intersectionality: gender x race

Many tennis clubs today uphold an all-white dress code. But does this homage to tradition come with the racism and sexism of the past? Wimbledon’s achromatic clothing policy hearkens back to the Victorian era, when donning colorless attire was regarded as a necessary measure to combat the indecency of sweat stains, particularly for women. Of course, back then, women customarily played tennis in full-length skirts and men in long cotton pants — also for propriety’s sake.  

Serena Williams at the French Open, 2018 Anne White at Wimbledon, 1985

But today, not all tennis clubs insist on all-white.While Wimbledon is known for having the strictest dress standards (even Anne White’s catsuit pictured above got banned there in 1985), the other grand slams, including the French Open (along with the U.S. Open and the Australian Open), have recently become venues for athletes to showcase custom fashions in dramatic colors and patterns. Since the advent of color TV, athletes have used their clothing to express their personality and distinguish themselves from their competitors.

For instance, Serena Williams wore a black Nike catsuit to this year’s French Open. Her catsuit, a full-body compression garment, not only made her feel like a “superhero,” but also functioned to prevent blood clots, a health issue she’s dealt with frequently and which contributed to complications with the birth of her daughter. On Instagram, she dedicated it to “all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy.”

Despite this supposed freedom, Williams’ catsuit drew the ire of the French Tennis Federation. Its president, Bernard Giudicelli, said in an interview with Tennis Magazine that “[Catsuits] will no longer be accepted.” The FTF will be asking designers to give them an advance look at designs for players and will “impose certain limits.” His rationale?I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far,” and “One must respect the game and the place.”

The new policy and the coded language Giudicelli used to justify it have been called out as both racist and sexist. By characterizing Williams’s catsuit as a failure to “respect the game,” the FTF echoes other professional sporting associations who have criticized Black football players kneeling during the anthem and Black or Latino baseball players’ celebrating home runs. Moreover, the criticism of Williams’ form-fitting clothing and the reactionary new dress code it spawned are merely the latest in a series of critiques of Williams’ physique.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains in his “Program for a Sociology of Sport” that practices like the policing of athletes’ apparel are a way for the tennis elite to separate themselves from other players and preserve a hierarchy of social status. This became necessary as the sport, derived from royal tennis and known as the “Sport of Kings,” experienced a huge increase in popularity since the 1960s. Bourdieu describes how this expansion resulted in a variety of ways to play tennis, some more distinctive than others:

…under the same name, one finds ways of playing that are as different as cross-country skiing, mountain touring, and downhill skiing are in their own domain. For example, the tennis of small municipal clubs, played in jeans and Adidas on hard surfaces, has very little in common with the tennis in white outfits and pleated skirts which was the rule some 20 years ago and still endures in select clubs. (One would also find a world of differences at the level of the style of the players, in their relation to competition and to training, etc.)

In reanimating the dress code, FTF officials are engaging in boundary work to preserve the status of a certain kind of tennis — and, by extension, a certain kind of tennis player — at the top of the hierarchy. In so doing, it is limiting the expression of a sports icon who redefines beauty and femininity and perhaps elite tennis itself.

Amy August is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on education, family, culture, and sport. Her dissertation work uses qualitative methods to compare the forms of social capital recognized and rewarded by teachers and coaches in school and sports. Amy holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Illinois at Chicago, a MA in Teaching from Dominican University, and a MA in Comparative Human Development from the University of Chicago.

In an era of body positivity, more people are noting the way American culture stigmatizes obesity and discriminates by weight. One challenge for studying this inequality is that a common measure for obesity—Body Mass Index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight—has been criticized for ignoring important variation in healthy bodies. Plus, the basis for weight discrimination is what other people see as “too fat,” and that’s a standard with a lot of variation.

Recent research in Sociological Science from Vida Maralani and Douglas McKee gives us a picture of how the relationship between obesity and inequality changes with social context. Using data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth (NLSY), Maralani and McKee measure BMI in two cohorts, one in 1981 and one in 2003. They then look at social outcomes seven years later, including wages, the probability of a person being married, and total family income.

The figure below shows their findings for BMI and 2010 wages for each group in the study. The dotted lines show the same relationships from 1988 for comparison.

