Part I of an ongoing series on the basics of feminism.

Many of my black sisters have ambivalent relationships with the label “feminist.” I don’t blame them. In fact, I’ve flounced from the feminist collective before, frustrated over some high-profile or online feminist’s cluelessness about the challenges facing women who are not white or middle-class or heterosexual or able-bodied or cisgendered. But after belatedly reading bell hook’s amazing Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, I realized that niether Gloria Steinem nor Jezebel commenters nor Slut Walk organizers own feminism. Just as there is no one-size-fits-all feminism, there is also no feminism movement. There are only feminisms and movements. There is intersectionality–a term coined by amazing black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw. And there is this: Black women have borne the brunt of multiple oppressions over centuries. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston wrote famously that the black woman is “de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” And Zora ain’t never lied. We’ve also been resisting this oppression for centuries–before the resistance had a name. For this reason, black women have as much right to embrace and define feminism as anyone else. I have a right to be a feminist–a black feminist.

And despite the (sexist) narrative that feminists are all harridans eager to crush men beneath their heeled jack boots, I find that as a black feminist, I am in stellar company. Following is a list of black feminists you should know. Note that none of these women reject the realities of racism and other oppressions nor do they shy away from partnerships with non-black women or men. Feminism is no more anti-man than anti-racism is anti-white people. Those who would tell you different are often invested in maintaining their own privilege. Believe that.

Shout out other black feminists in the comments.

Coretta Scott King – When Scott King died in 2006, America lost a powerful voice for black civil rights, but also GLBT and women’s rights. She campaigned on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and sat on the board of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Scott King was a champion for equality who understood how oppressions intersect: “Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”

Audre Lorde – A writer and activist, Lorde criticized feminists for focusing on white, middle-class women. Indeed, she believed that much of white feminism actively worked to further oppress black women and wrote extensively on the subject, including in her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.” Among many other works, Lorde wrote Sister Outsider , a collection of essays and speeches, in 1984. “Let me tell you first about what it was like being a Black woman poet in the ‘60s, from jump. It meant being invisible. It meant being really invisible. It meant being doubly invisible as a Black feminist woman and it meant being triply invisible as a Black lesbian and feminist.”

bell hooks – An author and activist, hooks has published more than 30 books. Her work focuses on the connection between race, capitalism and gender. Among her must-read works are Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. She has provided what some say is the best definition of feminism, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”

Beverly Guy-Sheftall - Since she came to her alma mater, Spelman, as a professor in 1971, scholar Guy-Sheftall has worked to broaden women’s studies to include issues pertinent to African American women. Guy-Sheftall helped to establish two resources for Black Women’s Studies: Spelman College’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, which she founded and served as the director for over two decades; and the periodical SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, which Guy-Sheftall co-founded with Patricia Bell-Scott.Guy-Sheftall is currently president of the National Women’s Studies Association.

“Coming out of the civil rights era, black feminism was a contentious, debatable, demonized and divisive notion. It was perceived to be a pro-white, anti-male doctrine that would destroy black families and prohibit unity. I can remember going to all-black gatherings and people asking me whether or not I was a lesbian, because being pro-female translated into a hate for men.

Now, though, black feminist thought is very much an important part of a broader women’s studies — it would be very difficult to avoid black feminism when speaking about a more general feminism. What’s interesting, though, is that black feminism is still very much a suspect politic in black spaces. Despite our progress, it seems that in some hetero-patriarchal paradigms, like black studies and black culture, feminism seems to be less accepted.” Read more…

Angela Davis – A political activist, author and scholar, Davis is widely known for her work in the civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party. According to the Columbia University social justice wiki, Angela Davis’ philosophy of black liberation emphasizes that it is crucial to address the specific concerns of racism and sexism. Through much of her work, Davis discusses the concerns of black women and traces their history of oppression in the United States while searching for solutions to these issues.“Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men.”

Patricia Hill Collins - Scholar Patricia Hill Collins published a seminal black feminist work, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. In it she offers that oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality and nation are intersecting, and that since black women have a unique history with these intersection, our specific experiences can offer a window into liberation for not just black women, but other groups.

