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  • Mia Penner

Five Black Feminists You Might Not Know About

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gloria Steinem, and Susan B. Anthony are household names, but Dorothy Height, Pauli Murray, and Audre Lorde may not be. Historically, the media has downplayed the role of black women in advancing equal rights for all. In the wake of recent Black Lives Matter protests, the Bipartisan Feminist Project hopes to shed light on some influential black feminists who may not be as well-known as their white counterparts. Here are five black feminists you might not know about:  1. Sojourner Truth: After escaping slavery in 1826, Truth became a staunch advocate for abolition and women’s rights. In 1850, during a time in which the abolitionist movement and the women’s rights movement were deeply intertwined, she spoke at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. Truth rose to fame in 1851 when she attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and delivered her most famous speech, which later became known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” The speech challenged the pre-Civil War status quo by demanding equal rights for both women and blacks. Throughout her lifetime, Truth struggled against the prevailing belief that women––especially African American women––should not question their status nor speak publicly about political issues. Despite these prejudices, Truth captivated audiences with her composed stage presence and left a lasting legacy in the feminist movement. In 2014, Smithsonian Magazine included her in the list of the "100 Most Significant Americans of All Time,” and in 2016 the U.S. Treasury announced that she would be featured on a newly designed $10 bill alongside other prominent women’s rights advocates. 

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

2. Dorothy Height: Height was an important but often overlooked figure in both the Civil Rights and women’s movements. She is widely considered to be the first civil rights leader to approach the issues of racism and sexism simultaneously, as they had previously been viewed as separate concerns. During her career, Height focused on problems specifically affecting African American women, including illiteracy, unemployment, and voter awareness. In 1957, she was made president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she continued to hold until 1997. During the Civil Rights Movement, she also organized "Wednesdays in Mississippi," which assembled black and white women to discuss women’s issues and create an interracial dialogue. Height helped advise many prominent American leaders; she encouraged President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint black women to government positions and pushed President Dwight D. Eisenhower to integrate schools. Civil rights leader James Farmer wrote that Height was one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement, but that her contributions were often downplayed due to sexism. 

Dorothy Height (1912-2010)

3. Shirley Chisholm: Chisholm is widely credited with paving the way for black and female candidates in the Democratic Party, including Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. From 1969 to 1983, she served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, making her the first black woman to be elected to Congress. Chisholm also ran for president in 1972 and became the first black candidate to run for a major party’s nomination, the first woman to appear in a presidential debate, and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination. Throughout her tenure as a congresswoman, Chisholm worked tirelessly to advance women’s rights. She helped establish the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides federal assistance to low-income mothers and children who do not have access to quality healthcare or nutrition. In 1971, Chisholm joined the Congressional Black Caucus and helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus. While in Congress, she only employed women, half of whom were black. She was also an avid supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment; in 1970, she delivered a speech in support of the amendment called "For the Equal Rights Amendment" that is listed as one of the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century. After her death, Chisholm was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. 

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

4. Pauli Murray: Murray was a prominent lawyer who championed civil rights and women’s rights. In 1940, she was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a bus, which prompted her to take a stand against segregation and to pursue a career as a civil rights lawyer. While in law school, she became aware of sexism and coined the term “Jane Crow” to refer to the unique struggles facing black women. After graduating, Murray used the law as a tool to oppose racism and sexism. In 1950, she published States' Laws on Race and Color, which challenged segregation by presenting legal and sociological evidence. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called it the “bible” of the Civil Rights Movement. Murray also worked to stop discrimination on the basis of gender; Ruth Bader Ginsburg named Murray a coauthor in the 1971 case Reed vs. Reed to acknowledge her work in advancing women’s rights. Furthermore, Murray served on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women from 1961 to 1963 and co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). She also taught law at several renowned universities and was ordained as an Episcopal Priest. 

Pauli Murray (1910-1985)

5. Audre Lorde: Lorde was a writer and activist who devoted her adult life to combating racism, sexism, and homophobia. She self-identified as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and worked to increase intersectionality in the feminist movement. Lorde’s poetry was emotionally charged and expressed anger at social injustices. Through her works, she angered many white feminists because she argued that white feminism merely aided the oppression of black women. Lorde encouraged other feminists to embrace intersectionality as a tool to unite rather than divide women. Several organizations were created in her honor to aid LGBTQ women of color, and in 2019 she was inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument. 

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

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