Black Feminism in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy
4 themes • Black women empower themselves by creating self-definitions and self-valuations that enable themselves to establish positive, multiple images and repel negative, controlling representations of Black womanhood; • Black women confront and dismantle the interlocking and overarching structure of domination in terms of race, gender, and class oppression; • BW intertwine intellectual thought and political action (theory and practice; or praxis); • BW recognize a distinct cultural heritage that gives them the energy and skills to resist and overcome daily discrimination.
Patricia Hill Collins sums it up by saying that Black feminism is “a process of self-conscious struggle that empowers women and men to actualize a humanist vision of community.”
Two Waves of Black Feminism • “Two waves” of Black feminism (Ula Taylor, Journal of Black Studies, 1998). • First wave connected to the abolitionist movement; second to the civil rights movement.
Between 1830 and 1865, BW abolitionists developed a feminist consciousness that reflected their particular experiences as BW as well as aspects of sexism they shared with white women. “Free” and enslaved AA women created numerous strategies and tactics to dismantle slavery as a legal institution and resist racially gendered sexual abuse.
During this period, because of mythical, stereotypical images of Black womanhood, free and enslaved AA women were blamed for their own victimization. • The core of the myth surrounded the Jezebel/Mammy dichotomy. “Jezebel” excused miscegenation and the sexual exploitation of Black women. “Mammy” endorsed service of Black women in southern households. Like their enslaved sisters, free Black women could not escape the harmful effects of these myths and as reformers they organized against race and gender oppression simultaneously.
AA female abolitionists feminist consciousness blossomed as they campaigned for equal rights within the context of organized Black abolitionism. Sojourner Truth, 19th century Black reformer couched her arguments in evangelical language. Truth’s narrative, “Aren’t I a Woman?,” highlights a theological justification for the abolition of slavery and the granting of equal rights for men and women. • Slave status denied Black women motherhood, protection from exploitation and feminine qualities. Truth’s call empowered Black women by bringing attention to the intersection of race and gender.
After passage of the 13th amendment, tensions between abolitionists and feminists exploded over the issue of suffrage. Despite the fact that white women exploited and betrayed Black women during the suffrage movement, Black women nevertheless played an important role in the fight for women’s right to vote, and this in the context of the brutal Jim Crow legal racist structure. • Black women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett argued that Black women needed the vote even more than their white counterparts to protect their inalienable rights and improve their schools and status as wage-laborers.
Wells-Barnett challenged the myths that all white women were chaste and all Black women were without virtue and that all Black men were rapists, by unleashing a massive international campaign against lynching. She documented the economic conditions of the lynching victims, and that white women could be attracted to Black men and that Black women were being violated and abused at alarming rates.
After passage of the 19th amendment, Black women tried to cast their votes but were met with hostility not only at the polls in states like Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida, but at the National Women’s Party Convention in 1921. 60 AA women from 14 states requested an interview with Alice Paul, leader of the NWP, to discuss the disenfranchisement of Black Women. Paul agreed to listen but did not accept their request to present their plea to the convention. Journalists for the magazine the Nation (still in existence) revealed that AA women sought to have Paul form a special committee to investigate the violations during the 1920 election, but that Paul was indifferent to and resentful of the AA delegation. Paul and other white leaders repeatedly explained that Black women were no worse off than Black men in these states. (Florida in the 2000 election needs to be viewed historically).
The Second Wave During the Civil rights era, usually demarcated by the Brown vs. Board decision in 1954, many of the leaders were men, certainly the most visible ones in the mainstream media, nevertheless BW were extremely important at the forefront and on the ground. • Ella Baker, Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, Septima Clark, JoAnn Robinson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray-Adams, Rosa Parks, AssataShakur, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, Elaine Brown (just to name a few of the most well-known), dedicated themselves to civil rights and Black power as well as equality for men and women.
Ella Baker led the non-violent direct tactics of the SNCC sit-ins, boycotts, and freedom rides, and it is well-known that the civil rights movement served as a model for the women’s movement. JoAnn Robinson and the Women’s Political Council organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott that catapulted Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the National stage. (see The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, by JoAnn Robinson). Also, the Rosa Parks Myth, that “she was a tired seamstress who was so tired after work one day that she refused to move and then MLK led the boycott, etc.” Rosa Parks was a longtime activist, member and leader of the NAACP and many other organizations. It was planned civil disobedience and she was ‘tired’ but not only or even primarily physically tired from work, but ‘tired’ in the sense of fed-upwith racism, and not simply the separation of public facilities, but the institutional subjugation of AA peoples. • The Civil rights movement served as a training ground for Black women who would lead the second wave of feminism, the women’s liberation movement.
