Intersectionality explains how someone can feel multiple forms discrimination when an individual has multiple marginalized identities such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, health and other characteristics. For example a women of color may face sexism in the workplace, which is compounded by pervasive racism, and can be exacerbated by movements that only focus on helping the white women’s perspective, further marginalizing the problems of any women that isn’t white.
Table of Contents
WTF is Intersectional Feminism?
What Is Intersectionality?
“Intersectionality is a sociological theory describing multiple threats of discrimination when an individual’s identities overlap with a number of minority classes — such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, health and other characteristics.
For example, a woman of color may face sexism in the workplace, which is compounded by pervasive racism. Similarly, trans women of color face exceptionally high levels of discrimination and threats of violence. Looking through the lens of intersectionality, it’s not hard to see why: these women potentially face anti-trans prejudice, sexism, misogyny, racism and — due to the ignorance surrounding trans identity — homophobia.
While intersectionality is traditionally applied to women, a person of any gender may be affected by this phenomena of overlapping minority status. A man from a Hispanic background could face xenophobia in today’s America despite being a naturalized citizen. If that Hispanic man is in his 50s, ageism might add to the discrimination he could face in trying to secure employment.
More precisely though, intersectionality describes the hierarchical nature of power and the fact that belonging to multiple discriminated classes can mean that one’s issues are ignored.
Who Invented the Term?
The term intersectionality itself is attributed to legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw and her 1989 essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” — though the actual thought behind intersectionality emerged much earlier, with academics recognizing the problem in the 19th century.
Crenshaw coined the term to express the particular problems that immigrant women of color face — and, crucially, why their issues were being ignored by both the feminist anti-racism movements of the time.
Often, intersectional experiences reveal that existing legal and policy mechanisms are stacked against people with a multiple minority identity. And these institutions may fail to account for critical cultural differences.
A Controversial Word
Within each separate movement — whether feminism or anti-racism — some individuals claim that intersectionality actually harms their personal cause. The arguments against intersectionality tend to focus on proving it to be a meaningless term. If a woman experiences racism then that’s racism. If she experiences sexism then that’s sexism. There is no need to overlap these forms of discrimination, so the school of thought goes.
But a strong body of evidence suggests that discrimination does overlap. While we might deal with the issues separately, denying that convergence could leave people vulnerable.
That’s not to say that intersectionality as an analytical tool doesn’t have its problems, however. A chief concern is that, for both scholars of racism and feminism, it remains a rather murkily defined perspective – and one that we are still struggling to effectively apply.
The Modern Civil Rights Movement
While accepting that intersectionality needs refining as a tool, a majority of social commentators and mainstream feminist and racial justice groups believe intersectionality does have an important role to play in today’s civil rights movements.
Take the gay rights movement that is often called upon to speak for the wider LGBTQA community. These figureheads are overwhelmingly white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men and women — and that can be a problem, given that they are representative of only one aspect of the LGBT community.
And in terms of feminism, the closing of women’s health clinics and the passing of antagonistic anti-abortion measures can disproportionately affect women of color — particularly those from lower economic backgrounds.
As such, while intersectionality might not be a perfect term, recognizing its uses and limitations helps to ensure that we don’t overlook the challenges faced by people who belong to multiple marginalized groups as we strive to achieve a more just society.”
On Intersectionality in Feminism and Pizza | Akilah Obviously
ISR: Black feminism and intersectionality
“Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in her insightful 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” The concept of intersectionality is not an abstract notion but a description of the way multiple oppressions are experienced. Indeed, Crenshaw uses the following analogy, referring to a traffic intersection, or crossroad, to concretize the concept:
Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. . . . But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm.
Crenshaw argues that Black women are discriminated against in ways that often do not fit neatly within the legal categories of either “racism” or “sexism”—but as a combination of both racism and sexism. Yet the legal system has generally defined sexism as based upon an unspoken reference to the injustices confronted by all (including white) women, while defining racism to refer to those faced by all (including male) Blacks and other people of color. This framework frequently renders Black women legally “invisible” and without legal recourse.
Crenshaw describes several employment discrimination-based lawsuits to illustrate how Black women’s complaints often fall between the cracks precisely because they are discriminated against both as women and as Blacks. The ruling in one such case, DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, filed by five Black women in 1976, demonstrates this point vividly.
The General Motors Corporation had never hired a Black woman for its workforce before 1964—the year the Civil Rights Act passed through Congress. All of the Black women hired after 1970 lost their jobs fairly quickly, however, in mass layoffs during the 1973–75 recession. Such a sweeping loss of jobs among Black women led the plaintiffs to argue that seniority-based layoffs, guided by the principle “last hired-first fired,” discriminated against Black women workers at General Motors, extending past discriminatory practices by the company.