Cohambee River Collective – The collective was a black lesbian feminist organization active in Boston in the late 70s. They are best known for creating the powerful Cohambee River Collective Statement–a sort of black feminist manifesto. The Collective defined black feminist issues as “struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression.” This includes, by the way, racism within white feminist organizations. Read the full text. 

Shirley Chisholm - In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman in Congress. She is known for advocating against the Vietnam War and for women’s and minority rights. Read her righteous speech on behalf on the Equal Rights Amendment for women.  She hired only women for her staff. Chisholm ran for president in 1972, becoming the first black person and first black woman to run for president on a major party (Democratic) ticket. She is also the first woman to win delegates for a presidential nomination from a major party. Her actions paved the way for both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic campaigns in 2008. “I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”

Sojourner Truth – Abolitionist and women’s right activist, Truth, who was born in slavery, gave her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech to the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.

“Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Truth gave other notable speeches, including one to the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850 and the American Equal Rights Association in 1867, where she spent the first part of her speech addressing women’s rights.

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16 Comments

  1. Socially Maladjusted

    “paved the way for obama to be president” . . . ?

    Is that a good thing, having a non-white in the white house while all the inequalities and injustices infllcted on the masses of blacks and non-whites at home and abroad continue.

    smh.

    If this is what black feminism has to offer then it should be trashed.

    excerpt from

    Some Relationship Counseling for Feminism and the Left by Harriet Fraad

    The early women’s liberation movement was unsophisticated. We, like most of the new left at the time, were class conscious, but we were neither immersed nor much interested in leftist history or theory. Early feminists formed our agenda through a radical technique called consciousness raising. We talked together about the struggles in our own lives and found a platform built upon our personal experiences. That was a powerful and effective method. However, if we had been more knowledgeable of and grounded within foiled attempts at gender justice or class equality, we may have done better.

    Had we seriously studied the way wealth and power operate, we would have had a far greater appreciation of the resources, resilience and manipulation that threatened our dreams. Perhaps, we would have been better able to forge common cause with the left had we anticipated right-wing determination to expunge the demand for class justice from our new feminist agenda.

    We felt that we could do it all. We could change capitalism, racism and sexism through our demand for equal opportunity for all women, the secondary citizens at the bottom of every institution, from the family to the political system to the economy. We did not know the forces arrayed against our vision of a better future.

    Funding from and manipulation by the FBI and CIA combined with our naiveté to blunt the impact of our class awareness. In just one example, Gloria Steinem quickly rose to prominence. She seemed to have magical access to money and press. We did not imagine that she was financed by and connected to press and other resources by the CIA and the FBI. [1] With the prominence of capitalist liberal leaders such as Steinem, the voice of class in the women’s movement diminished to a whisper.

    The mainstream feminist movement became a movement for gender equality within the American system of class inequality. Because the women’s movement focused almost exclusively on gender issues, it lost the mass of American women whose struggles for economic survival grow harder each year. Feminism also lost most women of color for whom race and class were as relevant as gender.

    As an almost entirely gender-based movement, the women’s movement excluded men and blamed men for a gender system in which men and women both unwittingly participated. Uniting for common class-based struggles moved outside of the feminist purview. Unity was impossible within a discourse that designated men as the enemy. Once separated, growth for all of us was slower, harder and more easily opposed.

    The feminist movement became a set of gender-based projects and institutions, such as groups for abortion rights and legislation for equal wages. Each gender-based institution competed against the others. Each found its way to cooperate with powerful patrons in order to obtain institutional resources. Larger women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) worked to pass legislation protective of women. They lobbied for pro-female legislation within our highly unrepresentative two-capitalist-party system. Thus, what was a unified women’s liberation movement became a series of projects working for equality without systemic change.

    Full article here

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  2. mdottwo

    Black women ran the Civil Rights Movement. Liberal white women civil rights activist became jealous of the influence black women wielded with black men. They were
    amazed that black men not only listened to black women, but respected their ability to think.

