“We are often insensitive to the problems that black women encounter. We blame black beauty for not cooperating with us by becoming our sisters, but we don’t chastise ourselves for assuming the racially appointed role of the all-knowing big sisters. If we are to form a real union with black women, then we cannot allow our unearned power of whiteness to contemptuously light the way. The price due for the glorification of white women is paid in full by black women. While we are wallowing in our self-inflicted pity, we become apathetic to the issues that the other side is going through. Our excessive devotion to white beauty leaves black beauty scantily clad with attention. It is vital that we make an effort to understand our deep attraction to white beauty and our indifference to black beauty, not only from a feminist point of view, but also a racial point of view. While we share womanhood, we don’t share race. As white women, we are burdened by the difficulties of gender, but that burden is eased by our color. Our attitudes seem to express that we do not reach out to black women because we think they place racial issues over feminist issues. History shows this assumption to be a fallacy because black women confronted both issues before most white women could confront even one.
“Black women were feminists before the term was coined.
“They were doing men’s work in the field while raising two families–theirs and their masters. This may not be the ideal definition of feminism, but black women were doing more work than white men and white women combined, and they were doing it while being black.” (1)
Black women are not the “Johnnie-come-latelies” that the white women of the so-called feminist movement like to make us out to be. Black women were feminists since their time of enslavement, during Jim Crow segregation, during the reign of atrocities known as lynching, during the legally sanctioned mass rapes by white men of black women during segregation, during the Civil Rights Movement, and well into the new millennium. It sickens and angers me to no end how white women in the past, and even in the present, have the audacity to state that it was they who started the feminist movement. They did not. When black women were enslaved they worked in the fields doing the SAME type of work the black male slaves did: plowing behind mules; cutting and clearing trees away from roads; picking cotton; cooking in the slave quarters; cooking in the master’s kitchen; suffering from forced sex, forced procreation; taking care of the children born of the white woman and white man who enslaved her; taking care of her children with the black men slaves, and to add cruelty to cruelty, taking care of the half-white/half-black children forced on her through the white slave master’s sexual exploitation. Black women who were free, worked with free black men, and humane white men and women to bring about the abolition of slavery. Black women of the last century fought for the end of vicious lynchings and castration of black men, black women fought for the end of segregation, black women fought for better neighborhoods, jobs, equal rights and many things that women of today take for granted.
As much as they would like to think they are the owners of it, white women are not the ORIGINAL feminists. Black women and other women of color are the true feminists.
ABOLITION, ROOTS OF BLACK FEMINISM: THE FIRST WAVE Black feminism was, and is always fluid and diverse, focusing in various ways on the convergence of race, gender, sexuality, class, spirituality and culture.The primary expressions of black feminism in the US are marked by three distinct periods, or waves, that grew out of key movements in black American history:-The abolitionist movement to end slavery, which culminated with the suffragist’s movement to enact the passage of the 19TH Amendment in 1920;
-The modern civil rights movement, and black power movements, which peaked with the enforcement during the 1970s, of Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964;
-And the post-Civil Rights era that helped to usher in the professionalization and institutionalization of feminisms.
The roots of a distinctly black feminist conscience began during slavery and during the campaign of abolitionists to end slavery. Defined as “chattel”, forced to be “breeders” against their will (“Against Our Will”. Yeah, right. What does Susan Brownmiller know about anything that was against “her” will? But, I digress.) Denied the rights as citizens, as humans, black women were constantly confronted with a system that sought to destroy them both as humans, and as women.
To argue for racial and sexual equality in an environment that was hatefully hostile to both required courage and a passion for righteousness. The great liberal reformer and abolitionist Sojourner Truth is rightly celebrated as the fountainhead of black feminist thinking in the 19TH Century. Born of slave status, she preached that slavery denied black women motherhood, protection from exploitation, and devaluation of their innate feminine, womanly qualities. Sojourner’s Bible-based feminism, charged by her commanding personal testimony of life as a slave called attention to the way slavery stranded black women on the margins of “becoming a woman.” Sojourner Truth, a black feminist whom many white women are so quick to quote not realizing that her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech speaks of how differently white woman were treated over black women, and how this double standard of mistreatment still exists today.
Sojourner was not the only black woman feminist at this time, others included Jarena Lee and Marie Stewart, who championed women’s rights through the Bible, but Sojourner was often the LONE black voice among many prominent white feminists.
By challenging the prevailing dominant thinking of her time, Sojourner disrupted a political movement that sought voraciously to keep black women on the outskirts, pushed to the margins.
