How Did Feminism Get to Be

JM: Why do people keep making the mistake of thinking that feminism is white? African-American women have historically supported the movement in greater numbers than white women have.

BS: 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.

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.

JM: The survey data originally surprised me too. But the point's clear. The surveys show that in the early days, almost twice as many black women as white supported the women's movement. And the support continues.

Louis Harris had the very first polls: In 1971, 60 percent of African-American women said they supported "efforts to strengthen and change women's status in society," compared to only 37 percent of white women. A year later came the first survey ever to ask about the women's movement. In that landmark survey, 67 percent of African-American women said they were sympathetic to "women's liberation." Only 35 percent of white women said the same thing.

More recently, as the wording of the surveys has changed to ask if you consider yourself a "feminist," there's been a drop in the percentage saying "yes." Yet black women continue to say yes as much as or more often than white women. The most recent survey to which I have access is a small CBS News survey from l997 that tapped only 60 black women. Still, 88 percent of them said they had a favorable opinion of the women's movement, compared to 64 percent of white women.

Going back to those early days, it seems strange that, with so many black women reporting support for the women's movement on surveys, commentators such as Robert Staples, editor of The Black Scholar, could write confidently of "the black woman's rejection of the women's liberation movement."

BS: In those days, it did take courage to be a black feminist. I remember vividly going to a group, predominantly women of color, who were planning an event. We proposed doing a workshop on black feminism. A black woman there, who appeared to be black nationalist in her perspective and sympathies, raised a lot of accusatory questions, so that by the time we left, we felt we had been hung out to dry. And we were not allowed to do the workshop.

JM: I also remember the historian Gerda Lerner's landmark Black Women in White America: A Documentary History coming out in l972. It ends with many quotations from notable black women from that year, but not one explicitly supporting the women's movement. Several implicitly or explicitly denounced it. What was going on? This was exactly the moment when almost 70 percent of black women were saying on surveys that they were sympathetic to women's liberation.

BS: One reason for the lack of support among prominent black women might be that black women have often been concerned about being "kicked out of the race" for holding views not accepted by the male leadership. There is a real concern in the black community about "breaking ranks."

There are a lot of "white" things that black people supposedly do not do. Black people are not supposed to commit suicide. Black people are not supposed to be lesbian or gay. Black people are not supposed to go to therapists or need them. Black people are not supposed to be feminists.

But there are myriad approaches to how to be a black person. Being black and female has its own set of challenges and burdens that we need to address. It is very mistaken to view black feminism as "black male bashing" or as a battle between black women and men for victim status. But it has been hard to convince most in the black community to take black women's specific oppression seriously.

JM: So how did you get to be both a black feminist and an activist at a time when so many African-American women with access to the mainstream media were negative, or ambivalent at best, about the women's movement?

BS: In 1973 I heard about the founding conference of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in New York. It was pivotal because it brought together so many of the women who went on to do great work in bringing out these issues--Alice Walker, Faith Ringgold, Michele Wallace, Shirley Chisholm. People came from as far away as California, as many as 300, 400, maybe 500 people--many more than expected. The organizers asked people from different regions to caucus together, and I remember women from Boston gathering in the stairwell of the church where we were meeting. That's how the Boston chapter of NBFO got started.

In 1975, our Boston group became independent, naming ourselves the Combahee River Collective, after the river in South Carolina where Harriet Tubman, during the Civil War, led the only military campaign in U.S. history planned by a woman--which freed more than 750 slaves.

JM: You must feel good that the Combahee River Collective Statement, which came out of the collective, is assigned today in so many women's studies courses. The point it made, that the problems of race, gender, sexuality, and class were "interlocking," not additive, is one many black women scholars make today--that each of these factors changes the way the other is experienced.

BS: Yes, these battles have to be fought together. And we fought them. Our collective worked in coalition with other women of color, with white feminists, and with progressive men. We worked on issues of sterilization abuse, reproductive freedom, and violence against women. We worked with women in prison, actively supported black women's art and culture, and led efforts to confront racism in the women's movement. I'm sure it was our commitment to activism that kept us alive.

But you know, although membership in the collective was open to black women of all sexual orientations, black lesbians often provided the collective's leadership. In that era, many heterosexual black women did not want to work with open lesbians.