For White and Black men, wages actually go up as their BMI increases from the “Underweight” to “Normal” ranges, then levels off and slowly decline as they cross into the “Obese” range. This pattern is fairly similar to 1988, but check out the “White Women” graph in the lower left quadrant. In 1988, the authors find a sharp “obesity penalty” in which women over a BMI of 30 reported a steady decline in wages. By 2010, this has largely leveled off, but wage inequality didn’t go away. Instead, that spike near the beginning of the graph suggests people perceived as skinny started earning more. The authors write:

The results suggest that perceptions of body size may have changed across cohorts differently by race and gender in ways that are consistent with a normalizing of corpulence for black men and women, a reinforcement of thin beauty ideals for white women, and a status quo of a midrange body size that is neither too thin nor too large for white men (pgs. 305-306).

This research brings back an important lesson about what sociologists mean when they say something is “socially constructed”—patterns in inequality can change and adapt over time as people change the way they interpret the world around them.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Flashback Friday.

In Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality, Joane Nagel looks at how these characteristics are used to create new national identities and frame colonial expansion. In particular, White female sexuality, presented as modest and appropriate, was often contrasted with the sexuality of colonized women, who were often depicted as promiscuous or immodest.

This 1860s advertisement for Peter Lorillard Snuff & Tobacco illustrates these differences. According to Toby and Will Musgrave, writing in An Empire of Plants, the ad drew on a purported Huron legend of a beautiful white spirit bringing them tobacco.

There are a few interesting things going on here. We have the association of femininity with a benign nature: the women are surrounded by various animals (monkeys, a fox and a rabbit, among others) who appear to pose no threat to the women or to one another. The background is lush and productive.

Racialized hierarchies are embedded in the personification of the “white spirit” as a White woman, descending from above to provide a precious gift to Native Americans, similar to imagery drawing on the idea of the “white man’s burden.”

And as often occurred (particularly as we entered the Victorian Era), there was a willingness to put non-White women’s bodies more obviously on display than the bodies of White women. The White woman above is actually less clothed than the American Indian woman, yet her arm and the white cloth are strategically placed to hide her breasts and crotch. On the other hand, the Native American woman’s breasts are fully displayed.

So, the ad provides a nice illustration of the personification of nations with women’s bodies, essentialized as close to nature, but arranged hierarchically according to race and perceived purity.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Photo by Ted Eytan; flickr creative commons.

President Trump recently declared that Obamacare is “essentially dead” after the House of Representatives passed legislation to replace existing health care policy. While members of the Senate are uncertain about the future of the proposed American Health Care Act (AHCA) — which could ultimately result in as many as 24 million people losing their health insurance and those with pre-existing conditions facing increasing health coverage costs — a growing number of Americans, especially women, are sure that the legislation will be bad for their health, if enacted.

On the same day that the House passed the Republican-backed plan, for example, a friend of mine revealed on social media that she had gotten her yearly mammogram and physical examination. She posted that the preventative care did not cost anything under her current employer benefit plan, but would have been prohibitively expensive without insurance coverage, a problem faced by many women across the United States. For instance, the American Cancer Society reports that in 2013 38% of uninsured women had a mammogram in the last two years, while 70% of those with insurance did the same. These disparities are certainly alarming, but the problem is likely to worsen under the proposed AHCA.

Breast care screenings are currently protected under the Affordable Care Act’s Essential Health Benefits, which also covers birth control, as well as pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care. The proposed legislation supported by House Republicans and Donald Trump would allow individual states to eliminate or significantly reduce essential benefits for individuals seeking to purchase health insurance on the open market.

Furthermore, the current version of the AHCA would enable individual states to seek waivers, permitting insurance companies to charge higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions, when they purchase policies on the open market. Making health insurance exorbitantly expensive could have devastating results for women, like those with a past breast cancer diagnosis, who are at risk of facing recurrence. Over 40,000 women already die each year from breast cancer in our country, with African-American women being disproportionately represented among these deaths.

Such disparities draw attention to the connection between inequality and health, patterns long documented by sociologists. Recent work by David R. Williams and his colleagues, for instance, examines how racism and class inequality help to explain why the breast cancer mortality rate in 2012 was 42% higher for Black women than for white women. Limiting affordable access to health care — which the AHCA would most surely do — would exacerbate these inequalities, and further jeopardize the health and lives of the most socially and economically vulnerable among us.