Sojourner’s famous “And A’n’t I A Woman?” speech spoke to slavery, and America’s mistreatment of black women in denying them the most basic of decent treatment that ALL women are due as fellow human beings.
But, even though many attribute Sojourner as the epitome of black feminism during her time, it is to Harriet Tubman, the other noted black woman of the 19TH Century, who was the genuine embodiment of a revolutionary abolitionist’s black feminist spirit.
Known as “Moses” by black slaves she brought out of slavery to freedom, Harriet challenged the exploitative system of slavery from the inside, working over the course of her life to free herself and many others. As the celebrated conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet led more than 200 enslaved people out of bondage.
As a spy, scout and military leader for the Union Army, at a time when white women were not even allowed into any branch of the U.S. military, Harriet piloted black troops up the Combahee River in South Carolina, securing the additional freedom of close to 800 enslaved persons. Can’t get anymore feminist than that.
After the war, Harriet was active in women’s organizations and was a popular speaker at suffrage meetings. An advocate of greater attention to the needs of poor and aged people, Harriet was in the vanguard of the human rights struggle.
Jarena Lee. Practically unheard by many people today, Jarena was the first woman known to petition the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church for authority to preach. Jarena went on to preach throughout the northeastern region of America. Although she often traveled alone, her autobiographical reports constant companionship among black American evangelical women. Because Jarena was an itinerant preacher and because she carried out her ministry with and among other “sisters in Christ”, she was a pathfinder for future preaching women, particularly women of the AME Church. The constant and successful preaching efforts of AME women eventually forced the denomination to create gender-specific positions when no organizational authority for women had previously existed.
Maria Stewart. It is a shame that this lady’s name is not spoken of in the same breath as Sojourner’s, and Maria was a force to be reckoned with. During her speeches she reminded her audience that during ancient times women were honored for their wisdom, prudence, religiosity and achievements. Her speeches were not well-received because of the gender politics of the 19TH Century, after all, she was the first American-born woman to break the taboo against participating in public dialogues, a taboo held by both black and white communities alike. She also faced stiff opposition from Boston’s conservative black political circles. Maria advocated black self-determination and economic independence from well-meaning whites. She broke new ground in black activism. No black leaders, male or female, had turned to the lecture circuit to present their views, and that is what Maria spent much of her life doing.
THE GROWTH OF BLACK FEMINISMS
With the passage of the 15TH Amendment giving black men the right to vote, a distinct woman’s suffrage movement began that spanned through the years from 1890-1920. The activism of black women during the period of Jim Crow segregation points out the courage and vision it took many black women to pursue the right to vote at a time when white men and WHITE WOMEN alike sought to exclude them from it.
Despite the fact that white suffragists never hesitated to discuss how the vote would seal white supremacy, black feminists pressed for alliances with them.
And white women suffragettes worked against the interests of both black women and black men.
Most notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Of particular note was the less than genuine concern for black women and their right to the vote. White women suffragettes launched a vicious campaign that sought to undermine the enfranchisement efforts of black men, by trying to use black women as fodder to get white women the right to vote first.
White suffragettes, like Anthony and Stanton, sought to use black women for their selfish ends, also while denying black women access to the women’s asscociation conventions.
That this was Anthony and Stanton’s strategy became clear when they allied with a millionaire Democrat, George Train, who financed their feminist newspaper, “The Revolution”. Within its pages was venom of the worst kind:
“While the dominant party have with one hand lifted up TWO MILLION BLACK MEN and crowned them with honor and dignity of citizenship,” wrote Anthony, “with the other they have dethroned FIFTHTEEN MILLION WHITE WOMEN—-their own mothers and sisters, their own wives and daughters—and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of manhood.”
Stanton, ever the gracious lady, took it even further.
She wrote of a black man lynched in Tennessee for allegedly raping a white woman. The point of the story wasn’t the horrific lynching and its injustice, but, that giving black men the right to vote was virtually a licence to rape. “The Republican cry of ‘Manhood Suffrage’ creates an antagonism between black men and all women that will culminate in fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the southern states,” she ranted.
Another sick aspect of her campaign was the use of class as well as race as a weapon.
In announcing her candidacy for a New York congressional seat in 1866, Stanton introduced the idea that middle-class women (white) should be enfranchised to stave off the poor, the immigrants, AND the blacks. She told her potential constituents:
“In view of the fact that the Freedmen of the South and the millions of foreigners now crowding our shores, most of whom represent neither property, education, nor CIVILIZATION, are all the progress of events to be enfranchised, the best interests of the nation demand that we outweigh this incoming pauperism, ignorance and degradation, with the wealth, education, and refinement of the women of the republic (white women).”
