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The feminist movement has aimed at equal rights for women. Organizing in the mid 19th century, women began demanding modern equality as citizens and as a gender. The Feminist movement started mainly as white women’s middle class reform and a call for the right to vote. It began in 1848 as an upstate New York “convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women… and a few days later the American woman’s rights movement became a reality” (Gurko 329). The liberation of black women and their struggles for equality have their own unique story. African American women with a feminist consciousness are called Black Feminists.
The term Black Feminism was not widely used until the inception of the contemporary Black women’s movement in the 1970’s. Black women’s experiences with both racial and gender oppression are distinct from white women and black men (civil rights, black power), and black women must struggle for equality both as women and as African-Americans.
Many black women have found their struggle in the shadows of the bigger equal rights struggle for all blacks in America.
The black women’s rights struggle has been on-going since the dawn of the women’s movement and continues today. “The male-dominated media continued to portray the women’s movement as the exclusive property of white, middle-class females, overlooking the presence, activism, and accomplishments of women of color” (Sloan-Hunter).
There is a world of black women’s issues that many white feminists, including men, have no idea about.
The black women’s feminist movement has not proceeded along with the visibility of their white counterparts. 20th century American Black women have been racially oppressed by, and partially excluded from, the modern Feminist Movement in America.
African American women began to express concern publicly about their situation as women in the nineteenth century. “In the early 1800s, most Black women were enslaved, but free Black women participated in the abolitionist cause” (Smith). Also according to Barbara Smith, a black feminist writer, activist, and author, “Black feminism is very much alive among the activists I know. But its organizations are not visible in mainstream politics. It faces resistance in the African-American community. And white feminists are often not sensitive to black women’s approaches to abortion, rape, work outside the home, and many other issues” (Smith).
Gender oppression had unique repercussions for Black women living under a racist, economically exploitative system. To find relief, many black women have had to except as their own, the white woman’s issues, so as to be able to get legal aid and bring their struggles to light.
“But what makes you think that African-American women generally support the feminist movement? I would have said that although most black women support feminist issues–such as equal pay–they consider feminism itself a white thing” (Smith). The reason black women support feminism but feel it is a “white thing” is possibly because, “I think this relatively strong support for the women’s movement comes primarily from African Americans’ experience with race discrimination. They see that a biased system causes a biased outcome and you need a movement to do something about that bias.
Also, black women have experienced the “second shift”–of housework on top of paid work–for far longer than white. So that undoubtedly has an effect” (Smith). Simply put, black women on the most part have been working one or more jobs consistently and have not had the luxury of being a stay -at –home- wife wondering if there were more to life than raising a family and mundane chores to complete. “Many middle class white women hire women of color to work in their homes, so they can free themselves to escape into a less restricting world” (Sloan- Hunter). These black women who work the menial jobs and have little chance for liberation to pursue other interests are invisible to the upper classes in America.
White or Black Womanhood
How did black women enter into the feminist movement? It seems black women of more privelege could partake. Though participants included women of color and of working class backgrounds, their route into the movement was through the same student and professional circles through which white middle-class women found feminism.
The presence of women of color and working class women did not mean that feminism was being adopted within these communities. Second wave feminists, especially in the intoxicating early years of the movement, tended to believe that they could speak for all women.
Such claims contained a small grain of truth, but ignored the composition of the movement, which was overwhelmingly young, white, college educated, heterosexual, and drawn from the post-Second World War middle class (Epstein).
There was a misconception by the feminist movement that they spoke for all women, what they wanted was what all women wanted or needed.
“What does a woman want”?
asked Sigmund Freud. Thousands of women could have told Freud that what they most wanted was to be regarded as human beings, not just as females.
They wanted no barriers placed in their way because of their sex” (Gurko). With black women there would be one correction to that statement, — no barriers because of their race, either. “Even now, the black adoption of the white values of women has begun to show its effects on black women in distinctive ways. The black liberation movement has created a politicized, un-liberated copy of white womanhood” (Smith). Is there a difference between American white womanhood and black womanhood? Can women of all colors relate to each other in meaningful ways?