Certainly, everyone who must purchase insurance in the private market, particularly those with pre-existing conditions stand to lose under the AHCA. But women are especially at risk. Their voices have been largely excluded from discussion regarding health care reform, as demonstrated by the photograph of Donald Trump, surrounded by eight male staff members in January, signing the “global gag order,” which restricted women’s reproductive rights worldwide. Or as illustrated by the photo tweeted  by Vice-President Pence in March, showing him and the President, with over twenty male politicians, discussing possible changes to Essential Health Benefits, changes which could restrict birth control coverage, in addition to pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care. And now, as all 13 Senators slated to work on revisions to the AHCA are men.

Women cannot afford to be silent about this legislation. None of us can. The AHCA is bad for our health and lives.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ripon College. Her research interests include inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs, work, and organizations.

Originally posted at Gin & Tacos.

If you want to feel old, teach. That movie quote is not wrong: You get older, the students stay the same age.

Your cultural references are all dated, even when you think things are recent (ex., The Wire is already ancient history. You might as well reference the Marx Brothers). You reference major historical events that they’ve sort-of heard of but know essentially nothing about (ex. the Cold War, Vietnam, the OJ Simpson trial, etc.) You do the math and realize that they were 3 when 9-11 happened. And of course it only gets worse with time. You get used to it.

One of the saddest moments I ever had in a classroom, though, involved Rodney King and the LA Riots. We just passed the 25th anniversary of those events that left such a mark on everyone who lived through them. Of course “25th Anniversary” is a bold warning that students, both college and K-12, will have only the vaguest sense of what the proper nouns refer to. A few semesters ago in reference to the Michael Brown / Ferguson incident I mentioned Rodney King in an Intro to American Government class. I got the blank “Is that a thing we are supposed to know?” look that I have come to recognize when students hear about something that happened more than six months ago. “Rodney King?” More blinking. “Can someone tell why the name Rodney King is important?”

One student, god bless her, raised her hand. I paraphrase: “He was killed by the police and it caused the LA Riots.” I noted that, no, he did not die, but the second part of the statement was indirectly true. God bless technology in the classroom – I pulled up the grainy VHS-camcorder version of the video, as well as a transcript of the audio analysis presented at trial. We watched, and then talked a bit about the rioting following the acquittal of the LAPD officers at trial. They kept doing the blinking thing. I struggled to figure out what part of this relatively straightforward explanation had managed to confuse them.

“Are there questions? You guys look confused.”

Hand. “So he was OK?”

“He was beaten up pretty badly, but, ultimately he was. He died a few years ago from unrelated causes (note: in 2012).”

Hand. “It’s kind of weird that everybody rioted over that. I mean, there’s way worse videos.” General murmurs of agreement.

“Bear in mind that this was pre-smartphone. People heard rumors, but it this was the first instance of the whole country actually seeing something like this as it happened. A bystander just happened to have a camcorder.” Brief explanation, to general amusement, of what an Old Fashioned camcorder looked like. Big, bulky, tape-based. 18-year-olds do not know this.

I do believe they all understood, but as that day went on I was increasingly bothered by that that brief exchange meant. This is a generation of kids so numb to seeing videos of police beating, tasering, shooting, and otherwise applying the power of the state to unarmed and almost inevitably black or Hispanic men that they legitimately could not understand why a video of cops beating up a black guy (who *didn’t even die* for pete’s sake!) was shocking enough to cause a widespread breakdown of public order. Now we get a new video every week – sometimes every few days – to the point that the name of the person on the receiving end is forgotten almost immediately. There are too many “Video of black guy being shot or beaten” videos for even interested parties to keep them all straight. Do a self test. Do you remember the name of the guy the NYPD choked out for selling loose cigarettes? The guy in suburban Minneapolis whose girlfriend posted a live video on Facebook after a cop shot her boyfriend in the car? The guy in Tulsa who was surrounded by cops and unarmed while a police helicopter recorded an officer deciding to shoot him? The woman who was found hanged in her Texas jail cell leading to the public pleas to “Say Her Name”?

These kids have grown up in a world where this is background noise. It is part of the static of life in the United States. Whether these incidents outrage them or are met with the usual excuses (Comply faster, dress differently, be less Scary) the fact is that they happen so regularly that retaining even one of them in long term memory is unlikely. To think about Rodney King is to imagine a reality in which it was actually kind of shocking to see a video of four cops kicking and night-sticking an unarmed black man over the head repeatedly. Now videos of police violence are about as surprising and rare as weather reports, and forgotten almost as quickly once passed.