JM: That was one of the issues in NBFO too, wasn't it? I think NBFO's folding was one of the great tragedies of the feminist movement. There was such enthusiasm for it in the few years it lasted.

BS: There are other reasons that black feminism has not become a mass movement. I just wrote a new introduction to Home Girls, one of the first anthologies of black feminist writing, which originally came out in l983. Re-reading my original introduction, I was struck by how many examples of women of color organizing I could cite then. When Home Girls first came out, the feminist movement as a whole was still vital and widespread. Although the media loved to announce that feminism was dead, they had not yet concocted the 1990s myth of "post-feminism," in which all women's demands have supposedly been met and an organized movement is irrelevant. Reaganism was only a few years old, and it had not yet eradicated many of the gains made in the l960s and 1970s toward racial, sexual, and economic justice. Today, almost every month we see murders motivated by racism, homophobia, or misogyny. Twenty years of conservative federal administrations have been detrimental to all progressive organizing, including the building of black feminism.

There are also specific factors that make black feminist organizing even more difficult to accomplish than activism focused upon other political concerns. It isn't easy to confront oppression that is occurring within already oppressed communities.

I like the way Jill Nelson put it in her recent book Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman:

As a group, black men and, heartbreakingly, many black women, refuse to acknowledge and confront violence toward women or, truth be told, any other issue that specifically affects black women. To be concerned with any gender issue is, by and large, still dismissed as a "white woman's thing," as if black men in America, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, have managed to avoid the contempt for women that is a fundamental element of living in a patriarchy.

Since Home Girls was first published in 1983, I've seen an increase of overt sexism in some black circles. Look at the early response to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, to Mike Tyson, to the O.J. Simpson trial, and to the Million Man March. In all these cases, initially there was a lot of unquestioning support for black men. Some regressive elements of black popular culture are blatantly misogynist. There is resentment that black women have been more equal economic partners and decision makers in the family than white women. Ironically, our having this level of responsibility is a direct result of racial discrimination, as opposed to greater opportunities. But as a result, black women are often portrayed as virtually exempt from oppression and much better off than their male counterparts.

JM: Too bad there wasn't a more highly visible, explicitly feminist black women's organization to answer these events.

BS: Twenty years ago, I would have expected there to be at least a handful of nationally visible black feminist organizations and institutions by now. The cutbacks, right-wing repression, and virulent racism of this period have been devastating for the growth of our movement, but we must also look at our own practice.

If only we had had the means to build more multi-issued grass-roots organizations in our own communities-- organizations that could deal with black women's survival issues and at the same time not back away from raising issues of sexual politics. These survival issues are permeated with feminist concerns: universal access to quality health care, universal accessibility for people with disabilities, quality public education for all, a humane and nonpunitive system of support for poor women and children, job training and placement in real jobs that have a future, decent and affordable housing, and the eradication of violence of all kinds, including police brutality. Today, for example, we have a prisoners' rights movement that doesn't clearly incorporate a feminist analysis.

People sometimes think of feminism as middle class, but these issues affect women of all classes. From my own organizing experience, I know that there are working-class and poor black women who not only relate to the basic principles of black feminism, but who live them.

JM: Well, survey research backs up your experience. In 1986, 39 percent of black women reported that the women's movement had done "very well" in improving their "own" lives. This was more than twice the percentage of white women (19 percent). By 1996, 49 percent of black women reported that the women's movement had improved their lives, and white women now had almost caught up, at 45 percent. And in that 1997 survey, 60 percent said the women's movement had achieved something that had made their lives better, compared to 42 percent of the white women.

In a focus group we did, one black woman described going from Chicago to her husband's family in the South for a big family dinner. Here's what happened, in her words:

All of a sudden all the men shifted [makes a funny shifting noise] to one side of the room. And all of a sudden all of the women shift [makes another shifting noise] into the kitchen. And I'm sitting there at the table by myself scratching my head.

And the women come out with the plates, handing out the plates, and my husband says: "You gonna fix my plate?"

"I don't fix your plate at home. Why would I do it here?"

Well, it ties in. It's a generation thing. It's a cycle, a never-ending cycle. His father did it, and his father's father did it. They just sit there and wait while the women go [makes a shifting sound] around. ... Well, what I did was I ended up, like, liberating the other women in the family, and then all of a sudden they stopped serving them... .

JM: I see that as the women's movement in action.

