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date: 09 May 2021

Movements and Resistance in the United States, 1800 to the Presentfree

  • Mary E. TrieceMary E. TrieceSchool of Communication, The University of Akron


A study of social movements advances a people’s history of the United States, providing a window into the ways ordinary people often took extraordinary measures to make laws, workplace conditions, the educational system, the quality of home life, and public spaces more open and responsive to the needs and concerns of marginalized groups. With the rise of industrial capitalism in the early 1800s came a host of social ills that prompted individuals to form organizations that enabled them to operate as a force for social change. As the Native American Chief Sitting Bull is purported to have said, “As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but together we form a mighty fist.”

The 1800s through the early 21st century provides numerous examples of people acting together as a mighty fist. As early as 1824, workers in textile mills in the Northeast United States enacted work stoppages and strikes in reaction to wage cuts and deplorable working conditions. The movement to abolish slavery in the mid-1800s provided a way for disenfranchised black men and women, such as the eloquent Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart, as well as white women, to speak and organize publically. In the area of labor, female and black workers, excluded from the more formal organizing of trade unions through the American Federation of Labor, organized their own labor meetings (e.g., the National Labor Convention of the Colored Men of the United States), unions (e.g., the Women’s Trade Union League), and strikes (e.g., the Uprising of 20,000). By the late1800s through the 1930s, American socialism and the Communist Party, USA, influenced the philosophy and tactics employed by labor activists, many of whom were factory girls who played a formidable role in mass walk-outs in the Progressive Era. Struggles for workplace and civil rights continued throughout the 20th century to undo Jim Crow and segregation, to advocate for civil rights, to advance the rights of women in the workplace, and more recently, to fight for the rights of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender communities, undocumented workers, and immigrants, and to fight against the police repression of black and brown communities and against imperialism and globalization. Activists’ tools for resistance have been as diverse as their causes and include petitioning formal legislative bodies, picketing and rallying, engaging in work stoppages, occupation of public spaces (e.g., sit-downs, walk-outs, occupying squares and parks), and most recently, using social media platforms, blogs, and other forms of Internet activism to facilitate empowerment of marginalized groups and progressive social change.

The Internet has provided an important tool for facilitating international connections of solidarity in struggle. Although what follows focuses specifically on movements in the United States from roughly the 1800s to the present, efforts should continue to focus on the ways movements join forces across and around the globe.

Definition of Movements

A study of social movements in the United States sheds light on the ways ordinary people have fought unjust economic and political systems and struggled for cultural recognition. Movements may be defined narrowly as specifically uninstitutionalized groups, situated outside the established decision-making order, that advocate for change in the status quo. Alternatively, a movement may be more broadly conceived as a collective of groups, organizations, and individuals—in various relations to the established order—that advocates for change in the established political/economic/cultural order. Communication scholars are most interested in the rhetorical dimensions of movements, the methods, strategies, and tactics employed to persuade a host of audiences, including sympathizers and the establishment, of the desirability of change in the status quo.

Protest movements vary widely along a host of dimensions. Protest movements include efforts to advocate for the acceptance of new ideas or institutions, as in the labor movement’s push for the 8-hour day; or they may urge the rejection of an idea or institution, as in the abolition or antiwar movements. In terms of scope, some address the grievances of a well-defined group of individuals. For instance, the welfare rights movement of the late 1960s to early 1970s spoke primarily to the needs of poor mothers who received or qualified for public assistance. Other struggles, such as the labor movement, may speak to the demands of millions of workers around the globe. Some movements are reformist in nature, seeking repair within the existing legal and economic framework. Others are revolutionary, meaning they pursue a vast overhaul of the existing value/legal/economic system. A movement may encompass both reformist and revolutionary aims. For instance, the demands of the Women’s Movement includes economic, legal, and political equality with men—that is, the right to work outside the home, to vote in elections—reformist goals that did not intend to disturb the basic two-party, capitalist system. The Women’s Movement also encompasses the revolutionary ideas of Marxist feminists who believe wholesale change in the economic system is necessary for achieving gender equality. Similarly, if we examine specific strains and emphases within the civil rights movement, we find reformist goals of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which sought desegregation of the bus system, in addition to Marcus Garvey’s support of the return of African Americans to their home lands, and Malcolm X’s association with the black separatist movement.

As for duration, a movement may be short-lived or last decades, as was the case for suffragists of the mid-1800s, who never lived to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the vote, which was ratified by the US Congress in 1920. Movement tactics and strategies for change hinge on the group’s purported goals and range from traditional persuasive techniques—termed moderate tactics—such as appeals to logic or emotion, to more confrontational, militant (Simons, 1970) approaches that include profanity and/or insults directed at the perceived oppressor or establishment in power, or extra-discursive actions that are more coercive in nature. Such tactics include boycotts, public facility and highway blockages, sit-down strikes, and factory walkouts. For instance, sit-down strikes and factory walkouts, throughout the 1800s and 1900s, proved instrumental at forcing the hand of owners and employers, who often refused to listen to worker demands extended through more formal, less confrontational means such as negotiations.

Most often, movements utilize a variety of traditional and coercive strategies depending upon the group’s identified goals, audience(s), and obstacles. More radical, systemic change most often requires a more coercive approach that includes extradiscursive actions aimed at communicating a message (e.g., “We demand higher wages!”) to the establishment. When movement communication is directed at members to create solidarity, generate cooperation, and/or mobilize to action, movements have relied on in-house publications such as newsletters, newspapers, and bulletins. These periodicals also circulate among a wider audience of sympathizers. Examples include the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s The North Star, a paper that reached readers in the United States and Europe between 1847 and 1851, and the paper New Left Notes, established by the student organization Students for a Democratic Society, in the late 1960s.

In short, advocates for social change have taken up Aristotle’s call to utilize “all of the available means of persuasion,” relying on a wide range of media platforms to advance their arguments, including petitioning, speech and debate, newspapers, flyers, slogans, chants, songs, and poetry, and more recently social media, websites, blogs, and video. Movements for economic, political, and cultural change must necessarily take up issues concerning strategic communication, including how to justify their efforts to a broader public; garner support and followers; organize followers into a cohesive group; craft a platform or program for change with goals and strategies for action; confront obstacles; and mobilize against opposition. The major movements for change in the United States over the past 200 plus years shed light on the varying ways people with the least to lose have approached these issues and often taken great risks to achieve social justice.

The Movement to Abolish Slavery in the United States

Antislavery efforts can be found as early as the 1760s and 1770s, with the formation of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (Foner, 1964, p. 29), the Free African Society of Philadelphia (Dick, 1964, p. 6), and the publication of antislavery pamphlets; but the movement to abolish slavery took more an organized form in the early 1800s, with the prevalence of abolition societies and newspapers. Although most historical accounts give attention to the efforts of white men who sought to abolish slavery, antislavery activists included black men and women, both free individuals and slaves, as well as white women. African Americans’ struggles against slavery preceded and greatly influenced the antislavery arguments of white Americans. Black and white activists organized the movement through antislavery societies, conventions, and mass meetings. Their message was carried through speeches given by traveling agents or lecturers, leaflets, newspapers devoted to the cause, antislavery fairs and bazaars, petitions to Congress, and legislative testimonies. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips called it the campaign to “reach all” (Foner, 1964, p. 38).

The antislavery press, founded in the 1820s, played a key role in the movement with its ability to inform those geographically separated from the slave trade of the atrocities of the institution, to persuade and mobilize sympathizers to join the cause, and importantly, in the case of black-owned papers, to provide a space for freed and enslaved black Americans to voice their own views on the subject, counter prevailing racist stereotypes, and provide firsthand accounts from slaves who detailed the beatings and sexual abuse endemic to the practice of slavery. The papers, which often struggled to stay afloat financially, printed antislavery speeches, editorials, slave stories, and event notifications (Risley, 2008, p. 47).

A Quaker from Ohio, Benjamin Lundy, started one of the first known antislavery papers, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, which ran from 1821 to 1836. Lundy’s paper prompted the spread of antislavery presses throughout the 1820s and 1830s. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, appeared, becoming one of the most outspoken voices for an immediate end to slavery. Garrison, a leading white abolitionist and close friend of Frederick Douglass, led the American Anti-Slavery Society, an influential organization that allowed participation by women and black activists. Garrison often used brash language and took stances considered by some as polarizing. In the initial issue of The Liberator, Garrison wrote, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! … I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD” (Risley, 2008, p. 24). The New York Anti-Slavery Society published The Emancipator, a paper with a circulation of 3,800 (compared to The Liberator’s 2,300) per week.

Black-owned papers included The Colored American, founded in 1837; Freedom’s Journal, which ran from 1827 to 1829; and the well-known escaped-slave-turned-abolitionist, Frederick Douglass’s paper, The North Star (later called Frederick Douglass’ Paper), founded in 1847. Papers represented an important communication outlet through which African Americans could constitute a collective identity (Minifee, 2013) that positioned blacks as reasoning humans and political agents. These papers often addressed multiple issues facing black Americans, including education, self-help, self-determination, and moral uplift; they enabled black Americans to tell their stories in their own voice. The editors of Freedom’s Journal, Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm, emphasized their intention to provide a space where African Americans could “plead their own cause” and counter the “misrepresentations” of African Americans perpetuated throughout the culture at large (Bacon, 2007, p. 42; Risley, 2008, p. 14). Perhaps the most influential and well-known black antislavery paper was Douglass’s The North Star, founded in 1847. With an international audience of over 4,000 subscribers, the paper’s masthead proclaimed: “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the father of us all, and we are all brethren.” Like other black-owned papers, The North Star addressed numerous issues facing black Americans and organized readers into a collective struggle to end slavery. Notably, Douglass was an ardent supporter of women’s rights and used The North Star to publicly support women’s suffrage.

In addition to antislavery newspapers, activists both black and white formed numerous societies and held conventions to support the antislavery cause. Beginning in 1830 and for the following six years, black activists held Conventions of the Afro-Americans (Dick, 1964, p. 7). These conventions provided African Americans the opportunity to speak on their own behalf, particularly important given that some antislavery societies did not permit participation by blacks. By 1840, there were over 2,000 societies with a collective membership reaching 200,000. Garrison promoted the formation of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 and, in 1833, facilitated the formation of the first national organization, The American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). The AASS drew on the Declaration of Independence to draft their own Declaration of Sentiments, wherein they tapped the American political tradition of liberty and freedom to argue that slavery was inimical to the nation’s values. They called for immediate abolition. Antislavery societies also drafted petitions that were presented to Congress, and they sent traveling agents or lecturers around the country to raise awareness and solidify followers to the cause of abolition.

