Women of African origin in the United States have always been keenly aware of the impact of race, class, and gender oppression upon their lives. Since slavery, they have struggled individually and in groups, spontaneously and in formal organizations, to eradicate the multiple injustices that they and their communities face.
The term Black feminism was not widely used until the inception of the contemporary Black women's movement in the 1970s. However, Black feminist scholars frequently apply it to a variety of Black women's survival strategies and actions in the past. It is used to characterize Black women's tradition of courage, independence, and pragmatism under the brutal conditions of slavery and institutionalized racism. Black women's widespread employment outside of the home has sometimes been cited as evidence of their feminist goals, although economic necessity has been a more likely motive. Black women's activism, which has focused upon a range of issues, has been described as feminist, especially when it has occurred in all-female groupings. Black feminism has of course been used to define political theory and practice that explicitly addresses gender and sexual oppression in Black women's lives.
What most clearly distinguishes Black feminism from the politics of mainstream European American feminism is its focus upon the simultaneity of oppressions that affect Black and other women of color, especially racism, sexism, class oppression, and homophobia. Issues of particular concern to Black women, such as lynching or sterilization abuse, cannot be solely attributed to gender discrimination. Issues that affect all women, for example, battering, are simultaneously shaped by racial identity, class status, and sexual orientation as well as by gender.
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. Some, like Maria Stewart, Frances E. W. Harper, and Sojourner Truth, spoke out about Black women's rights. Sojourner Truth was active in the women's rights movement, and her oft-quoted 1851 "Ain't I a Woman" speech (which may have been inaccurately transcribed) nevertheless illustrates how gender oppression has unique repercussions for Black women living under a racist, economically exploitive system.
The struggle to pass the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended the voting franchise to Black males (at least on paper), caused splits between Black and white women. Most Black women agreed with Frederick Douglass, a staunch advocate of women's rights, that it was critical to win the vote for at least some of the Black population at that time, even if it meant delaying universal suffrage for women. The woman suffrage movement continued to be undermined by racism, for example, when white women appealed to white supremacist males to add more white voters to the electorate by supporting votes for women.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Black women had organized their own network of clubs. These groups supported woman suffrage but prioritized a range of social and political issues that affected Black communities as well as Black women specifically. Antilynching activism, brought to national attention by journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, not only challenged racist terrorism but also the sexual stereotyping of Black women as immoral in contrast to pure white women, whom lynching supposedly avenged. The National Association of Colored Women, formed in 1896, brought together more than one hundred Black women's clubs. Leaders in the Black women's club movement such as Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper, author of A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, were outspoken about the needs of Black women and girls, although they did not describe themselves as feminists.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Black women's activism focused primarily on challenging racism and the demoralizing social and economic problems that it spawned. Gender issues could still be raised in this context. Amy Jacques Garvey wrote about women's rights as editor of the women's page of The Negro World, the weekly newspaper of the United Negro Improvement Association. She expressed concern about Black women's situation in the Americas and, as a Pan-Africanist, demonstrated an internationalist perspective about women of color around the world. In 1947, novelist Ann Petry published an article in the widely circulated Negro Digest entitled, "What's Wrong with Negro Men?" which criticized sexism within the Black community.
Black women's participation in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s was crucial, although few were recognized for their leadership. In fact, frustration with male dominance in the civil rights and Black nationalist movements as well as dissatisfaction with the narrowness of white feminists' agendas were among the reasons that Black women began to confront the impact of gender oppression in their own lives.
In 1970, writer Toni Cade Bambara edited a collection entitled The Black Woman. Although not uniformly feminist in perspective, the contributors did examine what it meant to be simultaneously Black and female and opened up a dialogue that continues today. In 1973, a group of Black feminists in New York formed the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) and held a conference that drew hundreds of Black feminists from all over the country.
As the decade continued, more and more Black women began to question for the first time the reality of sexual oppression within the Black community as well as how the sexism of the society as a whole impacted them as Black women. The work of Black feminist writers and theorists, most notably Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Michele Wallace, led to national debates about sexual politics in the Black community.
In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a grassroots Black feminist organization in Boston, which had begun as a chapter of NBFO, issued a position paper that analyzed the intersection of oppression in Black women's lives and asserted the legitimacy of feminist organizing by Black women. The Collective's work broke significant new ground because it was explicitly socialist, addressed homophobia, and called for sisterhood among Black women of various sexual orientations. In fact, the early commitment of Black lesbian feminists such as Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Margaret Sloan, and Barbara Smith was crucial to building the movement in the 1970s, when many heterosexual Black women were reluctant to identify themselves as feminists.
Black feminists' autonomous organizing began to influence strongly other parts of the women's movement in the 1980s. They challenged white feminists to eradicate racism, to broaden the scope of what they defined as women's issues, to integrate their organizations, and to share leadership with women of color.
In the 1990s, Black feminism has had a positive effect on many aspects of the Black community. It has been a particularly successful catalyst in the growth of Black women's studies. In 1991, a grassroots effort, African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, gathered more than sixteen hundred signatures for a widely circulated ad in response to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. In 1995, amid controversy, Black feminists spoke out about the patriarchal assumptions of the male-only Million Man March. However contested, Black feminism, rooted in the struggles of generations of Black women, continues to play a vital role in the sociopolitical life of the United States.
Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Beverly Guy-Sheftall, ed., Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought (New York: New Press, 1995); Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983).
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