Ed is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Midwestern Liberal Arts University. He writes about politics at Gin & Tacos.

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

Fake news among the alt-right has been central in post-election public discourse, like with Donald Trump’s dubiously sourced tweet about the “millions of illegal voters” supposedly driving Clinton’s substantial lead in the popular vote. Less attention, however, has been paid to the way “real” news is, to use the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson’s term, based in “factiness,” described as “the feel and aesthetic of ‘facts,’ often at the expense of missing the truth.”  Mainstream news gets cast as objective in part because journalists, stack of papers and obligatory pen studiously in hand, point to statistics that back up their reports. Such reliance on “data” can mask the way that humans are involved in turning things into numbers and numbers into stories. So here I present a cautionary tale.

It is a common truism that white male voters without college degrees disproportionately supported Trump in the 2016 election. Indeed, the notion that men with high school as their highest level of education were more likely to vote for Trump is an empirically supported fact. This data point spread widely throughout the campaign season, and bore out in the post-election analyses. But also in the post-election analyses — over which researchers poured in response to the statistically surprising result — another data point emerged that could have, but didn’t, change the narrative around this demographic voting bloc.

The data point that emerged was that white American men without college degrees have remained economically depressed since the 2008 recession and subsequent recovery. Although the U.S. economy has been steadily improving, the economic reality for this particular segment of the population has not. This is what Michael Moore talked about experientially (but not statistically), claiming that he knows the people who live in the rust belt, and they are struggling. He was right, the data show that they are struggling. Highlighting the economic reality for people without college degrees in the U.S. tells a very different story than highlighting the fact that they don’t have college degrees. The former renders an image of a voting contingent who, in the face of personal economic hardship that contrasts with national economic gain, are frustrated and eager to try something — anything — new. The latter renders an image of ignorance.

Data about education levels of voters is transformed by its coupling with economic trajectories. What’s been strange, is that although this coupling was discovered, it never really penetrated the larger “what happened” narrative. This is particularly strange given the meticulous and sometimes frantic search for explanation and the media’s public introspective quests to understand how so many got it all so wrong.

The transformative effect of the economic data point and its failure to effectively transform the story underlines two related things: data are not self-evident and narrative currents are hard to change.

The data weren’t wrong — people without college degrees were more likely to vote for Trump — but they were incomplete and in their partialness, quite misleading. That’s not a data problem, it’s a people problem. Data are not silent, but they are inarticulate. Data make noise, but people have to weave that noise into a story. The weaving process begins with survey construction, and culminates in analyses and reports. Far from an objective process, turning data into narrative entails nuanced decisions about the relevance of, and relationship between, quantifiable items captured through human-created measures. The data story is thus always value-laden and teeming with explicit and implicit assumptions.

Framing a contingent of Trump supporters through the exclusive metric of education without examining the interaction, mediating, and moderating effects of economic gains, was an intellectual decision bore out through statistical analyses. That is, pollsters, strategists, and commentators treated “lack of education” as the variable with key explanatory power. Other characteristics or experiences of those with low levels of education could/should/would be irrelevant.

Such dismissal created a major problem with regard to Democratic strategy. To situate a voting bloc as “uneducated” is to dismiss that voting bloc. How does one campaign to those voting in ignorance? In contrast, to situate a voting bloc as connected through an economic plight not only validates their position, but also gives a clear policy platform on which to speak.

But okay, after the election, analysts briefly shed light on the way that economics and education operated together to predict candidate preference. Why has this gotten so little attention? Why is education — rather than economics or the economic-education combination — still the predominant story?

The predominance of education remains because narrative currents are strong. Even when tied to newly emergent data, established stories are resistant to change. Narratives are embedded with social frameworks, and changing the story entails changing the view of reality. A key tenet of sociology is that people tend towards stability. Once they understand and engage the world in a particular way, they do social and psychological gymnastics to continue understanding and engaging the world in that way. To reframe (some) Trump voters as part of an economic interest group that has been recently underserved, is an upheaval of previous logics. Moreover, disrupting existing logics in this way forces those who practice those logics to, perhaps, reframe themselves, and do so in a way that is not entirely flattering or identity affirming. To switch from a frame of ignorance to a frame of economics is to acknowledge not only that the first frame was distorted, but also, to acknowledge that getting it wrong necessarily entailed ignoring the economic inequality that progressives take pride in caring so much about. Switching from ignorance to economics entails both a change in logic and also, a threat to sense of self.