Often the agents were African American speakers, many of them former slaves. Although white antislavery societies did not always allow full participation on the part of African Americans in their organizations, they saw the benefit in promoting former slaves as speakers who could testify firsthand to the horrors of slavery. Indeed, the very presence of a former slave on stage became the argument against slavery. A former slave on stage represented “concrete proof” (Kennicott, 1970, p. 23) of the humanity of African Americans and thus refuted prevailing stereotypes. Additionally, their firsthand narratives aroused emotions in the minds of white listeners who were geographically separated from the practice of slavery. Yet, black speakers were not paid equally to white speakers, they were not allowed to craft their own speeches, and were not provided the same accommodations as white speakers while traveling (Bacon, 2002, p. 30). White activists placed themselves in primary roles and relegated African American speakers to that of “stage props.” Frederick Douglass chafed at the control white abolitionists held over his speaking efforts, noting that he wanted to do more than narrate the facts, he wished to denounce, to persuade, to provide argument (Foner, 1964, p. 59).

African American abolitionists spoke to both white and black audiences; they addressed white and black societies and wrote in black and white presses. Drafting petitions and speaking publicly provided channels for creating group unity, voicing needs and concerns, and laying a foundation for action. When addressing fellow African Americans, speakers often utilized a language of self-help and moral improvement in order to critique slavery. Black speakers and newspapers promoted education, temperance, and good character as a means for uplifting the black community. Black abolitionists encouraged free African Americans to identify with slaves and to work for community improvement. In this way, self-help appeals served the rhetorical function of solidification (Bacon, 2002, pp. 55–59). Additionally, African Americans relied on petitions to create a community capable of acting on its own behalf.

African American speakers also drew upon the language of the American political tradition to make their cases. In the black-owned paper Freedom’s Journal, the editors referenced the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in order to expose the inconsistent application of national principles (Bacon, 2007). In speeches and writings, African Americans such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker, William Watkins, and William Whipper drew on common national values such as freedom, liberty, and inalienable rights, appropriating them to promote the antislavery cause and to justify the equal treatment of black Americans (Bacon, 2007, pp. 84–93). Traditional values were often referenced to expose the hypocrisy underlying their application. In these instances, speakers such as Frederick Douglass and David Walker deployed irony as a form of signifying, an African American linguistic tradition wherein speakers “appropriate canonical texts of white America in language that parodies and revises this discourse, challenging and undermining conventional interpretations” (Bacon, 2002, p. 98).

Black (and white) abolitionists also relied heavily on religious appeals to justify abolition and establish followers. African American orators drew on Scripture, including the writings of the Apostle Paul, to establish their ethos, create unity, and justify the struggle against slavery. Although the Bible was used by proslavery advocates to establish the supposed rightness of slavery, black writers turned to general references of the “teachings of Christ” to establish the immorality of slavery. At times, speakers used a specific religious appeal, the jeremiad, to condemn slavery and urge immediate abolition. The jeremiad positioned the speaker as a prophet who warned his or her listeners of impending punishment if the nation does not reject its sinful ways. A specific variation, the African American jeremiad, lent black orators a “prophetic ethos” that provided “authority to harshly condemn their society and to call for change while simultaneously deflecting attention from themselves” (Bacon, 2002, p. 78). The African American jeremiad established God on the side of slaves and urged the American public to condemn the sin of slavery lest it endure everlasting punishment.

One of the most prevalent rhetorical strategies, found in the speeches and writings of white abolitionists, was that of moral suasion advocated by William Lloyd Garrison and his followers, known as Garrisonians. Moral suasion placed faith in the ability of abolitionists to convince slaveholders of the wrongfulness of slavery. Garrison eschewed documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence on the grounds they were used in the service of upholding slavery. Garrison also rejected political action and the ballot box as tools for abolitionists believing they, too, had been unduly influenced by slavery. Instead, Garrison relied on language that referenced the “brotherhood of the human race” and emphasized the “moral fight” using the “armory of God” (Foner, 1964, p. 40). According to Garrison, the Constitution was an inherently evil document, thus abolitionists should appeal to a higher law, “divine morality” (Foner, 1964, p. 140). Garrisonians were controversial not only for their stance toward the Constitution and the ballot box, but for Garrison’s insistence that women be allowed to participate on equal footing with men in the movement.

Eventually, Garrison’s ally, the former slave Frederick Douglass, distanced himself from the Garrisonian rejection of the Constitution and the political process. By the late 1840s, Douglass came around to the belief the Constitution was not an inherently pro-slavery document and that voting could prove a useful tool in the arsenal of abolitionists. Douglass’s views led to him to split with the Garrisonians in 1851. Douglass was a formidable speaker and editor in his own right, starting the paper The North Star, against the advice of Garrison. In 1851, amid financial troubles, The North Star was renamed Frederick Douglass, Paper with the motto, “All Rights For All.” Douglass was a prolific writer, penning Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, as a way to subdue the charges of skeptics who did not believe a former slave such as himself could be capable of speaking eloquently and acting on his own behalf. Douglass traveled internationally and gave speeches in Ireland, Scotland, and England in the mid-1840s.

Women also played a formidable role in the antislavery movement, but not without resistance from their male counterparts. Well-known white women abolitionists include Lydia Maria Child, Abby Kelley, and Angelina and Sarah Grimké. Black female abolitionists include Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Maria Stewart. The “woman question,” as it was known, referred to the debate concerning how antislavery societies would confront (or not) the issue of women’s equality and suffrage. Some believed that embracing the issue of women’s suffrage would serve as a distraction from the cause of abolition. Still others were concerned about the spectacle of women abolitionists on stage, as public speaking was not considered part of women’s proper sphere in the mid-1800s. The AASS permitted women membership beginning in 1839.

Denied full participation in state and national societies, women often formed their own antislavery auxiliaries, organizations that took up support and fundraising roles for the male-dominated organizations. These were activities deemed more in line with mid-1800s gender norms stipulating women be submissive, domestic, pious, and pure (Welter, 1966). Auxiliaries organized antislavery fairs and bazaars and distributed gift books that were pivotal in raising funds for antislavery societies. For instance, the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society created and distributed the Liberty Bell, a gift book containing stories and poems penned by white women in a distinctly feminine voice and couched in the persona of motherhood (Harris, 2009). Women also distributed and signed antislavery petitions by the thousands. Petitions provided a way for women to participate politically despite their formal disenfranchisement. Like auxiliaries and gift books, petitions, by their “supplicatory nature,” represented a gender-appropriate way for women to authorize themselves as political subjects (Zaeske, 2002).

Both within and beyond auxiliaries, African American and white women transformed the obstacles of restrictive gender roles into rhetorical strengths by deploying the tenets of “true womanhood” to justify their involvement in the antislavery movement. For instance, both black and white women drew on religious appeals to make their arguments more palatable to a 19th-century audience not accustomed to seeing and hearing a woman on the public platform. But reliance on religious appeals led to a rhetorical dilemma. They could either eschew biblical exhortations for woman’s silence and speak out or follow religious dictates and deny their convictions to speak on the issue of slavery (Bacon, 1999). Women resolved this quandary by utilizing alternative strategies that demonstrated “women’s public speaking against slavery [was] not inherently incompatible with Christian principles” (Bacon, 1999, p. 7). African American and white women referenced the Bible to establish a precedent for women’s public speaking. Drawing on the authority of the Bible, women such as Angelina Grimké, Lucretia Mott, and Maria Stewart linked themselves to prophetesses from Scripture in order to justify their own public speaking (Bacon, 2002). By adopting a prophetic ethos, women positioned themselves as vessels, through which the voice of God spoke, thus preempting censure for speaking publically. Sarah Grimké drew on the epistolary format of the Apostle Paul as a way to get her voice across through a medium—letter writing—deemed more suitable for women than public speaking (Carlacio, 2002).

Women also drew on the belief in natural purity and domesticity of women to justify their antislavery activism. Speaking out against slavery was often framed as a moral imperative strongly linked to religious duty, as described stet. Sarah Grimké and Lucretia Mott argued that public activity in the form of antislavery activism enhanced women’s work as mothers and homemakers (Bacon, 2002, p. 128). Black female abolitionists such as Sarah Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Ellen Watkins, like their black male brethren, made use of the jeremiad to establish that God was on the side of slaves. The jeremiad was a rhetorically effective narrative that drew on the Bible to evoke urgency, anger, and a sense of impending punishment if the country did not redeem itself by abolishing slavery.

Also influential in the abolition movement was the Underground Railroad, a web of secret roads and safe houses that carried thousands of slaves to freedom in the north. Harriet Tubman, born a slave, escaped to the north and became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper also worked on the Railroad and wrote poetry that was published in antislavery papers.

The Women’s Movement in the United States

For some women of the mid-19th century, participation in the abolition movement prompted entry into the movement for woman suffrage and equality. The Women’s Movement is often discussed in terms of three “waves,” with the first wave denoted by women’s agitation for the vote between 1848 and 1920; a second wave was represented by the activism of 1960s radicals, primarily white and middle class; and a third wave was marked by the activism of women since the 1990s who have sought to make the movement more multiracial and global. The waves do not capture the complexity of the women’s movement, the issues, organizations, individuals, and obstacles. The Women’s Movement was and is multidimensional, encircling struggles for political, economic, and cultural equality.

A number of philosophical issues are threaded through the centuries-long struggle for women’s equality. First, the arguments of Women’s Movement activists have vacillated between emphasis on sex difference and sex similarity. At times, women have pointed out the unique characteristics of their sex that make them suited to public sphere participation. The rhetoric of female antislavery activists illustrates this tactic. Other times, women drew from the “natural rights” argument to assert that women were created equal to men and therefore held the same inalienable rights as men. This approach stressed women’s abilities to reason and rationalize like men. Quite frequently, both rhetorical tacks were used simultaneously.

A second and related issue concerns intersectionality, or the ways women experience oppression differently depending on the ways gender intersects with race, sexuality, class, stet sometimes called the “simultaneity of oppressions” (Smith, 1983). African American women, poor and working-class women, and lesbians have pointed out the ways the concerns of white, middle-class women have biased the broader women’s movement agenda. Thus, a persistent question for activists has been how to define the needs and concerns of a movement geared toward eradicating sexism without eliding the unique experiences of women of color, poor women, stet.

Third, and historically, women have faced an obstacle when it came to the very act of public speaking, much less resistance. The very notion of speaking and acting publically is antithetical to prevailing understandings of what it means to be a woman. For black women, the act of speaking out is further complicated by racist stereotypes that further restrict their public sphere activity and mobility. Thus women have adopted a variety of strategies, both assimilationist and radical, in their efforts to achieve equality.