    So, right in the middle of the movement, northeastern white liberal women began
    the feminist movement to gain more influence among white men, and gain economic
    advancement. After decades of truly decadent behavior, lead by these feminists in the name of women’s advancement, look what has happened to the image of the American woman. It has gone from the wholesome all-American woman(both black and white), to “Superslut.”(I created this term to describe the downfall of the mindset of American women). Feminist ideology has all but decimated marriage, the American family(both black and white)and the obligation of men to protect women and children as heads of families.

    Sexually transmitted diseases are rampant among adults and our children. Over the past 20 years oral and throat cancer has increased over 400% due to the encouragement of oral sex. We have seen TV reports of third-graders being caught performing oral sex in the school classroom, in front of other children!

    Women’s clothes are so tight and so short that there is no room left for dignifying self-respect in their all-out pursuit of being SEXY. The fashion industry is depriving our little girls of their childhood by promoting indecent SEXY clothing for our sweet, innocent, precious future mothers.

    Black women, you do not have to imitate and bad imitation of the women we use to be.
    The best thing black women can do is GIVE UP THE PURSUIT OF SEXY! STOP WORSHIPING MONEY AND CELEBRITIES. We must truly come to believe that our real lives and the real people in our lives are more important than the amoral, narcissistic, sociopath celebrities and sports figures we are encourage to watch and embraced. Being elegant, refined, stylish and wholesome is better than being sexy. Sexy provokes men to non-obligated sex, which is the crux of the heartbreak women and children experience due to male abandonment.

    Elegance, refinement, edifying style, and wholesome sweetness encourages Black men to RESPECT and MARRY BLACK WOMEN!

    Turn your focused attention to your homes, your families, your church work and community organizations. Learn how to truly take care of yourselves again by growing your own vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers(Go on eBay and buy non-Genetically Modified Organic seeds). Start a food exchange. Fill you pantries with the canned food stuffs you and your friends have grown. Those who can, should build chicken coops, incubate and raise organic chickens; which will also provide you with fresh organic eggs. Hardcore glamor (like that displayed on the reality “housewives” shows) that prevents women from being dignified fruitful users of their hands, minds and bodies for decent social discourse, the building of wonderful homes and families is not only detrimental to women that practice it, but also poisons our culture’s attitudes towards women in general.

    Women should promote control of the education of our children. We can establish church based PK-12 schools designed to protect our children – especially our boys. There is nothing more powerful than taking control of the education your own children. We can encourage home-schooling curriculum for those who have special needs to protect their children. But our vast church network can easily take on the issue of demanding that our children be in school environments controlled by decent African Americans who have the welfare and the bright future of our children at heart. We have the resources, educators, and power to build black church school districts and extra-mural sports conferences. This is the one act that will transform the future of Black America.

    It’s time we give up political correctness in favor of cultural correctness. A culture will protect and promote the people who are born into.This happens when the people in a culture become as independent and self-reliant as possible as individuals, while promoting committed marriages, stable families, while growing organizations that enhance people at family, neighborhood, church, and institutional levels.

    Women can have healthy associations with one another by organizing around issues critical to the future improvement of our culture, while claiming and owning wholesome, admirable femininity as a standard for our people.

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  3. I agree with this: “Just as there is no one-size-fits-all feminism, there is also no feminism movement. There are only feminisms and movements.”

    Feminism is complicated. Hard to sign on to the whole thing when there are so many riders. It is both a theoretical body of work and a practice. A lot like, I’m sorry to compare, Marxism, there’s the academic body of Marxist theory and criticism (even things like seeing movies through a Marxist lens), Marxism the way Karl Marx wrote about it in Das Kapital, simplified Marxism in the Communist Manifesto, and the way Marxism was applied to Russia. So. Except there are several waves of feminism that are loosely interrelated. It is more complicated than saying “women should have rights as people.”

    Anyway, I think there should be theory/practice of fighting for rights related to being both black and a woman. Regardless what the label tacked on is called. I think if there is not room for you, then you make space for yourself.

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  4. cupcakes and shiraz

    I would never be a feminist. Feminism does not serve any purpose in my personal life – unless my main priority is fighting for petty issues such as the right to screw around like a man without being called a “slut” (which seems to be all that most feminists care about today).

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  5. who said feminism is for white women?! Or primarily a movement led by women for women. Urrrrrgh! I am an African feminist, and a crazy one at that.

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