The Persistence Business

Looking Back to Move Forward
Photo by Webb ChappellPhoto by Webb Chappell
By Jane Kamensky, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director Professor, Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Late this past February 7, in a mostly empty Senate chamber, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, used a rarely invoked rule against one senator’s impugning another to censure Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who had begun to read a historic letter into the official record of the Senate. Defending the maneuver, McConnell explained, “[Warren] was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Nevertheless, she persisted: those three words took wing as a flock of tweets, a viral meme, a gaggle of T-shirts, and, according to one UK daily, hundreds of tattoos.

But for the dark miracle of Twitter, nothing was especially new about the moment. American women projected their voices in ever-broader spheres of public life for centuries before Warren took the floor that night: imagining, organizing, demanding, being stifled, sometimes even stifling one another—and again and again persisting in their quest for full citizenship. Their unfinished fight for an equal voice has created countless texts, objects, images, and more. For nearly three-quarters of a century, the Schlesinger Library has collected those materials, documenting the persistent journey of American women from the margins to the center of our national debate, on many sides of many issues. Indeed, the 1986 letter from which Senator Warren was reading on the Senate floor—written by Coretta Scott King to Strom Thurmond, then the Senate Judiciary Committee chair—can be found in slightly expanded form in our collections, part of the Records of the National Organization for Women (to which King sent a copy). We posted King’s letter online the next day, and it was widely shared, although far too subtle for a tweet, much less a tattoo. Those who took the time to read King’s two pages of closely spaced type would have noticed the subtlety of her intellect, the firmness of her stand, the prescience of her argument—and, alas, the persistence of the structural inequalities she lamented some three decades ago.

Image source: www.boredwalktshirts.comImage source: www.boredwalktshirts.com

We live in an era of profound social and political change, change that is at once sudden and deep-rooted. As we struggle to make sense of it all, women’s voices of every political stripe persist, on the Senate floor, in the classroom, in the kitchen, and on the march. At such moments, it becomes especially important to look to our history in order to understand the present and shape the future. In this issue of the newsletter, you’ll read about some of what the Schlesinger is doing to document the tumultuous present as we anticipate our celebration of the library’s 75th anniversary and the decades to come.

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2017