But Black women were also beginning to challenge the male-centeredness of the Civil rights organizations, where Black women fully participated in and led the boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Summer, March on Washington, and other important campaigns, yet back at the office they did housework, typed, cooked, and when the media called, the men were put in front. • There were also complicated personal/political struggles going on, and relationships between Black men and white women during the movement became politicized.
In 1966, Betty Freidan and two Black women, Aileen Hernandez and Pauli Murray, along with a group of prominent professional women, founded the National Organization of Women. This was in part a response to the feeling of many Black and White women that what was need was an “NAACP for Women”. • But NOW was flooded with younger white women who were refugees of the much more (compared to SNCC, e.g.) sexist, patriarchal New Left political organizations such as the SDS, and so like their foremothers, the second wave of feminists forged their feminism in the anti-racist struggle, but ultimately abandoned this struggle to form organizations that catered to the needs and concerns of white middle and upper middle class women.
African American women did not have the privilege of abandoning the anti-racist struggle. As AA struggled against the backlash brought on by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Black Power movement emerged. This shift in the movement toward a nationalist trend had a profound impact on Black feminists. • On the one hand, nationalism has a vision that includes women, for no nation can survive without women, and it recognizes that women too suffer under colonialism and racism, but on the other hand women again often found themselves in secondary roles and used as symbols by their male counterparts.
AssataShakur and Elaine Brown paint two very different pictures of the role of women in the Black Panther party. Shakur shows that women were the real basis of the community programs like the free breakfast program, but Brown details physical abuse and sexist power plays between men and women. • But men and women worked side by side in successful campaigns such as the election of Shirley Chisholm as the first Black woman in Congress. • Women began organizing on their own and many of the most successful campaigns were led by women, including the creation of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee, later renamed the Third World Women’s Alliance under Frances Beal.
Beal’s 1970 essay “Double Jeopardy: To be Black and Female” was an important moment in the development of Contemporary Black Feminism, but her work went beyond theory, exemplifying one of the core characteristics of BF highlighted by Collins. • The TWWA participated in the “Liberation Day” parade celebrating the 19th amendment on August 26, 1970. White and Black women clashed over support for Angela Davis, the whites saying that Angela Davis has nothing to do with the women’s struggle and the Black women saying she may have nothing to with your struggle but she certainly does ours. • Beal stated that any women’s struggle that is not anti-racist and anti-imperialist has nothing in common with the Black women’s struggle.
Another point of conflict between white and Black women in the women’s movement had to do with the emerging anti-poverty movement and welfare movement. The National Welfare Rights Organization was founded in 1967, though earlier regional groups had been formed earlier. • Again, many of the white middle class women in the women’s movement did not see the importance of the anti-poverty and welfare rights movements, concentrating instead on women’s place in the professions, glass ceilings and under-representation in fields such as law, medicine, academia, and the corporate office. • Black feminists responded that it is not just a matter of sex discrimination in white collar employment but poverty elimination.
1973 saw the formation of the National Black Feminist Organization. It had a successful conference in November of 1973 but had difficulty sustaining momentum in part because most Black women did not have the luxury of devoting full-time to a political movement. Again, the class issue came in, as an important issue between Black and white female activists. As Toni Morrison wrote during this period: • It is a source of amusement even now to Black women to listen to feminists talk of liberation, while back at home somebody’s nice Black grandmother shoulders the daily responsibility of child rearing and floor mopping and the liberated one comes home to examine the housekeeping, correct it, and be entertained by the children. If women’s liberation needs those grandmothers to thrive, it has a serious flaw.
The late 70s saw the creation of Black feminist groups like the Combahee River Collective, issuing important statements that stressed their commitment to dismantling the interlocking structures of race/class/gender oppressions. • The 80s and 90s saw the emergence of new contemporary Black feminist theory and practice, especially with the development of liberatory and emancipatory theoretical frameworks dealing with epistemological issues. bell hooks, e.g. But these cutting edge Black feminists also take us back to the important history of the movement and the foremothers who led the way, and without which they would not be here to speak. Still, many argue that we have entered the Third Wave of Black feminism.