Women have addressed numerous issues that may be said to fall under the women’s movement umbrella, including but not limited to suffrage, workplace equality, reproductive rights, fair media representation, affordable childcare, and the right to live and work free from sexual harassment, exploitation, and assault. As early as the 18th century, educated women from well-off families—most definitely the exception among their sex—used written communication to express forward thinking ideas concerning women’s rights. In 1790, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, laying a foundation for women’s rights struggles for the next 200 years. Others who used pen and voice early on for women’s rights include Lucy Stone, Margaret Fuller, Maria Stewart, and Sojourner Truth. Stewart, an African American active in the abolition movement, was the first woman to challenge the public taboo of speaking in front of a “promiscuous audience” (a group comproed of both males and females). Bold for the times, Stewart advocated education and uplift for black women and black communities. Women did not label themselves feminists until sometime around the early 1900s, when the term first percolated among bourgeois socialist women (Cott, 1987, p. 35).

A nascent movement for women’s equality—considered the “first wave” of feminism—is often traced to a gathering of men and women in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Feminist foremothers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, as well as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, were among those present to craft a Declaration of Sentiments that demanded not only suffrage for women, but the right for married women to own property, to obtain divorce, to hold on to their earnings, and to seek a college education and gainful employment on grounds equal to men.

From 1848 until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting the right to vote to women in 1920, women—primarily white, middle and upper class—struggled for enfranchisement utilizing a host of communication outlets, including pamphlets, parades, and speeches. Women held rights conventions between 1850 and 1860, published papers, signed and submitted petitions to Congress, and testified before state legislatures (Flexner, 1974). The women’s rights and antislavery activist Sojourner Truth gave her enduring “Ain’t I a Woman” Speech at a Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. In this speech, Truth called out the hypocrisies of gender norms applied selectively to well-off white women and demanded recognition of the humanity of black women.

At the national level, suffrage activists organized into the National Woman Suffrage Association and distributed a paper, The Revolution, giving women a “forum, focus, and direction” (Flexner, 1974, p. 151). In 1890, the National Woman Suffrage Association merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the helm.

Suffragists’ rhetorical approaches took one of two tacks to achieving the vote. Particularly in the early period of activism, women emphasized natural rights, a strategy that drew on liberal doctrine emphasizing the reasoning capacity of all humans. On this argument, women emphasized their common humanity with men. Later, in the 19th century and early 20th century, suffragists turned to argument from expediency, which emphasized not sex similarity but innate differences that made women’s alleged unique talents and inclinations a benefit to the public sphere (Kraditor, 1965, pp. 44–46). In their efforts to win the vote, white women often drew on prevailing racist and anti-immigrant sentiments to show that white women’s votes could offset those of the “less desirable.” In contrast, wage-earning women such as Leonora O’Reilly argued for suffrage on the grounds it could improve women’s workplace conditions. A sign held by a marcher in a 1912 New York City parade stated “Women Need Votes to End Sweatshops” (Triece, 2001, p. 205). A few organizations drew on cross-class solidarity by joining the efforts of wage earners and well-to-do women, including Harriet Stanton Blatch’s Equality League of Self-Supporting Women.

Between 1912 and 1919, the Congressional Union, an organization that formed its own political party, the National Woman’s Party—agitated for a federal suffrage amendment and distributed their own paper, The Suffragist. Additionally, with the belief that achieving the vote would require “more than the normal discursive means of persuasion” (Bowers & Ochs, 1971, p. 5), organizers Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and fellow suffragists drew upon the militant tactics of British suffragettes and picketed in front of the White House, marched with large banners, endured attacks from onlookers, were arrested and jailed, and engaged in hunger strikes while in jail (Ford, 1991).

In addition to struggling for political equality, women wanted the right to their own labor—to earn equal wages, to be able to keep their wages (in opposition to law stipulating a wife’s wages be turned over to her husband), to have the same workplace opportunities afforded to men and, particularly in the case of wage-earning women who had always worked outside the home, to work in safe conditions, with fair wages and the right to organize. In 1825, over 100 years before women such as Paul advocated for women’s economic equality, young female factory workers—referred to as “factory girls”—went on strike to fight for higher wages. In 1866, black women laundresses organized and petitioned for higher wages (Foner, 1982, p. 54). Their organizing efforts and the document they generated, a “Petition of the Colored Washerwomen,” is remarkable given the oppressive and often violent conditions in which black women and men worked in the mid-to-late 1800s. Black women workers played active roles in the Industrial Workers of the World, the Communist Party, USA, and their own local organizations such as the Woman Wage-Earners’ Association of Washington, of which the outspoken African American leader Mary Church Terrell was treasurer (Foner & Lewis, 1989, p. 350). The activism of women as workers is detailed in the section “Labor Movement.”

As was the case with political equality, women took contrasting approaches in arguments for economic rights. At times, they emphasized gender differences—women’s innate weakness and fragility, and their child-bearing capacities—to argue the need for protective legislation that would limit the workday and regulate night work. Arguments for protective legislation represented an approach of expediency and emphasized the need for immediate redress of deplorable workplace conditions faced by wage earning women day in and day out. In contrast, some women, such as Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, believed that protective legislation harmed women by limiting their work opportunities. Instead, Paul and others advocated for legislation that would mandate equal treatment of the sexes in the workplace and thus, it was believed, lead to women’s freedom and economic independence. The rhetorical tensions between equality and difference played out in debates over wording of the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the 1920s (Cott, 1987). The narrow emphasis of the National Woman’s Party on gender equality led the organization to elide important differences among women and left it open to charges of elitism and racism.

Throughout the first decades of the 20th century, working-class and minority women struggled for workplace equality and racial justice, although their efforts are often overlooked. In the 1930s, black and white women agitated as part of the Communist Party, USA, and as part of socialist organizations that assisted with organizing workers and mobilizing strikes, work stoppages, and other forms of resistance. Through involvement in the Women’s International Democratic Federation, American Women for Peace, and Congress of American Women, black female activists such as Thelma Dale Perkins, Beulah Richardson, Alice Childress, and Claudia Jones addressed the intersection of race and sex oppression and brought to the fore the unique concerns of black women through poetry and publications in left-leaning periodicals such as Political Affairs and The Masses (Gore, 2011).

The publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Penguin Books, Middlesex, UK) in 1949 directed a spotlight on the oppressive circumstances faced by middle-and upper-class white women who were relegated to home and hearth, the emotional and physical labor of motherhood, and the drudgery of housework. Her book and Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique, initiated a “second wave” of feminist agitation based primarily on the needs and desires of relatively well-off women who had not been forced to work outside the home and for whom, therefore, paid work was viewed as liberation. During this period, feminist efforts took up the slogan “the personal is political” to call attention to the ways institutionalized patriarchy shaped women’s experiences of marriage, family, sexuality, and selfhood. Consciousness raising was a key rhetorical strategy employed for the purpose of cultivating a feminist mindset geared toward critiquing women’s experiences of oppression. Consciousness raising groups were small, leaderless groups where women shared their personal experiences of oppression with the goal of politicizing those experiences and prompting women to work for social change.

Women also protested publicly and organized at the national level. In 1968, over 100 women protested in front of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, carrying signs reading “Miss America Is a Big Falsie,” singing anti–Miss America songs, and setting up a Freedom Trash Can where they discarded objects representing sexist oppression, such as high heeled shoes, bras, and false eye lashes (Echols, 1997, p. 456). At the national level, women formed the National Organization for Women in 1966, out of frustration at the unwillingness of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce gender equality in the workplace. By the end of the 20th century, the organization had over 500 chapters across the United States. A leader of 1960s liberal feminism, Gloria Steinem, helped found the feminist magazine Ms. in 1972, as a way to give voice to women’s experiences not covered in mainstream media.

Feminist activists adopted confrontational approaches designed to “violate the reality structure” (Campbell, 1973, p. 81) of mainstream society and to argue that women as a class are oppressed. Self-identified “lesbian-feminists” (Kurs & Cathcart, 1983) and groups such as the Redstockings and WITCH, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, utilized this approach.

Although women of color worked within the National Organization for Women and other white-led organizations, they also formed women’s caucuses in mixed-gender organizations and formed their own organizations dedicated to issues that impacted women who lived at the intersection of sex, race, and class oppressions (Thompson, 2010, p. 40). Significant organizations include the Chicana group Hijas de Cuanhtemoc and the Asian Sisters (two groups founded in 1971); Women of All Red Nations (a Native American group founded in 1974); Third World Alliance, which sprang from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1968; and the National Black Feminist Organization (founded in 1973). Chicana feminism sought “equal status in the male-dominated [Chicano] nationalist movements and also in American society” (Garcia, 1994, p. 532). Poor black women often entered the women’s movement through welfare rights agitation (Triece, 2013). For poor black women, issues surrounding public assistance and decent housing were women’s issues precisely because they were the ones primarily and solely responsible for raising their families.

Since the 1980s, feminists have taken up issues surrounding media representation, through antipornography campaigns such as Women Against Pornography, initiated by Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, and Catherine McKinnon, and in cultural efforts exemplified by the riot grrrl music of Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney. Third wave feminists have retooled traditional feminine culture through Do-It-Yourself crafting—sometimes called craftivism—as a new form of depoliticized feminism. Social media and other online platforms have enabled feminists around the globe to continue a more broad-based fight against structural sexism, racism, and classism.

Civil Rights Movement in the United States

One may easily make the case that civil rights activism broke ground when slaves revolted and raised their voices against human bondage in the United States, as early as the 1760s, or when Ida B. Wells crusaded against lynching in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Throughout the early 1900s, black Americans struggled for economic equality and an end to Jim Crow laws that locked in race segregation. As was the case with abolition and women’s rights movements, civil rights leaders took contrasting approaches to equality.

Booker T. Washington took an assimilationist road to race equality. He advocated the cultivation of vocational skills through his Tuskegee program and stressed hard work on the part of black Americans as key to their success (Harris & Kennicott, 1971). Others took more radical or confrontational approaches that sought goals as various as black separatism, integration, workplace justice, access to higher education, and an end to racist laws. Marcus Garvey, an advocate of Black Nationalism, founded the United Negro Improvement Association in 1914 and published the newspaper Negro World from 1918 to 1933. W. E. B. DuBois denounced Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on vocational skills, emphasizing instead the rights of black Americans to seek higher aspirations in education and politics. In 1909, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as editor to the organization’s publication, Crisis. The NAACP focused on legal change and the importance of overcoming stereotypes.

