My grandmother worked in a doll making factory when she was a young woman. She had only a high school education, but she was earnest and hardworking and wanted a better life for her family. My grandmother had three daughters, two of whom went on to receive a college education and ascend into the ranks of the middle class. Those three children had their own mess of children, three of whom were able to get their Bachelor’s and one who was able to get a Master’s degree. When my grandmother was a girl, she adapted to a segregated life. When my mother was a girl, she also had to use separate facilities. When I was a girl, I got to use the same bathrooms as everyone else.
The reason I mention this is to give some actual perspective on just how short a period of time has elapsed since oppression was the legal standard and vehemently protected. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 happened a mere 47 years ago. Not 100 years ago. Not 75 years ago. Not even 50 years ago. I am part of the first generation in my family who has never experienced the sting of legal segregation. The first.
The Civil Rights Acts was the spark that began a whole new world of opportunity previously barred from my family. My mother was the only black woman in her nursing class. She would tell me stories of condescending superiors who would openly deride her efforts at personal achievement because she was the wrong color to want more for her life. Teachers and instructors weren’t candid in their disapproval of a “Negro” student. Even as early as her high school education, when she participated in bussing programs designed to integrate public education, she was constantly harangued because she was too black to be that smart (she skipped a grade in junior high) and her intellect was an affront on too many stereotypes to count. But thanks to Affirmative Action, she couldn’t just be swept under the rug and dismissed as sub-standard. Now, people, institutions, government bodies HAD to acknowledge her for what she was able to accomplish.
I also benefited from Affirmative Action. Contrary to the common bullshit spewed about Affirmative Action, I beyond deserved entrance into my first college. Back when the SATs capped at 1600, I had a 1330. I was an A- student, student body president, Amnesty International member, National Honor Society member, cheerleader, drama club participant. I organized the monthly poetry meeting at my high school (Cafe Bizarre) and volunteered at local nursing homes, and all this was sandwiched between attending church four times a week and SAT prep courses. I took several AP courses, earning one 3, two 4’s, and a 5 in English (I couldn’t afford to take the Art History AP which saddened my teacher, because he knew I would have gotten a 5 if I could only manage to scrape up the $85 required to test). I was very fortunate that my mom was able to afford all this for me as a single mom, so many others weren’t that lucky. Every single accomplishment, I earned it. But wouldn’t you believe, even with all of this, my guidance counselor told me not to apply to Wellesley College. That I’d be better off attending a trade school or a local community college. Did you get that there? Because that is the crux of the Affirmative Action debacle for me. I was qualified. I was abundantly qualified but because I was black (Wellesley College is an all-womens college), she overlooked EVERYTHING I HAD DONE and INSISTED I should be less ambitious. Incidentally, when I got my acceptance letter to Wellesley, I brought it to her straightaway so she could see just how wrong she was.
Affirmative Action benefited Americans of Color and ALL American women. In the glorious turbulent 60’s, many groups stood up and proclaimed they, too, were worthy contributors. They, too, deserved a chance to establish themselves. They, too, deserved to be active participants in their environments, their culture, their educations, and their government. Finally, women could be more than their husband’s property. They could do more than raise children if they wanted to. They could hold jobs, enter colleges and universities and not just secretarial/trade schools. The skies were the limit, as opposed to the ends of their lawns. They could amass independent wealth, as opposed to depending on an allowance from their husbands. They didn’t need husbands anymore to survive. They could do it all by themselves.
So imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to an article in the New York Times about a Supreme Court case coming up for review challenging Affirmative Action in college admissions from a young white woman of 18.
White women have benefited the most from affirmative action. This is not a hyperbolic statement. In fact, they have not only benefited from it the most, but they prove just how successful it is. Today, in America, women are now 2/3rds of the buying power in the entire country. Women are entering colleges at higher numbers and are graduating with post-graduate degrees in staggering rates. Women are employed at higher numbers than ever before. There are far more women involved in active roles in our government than ever before. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at some quotes:
“In 2000 women were 13 percent of the House and Senate; in 2009 they were 17 percent.”
“The earnings of women working full time, year round went from around 73 cents on the male dollar to 77 cents.”
“By mid-2009, women made up 50 percent of the workforce[…]”
“Elite women inched forward, going from 15.6 percent of law partners to 19.2 percent, and from 24 percent of physicians to 28 percent.”
“The percentage of undergraduates who are female rose to 57 percent in 2007 […] Women now earn 62 percent of degrees in biology, up from 59.2, and 49 percent of biology PhDs, up from 44.8.”
Now granted, the fight for equality is still ongoing, and still must be vehemently fought as evidenced by the recent birth control debacle in which a panel of men discussed the pros and cons of birth control while excluding dissent of women who would actually be the ones taking the pill. The battles over safe and legal abortion, over how much of a crime “domestic violence” is (Stay AWAY from Topeka, Kansas!!), and what constitutes rape remind us that we still have aways to go. That being said, women have made huge strides in the past few decades, most of which can be attributed to the opportunities afforded them thanks to Affirmative Action.
I can’t speak for every black woman in the US, but I have noticed how monochromatic the feminist movement can get. And while fighting for entrance into corporate America, higher education, government (all admirable); I feel like this addresses a specific set of problems that only affect certain women–usually affluent and usually white. But let me conjure a bit of Sojourner Truth to articulate my sentiment, read beautifully by Maya Angelou:
So that when I read the article that a white woman was bringing a case that could possibly end ALL Affirmative Action in the US, I felt like I was being told, “No. You’re not,” by MY sisters. By sisters who I have protested with. By sisters who I have defended and subjected myself to ridicule and cultural excommunication over. By my sisters who I have stood up for and petitioned to get them out of the house and into the workplace, even though the women in my family never had the option to stay at home and be a full time mother. By my sisters who I have spoken loudly for when protesting our culture of rape and hypersexualization, even though rape of women of color is seen as less of a crime because social standards dictate that women of color are lascivious by virtue of origin. By my sisters who I have argued for when it comes to control of their bodies, even though access to abortion is now used as an attack on black women as a criticism of their sexual choices. I have stood up for women and the right they have to make the choices they make, even when I won’t ever directly benefit from them.
And I feel like I’ve been slapped in the face.
I am fortunate to know the women I do, because they’re not going to fall for this divisive bullshit. The contributors of this blog know what’s up but I want to say something to the women who are against affirmative action because it has evolved into a raced term and occludes the very quantifiable benefits to women as a result.
Civil Rights are civil rights and everyone is entitled to them. Equality is equality and everyone is entitled to it. And if your attitude is one of, “Fuck you. I got mine so I don’t give a shit about what you have to do to get yours,” just know that you are now stepping into the shoes of the very same oppressor you claim to fight against. And how sincere is your zeal for equality if you are willing to sacrifice the last few great decades of progress for the womens movement in order to make sure that women like me don’t get the same opportunity or the same benefit of the doubt as women like you?