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  • Kilhah St. Fort

Black Feminism Through the Ages

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Mainstream feminism has been historically dominated by one group: well-educated, middle-class white women, or those who face sexism but likely don’t suffer from other systems of oppression. While the struggles of these women are valid, their overwhelming presence as the sole figureheads of feminism is problematic.

Asserting only one group of people as the representative image of a movement as intricate and extensive as feminism reduces the value of the movement. It ignores the struggles of others and directly contradicts feminism’s goal to achieve gender equality by only leveling the playing field for a certain group of women.

This neglect is especially felt by Black women, a demographic that has been deeply involved in the feminist movement since its conception. In this article, we’ll be examining the role of black women in feminism. The information will be categorized by each wave of feminism. (We understand that feminism is an ideology that has historically splintered off into different and contradicting movements. However, the wave analogy is being used for clarity purposes only.)

The First Wave:

Recognized as the first sustained western feminist political movement, the nineteenth-century suffragettes make up the first wave. The Seneca Falls convention of 1848, which spearheaded the movement, resulted in a list of resolutions for equal rights, with the right to vote as the focal point.

Early stages of feminism were deeply intertwined with the anti-slavery movement since the convention organizers and prominent leaders were almost all abolitionists. However, the passing of the 15th Amendment changed all of this. White feminists were offended by the fact that formerly enslaved men gained the right to vote before them. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony left the original movement and formed a group for white women only. They used racial hostility to gain support for the white women's vote. Soon, black women were either barred completely from the ranks of white feminists or told to stay in the back during public demonstrations.

A few days before the Women Suffrage Procession in Washington D.C., Alice Paul, the white feminist organizing the demonstration, told black women that they weren’t excluded from the march but they weren’t welcomed either. She made this decision after being told by racist allies that if black women were present then the march would lose credibility. Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terell, and other black feminists showed up regardless. When Wells was told to march behind her white counterparts, she refused and instead marched alongside her state delegation in the front.

Another outstanding black suffragette was Sojourner Truth. Although she couldn’t read or write, Truth was a phenomenal speaker. Her most famous speech was the 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, in which she called attention to the differences in the treatment of white women and black women. The speech went on to become an essential aspect of black feminism and has been recited by various influential black women.

The Second Wave:

Emerging in the 1960s, the second wave of feminism emphasized social equality. Issues such as sex, abortion, and domestic labor were rebranded as systemic and political. Largely sparked by the publication of The Feminist Mystique by Betty Frieden, the movement sought to change the way society viewed women, or more specifically, white housewives.

Although less outwardly racist than the first wave, the second wave of feminism didn’t include a space for black women nor did it advocate for issues specifically affecting them. During the 60s, Black women were already working outside the house, as they have done for years before. The problems of the average housewife didn’t apply to them. Instead, they were more concerned about the forced sterilization of people of color, which political activist Angela Davis later called attention to in her 1981 book Women, Race, and Class.

Many female civil rights activists also doubled as feminists. They battled for visibility in both the white-dominated feminist movement and the male-dominated civil rights movement. Alienated from central platforms, this era gave way to Alice Walker’s womanism, a social theory defined by USAToday as “a black feminist or feminist of color … a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually … committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” Womanism was a reaction to the exclusion of black women in the feminist movement and aimed to highlight the struggles of black women. It’s a term that black women still identify with today.

The Third/Fourth Wave:

Historians have yet to pinpoint the exact moment at which the third wave of feminism began. Since it’s still widely debated whether or not the third wave is still going on and if the fourth wave even exists, we’re combining both waves into one section.

The third/fourth waves of feminism were responses to the second wave. Topics that were previously rejected, such as high-femme girliness, were now embraced. The major difference between these two waves and the other ones is the larger focus on intersectionality and the shift to the digital world.

Intersectionality is a term that was coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black woman, in 1989. In an interview with Time Magazine, Crenshaw defined intersectionality, saying “It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” This concept has changed the way modern-day feminism operates. Although mainstream feminism is still white-dominated, more people are calling for a change. Feminism is beginning to incorporate the experiences of various women of color, trans women, immigrant women, lower-class women, and so on. Movements such as Justice for Black Girls and Me Too are prime examples of this.

Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, wanted to bring attention to sexual violence, especially since it disproportionately affects black women and girls. This intentional spotlighting of the black female experience is a theme rooted in black feminism.

The mission of Justice for Black girls (JBG) carries the same theme. Through the organization’s Justice Ambassador Program, JBG uplifts the voices of black girls across the nation while simultaneously shaping the ambassadors into teen activists through the use of an academic curriculum. Said curriculum is centered around black girlhood and showcases the works of feminist icons such as Nikki Giovanni and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Black Feminism From A More Personal Lens:

Although black feminism has become more mainstream in recent years, there is still much to do to ensure that black women's voices are heard. Youth black feminist Ri Jones, 15, provided some of her opinions on the matter.

“It is important for the black female experience to be included in feminism because it can not be feminism if large groups of women are left out,” said Jones.

This type of visibility in the movement would mean that the struggles of black women are acknowledged rather than diminished, she asserted. Jones envisions black women being seen and heard, a quality needed due to the lack of representation.

“I think this [lack of representation] is because of white women fragility, and how in society there is a constant need for them to be the main focus, to be the center of attention, even when issues don’t concern them,” said Jones.

Jones views black feminism as a derivation from the ways previous black women weren’t included in the traditional feminist movement. It centers on the liberation and healing that is needed for the black woman to become autonomous and whole.

“Feminism should seek justice for all women not just one group of them,” she said.

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