In 1941, the African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph organized the March on Washington Movement to promote mass, nonviolent actions as a tactic for achieving desegregation. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) formed the following year and similarly drew on such tactics. Combined with the NAACP’s legal approach to civil rights, these organizations laid the foundation for a more sustained movement in the 1950s and 1960s (Morris, 1984). Like the abolition and feminist movements, the civil rights struggle relied on organizations, publications, and demonstrations to raise awareness, petition formal decision-making bodies, mobilize followers, and disrupt the status quo.

The 1950s saw a surge in civil rights activism. Legal efforts on the part of the NAACP led to the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which mandated school desegregation. In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a working-class woman and NAACP local secretary, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Her action sparked the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Parks was not the first to refuse to move for a white passenger. Claudette Colvin, a Montgomery teenager was arrested in March 1955, for violating Section 10 of the Montgomery City Code mandating “separation of the races.” The success of the boycott is attributed to the Women’s Political Council, formed in 1949 and led by Jo Ann Robinson, which initially called for and planned the boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association, with Martin Luther King Jr. as chair, was formed to organize and support the extended boycott. In contrast to the legal pressures employed by the NAACP, the Montgomery Improvement Association used direct action to pressure the desegregation of public transit. The organization led weekly mass meetings and was the first to provide nonviolence workshops to participants. Montgomery activists won desegregated bus lines and served as a blueprint for boycotts throughout the 1950s (Morris, 1984, p. 82).

The organizations and leaders of 1950s civil rights activism grew out of the black church. The black church provided a “hush harbor”—a safe space—for voicing anger and frustration and strategizing for social change; and, it represented a source of financial, leadership and organizational support, particularly for southern civil rights agitation. Mass meetings held at churches served as planning sessions, inspirational rallies, and religious events. Important civil rights church-related organizations included the United Defense League, the Montgomery Improvement Association, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The United Defense League played a central role in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, bus boycott of 1953, and provided the inspiration for the more widely known Montgomery boycott sparked by Rosa Parks. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agitated for bus, train, pool, and library desegregation and also worked to make the vote more accessible to black citizens (Morris, 1984, p. 70).

Black churches also provided a space for ministers to gain public speaking experience that carried over to civil rights organizing and activism. One such minister was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference solicited community organizations and churches as affiliates and emphasized nonviolence. King was the first president, and the tireless but less celebrated activist, Ella Baker, served as associate director. The organization solicited followers through consciousness-raising groups, workshops, meetings, and rallies that attracted tens of thousands. In 1958, the Conference spearheaded the Crusade for Citizenship, an effort geared toward removing the racist barriers to voting. As part of this effort, leaders such as King and Baker established citizenship schools in the early 1960s to teach literacy skills, democratic rights, and the need for mass action.

The black church’s influence on civil rights organizing is perhaps most apparent in the use of sermonic rhetoric by leaders such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Abernathy. All three at various times assumed a persona of a black Moses who could liberate black people from captivity (Holmes, 2012; Ware & Linkugel, 1982). Abernathy also borrowed from the ethos of Christ to situate himself as a teacher with a lesson to impart. King at times utilized the voice of the Apostle Paul to establish authority. Each was skilled at fitting historical biblical narratives to the present situation facing black Americans. Adopting a prophetic voice, leaders compared the experiences of black slaves to Israelite slaves awaiting exodus. King drew on the biblical jeremiad to criticize American racism and looked to a day when American values of equality and freedom would belong to all citizens. A variation, the African American jeremiad, spoke to a black audience urging them to commit to a unique black identity and culture separate from the hegemonic white world (Howard-Pitney, 2005).

In contrast to well-known leaders such as King, Abernathy, Garvey, and Du Bois, who used their charisma to direct followers, Ella Baker took a “group centered” leadership approach. Baker expressed dissatisfaction with what she viewed as exclusionary and elitist tactics of male-dominated organizations such as the NAACP, which she believed was not focused enough on local problems. Baker resigned her post with the NAACP in 1946, and for her remaining years as an activist, she worked as a community organizer and cultivated leadership skills in others. Baker played a significant role assisting young civil rights activists to form SNCC in the wake of lunch counter sit-ins in 1960.

Black high school and college students used nonviolent resistance in 1960 to protest racial segregation. On February 1, 1960, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro took seats at the Woolworth lunch counter and ordered food. Their act of defiance inspired similar sit-ins in states across the south and as far north as Ohio throughout the first months of the 1960s and prompted a strategic shift from legal actions (in the style of the NAACP) to disruptive nonviolence. Activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and CORE facilitated the organization of sit-in activists, but it was Ella Baker who brought students from various states together to coordinate their efforts into what became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Disruptive resistance tactics aimed at desegregation continued in the form of Freedom Rides, in May 1961, and boycotts and marches in 1963. The Freedom Rides involved groups of black and white activists riding Greyhound and Trailways buses from Washington, DC, to New Orleans to call attention to the issue of desegregation in interstate travel. As they traveled through southern states, riders were beaten and almost killed by white segregationists, and local police arrested sympathetic demonstrators. In April 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched Project C (Project Confrontation), which coordinated widespread economic boycotts of white businesses, sit-ins, and daily marches on Birmingham’s City Hall that lasted 34 days. Thousands of demonstrators, including children, were arrested and jailed, including Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from his cell. On May 3, 1963, as thousands of students gathered to protest, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered the police to release dogs and fire hoses on the peaceful demonstrators. The days of successive marches and nonviolent resistance pressured the city’s economic leaders to capitulate to demonstrators’ demands, which included desegregation of lunch counters, rest rooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains; hiring of black workers in the industrial sector; release of those jailed; and, the formation of a biracial committee to facilitate ongoing discussions of racial equality (Morris, 1984, p. 272).

Freedom Schools provided another avenue for nonviolent resistance within the civil rights movement. Sponsored by SNCC in 1964, the Schools sought to register black voters in the South and provide an alternative education that focused on political and social studies, literacy, and black history, much like the Citizenship Schools of the early 1960s. The Freedom Schools fostered grassroots organizing around local concerns and provided opportunities for activism.

From within the civil rights activism of the 1960s, Black Power arose as a guiding philosophy founded on black radicalism. The rhetorical themes of Black Power include black pride, black solidarity, and self-determination within the black community. The phrase “black power” is often attributed to Stokely Carmichael, who invoked the phrase on a 1966 civil rights march to the capitol of Mississippi. But elements of Black Power can be found in the philosophies of early 1960s groups such as the Revolutionary Action Movement in Ohio and the Group on Advanced Leadership in Detroit, both of which addressed systemic racism and the need for black self-determination. Even Martin Luther King Jr.—often remembered as a proponent of nonviolent integration—drew on the urgency intimated in Black Power rhetoric when he spoke of the importance of addressing the slum-like conditions in which many urban blacks lived (Scott, 1969). The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966, became the most “popular face of black power” (Joseph, 2009, p. 762). The Party disseminated a paper, The Black Panther, used to recruit and mobilize members. The paper drew connections between the US Black Power movement and struggles of oppressed peoples abroad and educated readers on the implications of US foreign policy on poorer nations (Mislan, 2014). The Party was predicated on the need for self-defense in the face of white violence but was equally dedicated to bread-and-butter issues still relevant in the 21st century. Their party platform sought “decent housing,” education, and an “end to POLICE BRUTALITY” (Foner, 1970, p. 2, caps in original). The Party initiated free breakfast programs and clothing drives for children and blocked evictions of renters in black communities.

The Black Panther Party’s promotion of armed self-defense was not limited to the male figures often associated with the group, men such as H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale. In the early to mid-1960s, as civil rights organizers from the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC became the object of shootings while organizing black southerners—and some, such as Medgar Evers and James Meredith, were assassinated—Gloria Richardson, a black woman, mother of two, and civil rights organizer in Maryland, advocated armed self-defense as “an alternative to nonviolence direct action” (Strain, 2005, p. 80). In the late 1960s, Panther Party women—subjected to police beatings and arrests alongside their male comrades—often advocated armed self-defense (Williams, 2006).

Richardson’s experiences highlight the importance of black women’s involvement in the civil rights movement although their efforts were not without frustration. Many black women observed that, among protesters, “all the women were white and all the blacks were men” (Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982) leaving these activists to forge an outsider within perspective. Black women involved in organizations such as the Black Panther Party and SNCC developed a unique black feminist consciousness that enabled them to critique sexism within civil rights organizations and to forge their own efforts predicated on the needs and concerns of black women. Their activities were part of Black Power, not separate from it (Ward, 2006, p. 120). In 1968, Frances Beal formed the Black Women’s Liberation Committee as a voice for black women to critique the “double jeopardy” (the title of her 1970 essay) of racism and sexism (Anderson-Bricker, 1999, p. 58; Ward, 2006, p. 122). Beal and others formed study groups and education programs, such as Liberation Schools, to speak to the needs of black communities; to explore the multiple forms of oppression faced by black women; and, to critique sexism within the Black Nationalist movement. Similarly, the Black Women’s Alliance, formed in 1970, advocated “educational, cultural, economic, social, and political unity and sisterhood among Black women,” but held fast to the promotion of the black community as a whole. As black women began to understand the connections between their experiences of oppression in the United States and those of women around the world, they expanded the organization to include all third-world women. The organization was renamed Third World Women’s Alliance.

The Third World Women’s Alliance developed an organizational structure centered on collective leadership and a platform focused on anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and a socialist democracy. The group distributed position papers and a newspaper, Triple Jeopardy, drawing on Beal’s original analysis of racism and sexism, but adding capitalism as the root cause of all oppression. The paper, which ran bi-monthly from 1971 to 1975, contained educational, ideological, and recruitment components. The paper informed readers of the accomplishments of women activists around the world, imparted skills deemed important to revolutionary struggle, shared health information, solicited new members, and carried supportive articles on Angela Davis throughout her imprisonment and trial in 1971/1972 (Ward, 2006, pp. 138–142). Angela Davis was an outspoken black political activist with ties to the Black Panthers and the Communist Party, USA. She was a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, at the time of her arrest in 1970, on charges of involvement in the shooting of a judge and three men. She was acquitted of all charges in 1972.

Drawing on protest tactics and rhetorical resources of civil rights activism and the 1960s New Left, American Indians called on “Red Power” (evoking Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power) to mobilize struggles for sovereignty and American Indians’ fight against federal laws that fueled discrimination and poverty in their communities. The efforts of American Indians to resist colonization date back to the arrival of the first European occupiers. Protest efforts were formalized in organizations of the 1960s. As was the case with other protest movements, American Indians formed numerous organizations with varying aims, including the American Indian Movement (AIM), the National Indian Youth Council, and the National Congress of American Indians. In 1968, the brothers Vernon and Clyde Bellcourt and Dennis Banks formed the American Indian Movement (AIM), which utilized protest tactics of African American activists and labor rights activists, including sit-ins, occupations, speeches, and grassroots publications.

