What You Need to Know: Black Women Are the Original Feminists

And maybe it's time to rein in RBG

Brought to you by the compact black woman and white woman standing together

Black women have been involved in the movement for gender equality since the very beginning, but many actively shun the label “feminist.” In fact, I don’t know a single Black woman over the age of forty who labels herself as such, despite holding a strong belief in feminist principles like equal pay, access to educational and professional opportunities, and reproductive rights. Truly: it’s only been recently that many Black women have identified as feminists at all. Overwhelmingly, the reason for this disconnect is their experiences during the first- and second-wave feminism movements—essentially Black women were left out, shut out, and openly discriminated against (which is almost unbelievable since Black women have been feminists before the term existed). Black women have a long history of advocating for freedom via the the suffragist movement, and the Civil Rights movement. From Sojourner Truth to Ida B. Wells, Black women have made their voices heard in a variety of movements. However, they did so while being relegated to lesser status compared to white men, white women, and Black men. These women simply did the work of pushing for equality as a whole, work that we can now see as feminist in origin or actions.

Before you get all #NotAllFeminists on me, obviously all white feminists aren’t racists. But as Black women left the Black Liberation Movement (which was rife with sexism dished from Black men) and explored feminism in the 1960s, they were often met with racism from their white counterparts. Black women were often not asked to speak on panels unless those panels were specifically about Black women, which never even gave them the chance to add their voices to the myriad of concerns raised by feminism in the ’60s. By and large, Black women weren’t represented in the limited number of women’s studies courses available at universities and colleges, and classes specifically about Black women’s history were nonexistent. The “universal women’s experience” as descried by 1960s powerhouse feminist thinkers nearly always described the universal experience of white, middle class women.

And most damning of all, many white feminists in the 1960s refused to admit to their own racism, as evidenced in this quote from But Some of Us Are Brave: A History of Black Feminism in the United States:

This unwillingness comes from the sentiment that those who are oppressed cannot oppress others. White women, who were (and still are) without question sexually oppressed by white men, believed that because of this oppression, they were unable to assume the dominant role in the perpetuation of white racism; however, they have absorbed, supported, and advocated racist ideology and have acted individually as racist oppressors. Traditionally, women’s sphere of influence has extended over the home, and it is no coincidence that in 1963, seven times as many women of color as white women were employed as private household workers. It has been the tendency of white feminists to see men as the “enemy,” rather than themselves, as part of the patriarchal, racist, and classist society in which we all live.

Unfortunately in 2016 America, it seems that this divide still exists. And when celebrated feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg can call Colin Kaepernick’s stance against the national anthem “dumb and disrespectful,” it’s easy to feel like previous generations of white feminists might never get it.

let’s take it back to feminism’s origin story

First-wave feminism gave us the suffrage movement and gave women the right to vote in 1920. While several well-known white suffragists began as abolitionists, their fight for women’s rights did not include Black women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, famed women’s rights organizer, was opposed to the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which gave Black men the right to vote before white women. In fact, it was this stance that led Sojourner Truth, famed abolitionist, to break from the suffragist movement.

From the very beginnings of feminism, the movement broke down into an “us versus them” mentality, with white women excluding women of color through their use of racial language and ideals to reach their goals. During the women’s suffrage movement, many white suffragists adopted a strategy of emphasizing that Black men did not deserve the right to vote over white women, using racist justifications for their position. Despite those barriers, Black women continued to be active in the movement for women’s suffrage through a variety of means. The Women’s Suffrage March in 1913 was a pivotal moment, and yet even then, Black women’s groups were relegated to the back of the march despite protests. And still, organizations like the National Association of Negro Women and the newly formed Alpha chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (a historically Black sorority) did participate and make their voices heard.

Second-wave feminism didn’t do much better to repair the rift between Black and white women. While Betty Friedan wrote about the “the problem with no name” and the lack of fulfillment of middle class white housewives in The Feminine Mystique, many Black women did not have the luxury of that problem. Black women have been in the workforce since the abolition of slavery, as their participation was vital to the survival of their families. It was at this moment that second-wave feminism began to leave Black women behind, by solely focusing on the issues of suburban white women. As Black man battled discrimination, lynchings, and arbitrary laws designed to put them on prison chain gangs, Black women were forced to find work in whatever sector they could, in order to provide for their families. Ask almost any Black person in America, and they will tell you stories of Black woman elders who worked as maids, nannies, cooks, or in other domestic roles. Often these roles required them to leave their own children in the care of relatives or their eldest child, as they were paid to tend to the homes and children of white families.

