Photo by Chelsea Grinstead
Griffith | Provided

Acclaimed Washington-based historian Elisabeth “Betsy” Griffith emphasized the role Black and White women played in initiating change over the last century during her presentation at this year’s Charleston Literary Festival. 

Roughly 150 people gathered Wednesday at the Dock Street Theatre downtown to hear Griffth speak about her new book, Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020, which presents a multifaceted explanation of the social landscape surrounding the uphill battle Black and White women fought in an American political era fraught with division. 

Longtime speaker and consultant Jennet Robinson Alterman of Wadmalaw Island, who served 12 years as executive director of Charleston’s former Center for Women, moderated the conversation. 

“I loved reading this book,” Alterman said. “I couldn’t put it down. It was like a rich dessert. I’d read a whole chapter and I’d say, ‘Alright, don’t go on to the next one. Savor what you’ve just read.’ It was really something — you get history, but you also get wonderful little nuggets [of wisdom.]”

Alterman and Griffith share a rich legacy of advocating for women and spearheading organizations that champion women, so it was especially salient that the talk occurred after the 2022 midterms elections resulted in a record number of women being elected to high-ranking state offices.

Griffith said her book is about Black and White American women who were “change agents” that heavily influenced the era between 1920 and 2020.

“You can’t write about women without writing about fashion and underwear,” Griffith said, “so you will also find in the pages of my book [information about] Miss America, the flappers, Nancy Drew, Rosie the Riveter, Marilyn Monroe (when she was a Rosie) and I Love Lucy

“You’ll find Althea Gibson and Helen Frankenthaler — there’s just an array of women, because a lot of the ways our lives have changed in the century covered by this book have been elements of social change that really had nothing to do with legislation or Supreme Court decisions.”

Griffith detailed the life of a few female figures who appear in her book during the talk, including Charleston educator and civil right activist Septima Clark and her influence on Rosa Parks. She said her book takes into account several other women, such as Charleston’s Grimké sisters who are regarded as the first American female advocates of abolition of slavery and women’s rights.

The book begins with the August 1920 certification of the 19th Amendment by the Secretary of State, Griffith said, and ends in 2020 with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Griffith touched different topics from her book, including how the abolition movement of the 1820s and 1830s sparked the suffrage movement in the 20th century. She discussed the roles that the 1924 Native American Citizen Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act played in achieving suffrage for women of color, who faced barriers even after it was deemed unconstitutional for states to ban people from voting based on sex. 

She discussed the danger Black women continued to face when organizing in the 1920s as the Klu Klux Klan infiltrated political offices before civil rights figures started to emerge in the 1950s including Ella Bates, Daisy Bates and Diane Nash. 

Formidable also traces the nuanced changes within the American bipartisan system that resulted from the waves women were making in those 100 years, Griffith said, such as how the values and demographics behind party definitions seemingly flip-flopped. 

“An irony is, of course, that Black women who did vote in 1920 would have been Republican,” Griffith said, “because they associated the Democratic Party with everything that had discriminated against them. And now 100 years later, Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party.”

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