Feminist Theory and Criticism

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Feminist Theory and Criticism

While the term black feminism originated in the 1970s, the central tenets of black feminist ideology date back to the mid-nineteenth century. Black feminists in both the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries argued that the intersection of race, class, and gender in their lives, commonly referred to as the "double bind," inevitably shape the political and ideological projects led by and for black women. Late-twentieth-century black feminists have expanded the concept of the "double bind" to include other forms of discriminationsuch as sexual harassment and homophobiathat impact the daily lives of African-American women. For example, many black feminists have argued that they cannot fight one form of oppression, be it sexism, racism, classism, or homophobia, but must, because of their intersecting sociopolitical identities, challenge all or some combination of these forms of discrimination. Furthermore, black feminists have resisted for generations the separatism of their white feminist counterparts who have not traditionally included racism and classism as part of the women's rights agenda while simultaneously questioning the patriarchal beliefs of their African-American male leaders who often choose to ignore sexism in the fight for racial justice. Additionally, black feminists argue that their quest to eliminate racism and patriarchy must be deeply rooted in and connected to the freedom of all African-American people. As such, this community-centered concept has led to debates among black feminists to forgo the term black feminist and replace it with the seemingly more holistic, more multicultural term of womanist.

Black feminism has three underlying tenets: first, that black men have often asserted their "rights to be men" by restricting these same rights for black women; second, that black male leaders often consider it inappropriate for black women to playing a leading role in fighting for black freedom and justice; third, that mainstream feminism in the United States, from the suffragists to pro-choice advocates, define feminism by excluding the needs and rights of women of color and poor women. In regards to the first challenge, the emphasis on racial unity has resulted in black women being called "race traitor" when they critique or challenge black male authority. For example, the term "race traitor" was widely applied to black feminists who supported Desiree Washington in the rape trial against Mike Tyson; who criticized Clarence Thomas's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court; or who protested the gender exclusion of the Million Man March. In all three cases black feminists who spoke out against sexism and tried to address the multiple forms of oppression evident in these events were accused of forfeiting their racial identity by blindly following white feminists at the expense of black people. In response to the perennial exclusion of black women from positions of leadership in civil rights and social justice programs, black feminists argue that these values stem from deeply patriarchal and heterosexist attitudes in the African-American community regarding "appropriate" women's behavior. Black feminists argue that these sexist belief systems within the African-American community unfairly relegate black women to subservient roles within the fight for racial justice. However, while black feminists contend that sexism and homophobia within the black community creates an antiblack feminist bias, they also articulate the third tenet of black feminism, which argues that mainstream feminism primarily addresses the needs of white, middle-class, well-educated women. As a result, black feminists have challenged white feminists to include the voices and experiences of women of color and working-class women as fundamental to the feminist project.

Black feminism can trace the roots of the "double bind" ideology back to the early-nineteenth century. Because most nineteenth-century African-American women were enslaved, free black women joined the abolitionist movement to help manumit their fellow black sisters. In early 1831, Maria Stewart published the essay titled "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build" in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. This essay was significant not only because it was the first political manifesto written by an African-American woman but also because Stewart revealed that black women faced a unique set of problems in slavery because of their doubly oppressed status as slave and woman. In 1861 Harriet Jacobs, under the pseudonym Linda Brent, published the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Incidents was the first slave narrative to provide a detailed account of the life of a slave woman. In her autobiography Jacobs revealed that she, like most enslaved African-American women and girls, was especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation by her slave master. Moreover, in contrast to Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Jacobs also recognized that black women were less likely to escape slavery than black men because they were the primary caretakers of their children. As such, enslaved black women had fewer options than black men and substantially fewer rights than white women. Like Jacobs, abolitionist Sojourner Truth focused on black women's rights in her antislavery speeches. Sojourner Truth is best known for her 1851 speech, popularly referred to as "Ain't I a Woman?" that she delivered at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio. In this speech, Sojourner challenged white feminists to expand their definitions of womanhood to include free and enslaved African-American women, while simultaneously critiquing men for refusing to grant all women equal rights. Immediately after the Civil War, Truth continued to politic on behalf of black women, arguing that because black men and women work equally hard, black women and black men should have equal rights and both be guaranteed the right to vote.

By the end of the nineteenth century, black women, like white women, still did not have the right to vote. However, the period 1890 to 1920 is now seen as the "Women's Era" of African-American history because of an increase in activism and political visibility of black women in society. Black women created organizations that demanded women's suffrage and focused on a range of social and political issues that affected black communities. Anti-lynching activism, brought to national attention by journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, opposed not only the widespread lynching of black men but also the sexual stereotyping of black women as immoral in contrast to chaste white women, whom lynching supposedly vindicated. In 1892 Anna Julia Cooper wrote the first black feminist book, A Voice from the South. Cooper's basic premise was that black women and black men experienced severe oppression during slavery, with the result that neither sex had gained any significant advantage over the other. Consequently, Cooper did not believe that men were innately more suited for racial uplift than black women. In fact, she believed that when black women fought against injustice, they framed race issues around the needs of working-class men, women, and children. This was the message behind one of the most famous passages in A Voice from the South: "Only the Black Woman can say 'where and when I enter, in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.'"