Yet the court refused to allow the plaintiffs to combine sex-based and race-based discrimination into a single category of discrimination:
The plaintiffs allege that they are suing on behalf of black women, and that therefore this lawsuit attempts to combine two causes of action into a new special sub-category, namely, a combination of racial and sex-based discrimination…. The plaintiffs are clearly entitled to a remedy if they have been discriminated against. However, they should not be allowed to combine statutory remedies to create a new “super-remedy” which would give them relief beyond what the drafters of the relevant statutes intended. Thus, this lawsuit must be examined to see if it states a cause of action for race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively either, but not a combination of both.
In its decision, the court soundly rejected the creation of “a new classification of ‘black women’ who would have greater standing than, for example, a black male. The prospect of the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”
Crenshaw observes of this ruling that “providing legal relief only when Black women show that their claims are based on race or on sex is analogous to calling an ambulance for the victim only after the driver responsible for the injuries is identified.”
“Ain’t we women?”
After Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality in 1989, it was widely adopted because it managed to encompass in a single word the simultaneous experience of the multiple oppressions faced by Black women. But the concept was not a new one. Since the times of slavery, Black women have eloquently described the multiple oppressions of race, class, and gender—referring to this concept as “interlocking oppressions,” “simultaneous oppressions,” “double jeopardy,” “triple jeopardy” or any number of descriptive terms.
Like most other Black feminists, Crenshaw emphasizes the importance of Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech delivered to the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Truth’s words vividly contrast the character of oppression faced by white and Black women. While white middle-class women have traditionally been treated as delicate and overly emotional—destined to subordinate themselves to white men—Black women have been denigrated and subject to the racist abuse that is a foundational element of US society. Yet, as Crenshaw notes, “When Sojourner Truth rose to speak, many white women urged that she be silenced, fearing that she would divert attention from women’s suffrage to emancipation,” invoking a clear illustration of the degree of racism within the suffrage movement.
Crenshaw draws a parallel between Truth’s experience with the white suffrage movement and Black women’s experience with modern feminism, arguing, “When feminist theory and politics that claim to reflect women’s experiences and women’s aspirations do not include or speak to Black women, Black women must ask, “Ain’t we women?”
Intersectionality as a synthesis of oppressions
Thus, Crenshaw’s political aims reach further than addressing flaws in the legal system. She argues that Black women are frequently absent from analyses of either gender oppression or racism, since the former focuses primarily on the experiences of white women and the latter on Black men. She seeks to challenge both feminist and antiracist theory and practice that neglect to “accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender,” arguing that “because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”
Crenshaw argues that a key aspect of intersectionality lies in its recognition that multiple oppressions are not each suffered separately but rather as a single, synthesized experience. This has enormous significance at the very practical level of movement building.
In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, published in 1990, Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins extends and updates the social contradictions raised by Sojourner Truth, while crediting collective struggles waged historically with establishing a “collective wisdom” among Black women:
If women are allegedly passive and fragile, then why are Black women treated as “mules” and assigned heavy cleaning chores? If good mothers are supposed to stay at home with their children, then why are US Black women on public assistance forced to find jobs and leave their children in day care? If women’s highest calling is to become mothers, then why are Black teen mothers pressured to use Norplant and Depo Provera? In the absence of a viable Black feminism that investigates how intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and class foster these contradictions, the angle of vision created by being deemed devalued workers and failed mothers could easily be turned inward, leading to internalized oppression. But the legacy of struggle among US Black women suggests that a collectively shared Black women’s oppositional knowledge has long existed. This collective wisdom in turn has spurred US Black women to generate a more specialized knowledge, namely, Black feminist thought as critical social theory.
Like Crenshaw, Collins uses the concept of intersectionality to analyze how “oppressions [such as ‘race and gender’ or ‘sexuality and nation’] work together in producing injustice.” But Collins adds the concept “matrix of dominations” to this formulation: “In contrast, the matrix of dominations refers to how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized. Regardless of the particular intersections involved, structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression.”
Elsewhere, Collins acknowledges the crucial component of social class among Black women in shaping political perceptions. In “The Contours of an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology,” she argues that “[w]hile a Black woman’s standpoint and its accompanying epistemology stem from Black women’s consciousness of race and gender oppression, they are not simply the result of combining Afrocentric and female values—standpoints are rooted in real material conditions structured by social class.”