Data are rich material from which stories are formed, and they are not objective. Tracing data is a process of deconstructing the stories that make up our truths — how those stories take shape, evolve, and solidify into fact. The “truth” about Trump voters is of course complex and highly variable. The perpetually missed nuances tell as much of a story as those on which predominant narratives hang.

Jenny L. Davis, PhD, is in the department of sociology at James Madison University. She studies social psychology, experimental research methods, and new and social media. She is also a contributing author and editor at Cyborgology.  You can follow her at @Jenny_L_Davis.

Originally posted at the Huffington Post.

In the 21st century, it is perhaps time to rethink the American Dream of owning a house. The feasibility of this dream was in the back of my mind the entire time I read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, the highly praised ethnography of landlords and renters in Milwaukee. Dr. Desmond flips the relationship between poverty and housing instability on its head: eviction is a cause, not a symptom, of poverty.

2 To make a long, well-put, and worth-reading argument short: eviction isn’t rare as many policymakers and sociologists might assume; it is actually a horrifyingly common phenomenon. Urban sociologists have missed the magnitude of the eviction phenomenon because they have traditionally used neighborhoods as the unit of analysis, studying issues such as segregation and gentrification. Because eviction is rarely studied, we don’t have good data on eviction. Establishing a dataset of eviction is not a simple data collecting task, given that there are many forms of informal eviction. The consequences of eviction are devastating and have a profound, negative, and life-long impact on subsequent trajectories: worse housing, more eviction, and homelessness, all disproportionately affecting women of color with children (“a female equivalent of mass incarceration,” Desmond argued at a talk at the University of Pennsylvania last week).

The solution is a universal housing voucher program that is funded using money that currently goes to the mortgage interest tax deduction, a $170 billion program for homeowners that benefits mostly the upper-middle class.

Let’s set the economics of a universal voucher program aside — Desmond and many economists on both sides of the political spectrum (including Harvard economist Edward Glaeser) have already addressed the effects on the market, the argument that such a program will be a disincentive to work, and the fear of the lag time that a program will create in the housing market increasing search times. At the heart of public policy are norms and values, and the existence of the mortgage interest tax deduction — the largest housing assistance program in the country — is not a reflection of an inherent American preference for the rich over the poor. Rather, it is a reflection of an inherent American preference for the homeowner over the renter.

To implement the universal voucher program that Desmond argues for, we need to rethink the way we conceive of homeownership in American culture. As I read Evicted, the work of Robert K. Merton came to mind. In 1938, Merton, one of the contenders for the title “founder of modern sociology,” published a paper titled “Social Structure and Anomie.” In the paper, Merton argues that every society has cultural goals, “a frame of aspirational references,” and institutionalized means, “permissible and required procedures for attaining these ends.”

In American society, the institutionalized means are study hard/work hard (and maybe go to church every so often), and the cultural goals are accumulate wealth and own a house. Obviously, the vast majority of Americans don’t achieve these goals and it is extremely hard to argue that the institutionalized means will actually lead them there. But that’s okay; it just makes for a nation of ritualists. Ritualism is devotion to the means without achieving the goals. These ritualists are everywhere in American society, or at least in the way we perceive our society. We romanticize a fictional poor person that takes pride that s/he never took welfare, for example, no matter how tough times were. Welfare is not one of the institutionalized means, and the ritualist prefers to stay farther away from the goal than to cross the line to non-institutionalized means.

According to City Lab, 41% of all US households are residing in a rental unit. Are these households inhabited by ritualists, trying to achieve the goal but without the means? Maybe, but Merton offers another option – they could be rebels. The rebel may or may not conform to the cultural goals and may or may not use the means. The condition for rebellion, according to Merton, is that “emancipation from the reigning standards, due to frustration or to marginalist perspectives, leads to the attempt to introduce ‘a new social order.’”

If one of the American cultural goals is homeownership, the mortgage interest tax deduction is a tool to maintain this social order. The goal’s support structure recognizes in a sense that, with only the purist version of the institutionalized means (hard work with no government assistance), the goal is out of reach. If that support system is taken away, if we shift funding from the mortgage interest tax credit to a universal housing voucher program, we must recognize that we are supporting a cultural rebellion.

