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Black feminism is a school of thought which argues that sexism, class oppression, and racism are inextricably bound together. 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.
Black feminism exploded in the 1960s, in response to the perceived sexism of the Civil Rights Movement and racism of the feminist movement. From the 1970s to 1980s, black feminists formed various groups which addressed the role of black women in black nationalism, gay liberation, and second-wave feminism. In the 1990s, the Anita Hill controversy placed black feminism in a mainstream light. Black feminist theories reached a wider audience in the 2010s, as a result of social media advocacy.
Proponents of black feminism argue that black women are positioned within structures of power in fundamentally different ways from white women. The distinction of black feminism has birthed the derisive tag "white feminist," used to criticize feminists who do not acknowledge issues of intersectionality. Critics of black feminism argue that racial divisions weaken the strength of the overall feminist movement.
Among the theories that evolved out of the black feminist movement are Alice Walker's womanism, and historical revisionism with an increased focus on black women. Angela Davis, bell hooks, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Patricia Hill Collins have emerged as leading academics on black feminism, whereas black celebrities, notably Beyoncé, have encouraged mainstream discussion of black feminism.
Latter 20th Century
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. 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" because
|“||All women suffer oppression, even white women, particularly poor white women, and especially Indian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Oriental and Black American women whose oppression is tripled by any of the above-mentioned. But we do have females' oppression in common. This means that we can begin to talk to other women with this common factor and start building links with them and thereby build and transform the revolutionary force we are now beginning to amass.||”|
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:
|“||The black woman is demanding a new set of female definitions and a recognition of herself of a citizen, companion and confidant, not a matriarchal villain or a step stool baby-maker. Role integration advocates the complementary recognition of man and woman, not the competitive recognition of same.||”|
Black women and the Civil Rights Movement
Not only did the civil rights movement primarily focus on the oppression of black men, but many black women faced severe sexism within civil rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A group of women in the SNCC (who were later identified as white allies Mary King and Casey Hayden) openly challenged the way women were treated when they issued the “SNCC Position Paper (Women in the Movement)." The paper listed 11 events in which women were treated as subordinate to men. According to the paper, women in SNCC did not have a chance to become the face of the organization, the top leaders, because they were assigned to clerical and housekeeping duties, whereas men were involved in decision-making.
When Stokely Carmichael was elected Chair of SNCC, he reoriented the path of the organization towards Black Power. Thus, white women lost their influence and power in SNCC; Mary King and Casey Hayden left, to become active in pursuing equality for women. While it is often argued that black women in the SNCC were significantly subjugated during the Carmichael era, Carmichael appointed several women to posts as project directors during his tenure as chairman. By the latter half of the 1960s, more women were in charge of SNCC projects than during the first half. Despite these improvements, the SNCC's leadership positions were occupied by men during the entirety of its existence.
The second-wave feminist movement emerged in the 1960s, led by Betty Friedan. Black women were alienated by the main planks of the second-wave feminist movement, for example, earning the power to work outside of the home was not an accomplishment for black women. Many black women had had to work both inside and outside the home for generations due to poverty. White feminists of the time advocated for the liberation of birth control, but there was little thought given in regards to black women and their need for access to contraception. Angela Davis, for instance, showed that while Afro-American women and white women were subjected to multiple unwilled pregnancies and had to clandestinely abort, Afro-American women were also suffering from compulsory sterilization programs.
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.
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 was titled a 1982 book edited by Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith.
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 offshoot 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.)
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 offshoot 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. 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.
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...). Anne Moody in her autobiography 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." 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.
The place where racial equality and gender equality meet, called intersectionality, is an area often overlooked by many. Throughout the plight of African Americans, from post slavery oppression until modern inequality disputes, African American women have experienced this intersection of racial and gender inequality. The fight for equality on both fronts has immense historical background, and various intersections throughout this history. What many consider to be a culmination of the fight for racial equality was the African-American Civil Rights Movement, from 1958 to 1972. While this was happening, the fight for gender equality was culminating as well, and certainly not taking a backseat to the civil rights movement. The peak of “Second Wave Feminism” Second-wave feminism was occurring simultaneously alongside the civil rights movement. Throughout these events, black feminism was the intersection of the two, and the progress made was influential to both racial and gender equality. Despite its relation, black feminism’s originated and evolved along its own path, separate from mainstream feminism and early civil rights movements.
