Democratic Theory, Political
Courage, and Activist Women
In this essay, I argue that contemporary democratic theory gives insufficient attention to the important contributions dissenting citizens make to democratic life. Guided by the dissident practices of activist women, I develop a more expansive conception of citizenship that recognizes dissent and an ethic of political courage as vital elements of democratic participation. I illustrate how this perspective on citizenship recasts and reclaims women's courageous dissidence by reconsidering the well-known story of Rosa Parks.
A black woman named Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955 and goes to jail. A group of welfare mothers led by Johnnie May Tillmon challenges the attempts of white, middle-class male organizers to assume leadership roles in the welfare rights movement in 1966. Poet, activist, and black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde pointedly calls white feminists to account for their racism, classism, and homophobia during the 1981 National Women's Studies Association meeting. Activist Candace Gingrich comes out publicly as a lesbian following the election of her conservative half‐ brother Newt as Speaker of the House in 1994.
In spite of the crucial roles these activist women have played in contemporary U.S. politics, mainstream democratic theory offers few resources for thinking about their actions in terms of citizenship. For political theorists interested in democracy, however, the dissident practices of Parks, Tillmon, and other activist women provide a rich source for considering what it means to be an active, self-governed citizen, and what it means to act together with others in a political community. In this essay, I argue that the dissenting practices of these women point toward an ex