Fighting sexism in a profoundly racist society
Because of the historic role of slavery and racial segregation in the United States, the development of a unified women’s movement requires recognizing the manifold implications of this continuing racial divide. While all women are oppressed as women, no movement can claim to speak for all women unless it speaks for women who also face the consequences of racism—which place women of color disproportionately in the ranks of the working class and the poor. Race and class therefore must be central to the project of women’s liberation if it is to be meaningful to those women who are most oppressed by the system.
Indeed, one of the key weaknesses of the predominantly white US feminist movement has been its lack of attention to racism, with enormous repercussions. Failure to confront racism ends up reproducing the racist status quo.
The widely accepted narrative of the modern feminist movement is that it initially involved white women beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who were later joined by women of color following in their footsteps. But this narrative is factually incorrect.
Decades before the rise of the modern women’s liberation movement, Black women were organizing against their systematic rape at the hands of white racist men. Women civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, were part of a vocal grassroots movement to defend Black women subject to racist sexual assaults—in an intersection of oppression unique to Black women historically in the United States.
Danielle L. McGuire, author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power argues that
throughout the twentieth century…Black women regularly denounced their sexual misuse. By deploying their voices as weapons in the wars against white supremacy, whether in the church, the courtroom, or in congressional hearings, African American women loudly resisted what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “thingification” of their humanity. Decades before radical feminists in the women’s movement urged rape survivors to “speak out,” African American women’s public protests galvanized local, national, and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity.16
…In 1974, Barbara Smith joined with a group of other Black lesbian feminists to found the Boston-based Combahee River Collective as a self-consciously radical alternative to the NBFO. The Combahee River Collective was named to commemorate the successful Underground Railroad Combahee River Raid of 1863, planned and led by Harriet Tubman, which freed 750 slaves.
The Combahee River Collective’s defining statement, issued in 1977, described its vision for Black feminism as opposing all forms of oppression—including sexuality, gender identity, class, disability, and age oppression—later embedded in the concept of intersectionality.
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.
They added, “We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.”
The consequences of ignoring class and racial differences between women
As noted above, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, gave voice to the anguish of white middle-class homemakers who were trapped in their suburban homes, doomed to lives revolving around fulfilling their families’ every need. The book immediately struck a chord with millions of women who desperately sought to escape the stultifying world of household drudgery.
Friedan’s book, however, ignored the importance of the very real class and racial differences that exist between women. She made a conscious decision to target this particular audience of white middle-class women. As Coontz notes, “[T]he content of The Feminine Mystique and the marketing strategy that Friedan and her publishers devised for it ignored Black women’s positive examples of Friedan’s argument.” Friedan surely knew better. She had traveled in left-wing labor circles during the 1930s and 1940s but decided in the mid-1950s (at the height of the anticommunist witch hunts of the McCarthy era) to reinvent herself as an apolitical suburban wife.
Few Black women or working-class women of any race would have been able to afford Friedan’s proposal that women hire domestic workers to perform their daily household chores while they were at work. Thus, “Black women who did read the book seldom responded as enthusiastically as did her white readers.”
Friedan praises those stay-at-home moms who had shown the courage to break from their traditional roles to seek well-paying careers, writing sympathetically that these women “had problems of course, tough ones—juggling their pregnancies, finding nurses and housekeepers, having to give up good assignments when their husbands were transferred.” Yet she doesn’t deem it worthy to comment on the lives of the nursemaids and the housekeepers these career women hire, who also work all day but then return home to face housework and child care responsibilities of their own.
Soon after The Feminine Mystique was published, left-wing civil rights activist and women’s historian Gerda Lerner wrote to Friedan, praising the book but also expressing “one reservation:” Friedan had addressed the book “solely to the problems of middle class, college-educated women.” Lerner notes that “working women, especially Negro women, labor not only under the disadvantages imposed by the feminine mystique, but under the more pressing disadvantages of economic discrimination.”
It is also worth noting that Friedan introduces a profoundly anti-gay theme in The Feminine Mystique that would reverberate in her organizing efforts into the 1970s. She argues that “the homosexuality that is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene” has its roots in the feminine mystique, which can produce “the kind of mother-son devotion that can produce latent or overt homosexuality…. The boy smothered by such parasitical mother-love is kept from growing up, not only sexually, but in all ways.”…
…Fighting sexism and racism in the 1970s
It must be acknowledged that many women of color who identified as feminists in the 1970s and 1980s were strongly critical of mainstream feminism’s refusal to challenge racism and other forms of oppression. Barbara Smith, for example, argued for the inclusion of all the oppressed in a 1979 speech, in a clear challenge to white, middle-class, heterosexual feminists:
The reason racism is a feminist issue is easily explained by the inherent definition of feminism. Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.
