On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women occupied the streets of New York to protest low wages and poor working conditions, and to advocate for the right to vote. That brave stand and the struggles that followed eventually lead to the 1987 decision by the U.S. Congress to designate the entire month of March for the recognition of women’s history.
In this experTU video, Wellspring Associate Professor of History Jan Wilson explains the origins behind the establishment of International Women’s Day (March 8) and Women’s History Month, discussing women’s fight for equality, rights and acknowledgment of their achievements.
Wellspring Professor of History Jan Wilson published Becoming Disabled: Forging a Disability View of the World, with Lexington Books, a division of Rowman Littlefield, in 2021. Using an autoethnographic approach, as well as multiple first-person accounts from disabled writers, artists and scholars, Wilson describes how becoming disabled is to forge a new consciousness and a radically new way of viewing the world.
In Becoming Disabled, Wilson examines disability in ways that challenge dominant discourses and systems that shape and reproduce disability stigma and discrimination. Her goal in developing this book was to create alternative meanings that understand disability as a valuable human variation, that embrace human interdependency and that recognize the necessity of social support for individual flourishing and happiness. Through this collection, Wilson offers a powerful vision of a society in which all forms of human diversity are included and celebrated and one in which we are better able to care for ourselves and each other.
Founding disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thompson of Emory University remarked that Wilson’s book “is a revelation for all of us about how what we learn to think of as the limitations and problems we call disabilities can become a source of understanding and human solidarity that deepens our relationships with one another and strengthens our human bonds.”
Harriet Tubman is the reason I became a historian. I discovered Tubman one day in first grade while leafing through a Scholastic Books flyer. Tucked away among the brightly colored paperback novels and trivia books was a biography titled Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by an author named Dorothy Sterling. Despite the book’s rather unassuming cover and my unfamiliarity with its central subject, I was immediately intrigued by the flyer’s synopsis, describing a “strong-willed and courageous” African American woman who led enslaved people to freedom on something called the “Underground Railroad.”
I quickly marked Sterling’s book as one of my Scholastic orders for that month and then had to wait an agonizing three weeks for the book to arrive at school. Once I had it in my hands, I could not put it down, so captivated was I by the remarkable story of a girl who survived the horrors of enslavement, escaped from bondage as a young woman, and then risked her freedom and her life by returning to the slave South multiple times to help dozens of enslaved people flee north on the Underground Railroad — which I learned was not in fact the actual train system I had imagined from the book’s synopsis but a network of escape routes and safe houses created by abolitionists in the late eighteenth century.
Like most children’s books about Tubman from that era, Sterling’s story focused on Tubman’s antislavery work and did not emphasize the fascinating history of Tubman’s later years, when she worked as a spy, scout, and nurse during the Civil War, fought to secure civil rights for freedpeople, campaigned for women’s suffrage, and spearheaded philanthropy movements to promote care for indigent and older Americans (a history richly narrated by my colleague Kristen Oertel in her excellent biography of Tubman).
Later, as a scholar of women and gender in the United States, I appreciated in new ways Tubman’s contributions to abolitionism, civil rights, and feminism, but it was not until I began to see the world through a critical disability lens that I began to recognize Tubman’s importance to the history of disability. Tubman was badly injured at the age of 12 when an overseer, furious at Tubman’s refusal to help him restrain a young Black man attempting to flee enslavement, hurled a heavy weight in her direction, striking her in the head and nearly killing her. Months of convalescence at her mother’s home followed, but the injury left Tubman with lifelong chronic pain, periods of narcolepsy, and seizures.
Her disability reshaped her body and her mind, her position within the slaveholding system, her movements through life, and the methods and strategies by which she pursued social justice. Her strength and heroism were made possible by her interdependence on a wider community based in caring and sustainable freedoms.
Harriet Tubman was a strong, courageous Black woman, and she was disabled. Her disability was one of several key, intersecting identities that shaped her daily lived experiences. When we recognize this, we can better understand her version of freedom, notes Deirdre Cooper Owens, one in which “a disabled Black woman sat at the center of it, where Black women were liberators, and where liberation was communal and democratic.”
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