In 1969, a group called Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz Island for a year and a half in an effort to reclaim the unused federal property. A few years later, in 1973, over 200 American Indians occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to call attention to the “intolerable living (and political) conditions for the reservation’s 13,000 Sioux” (Morris & Wander, 1990, p. 172). Wounded Knee had been the site of the massacre of over 200 Sioux men, women, and children on the part of federal troops in 1890. Both events focused mainstream media attention on the centuries-long oppression of American Indians.

In 1972, AIM activists organized a national protest in Washington, DC, called the Trail of Broken Treaties, where they presented a list of Twenty Points that urged the US government to “recognize the sovereign status of indigenous nations, re-establish treaty relations, and allow an American Indian voice in the formation of public policies concerning American Indians” (Sanchez & Stuckey, 2000, p. 123). This event led to the nearly week-long occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building on the part of AIM protesters.

Alongside confrontational actions that won the attention of the government and mainstream media, American Indians took seriously the task of educating the public on the history and identity of American Indians, similar to Black Power activists of the time period who encouraged white America to “reconsider their own national history” (Sanchez & Stuckey, 2000, p. 128). American Indians often forged together traditional Indian values with radical confrontation to form a rhetoric of new traditionalism (Morris & Wander, 1990). Their rhetoric effectively focused public attention on structural issues contributing to their oppression and confronted mainstream stereotypes of American Indians (Morris & Wander, 1990).

The 1960s also saw the rise and growing influence of the Chicano Movement. Like some strains of the women’s and labor movements, the Chicano Movement was influenced by Marxist theory. Activists sought economic and political equality, but they also emphasized the importance of a strong nationalist identity. An important communication outlet for the movement was the plan, an organized expression of the movement’s key ideas and agenda, and a “call for resistance and change” (Delgado, 1995, p. 449). Two examples are El Plan de Aztlán and El Plan de Santa Barbara. Chicano Movement activists formed their own political party, La Raza Unida, as an alternative to the two dominant US political parties, which it viewed as narrowly focused on the continuance of Anglo domination. La Raza Unida held its first national convention in 1972. La Raza, a reference to the cultural pride and political and economic self-determination of Chicanos, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans, remains a key term within the movement.

Civil rights activism continues through the early 21st century through the Black Lives Matter Movement, a collective effort spurred by cases of police brutality and killings of unarmed black men and women. The phrase “black lives matter” gained momentum after George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2013. In the wake of numerous police killings, including those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice in 2014, and Freddie Gray and Walter Scott in 2015, Black Lives Matter has furthered its resistance efforts through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as numerous rallies and marches for an end of racist police repression. Black Lives Matter locals have organized Freedom Rides and blocked public transit to call attention to the issues facing the black community. Black Lives Matter activists have also called attention to the rights of fast food workers and transgender people within the black community.

Labor Movement in the United States

Like the abolitionist, women’s, and civil rights movements, the labor movement in the United States has utilized a variety of communication outlets and confrontational tactics to win rights and dignity for ordinary people. Organized labor has struggled for basic workplace rights at least since colonial times. From the early 1800s to the present, labor activists formed organizations, distributed grassroots publications, engaged in rallies and marches, and grappled with the ways workplace experiences intersect with race and sex.

Movements for social change have relied extensively on grassroots publications as a way to voice concerns and combat the propaganda of corporate-owned presses. The labor movement is no exception, with the labor press publishing 17 monthly journals and 400 weeklies by 1885. A few of the more widely circulating papers included The Mechanics’ Free Press, an early 1800s paper that expressed antislavery and prolabor sentiments; The Voice of Industry, the organ of the New England Workingmen’s Association in the 1840s; John Swinton’s Paper, a popular labor paper of the 1880s; the Knights of Labor’s organ, The Journal of United Labor; The Factory Girls Voice from the mid-1800s; the Industrial Workers of the World’s publications, Voice of the People and Industrial Worker; and the American Federation of Labor’s Union Advocate. More recent news sources include Labor Notes, the Seattle Postal Workers Union News, and the website of the Teamsters. Labor organizations have found it crucial to publish their own papers in order to combat negative distortions of labor activities and protests found in the popular business-controlled papers. Labor presses also provided stories of encouragement and visions of change for readers.

The labor movement, perhaps more than any other collective push for social change, utilized a variety of resistance tactics ranging from persuasive to confrontational. On the moderate end, unions negotiated with employers and workers engaged the traditional political system through the formation of political parties like the Labor Party, which ran campaigns in numerous states between the 1800s and the early 1900s. Unions and rank-and-file workers held mass meetings to organize, and charismatic leaders such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Eugene V. Debs, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, William “Big Bill” Haywood, Leonora O’Reilly, Clara Lemlich, Dolores Huerta, and many others gave stirring speeches that motivated workers to risk beatings and arrests on picket lines in efforts to win basic rights. The Knights of Labor emphasized education in the form of lectures, assemblies, and the establishment of libraries and readings rooms centered on labor.

When workers found that words alone were not enough to bring change, they utilized confrontational resistance tactics by withdrawing their labor power in the form of factory walkouts and sit-down strikes that stopped the production line. Strikes worked hand in glove with boycotts, wherein workers urged the local community not to buy from stores selling goods manufactured in factories targeted by the strike. The physical withholding of labor and consumer power was used in conjunction with discursive activities like leafleting, meeting, public speaking, and even protest songs that served to strategize, solicit sympathizers, motivate followers, and persuade the powers that be.

Trade unions formed as early as the 1790s in the United States and were for male workers only. When industrial capitalism grew throughout the 1800s, the need for organized labor became apparent. Young women and girls who worked in the mills of the Northeast United States formed Female Labor Reform Associations in the 1840s to argue for a 10 hour day. They published factory tracts and pamphlets that described life in the mills as they experienced it and in distinction to the utopian versions proffered by factory owners. Many of these women organized alongside men and served as officers in New England labor organizations. The most influential of these was the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in Lowell, Massachusetts, led by Sarah Bagley. By 1845, the Lowell organization had 500 members.

The National Labor Union, formed in 1835, was the first national labor organization and provided a unified voice for workers on issues of wages and hours. Even Karl Marx was impressed when, in 1868, the National Labor Union voted in favor of equal pay for equal work for women (Foner, 1982, p. 62). The Colored National Labor Union, active between 1869 and 1879, voiced the concerns of black workers through its organ New National Era, encouraged unionization of black men and women, and spoke specifically to the issue of racism.

National labor organizing passed from the National Trades’ Union, which disappeared around 1873, to the Knights of Labor, which had 700,000 members and over 12,000 locals at its peak in 1886. The Knights of Labor communicated labor solidarity through a variety of outlets including their paper, the Journal of United Labor, and other forms of literature, which the organization published in at least eight different languages to reach the multi-ethnic workforce. The Knights of Labor also readily employed strikes and boycotts as a way to force the hand of factory owners. Boycotts were used as a handmaiden to strikes—workers might boycott a firm that locked out workers or boycott a store selling goods made in a factory on strike—or they were used when strikes were hard to organize.

The Knights of Labor was notable for its efforts to organize women and black workers. By 1886, women formed about 8%–9% of the total membership. Importantly, women struggled alongside men in strikes and pickets, no small feat given the traditional gender norms dictating women remain in the home and submissive to men. Knights of Labor women, including cloak and hat makers, mill workers, and carpet weavers, engaged in successful strikes in the 1880s. Women also assisted picketing men by giving scabs the “ditch-degree” (“throwing strikebreakers into ditches”) or “water cure” (“dousing them with dishpans of water”) (Foner, 1982, p. 81).

By 1886, there were 60,000 black workers in the Knights of Labor. The Knights of Labor organized both mixed locals and all-black locals. Black women joined black locals or formed their own locals primarily as domestic servants or agricultural workers. Black workers struggled alongside white workers in strikes and parades, such as those carried out on May Day and Labor celebrations in 1886 and 1887 (Foner, 1974a). Race solidarity only went so far within the Knights, as the majority of the general assembly’s leadership was white. The leaders allowed locals to discriminate against black workers, at times advocated separate black locals, and counseled black workers to be patient when it came to overcoming discrimination within the organization (Foner, 1975).

A concerted and well-organized fight for the eight-hour day was initiated during the mid-1880s. The Central Labor Union of New York established Labor Day as an official holiday in 1882 and, at subsequent Labor Day celebrations throughout the 1880s, tens of thousands of workers—men and women, black and white—marched in support of the 8-hour day. Workers leafleted, held mass meetings, and drew up agreements to be signed by employers, demanding that the 8-hour day take effect May 1, 1886. On May 1, 1886, over 300,000 workers walked off assembly lines, abandoned machines, and put down tools to march in the streets. From this action, “42,000 won the eight hour day” and “150,000 others obtained a shorter working day than they had had before” (Foner, 1974, p. 50).

In response, employers assisted by the police showed their might on May 3 and 4, 1886, in what is known as the McCormick Massacre and the Haymarket Square tragedy in Chicago. On May 3, scabs who were accompanied by hundreds of police replaced over 1,000 workers on strike for the 8-hour day and an end to the piecework system. When the strikers demonstrated against the scabs, the police fired into the group of workers killing four and wounding many others (Foner, 1975, p. 105). Workers organized to protest the killings, sending around flyers calling for a public meeting on May 4, 1886, in Haymarket Square. Over 3,000 workers gathered to hear speeches from August Spies, Albert Parsons, and Samuel Fielden. When the gathering was almost over and most people had already disbanded, armed police appeared and demanded the crowd disperse. At that moment, a bomb was thrown from the crowd, killing six police officers. The police fired on the crowd killing many workers and wounding hundreds. The event was used as a pretext by police to quash the struggle for the 8-hour day. Hundreds of workers were arrested, with eight sent to trial. Of the eight, seven were not present when the bomb went off and the eighth one, Samuel Fielden, was speaking at the podium during the explosion. Four of the Haymarket martyrs, as they are known, were hanged on November 11, 1887; the others were sentenced to life in prison.

During the time of this struggle, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed in 1886, to organize workers into distinct trade unions. In its early days, the organization’s first president, Samuel Gompers, espoused radical beliefs including the centrality of class conflict and “emancipation of the working class from capitalist wage slavery” (Foner, 1975, p. 177). Ultimately, Gompers was a “bureaucratic leader” who tempered his radical ideas and often went against the wishes of the rank and file.