But during the 1960s and 1970s, many Black women and other women of color also felt sidelined and alienated by the lack of attention to women’s liberation inside nationalist and other antiracist movements. The Combahee River Collective, for example, was made up of women who were veterans of the Black Panther Party and other antiracist organizations. In this political context, Black feminists established a tradition that rejects prioritizing women’s oppression over racism, and vice versa. This tradition assumes the connection between racism and poverty in capitalist society, thereby rejecting middle-class strategies for women’s liberation that disregard the centrality of class in poor and working-class women’s lives.
Black feminists such as Angela Davis contested the theory and practice of white feminists who failed to address the centrality of racism. Davis’s groundbreaking book, Women, Race and Class, for example, examines the history of Black women in the United States from a Marxist perspective beginning with the system of slavery and continuing through to modern capitalism. Her book also examines the ways in which the issues of reproductive rights and rape, in particular, represent profoundly different experiences for Black and white women because of racism. Each of these is examined below.
• Reproductive rights and racist sterilization abuse
Mainstream feminists of the 1960s and 1970s regarded the issue of reproductive rights as exclusively the winning of legal abortion, without acknowledging the racist policies that have historically prevented women of color from bearing and raising as many children as they wanted.
Davis argues that the history of the birth control movement and its racist sterilization programs necessarily make the issue of reproductive rights far more complicated for Black women and other women of color, who have historically been the targets of this abuse. Davis traces the path of twentieth-century birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger from her early days as a socialist to her conversion to the eugenics movement, an openly racist approach to population control based on the slogan, “[More] children from the fit, less from the unfit.”
Those “unfit” to bear children, according to the eugenicists, included the mentally and physically disabled, prisoners, and the non-white poor. As Davis noted, “By 1932, the Eugenics Society could boast that at least twenty-six states had passed compulsory sterilization laws, and that thousands of ‘unfit’ persons had been surgically prevented from reproducing.”
In launching the “Negro Project” in 1939, Sanger’s American Birth Control League argued, “[T]he mass of Negroes, particularly in the South, still breed carelessly and disastrously.” In a personal letter, Sanger confided, “We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to their more rebellious members.”36
Racist population-control policies left large numbers of Black women, Latinas, and Native American women sterilized against their will or without their knowledge. In 1974, an Alabama court found that between 100,000 and 150,000 poor Black teenagers were sterilized each year in Alabama.
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed an epidemic of sterilization abuse and other forms of coercion aimed at Black, Native American, and Latina women—alongside a sharp rise in struggles against this mistreatment. A 1970s study showed that 25 percent of Native American women had been sterilized, and that Black and Latina married women had been sterilized in much greater proportions than married women in the population at large. By 1968, one-third of women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico—still a US colony—had been permanently sterilized.
Yet mainstream white feminists not only ignored these struggles but also added to the problem. Many embraced the goals of population control with all its racist implications as an ostensibly “liberal” cause.
In 1972, for example, a time when Native Americans and other women of color were struggling against coercive adoption policies that targeted their communities, Ms. Magazine asked its predominantly white and middle-class readership, “‘What do you do if you’re a conscientious citizen, concerned about the population explosion and ecological problems, love children, want to see what one of your own would look like, and want more than one?’ Ms. offered as a solution: ‘Have One, Adopt One.’” The children on offer for adoption were overwhelmingly Native American, Black, Latino, and Asian.
To be sure, the legalization of abortion in the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was of paramount importance to all women and the direct result of grassroots struggle. Because of both the economic and social consequences of racism, the lives of Black women, Latinas, and other women of color were most at risk when abortion was illegal. Before abortion was made legal in New York City in 1970, for example, Black women made up 50 percent of all women who died after an illegal abortion, while Puerto Rican women were 44 percent.
The legalization of abortion in 1973 is usually regarded as the most important success of the modern women’s movement. That victory however was accompanied at the end of that decade by the far less heralded but equally important victories against sterilization abuse, the result of grassroots struggles waged primarily by women of color. In 1978, the federal government conceded to demands by Native American, Black, and Latina activists by finally establishing regulations for sterilization. These included required waiting periods and authorization forms in the same language spoken by the woman agreeing to be sterilized.
