Radical women, resolved to stop the social injustices around the world and in their communities, have a common thread running through their lives: in the wake of some historic political or economic event, their former compliant selves had left them.
Women who were once content to remain unseen and unheard became radicalized after joining a political campaign or by becoming aware of the prescribed and very limiting choices in their lives.
Yuri Kochiyama was a young teenager who never questioned her American identity until Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. She then became painfully aware that to most of the country, she was an alien and her kind not to be trusted.
Emma Goldman was convinced she could not rest as long as women were denied birth control; Goldman had witnessed too many women who had died from the lack of birth control access to remain neutral on the issue.
For Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, they knew they had to write their book, Lesbian Woman, in the early 1970s, simply because no one else would write about lesbians—but many men were glad to write about male homosexuality.
The books listed below are extraordinary stories told by women who were changed by circumstance, women who considered themselves to be links in the chain in the battle for social justice. These books have been essential tools in motivating others to take up the cause for social justice, and are the missing voices from our shared common history.
These books also serve another purpose: they educate, agitate and organize for the following generations to become social justice warriors themselves and to continue the good fight.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow has been the book that has ignited the much needed debate about race and justice in America, the book that has been cited in numerous judicial decisions and is on the required reading list of thousands of colleges and universities. Michelle Alexander, the extraordinary legal scholar and civil rights attorney, first published The New Jim Crow in 2012 and the paperback edition has just been revised. The book’s argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” has engendered a new generation of social justice advocates for prison reform.
And A Voice To Sing With: A Memoir by Joan Baez
A few days ago I was pleasantly surprised by a post from Patti Smith that appeared on my Instagram feed. It was a photo of the very young Joan Baez, holding hands with a very young James Baldwin, marching barefoot in the early 1960s for Civil Rights. Smith wrote: “This is / Joan Baez, who has / walked us through / decades of troubled / times. Bold, barefoot, / uncompromising and / empathetic. She is / offering song to us / as always, with the / welfare of others / at heart.”
Smith’s brief poem encapsulates the essence of Joan Baez: for the past 60 years, Baez has raised the consciousness of millions of people around the world with her work on civil rights, the draft resistance to the Vietnam War, environmental causes, prisoners’ and immigrant rights, and as one of the founders of Amnesty International—the organization that lobbies for political prisoners around the world. In her spare time, Baez has recorded and written scores of bestselling and Grammy-award winning albums and songs. I do recommend reading Baez’s excellent memoir: Baez has a wonderful sense of humor as she documents her life as a social justice warrior and as a musician.
Living My Life by Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman was labeled “the most dangerous woman in America,” by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, for her radical stance on progressive causes during the first several decades of the 20th century.
There is no doubt that “Red Emma” (another derogatory nickname foisted upon her by Hoover) was certainly one of the most fascinating women in American history. Goldman emigrated to America from Czarist Russia and landed in New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. She first worked in a garment factory and shortly thereafter became radicalized from the injustices endured by herself and her immigrant community.
Goldman was at the forefront of the radicals and the reformers responsible for changing the course of this country’s history with her work on free speech, labor rights, women’s rights and birth control (merely speaking about birth control was against the law at the time of Goldman’s activism), for her resistance to the draft to conscript World War I soldiers, and for her stand on anarchism as a political ideology.
Goldman became a prolific writer and public speaker to raise awareness of the causes she advocated for which often landed her in jail for the trumped up charge of “inciting to riot.”
It was after Goldman was exiled from the United States and then from the Soviet Union that she landed in Canada and began to write her autobiography, Living My Life. Goldman’s autobiography was first published in two volumes, but this later edition, published in 2006 by Penguin Press, comes in at a mere 692 pages.
Despite the grim seriousness of the political and cultural realities of her time, Goldman also had her priorities for the revolution with her great quote, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”
This Little Light of Mine: The Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer By Kay Mills
Fannie Lou Hamer achieved the impossible: the desegregation of the Democratic Party’s convention delegates during the 1960s. This biography of Fannie Lou Hamer details her beginnings as the child of sharecropping parents born in Mississippi, 1917. Hamer grew up in poverty and left school to begin sharecropping when she was 12 years old.
In 1961, Hamer went to civil rights meeting regarding the rights of African Americans to vote. The meeting was led by James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She became an organizer for SNCC; was fired from her sharecropping job the next year; was brutally beaten in a Mississippi jail, leaving her with physical injuries for the remainder of her life; worked at integrating many Southern institutions; spoke at the 1964 Democratic Convention on the need to integrate the Democratic Party; and at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention, Hamer was a member of the first integrated Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi. Hamer died of breast cancer at the young age of 59.
Passing It On— by Yuri Kochiyama
Towards the end of her life, Yuri Kochiyama described what she wanted her legacy of 70 years of activism to be. “The legacy I would like to leave is that people try to build bridges and not walls.”
Kochiyama was born on May 19, 1921, in San Pedro, California. Her parents emigrated from Japan and despite their wish that their daughter be an obedient daughter and follow in their Japanese traditions, Yuri wanted nothing less than to be the “All American girl” with cheerleading credentials and good grades in school.
Everything changed when Pear Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and Yuri’s family was forced to live in the horse stables at the Santa Anita Racetrack and then in an internment camp.
“Before the war, I was seeing America with American eyes. What happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor made me see the world and America with entirely new eyes—Japanese American eyes. In many ways, this marked the beginning of my political awakening and development,” Kochiyama wrote at the beginning of her memoir.
Kochiyama’s memoir brings the political upheavals of the days after World War II and through the end of the century into focus. Kochiyama was in attendance at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, 1965, when Malcolm X was killed. Kochiyama was there at nearly every political march for peace and freedom and, although not as widely recognized as some other women activists, Kochiyama has left an indelible footprint in the march for social justice.
Lesbian/Woman by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are internationally recognized for their work in the gay community during the last half of the 20th century. They built the first health care clinic in San Francisco to address the needs of lesbian women and wrote one of the first books, Lesbian/Woman, published in 1972, that proudly detailed the lives of gay women. Lesbian/Woman became a breakaway classic and was revised in the early 1990s. “Our stance in the book is that of the everyday life experience of the Lesbian: how she views herself as a person; how she deals with the problems she encounters in her various roles as woman, worker, friend, parent, child, citizen, wife, employer, welfare recipient, home owner and taxpayer; and how she views other people around her.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrea Warner
As well as being one of the most famous and prolific folksingers that emerged from the coffeehouses of the 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie was also an early supporter and activist in the American Indian Movement (AIM) that began in the 1970s. The Indigenous Rights Movement has challenged and confronted the United States government regarding the broken treaties, the racist policies and policing, Indigenous sovereignty as well as land claims and resource rights.
Buffy Sainte-Marie showed up for these significant Indigenous peoples’ actions—she did not simply lend her name and remain on the outskirts of the cause. And, by being on the forefront of the Indigenous rights movement, Buffy Sainte-Marie definitely experienced a loss in her career: the same corporations she was fighting against for Indigenous rights were also the same corporations that owned the music industry.
However, Buffy Sainte-Marie remains engaged and ready for the good fight to this day. In 2017, while on tour in Canada and the United States, Buffy hung a red dress onstage and in a spotlight at every concert. The red dress is a symbolic reminder and a call to action for the Missing and Murdered Women and Girls that had been murdered and trafficked—gendered violence against Indigenous women remains on a steady rise.