Black feminism

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Black feminism argues that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together.[1] The way these relate to each other is called intersectionality. Forms of feminism that strive to overcome sexism and class oppression but ignore race can discriminate against women through racial bias. The Combahee River Collective argued in 1974 that the liberation of black women entails freedom for all people, since it would require the end of racism, sexism, and class oppression.[2]

One of the theories that evolved out of the Black feminist movement was Alice Walker's Womanism. Alice Walker and other womanists pointed out that black women experienced a different and more intense kind of oppression from that of white women. Womanism is a critical disidentification with what black women understood to be the anti-male sentiments of white feminists and white feminist movements. Black womanists such as Alice Walker and Sherley Anne Williams contended that "womanist" is preferable to "feminist" because "womanist" is actively anti-separatist. Sherley Anne Williams notes, for example, that “womanist theory is, by definition, ‘committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people” (219).[3] Womanists also point to the emergence of black feminism after earlier movements led by white middle-class women which they regard as having largely ignored oppression based on race and class.[4] Patricia Hill Collins defined Black feminism, in Black Feminist Thought (1991), as including "women who theorize the experiences and ideas shared by ordinary black women that provide a unique angle of vision on self, community, and society".[5]

There is a long-standing and important alliance between postcolonial feminists, which overlaps with transnational feminism and third-world feminism, and black feminists. Both have struggled for recognition, not only from men in their own culture, but also from Western feminists.[6]

Black feminist theory has argued that black women are positioned within structures of power in fundamentally different ways from white women. Black feminist theorists such as Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins have argued, for example, that black women, unlike many white women, are marginalized along lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality. As such, mainstream white feminist theory has neither comprehensively accounted for the economic, racial, and gender exigencies of black female experience, nor, in many cases, tried to. As black feminist legal studies scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw notes, "black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender" (The Black Feminist Reader, Crenshaw 209). Black women's exclusion from feminist and antiracist discourses became especially clear in 1960s and '70s social movements for racial and gender equality. Hence, the emergence of black feminist organizations.

Black feminist organizations[edit]

Black feminist organizations had to overcome three different challenges that no other feminist organization had to face. The first challenge these women faced was to "prove to other black women that feminism was not only for white women."[7] They also had to demand that white women "share power with them and affirm diversity" and "fight the misogynist tendencies of Black Nationalism".[7] With all the challenges these women had to face many activists referred to black feminists as "war weary warriors".

Angela Davis speaking at the University of Alberta on March 28, 2006

The NBFO, the National Black Feminist Organization, was founded in 1973. This organization of women focused on the interconnectedness of the many prejudices that were faced by African American Women such as racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.[8] As an active organization the NBFO stopped operating nationally in 1977.

The Combahee River Collective was one of the most important black socialist feminist organizations of all time. Primarily a black feminist and lesbian organization this group began meeting in Boston in 1974, a time when socialist feminism was thriving in Boston. The name Combahee River Collective was suggested by the founder and African-American lesbian feminist, Barbara Smith, and it refers to the campaign led by Harriet Tubman who freed 750 slaves near the Combahee River in South Carolina in 1863. Smith said they wanted the name to mean something to African American women that "it was a way of talking about ourselves being on a continuum of black struggle, of black women’s struggle".[9]

The members of this organization consisted of many former members of other political organizations that worked within the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, labor movement, and others. Demita Frazier, co-founder of the Combahee River Collective says these women from other movements found themselves "in conflict with the lack of a feminist analysis and in many cases were left feeling divided against [themselves]."[10]

As an organization they were labeled as troublemakers and many said they were brainwashed by the man hating white feminist, that they didn’t have their own mind they were just following in the white women’s footsteps.[10] Throughout the 1970s the Combahee River Collective met weekly to discuss the different issues concerning black feminists. They also held retreats throughout the Northeast from 1977 to 1979 to help "institutionalize black feminism" and develop an "ideological separation from white feminism."[10]

As an organization they founded a local battered women’s shelter and worked in partnership with all community activists, women and men, gay and straight playing an active role in the reproductive rights movement.[10] The Combahee River Collective ended their work together in 1980 and is now most widely remembered for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement, a key document in the history of contemporary black feminism and the development of the concepts of identity.[10]

Latter 20th century[edit]

In the second half of the 20th century, black feminism as a political and social movement grew out of black women's feelings of discontent with both the civil rights movement and the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the foundation texts of black feminism is An Argument for Black Women’s Liberation as a Revolutionary Force, authored by Mary Ann Weathers and published in 1969 in Cell 16's radical feminist magazine No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation.[11] Weathers states her belief that "Women's Liberation should be considered as a strategy for an eventual tie-up with the entire revolutionary movement consisting of women, men, and children," but she posits that "(w)e women must start this thing rolling"[11] because

