the epilogue . . . When one is a historian, you do understand that this arc of history is like a roller coaster. There are good peaks in American history where we’re all proud of ourselves and we’re dancing, and there are times when it feels like we’re rolling backward. We may be on a downhill period for women’s rights at the moment.

How much progress have women made in the workplace?

Women have made so many visible advances. We’re in many positions where no one would have dreamed of having women, from airplane pilots to coal miners, CEOs, surgeons. But it’s still not enough . . . We are not a large number of anything that is not a traditional role. Women are 98 percent of kindergarten teachers and 3 percent of plumbers. So it’s very uneven how we have progressed.

What are the next frontiers for the women’s movement?

I think, sadly, that we’re going back to ground zero on some of these issues. From my perspective, the right to have control over your most intimate choices about whether or not to have children is an essential right. That right has now been taken away and other similar rights relating to personal autonomy are being threatened by this conservative court. So I think that no matter how many other things may have changed, if women don’t have those rights, then we need to start over again. We’re at risk.

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