BS: I believe your anecdotes, but I'm still not sure I believe your surveys. When you say that 67 percent of black women said they were sympathetic to women's liberation--what does it mean to say something on a survey when you are not willing to act on it?

JM: Well, the answers are consistent in survey after survey. Even when the surveys ask for favorable and unfavorable opinions about organizations, black women (and men, for that matter) are far more likely than whites to favor the National Organization for Women.

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.

BS: So then what we need to focus on is why this generalized support does not translate into organized action.

I don't mean to imply that no organizing has taken place. Black feminists did mobilize a remarkable national response to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in l99l. Under the name African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, they gathered more than 1,600 signers for a statement that appeared in The New York Times and in a number of black newspapers shortly after the hearings occurred. They pointed out that the consolidation of a conservative majority on the Court endangered important rights. They said they were "outraged" at the treatment of Hill, "who was maligned and castigated for daring to speak publicly of her own experience of sexual abuse." They charged the media with "portraying the black community as prepared to tolerate both the dismantling of affirmative action and the evil of sexual harassment in order to have any black man on the Supreme Court." And they charged Thomas himself with having "outrageously manipulated the legacy of lynching in order to shelter himself from Anita Hill's allegations."

JM: It was a strong response, but it was ad hoc, and therefore harder to organize.

BS: That's right. We didn't have a quick-response network in an already existing black feminist organization. And as usual, the mainstream media gave very little coverage to this major expression of black women's feminist perspectives.

But on the bright side, among black radicals, black feminism is finally getting recognized as critical to the movement. Black feminists were centrally involved in organizing the highly successful Black Radical Congress (BRC), which took place in Chicago in June l998. This gathering of 2,000 activists marked the first time in the history of the African-American liberation movement that black feminist issues and black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues were on the agenda from the outset. And black feminists have been active in the struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently on death row in Pennsylvania. So within some radical politics, black feminism is relatively strong.

JM: And there are some important organizations. The National Black Women's Health Project is pretty visible, though not explicitly feminist. The National Political Congress of Black Women is pretty feminist, but not too visible as yet. The Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, the black sororities, and the National Council of Negro Women also take important feminist stances, but they don't present themselves to the public as black feminist organizations.

BS: Black feminists per se have no major national organizations, so we have to function in small local groups and individually.

JM: We also haven't explored yet how the white feminist movement has discouraged black feminists. In my reading, almost every major black feminist writer--Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Michele Wallace--has reported a miserable experience in a feminist organization to which she had looked with hope. These women have very different personalities. That they all had similar experiences has to tell us that it was the organizations' problem. What have been your experiences?

BS: When I got active in this work, it was not through a primarily white organization, but through NBFO, and then Combahee, and then Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color. I think I could maintain my feminism so strongly because I was not constantly embattled with racist white women. The backward and meanspirited were never a majority in any of the racially mixed organizations I was a part of. The Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, the Abortion Action Coalition (AAC) in Boston--each of those groups had a Third World Women's Committee, where we developed our own priorities. So, for example, in AAC, we developed our own pamphlet, published in both English and Spanish, and leafleted right in the heart of Roxbury, at Dudley Station. I don't know how we had the guts to do that! We were making the point that the right to abortion was not just a white thing but part of larger health issues important to black women.

JM: So you never had the kinds of experiences so many black feminist writers report?

BS: Oh, sure! In one incident I remember well, there was a conflict at an AAC meeting, and afterward we all went to a women's restaurant. A white woman said to me, "You're very angry. You're a very angry person, aren't you?" She was trivializing my political points by saying I was merely an "angry person." When black women raised criticisms, they were called "too angry," and then the tears would flow--white women's tears--almost, it seemed, to prove how mean the black women were!

JM: There are some important style differences there too.

BS: That's true. Black culture is more direct. For example, black people may not be any more homophobic, but it sometimes seems that way because they'll tell you exactly what they think.

JM: In my experience, feminists in mostly white organizations, including myself, have often failed to see how almost every important feminist issue is inflected differently by race. For instance, the quest to meet society's ideals of feminine beauty hurts all women. But many "feminine" images have a racial component as well--fair skin, blue eyes, blond hair. I was struck by the passage in Invisibility Blues in which Michele Wallace writes:

On rainy days my sister and I used to tie the short end of a scarf around our scrawny braids and let the rest of its silken mass trail to our waists. We'd pretend it was hair and that we were some lovely heroine that we'd seen in the movies. There was a time when I would have called that wanting to be white, yet the real point of the game was being feminine. Being feminine meant white to us.

