Independence: A Work in Progress

Published by Wednesday Martin

Today commemorates the finalization of the Declaration of Independence, a document meant to enshrine America’s foundational values. In it, Thomas Jefferson enumerates three rights he considered necessary for future citizens to flourish. The second of these is “Liberty.” We now more often use the word freedom but the idea lives. Everyday someone claims ours is a nation of freedom(s) and freedom is used to explain most of our political actions at home and abroad. But for a nation founded nominally for the right to live freely, everybody but white men has and continues to struggle to exercise true autonomy. I prefer the word autonomy to freedom; it has weight and the ring of real power. We still live in a world where female autonomy is destabilizing and this is rooted in our history. When early colonists encountered native societies where women were empowered and sexually autonomous, they scoffed and sought to right an “unnatural order.” And this would later continue with family separation and the forced sterilization of native women. Similarly, rape and abuse of black women was central to the flourishing of slavery. During Reconstruction, black women like Maria Stewart, spurred by this legacy, fought vigorously to enshrine female autonomy in our nation’s laws. And more recently, the scholar Danielle McGuire has highlighted the pivotal role control and sexual abuse of black women played in shaping the civil rights movement. In the late 19th century, when agitators for women’s suffrage like Susan B. Anthony were arrested for their activism, the New York Times ran a single paragraph about the issue in its “Minor Topics” section. This history can be still be felt forcefully because it is not history at all. Just this past week the Times blamed its lack of coverage for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful primary campaign on the fact that her supporters were young women. And we cannot forget that one of the first actions of the Trump administration was to ban aid to NGOs that promote or perform abortions. The same administration that could now oversee the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Sex is the fulcrum around which much of female difficulty exercising autonomy turns. Women’s sexual autonomy is treated frequently with anger and violence, and we still know how to shame women who dare to be free like the Puritans before us. Now as in our past, our failed leadership on female autonomy not only undermines our founding principles but kills women. In this frame, invocations of independence and freedom ring hollow. Time is up for a nation that does not fully support female autonomy.