Just as the black women’s liberation was in the shadows of the liberation of all peoples of color in America, racism may be in the shadow of feminism, in that women are seeking liberation from men, and issues of race may not take precedence in the struggle for feminine equality.
Women, upon self – examination, may be looking at the big picture and may not see other inequalities that exist for black women. Michael Kimmel in Men, Masculinities and Social Theory describes a confrontation in a feminist seminar between a white woman and a black woman, over whether their similarities as women were greater than their racial differences:
The white woman asserted that the fact that they were both women bonded them, despite racial differences. They shared a common oppression as women, and were both sisters under the skin’. The black woman disagreed.
When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?’ she asked. I see a woman’, replied the white woman hopefully. That’s precisely the problem, replied the black woman.” I see a black woman.
For me race is visible every minute of every day, because it is how I am not privileged in this culture. Race is invisible to you which is why our alliance will always feel false and strained to me. (Kimmel) Black women are often faced with the idealization of white skin. Every American is inundated with commercials on TV of white families and needs, radio ads with white dialects, and fashion with white sensibilities. “Because the white woman’s role has been held up as an example to all black women, many black women feel inadequate and so ardently compete in ‘femininity’ with white females ” (LaRue). This is a big issue within the black community. Black women in our culture have faced the “degradation and intransigence of poverty, sexual harassment, domestic violence, the ravages of life-threatening illnesses, the demonization of welfare recipients, the rise of female-headed households, and the lack of support for education and skills training. Negative stereotypes of Black women as welfare queens or oversexed moral wantons resurfaced in new guises” (Hine). Poor black women have little time to think of “having it all.” Their bigger concern is just surviving.
Although white women face many of the same difficult life challenges today, statistically, black women are more likely to be living in poverty in America (Miller).
Race is also a significant factor related to women in poverty. “There are larger numbers of white women in poverty but black and Hispanic women have a higher poverty rate than white women (see Table 1). Of the 18,203,000 total black female population [in the United States] 5,771,000 or 31.7% are poor. Source: U.S. Bureau of Census, March 1997 Current Population Survey.” (Miller) According to statistics: Single African American females are a major constituent of poverty in America. Many of the children living in poverty in America are the children of African American families headed by single females. The federal government defines poverty as an annual income of less than $16,276 for a family of four. A recent study showed that nine out of every 10 blacks (91 percent) who live to 75 years of age will have experienced poverty for at least one year during their lifetime (Hirschl and Rank). Raising children alone on $16,000 or less, in America, seems horrifying. Fighting poverty is an effort which leaves little time for the mother to commit to any movements or committees to further the woman’s movement, black or white. I believe economics plays a role in giving a black woman the freedom to wage worthy efforts.
Black Women’s Liberation
What exactly have black women been liberated from in our society? According to Carol Hymowitz and Michael Weissman in their book A History of Women in America, “They (black women) have been liberated only from love, from family life, from meaningful work and just as often from basic comforts and necessities of an ordinary existence.” This was due to grinding poverty and black women being forced into roles as providers because white America wouldn’t give black men jobs (Hymowitz, Weissman 338). Black women had the double duty of dealing with their black men and their struggles to be full and equal citizens in America. Only when black women are free from racism and equal to white men in our society will there be a real black women’s liberation.
White Supremacist Thinking
The roots of white feminist’s racism stem from the fact that white women wanted to share power with the white patriarchy of America. White women were focused on white men and their patriarchy and power structures.
White feminist issues are not race-related.
Bourgeois white women resisting an anti- racist agenda in the women’s movement has put up a wall blocking the solidarity of the black feminist movement with the white feminist movement (hooks). Black feminist’s approach the women’s movement inclusive of the issues of race and racism often to chagrin of white feminist who want to stick to gender based discussions. From hooks’ Killing Rage: “These are the women [materially privileged white women] who want to leave the issue of race behind” (hooks 101). In this way white women exclude and racially repress black women and feminists in the women’s movement for equality.