Davis notes that women of color “were far more familiar than their white sisters with the murderously clumsy scalpels of inept abortionists seeking profit in illegality,”41 yet were virtually absent from abortion rights campaigns. She concludes, “[T]he abortion rights activists of the early 1970s should have examined the history of their movement. Had they done so, they might have understood why so many of their Black sisters adopted a posture of suspicion toward their cause.”…
…Left-wing Black feminism as a politics of inclusion
This article has attempted to show how Black feminists since the time of slavery have developed a distinct political tradition based upon a systematic analysis of the interlocking oppressions of race, gender, and class. Since the 1970s, Black feminists and other feminists of color in the United States have built upon this analysis and developed an approach that provides a strategy for combating all forms of oppression within a common struggle.
Black feminists—along with Latinas and other women of color—of the 1960s era, who were critical of both the predominantly white feminist movement for its racism and of nationalist and other antiracist movements for their sexism, often formed separate organizations that could address the particular oppressions they faced. And when they rightfully asserted the racial and class differences between women, they did so because these differences were largely ignored and neglected by much of the women’s movement at that time, thereby rendering Black women and other women of color invisible in theory and in practice.
The end goal was not, however, permanent racial separation for most left-wing Black and other feminists of color, as it has come to be understood since. Barbara Smith conceived of an inclusive approach to combat multiple oppressions, beginning with coalition building around particular struggles. As she observed in 1983, “The most progressive sectors of the women’s movement, including radical white women, have taken [issues of racism], and many more, quite seriously.” Asian American feminist Merle Woo argues explicitly: “Today…I feel even more deeply hurt when I realize how many people, how so many people, because of racism and sexism, fail to see what power we sacrifice by not joining hands.” But, she adds, “not all white women are racist, and not all Asian-American men are sexist. And there are visible changes. Real, tangible, positive changes.”
The aim of intersectionality within the Black feminist tradition has been toward building a stronger movement for women’s liberation that represents the interests of all women. Barbara Smith described her own vision of feminism in 1984: “I have often wished I could spread the word that a movement committed to fighting sexual, racial, economic and heterosexist oppression, not to mention one which opposes imperialism, anti-Semitism, the oppressions visited upon the physically disabled, the old and the young, at the same time that it challenges militarism and imminent nuclear destruction is the very opposite of narrow.”
The Urgency of Intersetionality – Kemberle Crenshaw
Washington Post: Before there was ‘intersectional feminism,’ there was the Combahee River Collective
““The feminist movement was very white,” McCray said, explaining the impetus behind the Combahee collective, which was active until about 1980 in Boston. “We had Angela Davis, and there were certainly lots of women doing the work, but there were no big public figures, really, outside of her.”
At the time, McCray was a student at Wellesley College who identified as a lesbian, as did many members of the group.
“For us to say we were going to identify ourselves as anything other than heterosexual … that was heresy. Even if you were white, you weren’t talking about it,” she recalled.
Barbara Smith, a feminist activist and writer, came up with the name Combahee River Collective as a tribute to a Union Army campaign that Harriet Tubman helped to plan and lead that freed more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
In a 1977 statement defining their goals, the women wrote: “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”
Today, the concept is called “intersectionality” and is the source of debate in the news media and on social media among women of color who say that mainstream feminism is still too centered on the experiences of privileged white women.
During the panel discussion and in a subsequent interview, McCray (Chirlane McCray, co-founder Combahee River Collective) of made several key points about the importance of black women asserting their voices in the feminist movement.
On the definition of feminism
“We can’t be hung up on that word, ‘feminism.’ So many people have their own perceptions of what feminism is and what it isn’t. … This is very much a movement that is about the heart and the whole of who were are. We cannot take one piece of ourselves, the brown part, and separate it from the woman part. We can’t take the part that is middle class or lower class and separate it from the rest of who we are. We have to bring our whole selves to our struggles. … That is so important, because if it doesn’t work for us, it’s not going to work for anyone else.”
On who gets to call themselves feminists
“To me, a feminist is someone who values black women first and foremost. … Someone who supports black women, helps to lift them up and encourage them. And not just those who are doing well already. That is what a feminist is to me: someone who’s working to further the lives, the cause of self-empowerment for other women and our communities.”
On women of color and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements
“A black woman is the one who started #MeToo, Tarana Burke. You can’t take that away from her. Have white women gotten more airtime and print time? Probably so. That is the nature of our society. But we cannot let that take away from our suffering, our pain. It takes tremendous courage, tremendous bravery to stand up and share our stories. We need more of that, and we have to do it in any way that we can and where we are celebrated.”
On why her focus on mental-health issues as New York’s first lady is important to feminism
“This is the reality: One in five adults suffers from a mental illness or substance misuse or both in any given year. That means every single one of us is affected either directly or indirectly. … We have to take care of ourselves. I love the Audre Lorde expression: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ ””
Dear Latinx, