International Women's Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History

Mike Wood - March 8, 2018

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
A “Free Angela Davis” poster from the period in which she was in prison. National Portrait Gallery.

9 – Angela Davis

“My name became known because I was, one might say accidentally the target of state repression and because so many people throughout the country and other parts of the world organized around the demand for my freedom.” Angela Davis

The next in our trio of strong black women is a powerhouse of the black radical movement, Angela Davis. Davis comes in the same traditions as Rosa Parks and Miriam Makeba, in the sense that she was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, but her causes go far further than the two previous women. Davis’ career in politics – which is now into its sixth decade and shows no signs of slowing down – has always confronted racism and bigotry, but has also delivered scathing criticisms of the systems that perpetuate prejudice.

As an activist, she was an early member of the Black Panther Party (and described as the “dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis” by President Richard Nixon) before transitioning into membership of the Communist Party of the USA, as well as giving speeches in socialist nations such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany. As an academic, she has held positions all over the world and written extensively on civil rights and women’s rights, as well as being one of the major formulators of the concept of the prison industrial complex, which links the prison system of the United States to issues of racism, class prejudice and economics.

She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time one of the most racist cities in the country. She later wrote of her upbringing: “I grew up in the southern United States in a city which at that time during the late ’40’s and early ’50’s was the most segregated city in the country, and in a sense learning how to oppose the status quo was a question of survival.” She was educated there, but moved to New York City as a teenager to attend an integrated school. She became attracted to the far left and, while at university, travelled to a communist youth festival in Finland. She later studied in France and Germany before moving back to the States to teach in 1969, whereupon she was thrust into black activism.

Davis’ political views were well set by the time she returned to America, but her political career was just beginning. As a member of the Communist Party, a campaign began to have her removed from the California university system, led by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. She was let go by her employer but reinstated after a judge ruled that her political beliefs were not a ground for her to be fired. In 1970, she would be shot into the national spotlight: a 17-year-old black high school student took a judge and three jurors hostage at a courthouse in Marin County, California, eventually killing the judge with a shotgun that Davis had bought two days before. She was put on the FBI Most Wanted List and remained a fugitive for two months, before being captured.

Her trial made international news. Thousands demonstrated for her release, John Lennon penned a song on her behalf and, over a year after first being arrested, she was released on bail. When her case finally came to court, she was acquitted of prior knowledge of the crime. On the back of this publicity, Davis travelled to speak at conferences around the world: she visited Cuba, the Soviet Union and East Germany, before returning to academia with teaching posts in San Francisco and Santa Cruz in California. A major subject that she had campaigned over is the mass incarceration of African-Americans, which she has regularly compared to the slavery era:

“For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret — all at a fraction of the cost of ‘free labor’.”

Her influence on the black feminist movement cannot be underestimated. Through decades of activism and literature, she has done about as much to raise the profile of black women, of women’s rights and civil rights, and of economic justice, as almost anyone still active today.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Jayaben Desai faces down a line of police during the Grunwick dispute, 1978. The Times.

10 – Jayaben Desai

“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager.” Jayaben Desai

If Rosa Parks was a woman who made her name by taking a stand (or a seat) against injustice, and Miriam Makeba fought for civil rights with her music, and Angela Davis did the same with her pen, then what of Jayaben Desai. Desai lacks the profile of any of the women that we have covered previously, but her actions are every bit as inspiring.

Desai was a fighter for both worker’s rights and immigrant rights, but unlike the three previous women, she was not particularly inclined towards political action before she had it thrust upon her by events. Born in the Indian state of Gujarat in the early 1930s, she migrated to the African nation of Tanzania in the mid-1960s, along with thousands of other Indians searching for a better life. The entire South Asian population of Tanzania was expelled, however, and she found herself in the United Kingdom, where she took a job as a seamstress in London before moving on to work for Grunwick Film Processing as a factory worker.

It was here that she would make her mark on the world. The women employed at Grunwick were predominantly immigrants, the majority from Asian backgrounds and a substantial number having travelled the same route as Desai, through East Africa. The conditions under which they laboured were harsh: they were routinely paid less than white workers, roughly a third of the national average wage and half of the average wage for a London factory worker, as well as facing regular discrimination on grounds of both race and gender. It was widely thought that Grunwick deliberately hired immigrant workers – new applicants were asked questions about when they had arrived in the UK and asked to provide passport details – in order to underpay and exploit them. During the stifling summer of 1976 – the hottest in British history – there was no air conditioning and many complaining of compulsory overtime.

When Desai and four others were summarily sacked in August 1976, the powder was lit. Desai and the fired workers began a picket outside of the factory and joined their trade union. Soon, they had called a strike and won 50 new members to the union, calling for their jobs back, better conditions and union representation. Other unions that dealt with Grunwick began to boycott the company, with the postal workers refusing to deliver mail to the company. A year into the strike, the national media began to take hold, and suddenly, thousands of supporters descended on the Grunwick factory to man the picket lines. Riot police were called in to bus workers into the factory, leading to clashes between activists and police. Jayaben Desai toured the country raising funds and awareness of the campaign, speaking audiences at which an Indian woman had never been heard before: South Wales miners and Glasgow dockers, as well as political groups the length and breadth of the UK.

