During the 1968 Memphis, Tenn., sanitation strike, there were no signs that read “I am a woman” or “I am a wife” or “I am a mother.” The wives of sanitation strikers were given no awards for their tireless contributions to the struggle, but they should have been.
Sanitation strikers consulted with their wives before making the decision to walk off their jobs because they understood that these women, their partners in life and revolution, held their households together through sheer will and a deep commitment to their families. The strikers knew that liberation wouldn’t happen without their wives, because their wives’ eyes were trained on freedom—and in doing so, these women gave their husbands permission to dream of freedom, too.
The wives provided emotional shelter for their beautiful black children who were mocked and ridiculed for being “the garbageman’s kids,” and they made sure they knew love. When the world told these children in both big and small ways that they didn’t matter, their mothers told them that the world was a damn lie.
These women watered and protected seeds that society was hell-bent on destroying. And each and every day, they woke up and did it again.
Though the road was rough, they loved their husbands fiercely, and still do today. They took pride in being their wives, creating families that were able to withstand the vicious blows of white supremacy that rained down on them. In the midst of it all, they created joy together that has lasted decades.
Still, it must have taken so much strength to support the men in their lives, the loves of their lives, through the storms. Unfortunately, some of the sanitation strikers—struggling with fear, feelings of economic emasculation and addiction—were abusive to the women and children who loved them most.
It couldn’t have been easy tending to men who felt as if their manhood, defined by the ability to take care of their families, had been denied them. Nor could it have been easy for these women, these wives, these mothers, to crease and fold their own pain and put it high on the shelves with the laundry.
Still, they loved and fought within society’s racist, gendered restraints and created something beautiful each and every day. You can see it in the way their husbands and children look at them.
These women, the proud wives of Memphis sanitation strikers, didn’t do anything audacious enough to be placed in history books. Though they created Women on the Move for Equality Now to support the sanitation strikers, it did not garner widespread support and attention. Though they made sure their husbands were fed and strong enough to stand on the front line, they didn’t get any recognition for the movement work they did in their homes day in and day out.
Not that they expected it—they did what they did because they felt they were born to do it. And in them, I see the words of poet Lucille Clifton embodied:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
This Women’s History Month, we are not applauding these quiet revolutionaries for their sacrifices because they wouldn’t view their actions that way. They loved hard. They prayed hard. They fought at their husbands’ sides, reimagining new futures for their families. And they did these things because they chose to do so, because they watched their husbands make a dollar out of 15 cents every day. Because they understood their husbands’ love language, even when no words were spoken at all.
We are celebrating these women, these wives, these matriarchs, these warriors, for surviving and making sure that everyone around them survived, too. We are celebrating their beauty, their courage and the fullness of their humanity.
We are letting them know that we see them. And we want you all to see them, too.