As with the Knights of Labor, the AFL had a spotty history of organizing women and black workers. In the late 1880s, only a few unions allowed women. Most often women workers were organized into separate women’s locals. Relegated to unskilled positions, women workers (and immigrants and African Americans) were precluded from the craft union focus of the Federation. The male-dominated Federation was blinded by gender stereotypes that viewed women as temporary workers, with their ultimate goals being marriage and dedication to domesticity. A bright spot in the organization of women workers was the Ladies’ Federal Labor Union No. 2703 of Chicago, headed by Hannah M. Morgan. The Ladies’ Federal Labor Union organized the Illinois Women’s Alliance, and together, the women of these organizations lobbied for an improved child labor law and investigated and wrote an article exposing Chicago’s sweatshop system in 1891, which influenced a 1892 Congressional investigation of the sweatshop system.

In its earlier, more radical years, the AFL supported race solidarity and the integration of black workers into locals. In New Orleans, of all places, black and white workers held tight against employers who attempted to drive a racist wedge between the workers. In November 1892, over 25,000 workers went on general strike for four days, winning a 10-hour day, overtime pay, and higher wages (Foner, 1974a, pp. 66–68). White workers—even those in the south—often saw through the polarization tactics used by employers, which led them to actively recruit black workers into their locals.

The prolonged depression of 1893–1898 created an environment of economic insecurity and one ripe for wage undercutting and racist scapegoating. Federation white locals tacitly reinforced “color clauses” that barred black workers, and the Federation allowed Jim Crow unionization in the form of separate black locals. By the turn of the 20th century, Gompers disallowed black locals from sending delegates to Federation central labor bodies (Foner, 1974a, p. 72).

A notable organizer among black workers was A. Philip Randolph, an African Americana socialist and journalist devoted to organizing black railroad porters in the 1920s. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had its own publication, The Black Worker, which allowed the porters to voice their grievances anonymously and without fear of retribution. The porters demanded union recognition, wage increases, and pay for preparation time (Foner, 1974, p. 179).

The labor organization best known for organizing across sex, race, and ethnic lines is the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the Wobblies. Leaders of this organization include the “rebel girl,” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, William “Big Bill” Haywood, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, and Joe Hill. Formed in 1905, the IWW’s manifesto advocated “one great industrial union” and was “founded on class struggle” (Foner, 1982, p. 185). The Wobblies actively organized women and black workers. The first convention had female delegates, including Lucy Parsons. Flynn—who gave her first public speech in 1906, “What Socialism Will Do for Women”—was on the General Executive Board in 1909 and spoke extensively on behalf of the organization and socialism across the country. Like organizers of the AFL, men in the IWW often held an ambivalent stance toward women in the workplace. Although the organization espoused progressive ideas such as birth control, many still held on to the belief that women’s true place was in the home after marriage.

The IWW relied on leaflets, pamphlets, and its paper Voice of the People to recruit black workers, whom the organization recognized were discriminated against due to both race and position within the economy. Even in the south, where the AFL allowed Jim Crow locals (separate locals for black workers), the IWW organized across race—including Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican workers—under the slogan “No Race, No Creed, No Color” (Foner, 1982, p. 189).

The Wobblies were well known for their protest songs, which were compiled into the Little Red Songbook. Wobblies sang on picket lines, in jail, and at trials and defense meetings. The songs provided another communicative avenue for conveying the core beliefs of the organization, such as worker solidarity, class conflict, and visions for a more democratic system. Rhetorically, the songs solicited supporters, solidified members, and created a polarization between capitalists and workers.

Alongside the IWW, between the late 1800s and first two decades of the 1900s, organizations such as the Working Women’s Society of New York (early 1890s), the Women’s Trade Union League (formed in 1903), and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925) worked avidly to organize women and black workers. The Working Women’s Society of New York, led by the formidable labor activist Leonora O’Reilly, published its own paper, Near and Far, and advocated unionization for women, particularly when the AFL was turning a blind eye. The Women’s Trade Union League filled an important gap in the organizing efforts of wage-earning women. Middle-class reformers, called “allies,” founded the League and assisted wage-earning women on the picket line and in joining already existing unions. The League published its own paper, Life and Labor, and advocated for the 8-hour day and a 58-hour workweek. Cross-class organizing in the League, at times, resulted in tensions between middle-class allies and wage earners. For the allies, class struggle and worker solidarity often took a backseat to an emphasis on education and cultural uplift.

One of the League’s most significant contributions to labor organizing occurred during the Uprising of 20,000, a large-scale strike of shirtwaist makers in New York in 1909. The New York Women’s Trade Union League established a strike headquarters, gave speeches supporting the strikers, provided legal services to arrested picketers, raised money for bail, and even picketed alongside workers. The need for vast improvements throughout the garment trade was made startlingly clear just two years after the strike, when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, resulting in the deaths of 145 young women, some of whom were burned alive while others jumped to their deaths from eighth-floor windows.

Another significant strike of this period was the Lawrence, Massachusetts, strike in 1912. Strikers and their families used a number of resistance tactics that involved the entire family. With the help of the IWW, and two IWW leaders, William Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, workers used the “moving picket line” to get around the ban on gathering in front of the mills. Women protested alongside husbands and were arrested at a higher rate than the men. Their slogan, “We want bread and roses too,” underscored workers’ desires for dignity in addition to the basic necessities of life. The women traveled to nearby towns to raise funds, they held women’s meetings, and established special schools for the children of strikers. Notable among their efforts was the Lawrence Children’s Crusade, in which children paraded alongside their parents to garner public sympathy.

The needs of millions of workers in mass production industries (e.g., rubber, automobile, garment, etc.) were finally recognized when, in 1935, workers formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize those ignored by the AFL’s craft union approach. The CIO actively recruited black workers and included women in their affiliated unions. CIO-affiliated tire builders at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company initiated the first sit-down strike in Akron, Ohio, in January 1936. The sit-down strike represented a new form of resistance, wherein workers stopped production but also prevented scabs from replacing them. Workers inside the plant were supported by a women’s auxiliary and by over 14,000 picketers outside the factory. Perhaps the best-known sit-down strike took place in 1936/1937 at the General Motors auto plants in Flint, Michigan. The success of the strike hinged on the efforts of the Women’s Emergency Brigade, consisting of over 300 women who fed the strikers, picketed, distributed literature, and demonstrated in downtown Flint armed with clubs, stove pokers, crowbars, and lead pipes. On February 11, 1937, the strike ended with the United Auto Workers winning union recognition and the right to bargain for reduced hours and improved wages.

The 1960s saw labor work in conjunction with civil rights to organize black workers still impacted by workplace discrimination. The Negro American Labor Council, led by A. Philip Randolph, and the Negro Labor Alliance, both formed in the 1960s, called on the AFL-CIO to address the persistent racism in trade unions. The civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer organized black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union in 1965. The sharecroppers went on strike in May 1965 after landowners rejected their request for $1.25 an hour and an 8-hour day. The strike ended unsuccessfully due to the union’s inability to garner significant support from other unions and to the landowner’s strong-arm tactics, which were supported by the local police.

La Huelga, the grape workers’ strike and boycott of the 1960s, provides a more uplifting example of farmer organizing. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962 and organized the strike of Delano grape workers in California. The strikers were supported by other unions, by SNCC, and by CORE. Workers organized a corresponding boycott of table grapes, which became a nationwide success due to the extensive public speaking by Huerta on the farmworkers’ cause. The strike ended in 1970, with growers agreeing to wages of $1.75 an hour with yearly increases, employer contributions to health care, and banning of pesticides like DDT (Foner, 1982, p. 422).

Although the male-and white-dominated AFL-CIO continued to dominate labor organizing through the last three decades of the 20th century, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, formed in 1974, asserted the demands of women workers and pressed the AFL-CIO to include more women in leadership positions. By 1979, the Coalition had 8,000 members and active involvement on the part of black and Hispanic women. The organization was still active in 2015.

In the early 21st century, workers’ struggles continue to include fair pay, in struggles for a living wage or higher minimum wage. Globally, workers continue to fight sweatshop conditions that include subsistence wages and fire hazard factories. These struggles often fall under the larger rubric of the antiglobalization movement. Antilabor legislation, outsourcing, “right to work” laws, the growth of the service industry, and a probusiness environment fostered by neoliberal government practices worldwide have made it difficult for labor to organize an effective front of resistance to global capitalism. The task remains for labor in the United States to organize service workers, immigrants, and undocumented workers, and to join forces with labor internationally.

Environmentalism and Environmental Justice

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962 (by Riverside Press, in Cambridge, MA) indelibly marked the public imagination with its narrative of environmental toxicity and is viewed as the launching point for the contemporary environmental movement. Since that time, environmentalists have formed organizations, raised public awareness, and prompted intervention on the part of formal political institutions. Influential environmental organizations range in terms of tactics from moderate such as those of the Sierra Club, which relies on political lobbying, to organizations like the Earth Liberation Front and Earth First! which utilize guerrilla tactics to interrupt corporate and government practices destructive to the environment or various animal species. Environmental organizations include nongovernmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund (focusing on ecosystems and health) and Citizens Climate Lobby (centering on climate change); government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency; and community organizations like Ohio Citizen Action and West Harlem Environmental Action.

Broader than environmentalism—a movement centered on preservation and dominated by white, middle-and upper-class individuals—the environmental justice movement focuses on issues of health, community survival, workplace safety, and economic sustainability, from a racialized perspective (Di Chiro, 1992; Pulido, 1996). Environmental justice efforts connect the dots between corporate practices—often subsidized by tax breaks and government funding—and the experiences of low-income families and communities of color that bear the brunt of health hazards stemming from corporate dumping and disinvestment (“Environmental Justice in the United States,” 2002). More than a concern with protecting ocean life and endangered species, the agenda of people of color in the environmental justice movement is “holistic” (Pulido, 1996, p. 165), encompassing safe housing, mobility, and health as they are linked to location. Environmental justice efforts center people in the environment by examining how issues concerning air, water, and housing quality impact people’s abilities to live healthy dignified lives (Di Chiro, 1992). Often, environmental justice advocates align their efforts with those of civil rights, labor, welfare rights, and farmworkers (Di Chiro, 1992, p. 97). And importantly, Pulido (2000) suggests understanding environmental racism as more than the malicious acts of various and unrelated toxic sitings to a view that situates environmental concerns vis-à-vis structural racism, white privilege, and “larger urban processes” (p. 13).