In 1896 African-American women founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC), in response to a white journalist's insulting letter about African-American women. The NACWC brought together more than one hundred black women's clubs and became the black woman's primary vehicle for race leadership. Clubwomen, who subscribed to the strictest model of "respectability," believed that it was their responsibility to teach poorer African-American women middle-class traits of housecleaning, child care, and etiquette. The national motto, "Lifting as We Climb," addressed concerns of class and social uplift. Leaders in the black women's club movement such as Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper, formed the clubs to enact municipal, civic, and educational reform. These activities coalesced with their desire for increased political visibility and the vote. In the end, the "Women's Era" embodied the ideology that the problems of the race revolved around the problems of its women.

Between 1923 and 1926, black women blues singers rose to national prominence. While the African-American woman activists in the "Women's Era" believed that they should model middle-class attitudes for working-class women, black women blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey derived their black feminist identity from and within African-American poor and working-class communities. One significant ideological difference between these two strands of black feminism was the treatment of black women's sexuality. For the most part, black feminists of the "Women's Era" addressed issues of black female sexuality by disproving the stereotypes that black women were innately sexually promiscuous and unrespectable. However, in both their song lyrics and public persona, blues women were significantly more explicit about sexual desire. Given the stringent social norms regarding black female sexuality from both within and outside the African-American community, when artists like Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith sang about women's sexuality, they put forth a model of black feminism based on an open defiance of patriarchy and male sexual dominance. By embodying the traits of independence, tenacity, and sexuality, blues women redefined the woman's "sphere" of domesticity to include those women who worked on the road traveling and singing.

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 continued to confront the impact of gender oppression in their own lives. Even though Ella Baker was one of the most significant civil rights leaders, her pivotal leadership and contributions to the civil rights movement were ignored until very recently. In 1956, Baker, along with Stanley Levinson and Bayard Rustin, formed "In Friendship," a fund-raising group that supported southern civil rights organizations that were spawned by the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Nonetheless, she often felt that the patriarchal attitudes of the black men in the civil rights movement made it substantially harder for her to ascend to and keep her position of leadership. Although Baker was instrumental in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black ministers in 1957, she eventually disagreed with their concept of a strong central leadership. In line with the community-centered approach of black feminist thought, Baker was convinced change must begin at the grassroots level rather than through centralized power. As a result, in 1960 Baker helped organize many of the varied student organizations that had been involved in the early sit-in movement, eventually fostering the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During the early 1960s SNCC became involved in the Freedom Rides, which set out to desegregate buses, and also participated in the voter registration drive, Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were particularly challenging for black women activists who felt alienated by the mainstream feminist movement, civil rights organizations, and the Black Panther Party. As a result, black feminists, much like their early predecessors, realized that they had to create their own organizations and write their own political manifestos in order to challenge the daily discriminations African-American women experienced. On behalf of working- and middle-class black women, in 1973 the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) supported the African-American woman's right to work at a living wage; argued that she must have access to quality education, job training, and health care; and demanded protection for her reproductive rights, specifically her right to refuse sterilization. Similar to the leaders of the black women's club movement, members of the National Welfare Rights Organization (1967) and the NBFO did not differentiate race, class, and gender but instead focused on their intersections, serving the masses of African-American women who were multiply afflicted by American racism and sexism. In 1977 a group of radical black feminists in Boston, who were inspired by the NBFO, created the Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective, named after the Combahee River that Harriet Tubman used to help more than seven hundred slaves escape slavery, 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. While the "Black Feminist Statement" continued the black feminist tradition of addressing the exclusion of black women from gender-based or race-based political organizations, the document was an even more radical statement of black feminism because it was explicitly socialist, addressed homophobia, and called for sisterhood among black women of various sexual orientations.