The following year, in 1970, the Third World Women‘s Alliance published the Black Women’s Manifesto, which argued for a specificity of oppression against Black women. Co-signed by Gayle Linch, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Maxine Williams, Frances M Beale and Linda La Rue, the manifesto, opposing both racism and capitalism, stated that:

Other black feminists active in early second-wave feminism were civil rights lawyer and author Florynce Kennedy, who co-authored one of the first books on abortion, 1971's Abortion Rap; Cellestine Ware, of New York's Stanton-Anthony Brigade; and Patricia Robinson; who all "tried to show the connections between racism and male dominance" in society.[14]

Not only did the civil rights movement primarily focus only on the oppression of black men, but many black women faced severe sexism within civil rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The feminist movement focused on the problems faced by white women. For instance, earning the power to work outside of the home was not an accomplishment for black feminists; they had been working all along. Neither movement confronted the issues that concerned black women specifically. Because of their intersectional position, black women were being systematically ignored by both movements: "All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men but Some of Us are Brave", as titled a 1982 book by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith.

Black women began creating theory and developing a new movement which spoke to the combination of problems they were battling, including sexism, racism, and classism. Angela Davis, for instance, showed that while Afro-American women were suffering from compulsory sterilization programs, white women were subjected to multiple unwilled pregnancies and had to clandestinely abort.[15]

The short-lived National Black Feminist Organization was founded in 1973 in New York by Margaret Sloan-Hunter and others. Two years later, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Cheryl L. Clarke, Akasha Gloria Hull, and other female activists tied to the civil rights movement, Black Nationalism or the Black Panther Party established, as an off-shoot of the National Black Feminist Organization, the Combahee River Collective, a radical lesbian feminist group. Their founding text referred to important female figures of the abolitionist movement, such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Welles Barnett and Mary Church Terrell, president of the National Association of Colored Women founded in 1896. The Combahee River Collective opposed the practice of lesbian separatism, considering that, in practice, Separatists focused exclusively on sexist oppression and not on others oppression (race, class, etc.)[16]

This group's primary goal was "the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking." They rejected all essentialization or biologization, focusing on political and economical analysis of various forms of domination. The Combahee River Collective, in particular on the impulse of Barbara Smith, would engage itself in various publications on feminism, showing that the position of Black women was specific and adding a new perspective to Women's studies, mainly written by White women.

The Black Lesbian Caucus was created as an off-shoot of the Gay Liberation Front in 1971, and later took the name of the Salsa Soul Sisters, Third World Wimmin Inc. Collective, which was the first "out" organization for lesbians, womanists and women of color in New York [1]. The Salsa Soul Sisters published a literary quarterly called Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Sisters are now known as African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change, and is the oldest black lesbian organization in the United States.[17][18]

As stated above, the black feminist movement grew out of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, stemming from groups like SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the Black Panthers and other such groups. Organizations like the National Black Feminist Organization, found that many civil rights, and black power organizations were unwilling to take up causes that were central to the lived experiences of black women (forced sterilization, legal abortion, domestic violence, safe and well-paid job opportunities for black domestics, etc...). In the autobiography of Anne Moody, she brings the idea of black feminism into focus, stating, "We were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being 'ladylike' and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people."[19] Often, many women who later became black feminists, found that sexism was rampant throughout many of the more traditional civil rights organizations, as well as the black power organizations.

Black women's voices were continuously marginalized but groups were formed that stood up in the face of oppression. In the early 1990s. AWARE (African Woman's Action for Revolutionary Exchange) was formed in New York by Reena Walker and Laura Peoples after an inspiring plenary session on black women's issues held at the Malcolm X Conference at the Borough of Manhattan Community College entitled: Black Women and Black Liberation: Fighting Oppression and Building Unity.[20] The panel featured Vivial Morris – Freedom Road Organization, Fran Beale – Frontline Political Organization, Vernice Miller – Center for Constitutional Rights, Barbara Ransby – Ella Baker – Nelson Mandela Center, Maxine Alexander – editor Speaking for Ourselves, Miriam Kramer – National Welfare Rights Organization.

AWARE went on to lead fights against the AMA and unnecessary medical procedures and was central to the anti-war movement during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Reena Walker was featured regularly on WLIB Gary Byrd's show and WBAI radio and AWARE forged alliances with Women in Limbo The Harlem Birth Action Center as well as various black coalitions and ad hoc groups. AWARE's voice was essential to the representation of black women in the anti-war movement. Reena coined the phrase "Our War is Here Not in The Persian Gulf". AWARE regularly held seminars, forums and panel discussions on black women's issues i.e. "Racism, Sexism and Misogyny: The Mass Media's Impact on our Sisters", in Harlem. The panelists included Verniece Miller, Carlotta Joy Walker, Asha Bandele, Ann Tripp and a host of other black women feminists authors, activists and artists to discuss and inform the public about the specific issues black women were dealing with in their communities and how the larger issues affected them on a local level.

