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The National Archives Presents: Women’s Rights and Gender Equality – A National Conversation o

Maria Marable-Bunch

Our latest post comes from Maria Marable-Bunch, the Director of Education and Public Programs at the National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, D.C.

Friday, October 21, the National Archives will present its third event in a series of six national conversations on rights and justice issues impacting modern day civil and individual rights. The anticipated results of this conversation on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality is to give voice to the continued challenges of achieving equal rights for girls and women in the United States and globally as well as showcase leaders and activist who are making a difference.  The National Archives has a wealth of information about women’s rights and empowerment from the founding of the United States to today. I invite you to join our ongoing conversation and take advantage of its resources to further your work.

The program on the 21st, to be held at the National Archives’ facility in New York City, Alexander Hamilton Custom House in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, will highlight current issues of women rights and gender equality. New York has been at the forefront of debates about women’s rights and gender equality since the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls was held 150 years ago. With this program, we will continue the debate.

The event will begin at 9:30 am. Soledad O’Brian, award-winning journalist and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt will open the program with a keynote conversation on historical and current issues. Panel discussions will be on Women’s Rights and Health/Reproduction, Family, Race, and Violence as well as Advocacy and Action: Financial Empowerment, Business, Technology, and Education.  These discussions will include Andrea Flynn, Roosevelt Institute, Arlinda Locklear (first Native American Attorney to argue in front of the Supreme Court), Allida Black, Professor, George Washington University, Sonia Ossorto, NOW-NY, Alondra Nelson, Columbia University, Noreen Farrell, Equal Rights Advocates, Suzan Braun Levine, Ms. Magazine, Stephanie Totl, Center for Reproductive Rights, Marianne Schnall,, Dana Edell, SPARK Movement, Avis Jones-DeWeever, Exceptional Leadership Institute for Women, and Rachel Simmons, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. The program will end with a performance by Aja Monet, poet and closing keynote by Joelle Gamble, Director of National Network of Emerging Thinkers, Roosevelt Institute.

Click here to register to attend in person or view the livestream.

VIDEO: Learn more about the National Conversation on Rights and Justice

While this program specifically focuses on women’s rights, we have had powerful female presenters in our past program who shared their work and personal stories in the struggle to secure civil and individual rights for the disadvantage and those forced to live on the edges of our society. Laura Emiko Soltis, executive director of Freedom University, Atlanta, GA shared the goals and work of the university to assist undocumented students as they navigate our education system. View the National Archives YouTube to see a segment of her eloquent explanation that civil rights are human rights. Mary Morton, LGBTQ activist in Chicago, spoke about the lack of quality health care, job security, homelessness, and violence against gay communities especially among transgenders.

You may be wondering why would the National Archives launch such an ambitious national program and how is it relevant to activists for women’s economic empowerment? In 2012, I became the Director of Education and Public Programs at the National Archives and Record Management (NARA), the federal agency charged with the responsibility to collect and preserve the records of the federal government and make them accessible to the American people. The agency consists of several Federal Records Centers, Researcher Centers across the country, 13 and soon to be 14 Presidential Libraries, and the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC. NARA’s holdings include over 13 billion documents, artifacts, film, and photographs, and yes, that includes the Charters of FreedomDeclaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. When you begin to factor in the electronic records, it becomes staggering trying to comprehend the total number of records preserved by this agency.

I had the opportunity to attend the Civil Rights Summit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, TX in April 2014 honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Movement. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s propelled the nation into a major social transformation that continues to “jolt” how we navigate daily life in the United States in the 21st century—class, gender, politics, race, religion, and sexual orientation shape the lived experience of being an American today. The summit honored those who were the heroes, planners, and soldiers in the early days of the movement. There were sessions where stories were shared by many of the great leaders of this era. There were even interludes of culture—music, media, and dance—to place these stories in the context of the time period. Speeches were given by the living past presidents and President Barack Obama, each sharing their thoughts about the impact of the civil rights movement on them personally and what it meant leading a diverse nation. It was a special moment for reliving the early days of the movement.

Throughout the three-day event, one could not avoid wondering about current issues around civil rights. What does civil rights mean today? Who’s keeping the vigil alive for “rights for all”? Who are the emerging leaders in this so called “post-civil rights era”? What new issues are we tackling now? What freedoms have we won but must continue to fight to retain? How is this movement being reframed (or not) in the 21st century? What is the role of social media versus mass movements/marches and legislation? What leaders or organizations are essential to the issues of civil rights today?  How do we insure “freedom” and “fairness” in the 21st century?

Near the conclusion of the event, I looked around the auditorium. Half of the audience consisted of students at the university.  I wondered what these young adults in the audience must be thinking.  What are their thoughts and opinions about civil rights and how are their lives impacted by it today? It was that moment that I decided there needed to be a continuation of this discussion on the meaning of civil or human rights in this contemporary era and we needed to make sure it included the voices of our young leaders and activists today. Early the next morning, as I waited for transportation to the airport, I saw David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States.  We agreed that we needed to figure out how we can facilitate continued meaningful conversations.

From that conversation I began to craft a plan for this new program idea. I knew I wanted to highlight current advocacy work or activism on a range of social, political, and economic issues that impacted individual and human rights. I also wanted to introduce a new audience to the amazing history we contain in our holdings about past and ongoing discussions and challenges to gaining and keeping our civil and individual rights.

At the same time, the National Archives was about to engage in a national initiative that would commemorate the 225th Anniversary of the Bill of Rights called Amending America. As the permanent home of the Bill of Rights, no institution is better poised than the National Archives to not only celebrate the 225th anniversary of this extraordinary document but also explore its meaning for civil rights today.  This was the perfect moment to launch a “national conversation” program. We would use this new program to engage the nation (locally and nationwide) in a conversation about class, gender, and race in a changing America in this new century.  The content of the discussions builds on the National Archives’ holdings, connecting key foundational documents to the challenges before us. The issues raised in the conversations also highlight the content of the National Archives’ exhibition “Amending America.”  But our larger goal is more ambitious—to advance discussion of these critical issues in communities across the nation, fore-fronting the challenges to rights and justice that persist 225 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

The six locations chosen to host events from May 2016 to April 2017 are The Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, Atlanta, GA, May 20-21, Civil Rights and Individual Freedom; Chicago History Museum, Chicago, IL, July 15-16, LGBTQ Human and Civil Rights; National Archives at New York City and the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian, New York, NY, October 21, 2016, Women’s Rights and Gender Equality; Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, CA, November 19, 2016, Immigration: Barriers and Access; The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Dallas, TX, February, 2017, Educational Access and Equality; and a culminating two-day event in Washington, DC, April, 2017, will bring together top scholars, community activists, and political leaders to address America’s national/international focus (present and the future) and explore the meaning of civil rights as we work towards Building a More Perfect Union.

If you want further information about this program and past national conversations, whether to register for the next discussion or view highlights of past conversations go to or

Join the conversation live at

On Twitter use #RightsandJustice

Learn more about the initiative at

I also want to thank the sponsors who have made the New York City and other venues possible: presented in part by AT&T, Ford Foundation, Seedlings Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the National Archives Foundation. Special thanks to Perkins Coie for their support of this event in New York City. Please join us for this timely discussion. I will be back to share with you some of the highlights of the event.


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