It is time to call for a change in the norms and values that are at the heart of our public policy. That is not a simple task. When I think of the “American,” I think about Ron Swanson from the TV show Parks and Recreation. In one of the show’s episodes, Swanson explains America to a little girl, “Let’s get started. Life, liberty, and property. That’s John Locke. This is your lunch.” Matthew Desmond, by calling for a universal voucher program, challenges this status quo and attempts to put habitability, stability, and opportunity at the heart of our value system and not as byproducts of homeownership and hard work. He also challenges the institutionalized means by calling for an increase in the number of people achieving this new goal — a stable home — specifically through quality rental housing, with government assistance, rather than through hard work alone.

The United States is nation of renters that views itself as a nation of homeowners. The millions of rental households deserve to be a part of the group that achieves the American cultural goal. They deserve government support, they deserve stability, and they don’t deserve to have to break away from the American institutionalized means. We must not shy away from the size of this task. The country might not be ready to think of itself as the nation of renters that it is. The United States is undergoing a housing and eviction crisis, and as Matthew Desmond said in his talk at Penn this week, “This is not us, there is nothing American about this.” It is time for a new social order, for the rise of the renter class as more than ritualists and rebels.

Originally from Tel Aviv, Abraham Gutman is currently at the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University. He is an aspiring sociologist working on econometrics, race, policing, and housing. He blogs at the Huffington Post and you can follow him on Twitter.

No matter which way you voted or who wins, today will go down in history as the first time a woman either won or lost the presidency of the United States. Today, in a contemplative mood, I turned back to the chapter on politics I wrote with Myra Marx Ferree for our sociology of gender book. It’s an ode to the suffragist with a final paragraph that resonates very, very strongly on this day. Read, and let the reverberations of history stir your soul.

— Lisa

***

In 1848 a small group of American women made the decision to seek suffrage, the right to vote. For most of modern history, governments did not allow women this right, nor the other rights and responsibilities of citizenship—to serve on juries, give legal testimony, or hold public office—and American women were no exception. Many thought the idea was impossible, dangerous, even laughable. Opponents mocked suffragists, suggesting that giving women the vote was as ridiculous as giving it to housecats.

4

The fight for suffrage was not won quickly or easily and many suffragists died of old age before they could see their efforts realized. In addition to ridicule, suffragists faced government repression and violence. Most suffragists were peaceful, but some weren’t above aggression themselves. One group in the United Kingdom set buildings on fire and learned jujitsu to defend themselves from the police. Over 1,000 suffragists would be imprisoned in the United Kingdom and United States. There they endured brutal force-feeding after initiating hunger strikes that endangered their lives.

The fight for suffrage involved both inspiring coalitions and ugly divides. Many suffragists were abolitionists first, activists in the fight against human slavery. White and black men and women worked side-by-side for this hard-won victory. After slavery was abolished in 1865 and black men were granted suffrage in 1869, black women continued to fight valiantly for their own vote. As abolitionist Sojourner Truth observed: “If colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”

White suffragists often disagreed on whether their efforts should benefit all women or only white women. Anti-suffrage activists tapped into widespread animosity toward black people, reminding a racist public that women’s suffrage would not only put women into the voting booth, it would double the black vote. Some suffragist groups were themselves racist, excluding black women from their organizations, activities, or platform. Many black women started suffrage organizations of their own.

Eventually, suffragists began making alliances with women in other countries. By the early 1900s, this international women’s organizing had begun to shift public opinion in their favor. Finland and New Zealand were the first to grant women the right to vote in the 1910s. The United States came around in 1920, giving suffrage to both black and white women together. By then the movement was rolling across the globe. In less than thirty years, women’s suffrage became a global norm. The last state to disallow women’s voting, Saudi Arabia, allowed them to vote in 2015.

Today universal suffrage, the right of all citizens to vote, is the very definition of democracy. This right is taken for granted today, so much so that many people don’t even know the word anymore. In the 1800s, however, it was a wholly radical claim, defined as an idea that doesn’t (yet) resonate with most members of a population. In fact, it was a massively important step toward dismantling political systems that recognized some people as full citizens but not others. It was also extraordinarily disruptive to the social order and the distribution of power. It is a testament to the fact that, even when social conditions are stubbornly entrenched and defended by powerful people, change—even radical change—is possible.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Myra Marx Ferree, PhD is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the recipient of numerous prizes for contributions to gender studies and does research on global gender politics. Among her many books is a textbook on the sociology of gender , with Lisa Wade.