Activists use a variety of channels to call attention to and fight the politics of racism and toxic dumping. In 1982, residents of Warren County, North Carolina, sought assistance from civil rights leaders to fight a proposed polychlorinated biphenyl dump in their community. During this struggle, Reverend Benjamin Chavis Jr., executive director of the Commission for Racial Justice, coined the term environmental racism, defined as “racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement” (Di Chiro, 1992, p. 99, 100). Residents, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the civil rights organization led by Dr. Martin Luther King, in the 1960s) and the Congressional Black Caucus, demonstrated and were jailed by the hundreds. Although the protest did not stop the siting of the dump, the efforts prompted a study by the US General Accounting Office on hazardous waste siting practices (Bullard, 1994, p. 6).

Environmental justice advocates, under the leadership of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice and its executive director, Reverend Benjamin Chavis, have utilized data-driven studies to publicize the systematic connection between location and race. A 1987 publication, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, concluded that “nonwhites are disproportionately exposed to pollution” (Pulido, 2000, p. 12). An updated report, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987–2007, found that “host neighborhoods with commercial hazardous waste facilities are 56% people of color, whereas non-host areas are 30% people of color” (Bullard et al., 2007, p. 52), and that throughout the 1990s, the percentage of people of color living near hazardous facilities actually increased (p. 53).

Among the hundreds of environmental groups run by and for people of color, WE ACT for Environmental Justice emerged in 1988 as an organization instrumental in advocating for residents of Northern Manhattan. Key among the organization’s success was the winning of a $1 million lawsuit against the City of New York, which operated the North River Waste Water Treatment plant, which created an environmental hazard to nearby residents.

Environmental justice advocates have also utilized mass meetings or summits to attract participants and strategize for environmental and racial equity. In 1991, activists held the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. Summit attendees adopted a 17-point statement, “Principles of Environmental Justice,” that included numerous demands concerning the intersections of spatial inclusion, race, and health. Principles included the “right to ethical, balanced, and responsible uses of land and renewable resources”; expressed opposition to “military occupations, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and culture”; and called “for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production, and disposal of toxic and hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing, which threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food” (“Principles”). Notably, “Principles” also encompassed issues of labor and housing, emphasizing the “right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment,” and the “need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of our communities, and providing fair access for all to the full range of resources” (“Principles”). A second Summit was held in 2002.

Toxic tours, defined as “noncommercial expeditions organized and facilitated by people who reside in areas that are polluted by toxins” (Pezzullo, 2004, p. 236), have provided a way for environmental justice activists to teach the public about the toxicity of a particular place. Toxic tours bring to the fore the existence of often invisible toxins infiltrating homes and neighborhoods. While on the tour, people hear stories from residents affected by the presence of toxicity in their homes and neighborhoods. Toxic tours are often organized in conjunction with press conferences and the distribution of fact sheets.

Environmental justice efforts have also been associated with women’s activism, given women’s traditional responsibility for ensuring the health of the family. One of the earliest and most recognizable names associated with environmental advocacy is Lois Gibbs, who became involved in environmental health issues when she learned her community in New York, Love Canal, was built atop a toxic waste dump. In their positions as caretakers and mothers, women have developed perspectives and interests that predispose them to the health-centered efforts of environmental justice. The alignment of womanhood and environmental issues is enveloped in the organizational document, Empowering Ourselves: Women and Toxics Organizing, which was an outgrowth of the Women in Toxics Organizing conference in November 1987 (Peeples & DeLuca, 2006, p. 62). In their arguments for healthy communities, women often tapped traditional tropes of motherhood and family (Krauss, 1994), which is not surprising given the sexual division of labor that positions women as primarily in charge of the health and well-being of their children and homes (Krauss, 1994, p. 260).

To advance their arguments, working-class women and women of color often eschewed bureaucratic language in favor of storytelling, centering particularly on their experiences as mothers (Krauss, 1994, p. 259). Activists referenced their experiences dealing with their children’s illnesses, diseases, even deaths and miscarriages due to toxic exposure. They used their stories to justify and lend credibility to their arguments (Di Chiro, 1992; Krauss, 1994; Peeples & DeLuca, 2006). Their emphasis on family and community survival sits within a long tradition of militant motherhood (Tonn, 1996) and motherwork (Collins, 1994) that used the family as a springboard for efforts and arguments of economic and political justice. Motherwork refers to the efforts of women of color to ensure the “physical survival both of their own biological children and of those of the larger African-American community” (Collins, 1994, p. 61). Similarly, militant motherhood refers to a rhetorical strategy combining nurturance and confrontation to promote and protect the interests of marginalized communities, including one’s immediate family. Together motherwork and militancy provided the entry point for women of color to the environmental justice movement.

Movement for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Equality

Even through the progressive changes of the first decades of the 20th century, US culture remained closed to the idea of gay and lesbian rights. US legislation prohibited homosexuality and barred gays and lesbians from most professional occupations, government jobs, and the military. Fear of gays and lesbians working in civil service prompted Senate hearings and reports concluding that gays and lesbians were unfit workers, emotionally unstable, and prone to release national secrets (Mezey, 2007, p. 17). Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality a “mental disorder.” This legal and economic culture forced gays and lesbians to hide their sexuality well into the 20th—even the 21st—centuries. By the late 20th century, there was no national legislation protecting gays and lesbians from workplace and housing discrimination.

Mid-20th century activists for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) equality used the label homophile to describe their efforts, avoiding the more inflammatory (for the times) word homosexual. Gay rights organizations of the 1950s and 1960s included the Mattachine Society (formed in 1950), Daughters of Bilitis (formed in 1955), the Student Homophile League at Columbia University, and the East Coast Homophile Organizations. Together, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitus established the core of the homophile movement and published their own paper, the Ladder. The efforts of homophile groups were largely nonconfrontational and focused on gaining acceptance in the mainstream community, providing a community of support for gays, and ending the oppression of gays experienced in the workplace and at the hands of police.

Other significant organizations, from the late 1960s to the present, include the Gay Liberation Front, formed in the aftermath of the Stonewall uprisings, the Gay Activist Alliance, Lesbian Avengers, Queer Nation, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Gay and Lesbian Advocate and Defenders are groups focused specifically on gay and lesbian rights litigation. In the early 21st century, there are hundreds of gay rights organizations around the world.

Like other movements for democratic change, gay rights activists employed a variety of tactics, ranging from moderate to militant, and they utilized their own publications to raise awareness and counteract stereotypes in the corporate media.

A defining event in the gay rights movement was the Stonewall uprising, a 3-day-long rebellion on the part of lesbians and gays that resulted from a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Thousands of disaffected city dwellers joined with more experienced activists to protest the police repression outside the doors of the bar from June 28, 1969, until July 2, 1969. The importance of the uprisings stems from what they created—a more confident, militant, and organized movement for gay rights that has been carried through the 21st century.

The gay liberation movement of the early 1970s emphasized the importance of “coming out of the closet” as a way to shed “internalized homophobia,” “claim a sense of self-respect,” raise public awareness, and increase the visibility of gays (Wolf, 2009). The 21st-century digital age provides new channels for coming out, including YouTube videos and vlogging (video blogging).

As is the case with other 21st-century movements, the Internet—including YouTube and social media like Facebook—provides LGBT activists a space for connection, affirmation, and mobilization. LGBT Facebook groups disseminate information on gay and lesbian rights issues, organizations, and events. Facebook has provided the means for activists to protest specific hate crimes, to organize opposition to California’s Proposition 8, and to support gay rights parades and rallies (Cooper & Dzara, 2010).

Visibility, both online and in the real world, remains a central goal of more contemporary (early 2000s) gay and lesbian activists. Visibility tactics include tattooing one’s HIV status on one’s skin as a marker of health and engaging in public spectacle along the lines of Lesbian Avengers, who used fire eating as a tactic to not only gain attention but also symbolically to underscore their “refusal to be afraid of fire, anger, and hostility” (Rand, 2013, p. 123). Gay rights advocates have also sought change through social protest tactics utilized from the abolition movement to the present. Members of the East Coast Homophile Organizations picketed on July 4, 1965, in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to remind the public that not all groups had freedom. Activists picketed and petitioned news outlets such as the Village Voice and the San Francisco Examiner, demanding just representations of gays and lesbians in those publications.

The 1970s marked the rise of the gay liberation movement focused on the development of gay consciousness and an extension of social critique to envelop other forms of oppression. Gay rights organizations such as the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) adopted the language and tactics of concomitant movements like civil rights, Black Power, and the student movement, asserting pride and self-affirmation through slogans like “Gay is Good!” Gay rights organizations—like protest movements that came before—cast a wide net to include challenges to the legal, political, educational, and economic structures. They used lobbying, legal challenges, educational materials, marches, and gay pride parades.

Beginning in the 1970s, lesbians formed their own organizations out of frustration with gay men’s inability to understand the nature of sexism. For these women—who often identified as lesbian feminists—“institution-building developed in tandem with political activism” (Retter, 2000, p. 197). Lesbian activists varied in approach from separatist efforts that created groups centered on the specific needs of lesbians to joining with gay men to fight homophobia. By the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the gay liberation movement broadened to include the rights of bisexual and transgender individuals who had previously been ignored or marginalized by the movement so that now the struggles are enveloped by the LGBT label. For many, the term queer has been appropriated and transformed from a term used by the mainstream to degrade gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals to capture the fluidity of sexuality and to avoid essentializing gays and lesbians (Rosenblum, 2009, p. 39).

The emergence and growing awareness of autoimmune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the 1980s changed the nature of gay rights efforts. The gay and lesbian community devoted new attention to raising public awareness and eliciting support in the way of research and funding from a conservative presidential administration. Notably, the public fight against the disease shined a national spotlight on gay and lesbian organizations and “energized” the movement and their struggles for equality (Mezey, 2007, p. 35).

Just as civil rights organizations turned to litigation to win the desegregation of schools, and women’s rights advocates have used the courts to address sexual harassment, gay and lesbian rights organizations have relied on litigation to achieve their goals. LGBT activists have debated the benefits of taking a legal approach to winning movement goals. Some see legal intervention as conservative by nature, as recreating “relationships of power and domination,” and reifying normative sexuality (Mezey, 2007, p. 4, 5). Others view legal activism from a more pragmatic viewpoint, noting the significance of US Supreme Court legal victories such as the 1996 case Romer v. Evans, which prohibited states from singling out gays and lesbians for discrimination; the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, which recognized the right to privacy regarding homosexual sexual relations; and the 2015 US Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage. Particularly throughout the 1990s, local ordinances were passed providing protection for transgender individuals. For many LGBT organizations, the Supreme Court has represented a public forum for rights debates and a place where cultural meanings of sexuality can be constructed in more just ways (Pedriana, 2009, p. 53).