Unlike the black feminists of the "Women's Era" who understandably depicted black women as respectable and virtuous, the black feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s explicitly, quite like the blues women who preceded them, attended issues of black female sexuality. These modern black feminists expanded the definition of black female sexuality to include issues of birth control, forced sterilization, same-sex relationships, autonomous sexual desire, and sexual assault. As such, these black feminists expanded the definition of black women's oppression from the "double bind" to intersectional and multifaceted. Toni Cade Bambara's 1970 edited collection The Black Woman explored these themes even more. Her anthology opened up a dialogue about black female sexuality that later books, most notably Toni Morrison's Sula (1974), Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf (1975), Gayl Jones's Corregidora (1975), Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), and Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), explored in-depth. Additionally, the early commitment of black lesbian feminists such as Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Margaret Sloan, and Barbara Smith were crucial to the foundation of the black feminist movement in the 1970s because they unequivocally argued against the multiple layers of oppression that black women faced both outside of and within the African-American community. Arguing against black nationalist liberation models that African-American families desperately needed to reinstate men as the head, Audre Lorde's classic text, Sister Outsider, skillfully illustrates that the intersections of sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia in the lives of black women needed to be challenged in order for all African Americans to be free.

In the 1980s, bell hooks and Alice Walker provided pivotal texts on black feminism. bell hooks's Ain't I Woman (1981) provided an extensive historical analysis of how race, gender, and class intersect to shape and to oppress the lives of black women. Like the Combahee River Collective's "Black Feminist Statement," hooks defined black feminism as a survival mechanism that African-American women have and continue to need to use to challenge their multifaceted oppression. In her controversial novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker sparked new debates about sexism in the African-American community. While The Color Purple explored the negative impact of southern segregation on the lives of African-American families, Walker primarily focused on how African-American women survived and confronted the sexism they experienced within their own families and communities. Like Michelle Wallace and Ntozake Shange, Walker was widely criticized for her portrayal of black men as sexist and abusive toward African-American women. In response, Walker addressed the sexism implicit in these critiques, but also argued that The Color Purple explored the variety of relationshipsfamilial, sexual, and platonicthat provided the foundation for contemporary black feminist projects. In Walker's specific case, the woman-centered relationships that she created in The Color Purple inspired her coinage of the term "womanist" to describe the black feminist movement. In the introduction to In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, Walker noted that a womanist is "a Black feminist or feminist of color. A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women's strength. Committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not separatist, except periodically, for health."

In the 1990s African-American feminists continued to organize and openly challenge sexism and racism on the national scene and within the African-American community. In 1991 a grassroots group called "African American Women in Defense of Ourselves" gathered more than sixteen hundred signatures for a widely circulated ad in response to the hearings to appoint Clarence Thomas as a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1995, amid controversy, black feminists spoke out about the patriarchal assumptions of the male-only Million Man March. While in the twenty-first century, black feminists continue to view sexism and racism as the major challenges that afflict African-American women, twenty-first-century black feminists, or "third wave" black feminists, now confront popular culture, mass media, and globalization in their black feminist projects. Given the severe criticism that hip-hop music and culture is both misogynistic and homophobic, "hip-hop feminism" appears almost oxymoronic. However, as Joan Morgan skillfully reveals in her 1999 book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, while the black feminism of the hiphop generation is radically different from that of previous generations, the need for black feminism movement is equally as strong. Like its predecessors, hip-hop feminism has a radical critique of how racism and sexism affect the daily lives of black women. However, hip-hop feminists have the privileges of the feminist and civil rights movements while being the "first to have the devastation of AIDS, crack, and Black-on-Black violence" (p. 61). Morgan argues that the result of this paradox of both privilege and despair requires a new type of black feminism, "a feminism committed to 'keeping it real.' We need a voice like our musicone that samples and layers many voices, injects its sensibilities into the old and flips it into something new, provocative, and powerful." In addition to Joan Morgan, filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons (2003) believes that a black feminist movement is needed now more than ever. However, while her definition of black feminism incorporates the central tenets of black feminism, she, like Morgan, grounds her feminism in a critique of popular culture and mass media. She counters the negative depictions of African-American women in music videos, television, and films by implementing her coined term, "Afrolez" which is a "femcentric multimedia arts project committed to using the moving image, the written and spoken word to counteract the negative impact of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism on the lives of marginalized and disenfranchised people, with a particular emphasis black women and girls."

Black feminism is both an ideological and a political project that challenges the varied forms of oppression that impact African-American women. From the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century, African-American feminists have recognized that their unique place in America society as both "woman" and "black" ensures that they will be doubly afflicted by racism and sexism. However, like any other political movement, black feminists hold on to their central tenets while they adapt their rhetoric and create projects that address the changing sociopolitical situations. From the "double bind" model to the multilayered oppression paradigm, black feminists argue that American democracy can only be realized when the most oppressed and marginalized members of society are free from the burden of oppression.

See also Baker, Ella J.; Bambara, Toni Cade; Blueswomen of the 1920s and 1930s; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Lorde, Audre; National Association of Colored Women's Clubs; Truth, Sojourner; Walker, Alice; Wells-Barnett, Ida B.


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Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

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Simmons, Aishah. "Using Celluloid to Break the Silence about Sexual Violence in the Black Community." In Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black, and Blue, edited by Carolyn M. West. New York: Haworth Press, 2003.

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