Black Males and Women’s Liberation
For many black Americans, black women supporting women’s liberation was a betrayal of race. “Since the 1960’s black power movement had worked overtime to let sisters know that they should assume a subordinate role to lay the groundwork for an emergent black patriarchy that would elevate the status of black males, women’s liberation movement was seen as a threat…betraying the race’’(hooks 101).
Not only did it seem that black women had to deal with the reigning white patriarchy but also the black patriarchy. Endorsing the white women’s cause was seen as a slap in the face to many black men.
This further separated the movements. “Black women, even more than working class white women, insisted that their own emancipation could not be separated from that of their men. Their liberation, they declared, depended on the elimination of racism…” (Hymowitz, Weissman 363).
Women of African Descent
Marilyn Clark, founder and curator for Black Cinematheque in Dallas, Texas described black feminism as:
Black feminism is simply– Black women using radical survival strategies and actions to take control of their lives, their communities, this planet. Women of African descent have a tradition of being courageous, independent, and using some serious magic from the times of enslavement through infinity. The image of Black women in the media – TV, video games, films, magazines etc has not fared very well, to put it mildly. We are still depicted as ho’s, mammies and maids in servitude to white supremacy. Screening independently produced African centered films we are encouraging Black women, all women to organize politically and take charge of the institutions and agencies that impact and controls their families. (We do not screen Hollyweird films) We urge filmmakers to produce film that empower, that give folks, in particular Black females, strategies that bring about a justice for all people. To hell with BET, MTV and all of those industries that depict Black women as sexual crazed beings wanting nothing more than to please a white man or woman in power!! (Clark).
“If we are going to liberate ourselves as a people, it must be recognized that black women have very specific problems that have to be spoken to” (Hymowitz, Weissman, Beal 363). These problems exist today, facing the third wave Feminists movement. Until the problem of race in America is resolved and the black women of America share equally of America, the black women’s movement will always differ from their white counterparts. Not only must the concerns over race be addressed by the white powerful men and women in America, but these concerns need to turn into action and this dialogue must be part of the whole women’s movement.
…author’s note- since I wrote this in 2005 I can’t fail to mention that we did have a black first lady in the white house.
Works Cited 1. Marilyn Clark, Founder/Curator for Black Cinematheque Dallas, live interview on telephone, firstname.lastname@example.org. 2. Epstein, Barbara What Happened to the Women’s Movement?Monthly Review, May, 2001. www.monthlyreview.org/0902epstein.htm
3. Gurko, Miriam, The Ladies of Seneca Falls, The Birth of the Woman’s Right’s Movement, Shocken Books, New York, 1974, 329. 4. hooks, bell, Black Looks, Race and Representation, South End Press, Boston, Ma, 1992, 101. 5. hooks, bell, Killing Rage, Ending Racism, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995, 101. 6. Michael Kimmel, Men, Masculinities and Social Theory, Duke University, 1994, http://www.law.duke.edu/journals/djglp/articles/gen4p181.htm. 7. La Rue, Linda, Documents from the Women’s Liberation Movement, On-line Archival Collection, Special Collections Library, Duke University, http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/blkmanif/#the. , 1997http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/ 8. Miller, Juanita E. Ph.D., Poverty Among Women, Ohio State University ExtensionFact Sheet, Family and Consumer Sciences, Columbus, Ohio, http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5705.html.
9. Hirschl and Rank, Most Americans Experience Poverty Sometime In Adult Life, Study Finds, Science Daily, Washington University in St.Louis, 1999 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999.
10. Margaret Sloan-Hunter, Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History, National Black Feminist Organization, 1998, Houghton Mifflin Company. http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/women/html/wm_013106blackfeminis.htm.
11. Hymowitz, Carol, Weissman, Michaele, A History of Women in America, Bantam Books, New York, 1978; 363.
Barbara Smith, Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History, National Black Feminist Organization, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/women/html/wm_013106blackfeminis.htm.