THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Betty Shabazz
“Activism is the Life Blood in America.”
I am delighted to be here. I have to say this, because she probably doesn’t know it, but one of my heroes, my heroines, is attorney Bella Abzug who is seated to my immediate left. Our lives crossed some 30 years ago. As a young attorney she was, and still is an intergenerational advocate, not just women of one particular age group, but young girls on, all the way up. One of these days, all of us will get all the way up, is that a fact?
She was interested in education. She was working in Westchester County trying to get school books for children, school books that were outdated. She was totally confident, and I liked that very much because at that point my life had been told shaken. But more importantly, she has always been adored. And she spoke out against abuses to women very early on and women who have been sitting in the corner, thinking about these things and prayin’ to God that one day, all of this would be lifted. That was this woman out there speaking about abuses that gave confidence to a whole generation of women and we should never forget those who blazed a trail and led the way, should we?
Told Joyce this was a very simple, come speak 5-10 minutes, don’t worry about it. When I get back to the college I have something for her. Developing, shaping and enriching women and families to ensure stronger communities across the breadth of this country should not be left to a few women. We over work our leaders do we not? We over work them; they burn out and we step over and keep going and keep complaining. I have always wondered since women, regardless [of] ethnicity, have a concern about their families and their children, do they not?
One of the things we find is that history is not always clear. One would read history books and probably not understand that more than half of the youngsters that Attorney Bella Abzug was talking about having textbooks were non-white. It seems that this never really gets into the history so that you always think that it is white women concerned about the education of white children. But let me just say to you that if you live in a society and you have to go outside the picket fence, and if you have to mingle in that society, you have to be concerned with the education of all children, is that a fact?
I would rather be around people who are educated and have been indoctrinated with some kind of structure about handling themselves in a society than to be around people who have not had that instruction or that indoctrination. I think once we get back to understanding that, we have to be concerned about both societies. The society of the individuals in that society that you protect today will be the society that you protect for yourself in the future. When you read about homesteading, when you read about the suffragettes, when you read about the labor unions, they obviously selected pictures that would look the way they wanted people to believe that the society looked.
My sorority, the little Delta women down in Washington, D.C. participated in the suffragette movement. And they have their own pile of pictures that were taken that would never [be] included. Homesteading – do you know some of the first women on the homesteading trail were Black women? I don’t see many of those pictures. I had a guy who was on my radio program who brought me a lovely book of all these Black families who were out on the trail on those wagons, involved in the homesteading proposition. And labor unions, we have people that look like me, that were involved.
What we would like to see is more inclusion, not just in the feminist movement, but in society as a whole. There was an article from one woman. This was about 1825 and she had left and gone to Arizona. She had also traveled to Kansas moving towards free states. She had escaped slavery, and one of the things she talked about was health care, taking better care and upgrading the inferior education that was offered in that community for college. It is extremely important that we understand that Black women have been involved in activism for as long as they have been in this country and before they came to this country.
If you would review the documents of Dred Scott when he sued for his freedom, I’m sure Dred would have gone to sleep and forgot about it if not for Harriet! It was Harriett Scott who said, “Not only must you be free, but I must be free, and our children must be free.” So, then we have to understand that at this point we are living in a society that is changing. Unfortunately, a great number of people cannot see change until it is on their doorsteps, until it is right in front of their faces and then they can’t understand even then, and they ask with a gasp, what is happening in the world?
We today in this society are more racially and ethnically diverse. Additionally, with new immigrants coming to America daily, [we are] speaking in different languages. Our population is growing older as it is growing younger. The number of married couples are decreasing. Children’s support is not at present where we want it to be or where it needs to be in terms of compliance. More people now are beginning to move back to the city. Housing and health care, the cost is increasing faster than the income. It is not equal to the annual wage. In 1995, 65% to 70% of the individuals owned their living space and they spend 30 more percent just to maintain it. But at the same time, 20 years ago, it was about 18% of their annual income.
Rentals are now higher than ever. We have an increasing number of women who are below the poverty line and without housing, children without education, without health benefits. Computer education and computer literacy increasing as we speak. We are moving from an industrial age to an information age. And yet we know that a great number of our people will be left behind as they were left behind not being able to produce their own food.
I get kind of annoyed from time to time that you still hear about the salary of what do you call it? The lack of equity. But you read that white males, top of the scale, white women next, black males next, and then black women next and some of us fall somewhere in between. I can remember when I first went to get my job, I had gotten my terminal degree and was ready to work hard to make big bucks. I had six children who ate a lot.
I bought a house from attorney Bella Abzug, a big sprawling brick house in Westchester and had to pay big bucks for mortgage. And when I looked at the salary that was offered, I couldn’t believe it. I said, I can’t accept that. And they increased it. Had I been really trained on how to negotiate…? That is what we need to understand – that as women, we need negotiating skills. We need to understand how to negotiate. So, I accepted. I thought if I want another level, they would say no.
And so, I asked, because there was the guy who came in with a master’s degree and I had a terminal degree and he was getting $4,500. more than I was getting. And I said, “What? Why would you pay him that amount of money?” And they said, “He’s head of household.” All I said was, “Oh.” [The majority] of single parent households are women. Women who are head of households need money like men who are head of households. I certainly respect my brothers, regardless of ethnicity and all of the other variables. But I think women do take good care of their children and all of those dollars go to take care of the family. So, some attention needs to be directed in that area, does it not?
Our lives must be a public response to abuses. We have to thank all of those women who have led the way – that have the ability to stimulate others in extraordinary ways while they still did all of the things that they were supposed to do. Let me just say that there are women who are still over represented in low paying jobs. I don’t know how that will be rectified. Women account for 60% of the labor force growth between 1984 and 1994, and I am sure it is much higher. Teenagers, Black and Hispanic women still are the majority in unemployment so we are going to have to look at that in the future.
Women represent 53% of the population; they do 75% of the world’s work and receive about one third of the pay. Why one third? Although we get supposedly 78% of every dollar that a male makes, I would imagine you get a third, primarily because all of those women who are under paid, and those women who are working part time. But we still have a lot of work to do. We must join the Women’s Movement and make sure that when we get to the third millennium, we will not have to address some of the same problems that we have addressed for this last thousand years in the second millennium.
It would be simple if we have to address the same kinds of problems in the third millennium that we have addressed for the last thousand years, which represent the second millennium. What is it that we must do? We must fine tune our agenda. We must be clear on the barriers that exist. We must pair solutions to needs. We must keep history correct. And for those who don’t feel that it is part of their [responsibility] to keep history correct, then we need in the third millennium an ad hoc feminist committee, that so through the years we keep the history correct.
Activism is the life blood in America. We are the gatekeepers. We must stay keen and on our toes and we must be alert and sharp. One of the things that the Asians deal with is Yin and Yang. We must make sure that the Yin and Yang is in the room because that creates balance. We must always understand that America is great because there is an allowance for re-dress. The efforts that I spoke about earlier, about [continuing] Bella Abzug’s intergenerational activities; we must understand that that must be key. And whatever it is we do in the future for women, let us stay focused and let us keep the agenda continuing. Thank you.