21st-Century Movements and the Internet

Democratic movements increasingly rely on the Internet to promote ideas, mobilize followers, and facilitate on-the-ground protest efforts. Cyberprotest or Internet activism benefits from technology that is “multi-directional, collaborative, interactive, participatory, live, and instantaneous” (Petray, 2011, p. 924). Through blogs, tweets, and Facebook pages, movements and organizations for democratic change can offer criticism of the establishment, provide a picture that contrasts with that offered by the corporate media, and can solicit support for the cause. Blogs, in particular, provide a vehicle for debate, dialogue, and the construction of localized knowledge that empowers citizens and guards against the reification of expertise that narrowly defines what counts as “knowledge” (Galusky, 2003).

As early as 1994, when the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) used the Internet to contest the Mexican government and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), indigenous groups have used online technology to support their efforts and garner global support (Landzelius, 2006).

The Internet represents one communicative tool, a component of a larger network of resistance, available to movements in the 21st century. Internet activism augments and/or facilitates other efforts, including face-to-face communication in the form of mass meetings, demonstrations, marches, pickets and strikes, sit-ins, walkouts, leafleting, and grassroots publications that contribute to efforts to create a more just and sustainable world.


Communication studies of social movements have wrestled with issues both analytical and theoretical. In initial writings, communication scholars sought to define social movements in rhetorical terms. Drawing on sociological studies, scholars defined a social movement as an “uninstitutionalized collectivity that mobilizes for action to implement a program for the reconstitution of social norms or values” (Bowers & Ochs, 1971, p. 36). Studies focused on the “rhetorical structures” and phases of movements (Griffin, 1952) and directed attention to the rhetorical requirements, rhetorical problems, and rhetorical strategies of movements (Simons, 1970). Stewart (1980) suggested a functional perspective approach to the study of movements that views rhetoric as an “agency” through which movements can attract members, “secure adoption” of their ideas by the establishment, and “react to resistance” (p. 153).

As antidote to the male bias in early social movement studies, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s seminal 1973 essay on the rhetoric of women’s liberation drew attention to the double bind facing women who engaged in public protest. Traditional social values and understandings of what it means to be a citizen-orator—a confident leader who speaks his or her mind—violate prevailing assumptions of womanhood such that no matter how conservative women’s arguments may be, her presence on the public platform is a violation of accepted norms. Campbell’s essay prompted an ongoing discussion regarding the ways women and other marginalized groups adapt rhetoric toward their own ends and called into question the male-centered approach of movement studies. Campbell identified alternative modes of speaking such as consciousness raising and a “feminine style” of speaking (in contrast to the traditionally accepted “masculine style”), both of which were more suited to the requirements and demands facing women’s rights advocates.

Other scholars (Cloud, 2001, 2005, 2011; Haiman, 1967; Scott & Smith, 1969; Simons, 1972; Triece, 2001, 2013) have likewise challenged the “establishment bias” (Simons, 1972) underlying social movement studies by shining a light on the strategic uses of confrontation and coercion. At root, these studies grapple with the relationship between the symbolic and the material and the ways individuals and collectives create and enact agency within established (but not inalterable) structures.

As early as 1967, Franklyn S. Haiman recognized the need for protest rhetoric to “exceed the bounds of rational discourse” in the form of what Haiman called “body rhetoric”—mass marches, blocking traffic, and the like (p. 102). Since Haiman’s essay, scholars have recognized that entrenched power structures often delimit protesters’ access to traditional channels of persuasion (e.g., petitioning, negotiating, meeting participation). Further, traditional forms of persuasion (e.g., petitioning, negotiating) may have limited impact on entrenched and systemic oppression. Cloud (2005) and other scholars have taken a materialist approach to social movement studies and called into question the “overemphasis on discursive power … in social movement research” (p. 511). Triece (2001, 2007, 2013) studied the often successful uses by protesters of “extra-discursive” tactics in the form of strikes, walkouts, factory sit-ins, boycotts, and welfare office occupations, as a way to win tangible demands.

Changes in the nature of global capitalism—what Hardt and Negri call “empire” (2000)—have led some scholars to turn away from class as a location of oppression and resistance and instead attend to identity politics, micropolitics, strategic strikes, or popular alliances (Butler, 1990; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). Influenced by post-structuralist and postmodern frameworks, scholars have troubled the notion of collective agency, instead seeing agency as a form of “‘getting through’ or ad hoc ‘making do’” (Biesecker, 1992, p. 155); “nomadism” (Hardt & Negri, 2000); or “communicative labor,” a “form of life-affirming constitutive power that embodies creativity and cooperation” (Greene, 2004, p. 201). Scholarship has also refigured what constitutes meaningful change. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have suggested the idea of “new social movements” that decenter analyses of collective actions aimed at structural change, and instead focus on micromovements based on unsettled, indeterminate, and discursive oppressions. From this view, struggle stems not from a particular material position but is bound by ideological and/or political alliances (Greene, 2004). A key issue continues to center around the notion of agency within structures that constrain but are not intractable.

Primary Sources

Primary sources pertaining to social movements in the United States include print-based collections of speeches and organizational documents and online archives.

The historian Philip Foner has contributed substantially to the study of movements and resistance through numerous volumes that hold the speeches, writings, and publications of organizations and agitators throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Important collections of African American voices include, Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 17871900 (Foner & Branham, 1998); The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (Douglas & Foner, 1975); American Communism and Black Americans (Foner & Allen); Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 19181974 (Robeson & Foner, 1978); and The Black Panthers Speak (Foner, 1970). On the labor movement in general, Foner has collected writings of the IWW’s free speech fights in Fellow Workers and Friends (Foner, 1981) and the tracts of working women and girls in The Factory Girls (Foner, 1977). Other important volumes including American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century (Foner, 1974b) and Kate Richards O’Hare: Selected Writings and Speeches (O’Hare, Foner, & Miller, 1982).

The Internet has proven to be an indispensible tool for scholars of social movements. Websites include archives of grassroots news outlets and provide finding aids for individuals who wish to visit collections in-person. For students of the abolition movement, the Black Abolitionist Archive , located at the University of Detroit, Mercy, provides downloadable copies of writings and speeches from hundreds of black activists and black organizations of the 19th century. The Library of Congress also houses an African American Pamphlet Collection , which holds nearly 400 pamphlets written by well-known activists such as Frederick Douglass, Mary Church Terrell, and Booker T. Washington. For a more extensive examination of Douglass, see The Frederick Douglass Papers , housed at the Library of Congress, which holds thousands of documents including Douglass’s diary, family correspondence, writings, and speeches. The collection’s finding aid is most helpful.

For scholars interested in primary documents of the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Digital Library is a clearinghouse that has organized and provided links to hundreds of collections that contain images, letters, interviews, oral histories, and documents spanning the 20th century civil rights efforts. This source provides links to sites as diverse as the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike , to the African American Oral History Collection (University of Louisville, Kentucky), to the speeches and writings of Martin Luther King Jr. at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute .

For a look at primary documents on the women’s rights movement of the 1960s–1970s, scholars should go to the Women’s Liberation Movement Print Culture of Duke University . This collection is home to manifestos, speeches, newsletters, and photos from many aspects of the women’s movement. The collection gives voice to poor black women, Chicanas, lesbians, and socialist feminists. Black women’s efforts in the welfare rights movement of the late 1960s into the early 1970s are collected in the papers of the National Welfare Rights Organization, housed at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. This collection (under “Other Collections”) is accessible onsite only.

Other 1960s protest efforts—including those of the women’s movement, antiwar movement, and student movement—can be found at the website for Students for a Democratic Society . This site contains SDS’s founding statement and constitution, community organizing guides, back issues of the organizations newsletter SDS Bulletin and New Left Notes, and links to the radical 1960s organization, the Weather Underground.

Scholars interested in labor movement rhetoric can refer to a number of online resources for documents of the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW Historical Archives contain links to IWW icons, minutes of the founding convention, and speeches/writings by notable Wobblies including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, William Haywood, and Mary Harris Jones. Another useful online archive for documents is Documents, Essays, and Analysis for a History of the Industrial Workers of the World , where scholars can find speeches by Eugene V. Debs and links to a long list of IWW pamphlets from the early 1900s. The Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University is home to an extensive library of labor materials, including the papers of over fifty Wobblies, hundreds of images, and IWW publications. These documents are available onsite.

American Federation of Labor documents, as well as other labor-related papers, are available onsite at the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library North, which hosts the George Meany Memorial AFL-CIO Archive . The University of Maryland is also home to documents of the Baltimore Federation of Labor and the Archives of the Cigar Makers’ International Union .

National Women’s Trade Union League of America papers and related documents on women and work can be accessed at Harvard University Library Open Collections, Women Working, 1800–1930 . Some of the documents are digitized, others are available onsite at Harvard University. The collection encompasses magazines, manuscripts, images, diaries, trade catalogues, and organizational documents.

Primary documents can be found at the website of the Environmental Justice Movement . The site includes links to the full text of landmark studies that have substantiated environmental racism. The Wisconsin Historical Society offers full text of documents of the early environmental movement (1930s–1970s). For a look at the efforts of a specific, influential environmental justice movement, see the New York–based, We Act for Environmental Justice , which contains back issues of publications, including Harlem Voices and WE ACT in a New York Minute.

Further Reading

  • Bacon, J. (2002). The humblest may stand forth: Rhetoric, empowerment, and abolition. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Cloud, D. (2001). Laboring under the sign of the new: Cultural studies, organizational communication, and the fallacy of the new economy. Management Communication Quarterly, 15, 268–278.
  • D’Emilio, J. (1983). Sexual politics, sexual communities: The making of a homosexual minority in the United States 1940–1970. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Foner, P. S. (1974). Organized labor and the black worker, 1619–1973. New York, NY: International Publishers.
  • Foner, P. S. (1975). History of the labor movement in the United States: From the founding of the A. F. L. to the emergence of American imperialism (Vol. 2). New York, NY: International Publishers.
  • Foner, P. S. (1982). Women and the American labor movement: From the first trade unions to the present. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Morris, A. D. (1984). The origins of the civil rights movement: Black communities organizing for change. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Ogbar, J. O. G. (2004). Black power, radical politics, and African American identity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Simons, H. (1972). Persuasion in social conflicts: A critique of prevailing conceptions and a framework for future research. Speech Monographs, 39, 227–247.
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