As the women’s liberation movement progressed, it became the rallying cry for middle class white women, and left out the poor of all races and women of color who were also striving for liberation from oppression. To this date, many feminists can’t recognize the names of prominent Black second-wave feminist icons: Flo Kennedy, Pauli Murray, and Shirley Chisholm. These women were not mere characters in a movement, but directly shaped the face of feminism today.

…and now back to RBG

In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways in which both feminism and anti-racism movements have left Black women out of the conversation. In short, feminism is for white women, and Black liberation movements are for Black men, leaving Black women to exist in this limbo where their concerns are never addressed. It’s been more than thirty years since Crenshaw finally gave this problem a name, and yet we continue to struggle with the problem itself. With all of this context, you can see why many Black feminists (including myself) were surprised when Ruth Bader Ginsburg, famed Supreme Court justice and feminist icon, stated that she felt athletes protesting the National Anthem were “dumb and disrespectful.” Justice Ginsburg was a pioneer during her time, and started her law career when being a working mother was an anomaly. She attended Harvard and Columbia Law Schools as a working mother, and became the first woman tenured professor at Columbia Law School. She was a founder of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and spent much of her career advocating for victims of gender discrimination. Given her history, how could a woman who fought so many barriers herself not identify with others who are fighting oppression?

It would be easy to turn a blind eye if this was the only example of white feminism failing to understand intersectionality, but it’s not. It showed up again when Erica Jong argued with Roxane Gay on the lack of inclusion in the mainstream feminist community. It shows up when women of color start sharing their stories of exclusion from mainstream white feminism using the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and subsequently are bashed for it. While these are just two recent examples, this is simply a continuation of behavior that has been seen since the beginnings of feminism.

you can’t divorce black from “black woman”

I am a Black woman and I do consider myself a feminist, but I am a Black feminist, just as I am a Black woman. I cannot separate my race and sex: that’s an impossible task for me. I fight for equality and equity—to both to be on par with Black men but also white women. In both communities, Black women are seen as “less than” and both Black men and white women employ some of the same tactics in an attempt to retain their perceived power within their communities. As they say, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

If the American feminist movement wants to continue to thrive, intersectional thought and action have to be at the heart of the movement. Interracial solidarity is a must: white women and Black women and women of color in general need to be supported, nurtured, and embraced. From enslaved women to Rosa Parks to Loretta Ross, Black women have always been the feminist movement. As Janell Hobson wrote:

We are the case study for why “life sucks for women.” It’s because of the combined effects of different “isms” that we’ve had to speak out in the fight for women’s rights. And it’s because women of color “bleed at the intersections,” as Gloria Anzaldua noted, that we need a feminist movement–and why white women and our other various allies will not advance toward any future liberation without our involvement.

We all throughout the feminist community have work to do in this regard. While Black feminists and other feminists of color continue to push for inclusion in the mainstream conversation, it’s incumbent on white feminists to make some room for those women to have a seat at the table. Just as people of color need allies, so do feminists of color, and as I’ve previously outlined, there’s a lot that white feminists can do to be better allies to feminists of color.

Listen, it’s going to be a journey for all of us. We’re all going to fuck it up, say the wrong thing, or hurt someone’s feelings. What matters is that we realize when we’ve messed up and continue to do the hard work that needs be done, and do it together. Sitting on the sidelines and not participating is not an option, even when you’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. No one is going to get it completely right, so throw that fear right out the window. We can use the opportunities where we get it wrong to educate both ourselves and others, instead of simply writing everyone off.

I had to remember this perspective after I read RBG’s words and remember that her lifetime of work as an advocate for women isn’t cancelled out by one thoughtless perspective. I wish that she’d taken the time to educate herself before commenting, or declined to comment altogether, but her apology does show that she understands that she made a misstep.

Here’s hoping that Justice Ginsburg, and other white feminists, are open to continuing to learn and bridge the gap with feminists of color.

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