And “educational requirements” of course would eliminate the vast majority of blacks and immigrants, both men and women——including the great Sojourner Truth herself.
Refusing to desert the suffrage cause, black women organized voter’s leagues and clubs. But, even there, black women did something very monumental in raising the fight against racism and sexism off their shoulders, and their daughters, and grand-daughters shoulders.
Nineteenth-century America was a pivotal period in history for Black female activists, many of whom were forced to choose between continuing to fight in the trenches for the advancement of black rights, or joining the burgeoning predominately white feminist movement. Prior to emancipation, the decision was simple, as battling against oppression based on race was the obvious singular choice. The partnership forged between white female abolitionists and free blacks for the purpose of ending chattel slavery — among other issues — created early expectations that forced an unwarranted dilemma for black American female activists. This forced choice came to a head with the passage of the fifteenth amendment in 1870 where black men alone were enfranchised. White men fundamentally held all political and social power, white women and black men fought for the remains, black women, therefore, were on one front marginalized and on another, obliged to choose their course of action. Nineteenth-century black women seized this imposed circumstance and declined to make a choice one way or the other. This refusal transformed the twin barriers of sexism and racism into a unique position of power. Sojourner Truth, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and other women tackled this race/gender debate by repudiating its validity and asserting the interconnected nature of race, gender and class as the lens through which they viewed the world. By declining to choose, black women of the nineteenth century laid the foundation for the approaching black women’s movement through not only the Women’s Club Movement (Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, among many others), but also well into the twentieth century with the black feminist (Combahee River Collective) and womynist (Alice Walker) movements.
Most notable were the many black women who fought for the rights of all black people, especially the right to vote and the fight to end racial violence against black Americans:
-Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She gave a lifelong commitment to fighting against lynching. She along with many other black women believed that black women needed the vote even more than white women, because it would enable them to protect their inalienable rights and improve their schools and conditions as wage earners, especially since black women worked as domestics in the homes of white people, and as laundresses. Ida also challenged the myth that all white women were chaste, that all black women were without virtue, and that all black men were rapists.
-Mary Church Terrell championed the black communities self-help/egalitarian responsibility with her “lifting as we climb” motto.
THE WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT: THE SECOND WAVE
Black feminists during the second wave, 1965-1975, demanded empowerment on their own terms as they chipped away at legalized Jim Crow laws. Despite that many men are celebrated as the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, there were many, many black women who were leaders and grassroot/foot soldiers in every aspect of the struggle for liberation.
-In 1955 JoAnn Gibson Robinson and the Women’s Political Council organized the MIA that catapulted Martin L.King into the leadership of the nonviolent movement.
-Ella Baker, former field secretary for the NAACP and interim director of the SCLC, organized black college students in 1960 into SNCC. Under Ella, students initiated sit-ins and freedom rides to expose racial segregation and the violence used by whites to maintain separate but unequal facilities.
By 1970 explicit discussions of sexuality had taken center stage in the women’s movement, and black feminist’s efforts to sculpt organizational agendas to address their concerns were too often marginalized or interpreted as divisive. Sexism in the Black Power movement and racism in the (white) women’s liberation movement pushed black women feminists to organize independently.
-The National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) was founded in November, 1973 as black feminists experienced tensions with both black men and white society at large. These women envisioned a multi-purpose organization that would address various issues that ranged from employment, childcare concerns to sexuality, addiction, and black women’s relations to each other and to the women’s movement. White women who attended the conference later wrote that they now saw that before they could build coalitions with black women, they would first need to prove that they were not racist. During the first wave of feminism, black suffragists struggled with the racism of white women, but the second wave required nonracist entry tickets that proved difficult for the white women to produce. While white women and all men had access to the large assembly at the conference, they were not admitted into the workshops.
As organized black feminist activism waned, it was largely lesbian groups that continued to struggle in a collective fashion around feminist issues. Their identity as lesbians made them more aware of heterosexuality as an institution and the need to challenge patriarchy.
-In 1974 the Combahee River Collective was formed by a small group of socialist black feminists who were disappointed by what they saw as the NBFO’s “bourgeois” stance and lack of a clear political focus. These women chose to identify with Harriet Tubman’s militant defiance. Three years later, the group issued a widely quoted statement defining its political commitment to dismantling “interlocking” racial, sexual, and economic oppression. These women, along with other black lesbian groups, such as the Salsa Soul Sisters, envisioned organizing other black feminists and lesbians through writing and publishing.
