Public Media Arts Hub

Elisabeth Griffith's new book 'Formidable,' chronicles American women's fight for equality


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this summer is the latest front in the battle for women's rights in this country, a fight that goes back more than 100 years.

Judy Woodruff recently sat down with author Elisabeth Griffith, who explores the history of women and the rights they have sought to secure in her latest book, "Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020."

Judy Woodruff: Betsy Griffith, welcome to the "NewsHour."

You and I have known each other a long time. You have written this remarkable definitive book on the early women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And here you are with this book on 100 years, a century of American women.

What did you want to do with this book that hadn't been done in other looks at American women?

Elisabeth Griffith, Author, "Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020": I wanted to talk about in one place how women use the vote, so much hoopla about the 19th Amendment getting the vote, but that — it didn't end there.

That was not a complete victory. It took formidable women against formidable opponents, taking a long time to reach these victories. There were — the cast is huge. And it's a much more diverse cast than most people understand.

Judy Woodruff: Much more diverse and in ways that hardly anyone had written about before.

You spell out so many of the ups and downs, the obstacles, the movement confronted along the way and you're very clear about the crosscurrents with the fight for racial equality in this country, I mean, in writing that even some of the early, best known women's rights activists were outright racists.

Elisabeth Griffith: Had the biases of their era.

Judy Woodruff: Yes.

Elisabeth Griffith: And it made it hard to create the coalitions that were necessary.

It's really only in the immediate lead-up to the passage of the 19th Amendment they begin to understand the need for multicultural, cross-generational, multiracial coalitions. But they splinter again, because Black and white women had different goals.

Black women wanted all the rights that white people had, but primarily physical safety. They wanted to end racial violence, end lynching, have access to jobs and all the discrimination they confronted. White women had a much narrower list. They wanted equal legal treatment, equal political access.

And it took them a long time to understand that, working together, they might gain more. So there were parallel tracks for a long time. It really isn't until, after the 1970s, that there's much coalition at all among these groups.

Judy Woodruff: Describe, if you will, just a few of the, frankly, overlooked Black and Hispanic women activists that you write about.

Elisabeth Griffith: Black women, in some ways, purposely kept themselves behind the scenes. They wanted to put Black men up front. They'd been so discriminated against for so long, that allowing ministers and civic leaders to take the public roles.

So Black women worked behind the scenes. But women like Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Septima Clark slowly supported, were able to support the people in the front.

Ella Baker is an excellent example. She was a longtime member of the NAACP in North Carolina, then in New York City. And then, when the Montgomery bus boycott starts, she says to Martin Luther King: I will send you money.

And then when it succeeds, and he just wants to be a parish rector, she and the women in his congregation say: No, no, Martin, you need to do more.

He founds the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she's his first employee.

Judy Woodruff: And then there were Hispanic, Latina women as well.

Elisabeth Griffith: There were.

The first woman to run, to really come to public notice in the 1920s became secretary of state in New Mexico, Soledad Chacon. But most of those women grew up from farming roots, having to be agricultural workers. Dolores Huerta, of course, is the splendid example of lifelong leadership in that regard.

Judy Woodruff: We think of the women's movement as all about equal pay, that it's a Democratic Party movement.

But, in fact, there are so many prominent women, of course, on the conservative side of the ledger, from Phyllis Schlafly to, today, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the women prominently supporting Donald Trump.

Elisabeth Griffith: Well…

Judy Woodruff: This is a much broader picture.

Elisabeth Griffith: Let's backtrack a minute, because the early women's movement was primarily Republican for both Black and white women.

But the Republican Party was much more supportive because the Democrats were dominated by Southern Democrats and white supremacists. So the Equal Rights Amendment is first introduced by Republicans. Black women don't change to the Democratic Party until late into the New Deal, encouraged by Mary McLeod Bethune.

So, within the parties, you have issues about women's rights, and then the parties divide over women's rights.

Judy Woodruff: What do you make of the fact, Betsy Griffith, that you look at the Supreme Court, all three of the liberal members of the court now are women?

Elisabeth Griffith: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: One of the six more conservative members is a woman. What does that say to us, do you think?

Elisabeth Griffith: Well, that's a pretty good demonstration of the diversity of political opinion among women in leadership.

But it also shows the power of politics and presidential appointment and issue-driven elections. The Supreme Court is critically important in the history of women. And the '60s, '70s and partly into the '80s, many of their decisions advanced women dramatically.

But then, as the appointments become more conservative during the '80s, the tenor of the court changes. You see it most dramatically in the abortion decisions, but you see it in other restraints being put on women.

Judy Woodruff: Is it possible to even write a comprehensive history of women anymore? I mean, women are everywhere. They're in virtually every walk of life.

Elisabeth Griffith: Well, one could say except the Oval Office.

Judy Woodruff: This is true.

Elisabeth Griffith: What's frustrating — and, in my conclusion, I was — I mean, clearly, enormous progress has been made for women in this last century. But it's not enough. We haven't gone far enough.

Women are underemployed and underpaid in the lowest-paying jobs. Women are undervalued in domestic roles. Women are victims of domestic violence. Maternal and infant health has not improved dramatically since 1920.

And women — more than the majority of the population, more women are registered. More women turn out. And the largest percentage of women in any political office is the state legislature. And we're under 30 percent.

So, I wouldn't say we were making progress too quickly. And among us women, of course, there's all that division.

Judy Woodruff: And, indeed, as you say, in the book, the fight for equality goes on. The baton has to be picked up by each generation.

Elisabeth Griffith, thank you very much.

The book is "Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020."

Thank you.

Elisabeth Griffith: Thank you.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.