Monday, December 1, 2008

A feminist salute to Rosa Parks

by Kelly Roache

Fifty-three years ago today, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. She wasn’t the first to do so (there are at least three documented cases – all women – that predate Parks), but she was the only one to spark a 381-day bus boycott. She wasn’t, as her detractors claim, just tired, at least not physically: “The only tired I was,” said Parks, “was tired of giving in.”

Hailed by the United States Congress as the “mother of the modern-day Civil Rights movement,” Rosa Parks, through her famous act of civil disobedience, should also be celebrated as one of the heroines of modern feminism. By declining to relocate to the back of the bus, Parks simultaneously tackled two social hierarchies of the 1950s – those of gender and race – at a time when mention of even one was inconceivably taboo. Defiance of the former is her less-celebrated achievement; while Parks’ decision was irrefutably courageous from a Civil Rights standpoint, an undercurrent of racial unrest pervaded the culture of the time, while second-wave feminism wouldn’t publicly come into its own for several more years.

Beyond the bus incident, Parks’ life is truly a feminist, American story. Educated at the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private institution run by progressive northeastern women, she cleaned classrooms to pay her own tuition. She recalled being the only woman at her local NAACP meetings, and served as the secretary for the Montgomery chapter at the time of her arrest. Rather than an isolated incident, Parks’ refusal to surrender her seat was the culmination of a longer struggle. In her own words, “It was just time…there was opportunity for me to take a stand…When I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate…because I felt that we had endured that too long.”

Posthumously, Parks continues to inspire us. At her funeral some of today’s most successful women, including Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey, attributed their success to her pluck. She was the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda after her death in late 2005 as flags far beyond Montgomery flew at half-mast. Parks passed away fifty years after her historic decision, much like two other American heroes after their defining moment: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. She renewed the promise of the nation they birthed in 1776, that all are created equal and with an equal claim to natural rights.

History matters. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, modern feminists should strive to emulate Parks’ respectful tactics, and to honor her by never growing complacent and by treasuring the spirit of the movement in which she was so instrumental. We must seek equality and dignity, never retribution or superiority. As Parks herself declared, “I want to be treated like a human being.” We should demand no more, and no less. Half a century later, we should all ask ourselves if we would be so stouthearted as to keep our seats.


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