CONTEMPORARY FEMINISMS: THE THIRD WAVE INTO THE PRESENT
The 1980-1990s saw a major growth in black feminist writers/authors. They let their voices be heard in published works and in academia. They critiqued gender, white male supremacist patriarchy and other structures of domination.
Today we are right back where we started——white women as the end-all, be-all, saviours of the feminist movement. But, black women, and other WOC have not taken a back seat to all this steady being pushed back onto the periphery of society. They still stand up and make themselves be known; they still stand up and be counted.
White feminist theory which often excludes the life experiences of women of color, functions as a prevailing theme. Dominant discourses generally fail to allow for and accept the differences of different viewpoints that women of color can bring to the table. Chela Sandoval, calls this “academic apartheid”, “methodology of the oppressed”, and “hegemonic feminism” and juxtaposes it with “U.S. Third World feminism.” Third world feminists object to hegemonic feminism’s sole focus on gender, always at the exclusion of the just as important realms of race, class and culture. “Ain’t I a woman” is a question that women of color have been asking since Sojourner Truth first raised this question with the white suffragists of her time. The racial conflict of the suffragette movement of the 19th Century (and the 20TH Century) happened because of the privileged position of white women to white men, and the jockeying for social/and economic acceptance of white men in positions of power alongside, if not completely equal to white men, by white women, a factor that still continues to plague, and influence race relations between white women and women of color.
This “oppositional consciousness”, in that white feminists present an opposition to the varied aspects of black feminism (race, gender, class), leads to a repression and disregard for the experiences of black women, and, serves as a basis for black women’s alliances with other women of color (Latina, Asian, Native American).
And the voices of WOC continue to be heard today, even in 2006, even going into 2007, and beyond, both PAST and PRESENT:
-bell hooks. She has made the point that if we allow women to define feminism however as they see fit, we will soon find ourselves saying any woman can be a feminist, regardless of her political beliefs.
-Byllye Avery. Founded the National Black Women’s Health Project.
-Toni Cade Bambara. Edited the immensely important work The Black Woman: An Anthology in 1970.
-Frances M. Beal. She was a founder of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of SNCC.
-Shirley Chisholm. She was the first black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first black woman to pursue the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.
-Angela Davis. Wrote pivotal books and essays on the situation of black women in American society.
-Flo Kennedy. She was one of the loudest, most raucous, and most effective voices in both civil rights and women’s movements.
-Audre Lorde. She was the author of “Sister Outsider” (1984), among many other important works.
-Jennifer McLune, noted feminist author
-Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist
-June Jordan, poet
-Alice Walker (who coined the term ‘womanist’)
-Patricia Hill Collins, author
-C. Delores Nottage Tucker, activist who took on the gangsta rap filth industry, singlehandedly
Given the discursive power of race, black feminists have not had the privilege of abandoning the construction of a singular identity, though they recognize the plural identities of their own existence. Black feminists have used their voices, writings, and activism to grapple with the systemic institutionalized oppression of black women.
With their unique perspectives on the combination of race, sexuality, and class within each particular historical moment, the varieties of black feminism give credence to the many ways that black women have found to take a stand against sexism while remaining in solidarity with other political stances.
Obviously there are many black feminist traditions and outlooks. And it is very important that black women, as well as all women of color, be given their just due for all that they have contributed in the fight and continued struggle for all women’s liberation.
And to end on this note, I will quote the great Anna Julia Cooper. Her words ring true now, as they did over 100 years ago. I will let her speak for all the black feminists of her time, and all the black feminists who came after her:
“Only the BLACK WOMAN can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole. . .race enters with me.”
(1) “Big Little White Lies: Our Attempt to White-Out America”, by Carol Chehade. Nemarche Publishing, Inc., 2001. pgs. 135-136.
“When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America”, by Paula Giddings, William Morrow and Company, 1984.
bell hooks. “Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics. Boston: South End Press, 2000.
bell hooks. “Must We Call All Women ‘Sister’?”. Z Magazine (February 1992).
Anna Julia Cooper. “A Voice of the South by a Black Woman of the South”. Xenia, Ohio: Aldine Publishing House, 1892.
Gerda Lerner, ed.. “Black Women in White America: A Documentary History”. New York: Vintage Books. February, 1973.
“Black Women in America”, Second Edition, ed. in chief, Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Chela Sandoval, “Methodology of the Oppressed”. University of Minnesota Press (October 2000).