Celebrating women on the front lines of Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice

Article Published on March 2023

Among the many women remembered and celebrated during Women’s History Month, we can point to three whose leadership helped to inspire the SEIU Local 1000 Purpose Statement, which encourages us to use the power of our represented employees to achieve social, economic, and environmental justice. Here’s a look at these powerful, thoughtful women.

Fannie Lou Hamer – Social Justice

Fannie (October 6, 1917—March 14, 1977) grew up poor as a sharecropper in Mississippi, but she went on to be one of the most inspirational leaders of the Civil Rights Era whose fierce activism on behalf of voting rights inspired generations of activists.

Fed up with the inhumane treatment of black citizens by an oppressive Southern culture (forced sterilization was among the mistreatments Hamer endured), she became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her work with voter registration was extremely dangerous; Hamer was jailed and beaten so severely she had lifelong health issues. But, however much she personally struggled, Hamer remained a force of life and hope for others and could be counted on to break into rousing renditions of “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” to lift the spirits of fellow activists.

Hamer is probably most famous for organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The MFDP was a group of 64 black and 4 white elected delegates who challenged the legitimacy of unelected white segregationists representing Mississippi. Party leaders tried to compromise by offering the MFDP two seats. But Hamer famously responded: “We didn’t come here for no two seats!”

Perhaps nothing Hamer said expressed her commitment to social justice as simply as what she said in a 1971 speech in Washington, DC: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Fannie had the fire of justice in her heart; even when faced with the worst abuses of the Jim Crow south, she could not be broken.

Frances Perkins – Economic Justice

Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880- May 14, 1965) was the first woman to hold a U. S. cabinet position. FDR’s Secretary of Labor, Perkins was the principal architect of key New Deal programs including Social Security, unemployment insurance, laws regulating child labor, and a federal minimum wage.

Perkins steeled herself against the sexism she endured, holding strong to her conviction that economic justice is integral to a democracy, saying: “The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”

Frances Perkins and the New Deal brought working people into the middle class, and we need to continue her fight to make true economic security a reality.

Berta Cáceres – Environmental Justice

Berta (March 4, 1971-March 3, 2016) was a Honduran environmental activist and leader of the indigenous Lenca people there. She led a decade-long internationally-waged battle to stop a damn being built on the Gualcarque River, a body of water which is sacred to the Lenca.

In 2015, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work, but still she was stalked, received repeated rape and death threats and saw several of her supporters killed. Those suspected of the murder and harassment went free while Cáceres was forced into hiding.

For her last few years, she almost never spoke on the phone, she rarely stayed in one place for more than a night, and she never travelled alone. In response to why she didn’t back down in the face of unspeakable terror, Cáceres said:

“We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action.”

Berta taught us that living in harmony with our world is a human right. We can all honor our sister by reaffirming our commitment to environmental justice