In 1991 The Malcolm X Conference was held again at BMCC and the theme that year was Sisters Remember Malcolm X: A Legacy to be Transformed. It featured plenary sessions, "Sexual Harassment: Race Gender and Power" and was held in a much larger theater that year. Black women were a central focus and not an aside as it was prior. The call letter read: "The conference will focus on critical aspects of the life and legacy of MALCOLM X. A major feature will be the opening forum, "Sisters Remember MALCOLM X: A Legacy to be Transformed." A group of leading African-American women, activists and intellectuals will speak on how MALCOLM X impacted their lives. In the spirit of building unity based on principles of equality and justice, these women will both embrace the positive aspects of MALCOLM X and his legacy and criticize those things which need improvement through transformation. This session will be dedicated to hearing the legitimate voices of Black women as a critical part of the legacy of MALCOLM X as a vital part of the intellectual tradition of the Black liberation movement. In the wake of the recent congressional hearings and the emergence into even greater prominence of Black conservatives, there will be a plenary on "MALCOLM X versus Clarence Thomas: The Crisis of Black Unity in the 1990's" and a workshop on "Sexual Harassment: Race, Gender and Power". Speakers included: Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lourde, Verniece Miller, Reena Walker, Carol Bullard (Asha Bandele) and Vivian Morrison.[21] In 1991 Reena Walker along with the members of AWARE also worked in coalition with AWIDOO African American Women in Defense of ourselves formed by Barbara Ransby to sign a full page ad in the NY Times to stand in support of Anita Hill.[22]

In 1995 Reena Walker went on to put out the call to various women and organized the group African Americans Against Violence [23] that effectively stopped a parade that a group of reverends led by Al Sharpton were attempting to hold in Harlem for Mike Tyson.[24] The group including Eve and Kathe Sandler, Nsia Bandele and Indigo Washington, worked tirelessly and successfully stopped the parade from happening and brought much needed attention to the struggle of black women and sexism and domestic violence.[25] Even within that struggle there were black men like Bill Lynch and Donald Suggs who aligned themselves with Jill Nelson who brought them in and who had an agenda of publicity and ran roughshod over the other group members. As a result, the effort on the part of these women to build a larger and ongoing black grassroots women's movement was thwarted by these publicity seekers.

21st century[edit]

The African Feminist Forum is a biennial conference that brings together African feminist activists to deliberate on issues of key concern to the feminist movement. It took place for the first time in November 2006 in Accra, Ghana.

July 2009 saw the release of Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton, (Palgrave Macmillan) by Associate Professor Duchess Harris, which analyzes black women's involvement in American political life, focusing on what they did to gain political power between 1961 and 2001, and why, in many cases, they did not succeed.

All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, (Editors Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith) describes black feminists mobilizing "a remarkable national response to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate Hearings in 1991, naming their effort African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.[26]

E. Frances White's expressed her belief that feminists need to revise the movement's relationship to the concept of "the family"; to acknowledge that, for women of color, "the family is not only a source of male dominance, but a source of resistance to racism as well."[27]

In her introduction to the 2000 reissue of the 1983 black feminist anthology Home Girls, theorist and author Barbara Smith states her opinion that "to this day most Black women are unwilling to jeopardize their 'racial credibility' (as defined by Black men) to address the realities of sexism."[28] Smith also notes that "even fewer are willing to bring up homophobia and heterosexism, which are, of course, inextricably linked to gender oppression.[28]

Starting around 2000, the "third wave" of feminism in France took interest in the relations between sexism and racism, with a certain amount of studies dedicated to black feminism. This new focus was displayed by the translation, in 2007, of the first anthology of U.S. black feminist texts.[29]

Black feminist literature[edit]

The importance of identity[edit]

Michelle Cliff believes that there is continuity "in the written work of many African American Women,... you can draw a line from the slave narrative of Linda Brent to Elizabeth Keckley's life, to Their Eyes were Watching God (by Zora Neale Hurston) to Coming of Age in Mississippi (Anne Moody) to Sula (by Toni Morrison), to the Salt Eaters (by Toni Cade Bambara) to Praise Song for the Widow (by Paule Marshall)." Cliff believes that all of these women, through their stories, "Work against the odds to claim the 'I'".[30]

Activist and cultural critic Angela Davis was one of the first people to articulate a written argument centered on intersectionality, in Women, Race, and Class.[31] Kimberle Crenshaw, prominent feminist law theorist, gave the idea a name while discussing Identity Politics in her essay, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color." Another feminist theorist is Patricia Hill Collins, who introduced the sociological theory of matrix of domination; much of her work concerns the politics of black feminist thought and oppression.