Much like many other demographics of feminism, black feminism has historical roots. Unlike many other demographics of feminism, however, these historical roots are both racial and gender discriminating. Beginning in the post slavery period, black female intellectuals such as Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper set in motion the principles that would become the basis for black feminism. Harper, shown below, is not necessarily as well known, however her ideas were the beginning of black feminism.
Activists such as Harper proposed “some of the most important questions of race, gender, and the work of Reconstruction in the nineteenth century,” a very bold action for a black woman at the time (MacDaneld, 394). Intellectuals such as Harper accomplished things that were unheard of for black women, such as giving public lectures, fighting for suffrage, and aiding those in need of help following reconstruction. Suffrage was early evidence of schisms between white and black feminism. According to Harper, white women needed suffrage for education, however, “black women need the vote not as a form of education but as a form of protection” (McDaneld 406). The right to vote would not only bring these women closer to the power that men had, it would give black women an influence on the politics which oppressed them. Another difference was the higher importance of heritage for black women, and knowing the plight of their ancestors. These ideas were transported through mediums such as lectures, and literature, making it accessible for men and women, whites and blacks alike. Aspects of the work of early leaders such as Harper laid down the basis for black feminism, as these principles would continue to be retained by later iterations and evolutions of black feminism.
As feminism as a whole evolved, as did its demographics. Throughout the twentieth century, black feminism evolved quite differently from mainstream feminism. It retained historical principles, while being influenced by new thinkers such as Alice Walker. Walker created a whole new subsect of black feminism, called Womanism, which emphasized the degree of the oppression black women faced when compared to white women. In addition, she retains the importance of heritage in black feminism, through her passionate medium of literature, exemplified in this interview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJR86ncuMgE She compares these ideas in “Everyday Use,” with a character changing her name because, “[she] couldn’t bear it anymore, being named for the people who oppress [her],” and her mother who then traces her birth name back into their own family tree (Walker). The story was written in 1972, but takes place in the early twentieth century, emphasizing this historical influence. In this short story, an emphasis is also put on the lack of education available for black women at that time, further elaborating the oppression and plight of black women throughout history. These differences were also brought upon because “black women tended to form independent feminist groups,” separate from those of other races (Gerhard, 1564). As the civil rights movement began, black feminism and its goals became independent of other, more general feminist groups. This separation would define black feminism as its own movement, especially during the civil rights era.
The origin of the change that occurred in black feminism during the 1960s and '70s set the stage for progress during that era and the evolution of black feminism. Amidst all of the social progress of this time, “the ferment of reform and revolution had the potential to divide political allegiances of women” (Gerhard, 1563). All the reform movements occurring at the time had the ability to separate allegiances to previous groups, while drawing members to new ones. This created the perfect environment for black feminism to branch off of both mainstream feminism and the civil rights movement. In this environment, there are many sects of feminism, and it is accepted that “women of color came to feminism on their own terms,” despite the premonition that black feminism is a direct “result of racism in the white women’s movement.” (Gerhard, 1564). While racism within feminism certainly influenced black feminism, it did not define it, as the movement defined itself in many ways. This includes both reactions to related movements, along with original ideas and goals.