The same holds when we take on issues of rape and battering. Violence against women doesn't exist in a racial vacuum. It can't be addressed without facing whatever it is that lies behind the lynching of black men and white fears of black sexuality--whatever lies behind a slave owner who, after whipping a runaway male slave to death, also cut off his genitals.

BS: And today's black women face a conflict in response to domestic violence; the only option they have is to call upon police forces that have historically been racist, especially in targeting young black men.

JM: It's black feminist writers and academics who have brought these points home to me.

BS: Yes, the big breakthrough, intellectually, has come in the universities. In the academy, it is now possible to teach both graduate and undergraduate courses focusing on black and other women of color, and to write dissertations in a variety of disciplines that address issues important to black women. At least scholars in women's studies, history, the social sciences, psychology, and literature are all far more attuned to black women's experiences now than they were 20 years ago.

JM: Certainly in feminist studies, writing by women of color is now at the cutting edge of the discipline. This writing is very subtle about power relations. These writers see and can communicate how someone who is the oppressed in one context can be the oppressor in another. It's a real advance on the relatively one-dimensional formulas of the left in the nineteenth century, the 1930s, or the 1960s.

I wish that people who complain about "identity politics" could see the way the writers now called U.S. Third World Feminists are thinking about the problem. A single identity cannot make sense to them because they are Native American, African American, Asian, Latina, or any number of other ethnicities or mixes, and women, and feminists, and lesbian or bisexual or straight, and have different political analyses, and come from different class backgrounds, and so forth. Their understanding of identity is plural, mutable, and allows a panoply of political commitments.

BS: But the prominence of women-of-color feminism in academia does not necessarily translate into power in the real world of politics--or even the real world of academia.

JM: I know. A University of California dean once said that on her campus, Asian, Latina, and African-American women students suffered more than white women from sexual harassment by faculty, perhaps because they were more vulnerable--often first-generation college, often on scholarships.

BS: Their experience is also affected by sexual stereotypes--black women are thought of as sexual animals, Asian women as exotic, submissive, and Latinas as hot-blooded. A friend of mine actually heard a white male professor say in class at the University of Chicago that a black woman can't be raped because black women are always willing. She left the class devastated. Sexual stereotyping motivated by racism--that's the kind of "interlocking" oppression we meant in the Combahee statement.

JM: But, as the legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw points out, you can bring a discrimination suit as a black and as a woman, but not as a black woman. The law has no place for this interlocking quality.

And you are right about the real world of politics. I've noticed that even where black women are very active in politics, they don't get the political leadership roles. In state and local legislatures, African-American men are by and large represented in proportion to their numbers in the population. It is African-American women who are significantly underrepresented.

BS: But has any candidate ever explicitly courted black women's votes? Not that I'm aware of.

JM: You hear about the gender gap--that in general women tend to vote Democratic while men tend to vote Republican. But my colleague Anna Greenberg has shown that in fact white women are more likely to be Republican than Democrat. It is black women, overwhelmingly Democrat, who push the category "women" over into the Democratic column.

Black women haven't yet had their political energy fully released. African-American women were the base of the civil rights movement. Now they are the base of black union organizing, the base of the black church, and still relatively strong in their support for the feminist movement.

BS: How to account for the gulf between the potential and the reality? We've covered the fears about breaking ranks in the black community, black lesbian leadership not getting support, the larger conservative repression, and a lack of consciousness in white women's organizations. I'd also add the far smaller financial resources among black women. Not too many black people can afford to work in organizations on "movement" salaries; they are not getting their cars or rent paid for by their parents.

JM: And I'd add--this is a theme in a lot of my work--that in general, leaders often don't know what the person in the street is thinking. So in this case, white and black leaders, male and female, didn't realize how strong the support was among black women for the women's movement.

BS: If we had to sum up why that support didn't turn into organizational strength, I'd say it was sexism in the black community and racism in the white. If we had had a strong and visible black feminist movement, I don't think we would have seen the debacle we saw over welfare.

JM: It may be too late. It's possible that the great galvanizing moment of feminism for this generation has come and gone.

BS: I don't think it's too late. I'm betting on the intrinsic power of black feminism for generations to come. ยค