After a full two years picketing outside Grunwick, a report was published that recommended that the workers be given their jobs back and union representation be allowed. The boss, however, refused, and Desai and her colleagues eventually were forced to call off the strike. Though the demands of the workers were not met, the effect that the Grunwick dispute had on race relations in the United Kingdom and particularly the role of race in labour relations would never be the same again.

The so-called “strikers in saris”, as the tabloid press dubbed the Indian women, had brought together immigrants and the long-established, traditional white working class. Few thought it possible that the white and male-dominated trade union movement – which was, in the mid-1970s, at the absolute peak of its powers politically – would be open to supporting a cause that was propagated by women of colour, but that they did, changing the face of industrial politics in the United Kingdom forever.

Jayaben Desai, always the beating heart of the “strikers in saris”, later said of the dispute: “We have shown, that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.” After the strike, she began working to assist new immigrants to the UK from India, before teaching traditional Asian dressmaking at a college in London. She died in 2010.

International Women’s Day 2018: 11 Rebellious Women from History
Storme DeLarverie, photographed in 1994. The New York Times.

11 – Stormé DeLarverie

“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.” Stormé DeLarverie

If there is one thing that we’ve learned from the last few women featured on this list, it is that the struggle for female equality often inseparable from other liberation struggles: whether that be campaigns against racism, economic inequality or, in the case of Stormé DeLarverie, homophobia. Stormé DeLarverie is known as the Rosa Parks of the gay community, and not without good reason: she was active in the growth of the LGBT liberation movement from its very beginning with the Stonewall riot of 1969 – though, as the quote above shows, she was far from happy for the incident to be referred to as a riot.

Stormé DeLarverie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1920, to a mixed race family – her father was white, her mother black – and from the start, her life was harsh. Though the family were not poor (her father had servants, and indeed her mother was previously employed in the household), Stormé was subject to much abuse as a child. She acknowledged that she was a lesbian at the age of 18 and performed as a singer, initially as a woman but later as a male impersonator. She was always a butch lesbian and travelled widely as part of an all-black revue, leading the proceedings as MC in male drag.

By the late 1960s, she was living in New York City and active on the Greenwich Village gay scene. It was here that she would make her largest mark on the world. Gay people in New York were often harassed and abused, especially in gay bars, which were frequently raided by police. On the night of June 28, one such raid took place at the Stonewall Inn, allegedly sparked when a woman, thought to be Stormé, was dragged from the bar by a coterie of cops. She scuffled with the police, who, despite having four officers there, failed to subdue her. She was hit on the head with a police nightstick and, as she bled, screamed “Why don’t you guys do something?” at the crowd of onlookers.

Do something they did. The crowd, which was predominantly made up of gay men and lesbians, began to fight back, flipping over police trucks and throwing coins and beer cans at the cops. Soon, the 500 to 600 people who had gathered vastly outnumbered the police and the officers found themselves trapped inside the bar, surrounded by an angry mob. The riot police arrived, but were met by a kick-line of gay men, dancing in front of them, whom they proceeded to batter with their clubs. The riots continued the following night and, in the aftermath, a whole range of gay rights organisations were founded, inspired by the community’s resistance to the police and their homophobia.

Later, doubt was cast on whether the woman in question was actually DeLarverie – “Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumored that she did, and she said she did. She told me she did.” said Lisa Cannistraci, the owner of a lesbian bar close to the Stonewall – but regardless of whether it was actually her that sparked it, she was certainly there and certainly one of the main combatants against the police. After Stonewall, she became even more famous among the LGBT community of New York City, acting as a prominent member of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association, which continued the fight for gay rights.

She worked as a bouncer at lesbian bars, being described in her obituary as “tall, androgynous and armed – she held a state gun permit – Ms. DeLarverie roamed lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls”. She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero. She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.”

She worked as a bouncer at several Greenwich Village lesbian bars well into her 80s and eventually died in 2014 at the age of 93.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Constance Georgine Gore-Booth“. The Lissadell Estate.

Rosa Luxemburg” Tony Cliff, International Socialism, 1959

Sylvia Pankhurst, Citizen of the World” Shirley Harrison, 2009

Living My Life” Emma Goldman, 1931

Red Emma Speaks; Selected Writings and Speeches”, 1972

Alexandra Kollontai Internet Archive, Marxists.org

Simone de Beauvoir, Great Lives, BBC Radio Four

“Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks Dies” NPR

“The Voice of (Which?) Africa: Miriam Makeba in America” April Sizemore-Barber, Safundi: the Journal of South African and American Studies.

“Angela Davis on the 40th Anniversary of Her Arrest and President Obama’s First Two Years”, Democracy Now!, 2010

Jayaben Desai obituary, The Guardian, 2010

Storme DeLarverie obituary, The New York Times, 2014

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