Before There Was "She Persisted," There Was...

by JR Thorpe
Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

You've doubtless heard about how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's attempt to silence Elizabeth Warren with the words "She was warned, she was given an explanation, and nevertheless, she persisted" were almost instantly turned into a new feminist rallying cry, #ShePersisted. The phrase caught on like wildfire because people noted, correctly, that it is basically the history of feminism in a nutshell. But if you're newly inspired to doodle it on everything you own, get a tattoo, and make elaborate plans to get custom buttons made, best make some room: #ShePersisted is just the latest in an impressive line of feminist slogans throughout history — a number of which also turned criticisms into shows of strength.

2016 was the Year of the Nasty Woman, and the funny, arch, incredibly angry signs from the various Women's Marches in January indicate that brilliant feminist sloganeering is a flourishing art today. But a good saying that fits on a sign has been a part of the fights for women's rights for a long time, even though your school history textbooks might have only shown you "Votes For Women." So when you make your #ShePersists sign for your next protest march, remember that you're part of a long, important lineage — not just of people who stood up for what was right, but of people who were smart, dynamic, and totally witty while doing it.

"Free Our Sisters, Free Ourselves"

This slogan was coined by the Black Panther Lynn Phillips in the late 1960s in response to the incarceration of seven women in a state prison; it made its debut at a street protest in November 1969. It's incredibly important to know the circumstances of this slogan's birth; in our current moment, when white women are incorrectly viewed as the sole face of modern American feminism by so many, it's key to remember that one of feminism's most powerful historical slogans came from a collection of black women fighting for justice.

The slogan is still alive and relevant; in 2014, the Audre Lorde Project held a Free Our Sisters, Free Ourselves vigil and flashmob to honor black cis and trans women and gender nonconforming people who had lost their lives in encounters with law enforcement.

"Sisterhood Is Powerful"

If you dabble in feminist scholarship at all, you'll be familiar with this one. It also emerged in the 1960s, the brainchild of feminist activist Kathie Sarachild, who first popularized it in a flier she distributed as part of her speech at the New York Radical Women's debut protest. It's gone on to be one of the major rallying cries of second-wave feminism, and was the title of one of the landmark pieces of feminist writing to come out of the 1970s, Robin Morgan's Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology Of Writings From The Women's Liberation Movement. It's heavily historically associated with Sarachild, Morgan and the other New York Radical Women, who famously protested the Miss America Pageant in 1968 by unfurling a banner reading "Women's Liberation".

"Which 'We The People'?"

Lucy Stone was one of America's first feminist activists, working for women's suffrage throughout the 19th century while also working in the abolitionist movement. She also had a way with a turn of phrase; her papers on the equality of women have hundreds of quotable sentences, and it's well worth spending a cheering hour reading her inspiring anger at the lack of respect for women's rights. (She'd also have a daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, who was a serious figure in the suffrage movement in her own right.) It was in 1853, though, that Stone made her most slogan-quotable remark: "'We, the people of the United States.' Which 'We, the people'? The women were not included." Which 'we the people', indeed.

"Not Power Over Men: Power Over Ourselves"

There's no bigger classic of early feminism than British thinker Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women, published in 1792. It's an astonishing work of argument from a very gifted philosopher and writer; it is also, on occasion, very funny. (She famously says, early on, “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”) The idea of "not power over men: power over ourselves" is a condensing of one of the other more famous quotes from Wollstonecraft's pioneering work. "I do not wish them to have power over men," she wrote of women, "but over themselves."

"Not Flowers But Fiery Sparks"

Indian feminism has produced some serious luminaries over the years, including female Chief Justices and a collection of women who fight for women's rights in pink saris. Their slogans are also something to be admired, including the famous phrase "hum Bharat ki nari hain, phool nahin, chingari hain," which translates as "we, the women of India, are not flowers but fiery sparks".

It's an inspiring phrase, but it has a history of being used against feminist goals in India, as well. It was co-opted in 1983 by a group who were attempting to practise sati, the now-illegal Hindu funeral custom in which a widow is meant to immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Feminist campaigners attempted to protest a procession to a sati temple, but the sati supporters chanted the phrase back at them.

"Without Extinction Is Liberty"

National Museum of American History

American suffragists in 1917 rallied around a particular cause: picketing prominent locations in the hope of attracting political attention to their cause. Those who picketed were given small silver badges in recognition of their "Silent Sentinel" status, which had "Without Extinction Is Liberty" written on them. According to the National Museum Of American History, the phrase comes from the famous poem "Leaves Of Grass" by Walt Whitman:

Without extinction is Liberty! Without retrograde is Equality!
They live in the feelings of young men, and the best women,
Not for nothing have the indomitable heads of the earth been
always ready to fall for Liberty!

"Adventuresses, Knights-Errant, Emancipated Women, And Amazons"

This one's cheating, as it wasn't a feminist slogan at all, but it's so amazing I figure we all deserve to know it, anyway. In the 1790s, as the French Revolution began to accelerate, various "clubs" began to form across France as political activists took to the streets and made their frustrations known. The problem for some people in the revolutionary forefront was that quite a lot of these activists were women. Women were not, in the culture of 18th century France, meant to be running around on the streets yelling about revolution, and the poet and politician Fabre d'Eglantine said so at the National Convention in 1793:

"These clubs are not composed of mothers of families, daughters of families, sisters occupied with their younger brothers and sisters, but of adventuresses, knights-errant, emancipated women, and amazons."

He clearly meant this to be an insult. He badly miscalculated, as I personally think it's awesome. Women would, of course, take lead roles in the Revolution, including the famous Women's March on Versailles in 1789 that took the royal family back to Paris for their eventual execution. And honestly, it's only been a little over 200 years since this phrase was spoken — I think now's a great time to take it back.