Commentary: “Nevertheless She Persisted:” Women’s Activism in U.S. History


The theme of this year’s Women’s History Month is “Nevertheless She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination against Women.” Historian DeAnna Beachley discusses the theme and its application through U.S. history.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is one in a long American tradition of women persisting in the face of resistance. In February 2017, Senate Republicans invoked a seldom used rule to silence Sen. Warren for her speech criticizing the attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell defended the move by saying, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” quotes the Washington Post, “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The Twitter #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersisted took off at a quick pace and before the week was out, Nevertheless, She Persisted t-shirts went on sale. Feminists quickly turned the phrase into a rallying cry for action. Their predecessors, who did not have social media platforms to spread their messages, provide myriad examples of standing firm in the face of difficulties and opposition.

[Library of Congress] A 1920 political cartoon marks the progress of women’s rights through history.
In just about every generation in American history, we can easily find examples of women persisting. Anne Hutchinson continued to offer religious teachings to men and women in her home, despite the Puritan leaders warning her against doing so. As a result of her persistence, she faced trial and banishment from the Massachusetts Bay colony. The Daughters of Liberty wore homespun dresses and drank coffee instead of tea to support the patriot cause in the American Revolution. When women raised and donated cash for the Continental Army, Gen. George Washington turned down direct monetary contributions, preferring that the substantial amount be used for the purchase of materials for making uniforms and blankets for the troops. Textile operatives working in the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, went on strike a couple of times in the antebellum period demanding better pay and treatment in the boarding houses. Every time a slave woman evaded her master’s unwanted sexual advances, she faced beatings and threat of sale of herself or her children. The suffragists, who faced down angry crowds and continuous objections, fought for seventy-two years for the elective franchise for women. Ida B. Wells stood against lynching in Memphis, Tennessee, and later faced resistance from men in the NAACP—an organization she helped found—for being too outspoken.


Twentieth-Century Resistance

Acts of resistance continued into the 20th century. Eleanor Roosevelt traveled thousands of miles and met with Americans from all walks of life in the 1930s, which brought her some criticism for being an activist first lady. When she requested a folding chair to sit in the aisle between segregated seats at a meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, held in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1938, the public outcry brought newspaper headlines and many letters of vile criticism for her actions. Pauli Murray, who coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe gender discrimination, fought gender and race discrimination and became a civil rights attorney and activist in the women’s rights movement. Dolores Huerta became instrumental in organizing migrant farm workers in California, despite being told not to get involved in such an impossible task.

This only begins to scratch the surface. For any woman who has stood up to the everyday small injustices, from being told they could not be hired because they were a woman, to hearing that their voice lacked value because they were only a housewife and mother, to those who march and demonstrate for change, the cry “Nevertheless, she persisted” is for them. It’s like Marge Piercy said in her poem, “My Heroines,” “Big change turns on small pushes. Heroes and heroines climb into history books, but it’s such women who actually write our future.”

DeAnna Beachley received her BA and MA from Youngstown State University and her PhD from Northern Arizona University. She is a professor of U.S. history and women’s studies at the College of Southern Nevada. She was the recipient of the Nevada Regent’s Teaching Award in 2000. She is currently serving on the Membership Committee of the Organization of American Historians. Beachley has published numerous book reviews and an exhibition review for the Ben Shahn centennial exhibition for the Journal of American History. She has published several short pieces for the online history blog We’re History. Her current research is on the American suffrage movement, particularly the picketing of the White House for the vote by the National Women’s Party in 1917. She has presented scholarly papers at a number of conferences, including for the annual meetings of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.

Join the Discussion