Historical Black Feminists
The words ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ have a multitude of connotations, depending on the individual using them. It’s strange how two words that have very plain and simplistic definitions, can be misconstrued and shaped into having a different meaning all together. If we look at why the words were invented in the first place and the patriarchal society humans have lived in since the beginning of time, it does become clearer as to why there is a stark difference in who believes what. Add white supremacy to the equation and you end up with the intricate intersectionality of race and sex which ultimately put Black women at the very bottom of the society’s ‘ladder’. Socially, politically and economically, women are not afforded the same rights as men due to sexism and misogyny and Black people are not treated as equal human beings due to the colour of their skin, ringing true to Malcolm X’s statement that the Black woman is the most disrespected, unprotected and neglected person in American society (but I would go as far as to say that this is true anywhere in the world). The term and theory of intersectionality was conceived by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s in which she described how the structure of the law failed to acknowledge that Black women fell right in between discrimination against women (which also included White women) and discrimination against Black people (which also included Black men) thus their protection in society is wildly inefficient. Even within the feminist community, previous predominant feminist campaigns were ignorant on Black issues and were solely focussed in securing equal rights for women, that they forgot that inequity put this goal post further for different members of society, disabling it to be a movement that was actually inclusive in its nuances. In another thread of this same web of intersectionality is the obscurity of Black female abolitionists and feminists who championed for all women’s rights as far back as the early 19th century, thus sole recognition is given to White women who were the main faces of the Suffragette movement. This has further minimised and silenced Black feminists as being part of the same conversation.
Let us remember their names and what they stood for
In the late 1820s, 30-year old Isabella Baumfree ran away from her slave masters with her child, to a family who paid for her freedom and helped her sue her former owners for illegally selling her son to other slave owners and demanded his return. This occurred around a year before New York decided to enforce a law to free slaves and many years after Baumfree endured torturous punishments, vigorous physical labour and having her children taken away from her. Isabella Baumfree later changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 after her proclamation that the Spirit called on her to preach the truth … and so she did. Truth became celebrated for her powerful and courageous speeches and revelations of slavery’s wickedness and advocacy for women’s rights. Her most prominent lecture was given in 1851 at a women’s rights conference where she delivered a speech called “Ain’t I a Woman?” challenging the juxtaposition between the respect given to White women and herself, as a Black woman. Despite the respect given to White women being little at the time, racial discrimination deemed the respect that she was owed, obsolete.
After Truth, came other influential Black feminists, including Ida B. Wells. Wells was an African American journalist and activist who launched a significant anti-lynching campaign by organising, leading protests and demanding that President McKinley make change. Additionally, Wells was the Founder of the National Association of Coloured Women (NAWC) which fought against women’s suffrage and promoted reform for the lives of all African Americans (this very much included Black men). She also helped in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
In the 1930s, Dorothy Height began working for the Harlem YMCA which granted her the opportunity to meet Mary McLeod Bethune who was the National Council of Negro Women’s (NCNW) Founder and Eleanor Roosevelt. These events led to her voluntary work with the NCNW evolving into her Presidency of the Council and the height of her activism. Height’s notable work include helping to organise the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 which was where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic 'I have a dream' speech. giving advice of political issues to governmental leaders, fighting for an end to lynching, advocating for criminal justice reform and helping to form the National Women’s Political Caucus. Dorothy Height was prominent amongst many civil rights activists and pushed male campaign organisers to allow women to speak and be more involved during campaigns.
Around the same time, Audre Lorde’s first collection of poetry, First Cities, was published in 1968, catapulting more collections to be published thereafter. Lorde’s poetry addressed themes such as racial tensions, her sexuality as a lesbian, identity, motherhood and feminism. Her exceptional writing received multiple accolades for the power it brought to the feminist movement and civil rights. One of my personal favourite poems from Lorde's collection: A Land Where People Live is titled 'Who said it was simple?' which is slightly similar to Truth's speech, as it speaks to how liberation for women doesn't necessarily cater to Black women and even more so Black women who are part of the LGBT community. You can view the poem by clicking on the link above.
In the modern age, the definition of feminism is still warped as some cannot fathom a movement whose basis is focussed on fixing a system that has already been ‘fixed a long time ago’ as ‘things are different now’. The word feminist often has connotations of ‘unhappy man-hater’, 'loud' and ‘angry woman’ amongst others, which again feeds even more into the stereotypes of Black women being 'loud', ‘angry’ and ‘unhappy’. Knowingly, the community is made exclusive by transforming it only to serve those recognised as being the epitome of femininity, which is often proximal to whiteness. Whist it is incredibly important to recognise the remarkable work of historical White feminists, this does not paint anywhere near the full picture of how they achieved their success. You cannot advocate for women’s rights by only catering to White, cis-gender, heterosexual women. For full liberation, we must address all types of oppression experienced by all who identify as women. There have been countless Black feminists over the centuries whose stories and voices have been forgotten or overshadowed, despite confronting the oppression for all who are victims to the systems. We must celebrate and acknowledge Black feminists by using their journeys as the light which will guide us to true equality around the world.
The actual definition of a feminist, as described in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s famous TEDxEuston talk titled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ says that a feminist is: “A person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”.
I believe longing for equality and actively opposing inequality of the sexes makes you a feminist, however, how you do the work is up to you. By negating the need to conform to a version of a feminist who has ultimately been formed through White supremacy, we begin to add the layers of heterogeneity and complexity needed in the community. Read and listen to the works of feminists all over the world, listen to other people when they address their struggles and most importantly create the change needed to add to an inclusive movement.
Am I a feminist? Absolutely. Should you be one too? Ask yourself if you would like to live in a world where all men, women and non-binary people are treated with equal dignity, respect and are afforded the same level of access to succeed. Then you should have your answer.
Thanks for reading and if you would like to read more stories about incredible Black people in history and now, head over to my Instagram and let’s continue the conversation. Subscribe to be notified of future blog posts and exclusive content. I’ve put together TWO amazing pieces of exclusive content for my subscribers this month which are so close to my heart which I can’t wait share!
Until next time,