The civil rights era was a pivotal time for black feminism, and spurred the evolution and definition of it, as the two movements worked alongside each other. At the same time, the Second Wave feminist movement was in full force. This was the perfect time for black feminism to thrive. The intersectionality of gender and racial equality movements formed black feminism into its own movement and cause. As the black power movement arose Black Power, their principles of the importance of civil rights along with separation from whites had an effect on the black feminist movement, including separation from white feminists. Influence spread to the unofficial symbol of black feminism, shown below:
This combination of the raised fist of black power, and the astrological symbol for female, denotes an intersection of ideals of the two groups. Ideals were shared, such as a “critique on racial capitalism, starting with slavery.” Despite this, black feminism had reasons to become independent of Black Nationalism. Weinbaum describes how black feminism has been casted “as a negotiation of the sexism and masculinism (and sometimes heterosexism) of Black Nationalism” (Weinbaum 439). The racial equality and reverence for their race was retained, while the sexism they carried was rejected. This action allowed black feminism to independently define itself, and more so than merely in relation to Black Nationalism and the Black Power movement.
On the other hand, black feminism separates itself from the second wave feminism that took place simultaneously with the civil rights era and Black Nationalism, in that it was a “response to the racism and classism of second wave feminism” (Weinbaum, 439). This is a main example of the intersectionality of black feminism that was defined during the civil rights era. They separated themselves from groups which oppressed them, while retaining certain ideals from both, which allowed black feminism to become its own movement. I was during this time in which they developed their own concentrations as well. For instance, “beginning in the 1970’s, black feminists … shifted from a narrow focus on access to abortion to examination of an entire range of reproductive freedoms,” (Weinbaum, 439). The fact that black feminism was not only synthesizing ideas and principles from other groups, but furthering them and having their own independent ideas, is indicative of the strides that this movement made during this era, for gender equality, racial equality, and the intersection that is black feminism.
The solidified definition of black feminism formulated during the civil rights era is a result of and a response to the intersectionality of racial and gender inequality. When defining intersectionality itself, Gerhard states that it is the analysis of the “production of identity through overlapping, mutually reinforcing oppressions of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sometimes sexual oppression” (Gerhard, 1564). This identity is precisely what black feminism developed in full during this era, rather than being seen as a mere add-on to other, larger movements. Through their own intersection of these oppressions, black feminists have created their own goals and ideals, thus defining themselves as an independent movement. This is a result of black feminists refusing to categorize gender independently of these different forms of oppression that they faced. Because of this refusal, their own movement was made, and they made progress tailored to this specific movement. The combination of history, heritage, and intersectionality made black feminism its own movement that has made and continues to make progress on many fronts.
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. 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. 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.
In 1995 Reena Walker went on to put out the call to various women and organized the group African Americans Against Violence  that effectively stopped a parade that a group of reverends led by Al Sharpton were attempting to hold in Harlem for Mike Tyson. 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. 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.
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.
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."
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." Smith also notes that "even fewer are willing to bring up homophobia and heterosexism, which are, of course, inextricably linked to gender oppression.
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.
Black feminist organizations
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." They also had to demand that white women "share power with them and affirm diversity" and "fight the misogynist tendencies of Black Nationalism". With all the challenges these women had to face many activists referred to black feminists as "war weary warriors".
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. 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".
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]."
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. 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".
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. 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.
Black feminist literature
The importance of identity
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'".
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. 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.
Barbara Smith and Lorraine Bethel edited the Autumn 1979 issue of Conditions. Conditions 5 was "the first widely distributed collection of Black feminist writing in the U.S." 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 publishing imprint 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.
The involvement of Pat Parker (1944–1989) in the black feminist movement was reflected in her writings as a poet. Her work inspired other black feminist poets like Hattie Gossett. 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.
- African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change
- Africana womanism
- Audre Lorde
- Black matriarchy
- Misogyny in hip hop culture
- Postcolonial feminism
- Separatist feminism
- Third-wave feminism
- Third World feminism
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- Muhs, Gabriella Gutiérrez y; Harris, Angela P.; Flores Niemann, Yolanda; González, Carmen G. (2012). Presumed incompetent: the intersections of race and class for women in academia. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado. ISBN 9780874219227.
- Springer, Kimberly (Summer 2002). "Third wave Black feminism?". Signs (University of Chicago Press) 27 (4): 1059–1082. doi:10.1086/339636. JSTOR 10.1086/339636.