Black publishing[edit]

The Autumn 1979 issue of Conditions was edited by Barbara Smith and Lorraine Bethel. Conditions 5 was "the first widely distributed collection of Black feminist writing in the U.S."[32] Articles from the magazine were later released in Home Girls, an anthology of black lesbian and feminist writing published in 1983 by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a publisher owned and operated by women of color.


Alice Walker, a founder of womanism, is the author of The Color Purple. Within the study of religion, womanism has been used as a source for Womanist theology, a dominantly Christian movement that discusses issues of intersectionality (race, gender, class, and sexuality) within the study of religion. Womanist scholarship is a dialogue partner to black theology.

Pat Parker's (1944–1989) involvement in the black feminist movement was reflected in her writings as a poet. Her work inspired other black feminist poets like Hattie Gossett.[33] Other Black feminist authors include: Jewelle Gomez, June Jordan, bell hooks, Sapphire, Becky Birtha, Donna Allegra, Cheryl Clarke, Ann Allen Shockley, Alexis De Veaux and many others.

Rebecca Walker's writings – especially Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (2000) and One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love (2009) (Editor) – evince an interest in black feminism, racism, and her own biracial status.

The music of singer-songwriters Meshell Ndegeocello, Odetta, Thomasina Winslow, and Tracy Chapman have lyrics that discuss issues in black feminism.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Defining Black Feminist Thought". Retrieved May 31, 2007. 
  2. ^ "Combahee River Collective: A Black Feminist Statement – 1974". Retrieved May 31, 2007. 
  3. ^ Williams, Sherley Anne. "Some implications of womanist theory." Callaloo (1986): 303-308.
  4. ^ Walker, Alice, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (Phoenix, 2005), ISBN 978-0-7538-1960-9
  5. ^ Quoted in Henrice Altink, "The misfortune of being black and female": Black feminist thought in interwar Jamaica, Third Space, volume five issue two, January 2006 ... issn 1499-8513
  6. ^ Weedon, C: "Key Issues in Postcolonial Feminism: A Western Perspective", 2002
  7. ^ a b Burns, Stewart. 2006. Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980, Journal of American History 93: 296–298
  8. ^ But Some of Us Are Brave: A History of Black Feminism in the United States; Interview with Robbie McCauley by Alex Schwall. 2004
  9. ^ Duchess, Harris. Interview with Barbara Smith
  10. ^ a b c d e Breines, Wini. 2002. What’s Love got to do with it? White Women, Black Women, and Feminism in the Movement Years. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27: 1095–1133
  11. ^ a b Weathers, Mary Ann. An Argument For Black Women's Liberation As a Revolutionary Force, No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation', Cambridge, Mass, by Cell 16 vol. 1, no. 2 (Feb 1969)
  12. ^ Weathers, Mary Ann. An Argument For Black Women's Liberation As a Revolutionary Force ''No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation', Cambridge, Mass, by Cell 16 vol. 1, no. 2 (Feb 1969)
  13. ^ Black Woman's Manifesto
  14. ^ Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975, University of Minnesota Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8166-1787-2, p 291, p 383
  15. ^ Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (1981) ISBN 0-394-71351-6
  16. ^ Smith, Barbara. Response to Adrienne Rich's Notes from Magazine: What does Separatism Mean?" from Sinister Wisdom, Issue 20, 1982
  17. ^ Smith, Barbara . The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, ed. Wilma Pearl Mankiller, Houghton Mifflin 1998, ISBN 0-618-00182-4 p337
  18. ^ Juan Jose Battle, Michael Bennett, Anthony J. Lemelle, Free at Last?: Black America in the Twenty-First Century, Transaction Publishers 2006 p55
  19. ^ (reference, Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, Delta Trade Paperbacks, New York: 1968)
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Hull, Smith, Scott. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, pxvi
  27. ^ White, E. Frances. Listening to the Voices of Black Feminism, printed in Radical America, quoted in Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, ISBN 0-8166-1787-2, p239
  28. ^ a b Smith, Barbara. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Rutgers University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8135-2753-8, p xiv
  29. ^ Elsa Dorlin (ed.) Black Feminism – Anthologie du féminisme africain-américain, 1975–2000. Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007. Introduction on-line (French)
  30. ^ Cliff, Michelle. Women Warriors: Black Women Writers lead the Canon, Voice Literary Supplement, May 1990
  31. ^ List of Books written by Black Feminists, retrieved on May 31st 2007.
  32. ^ Smith, Barbara. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press 1983 p1
  33. ^ Biography of Hattie Gossett, retrieved on May 31st 2007.

Further reading[edit]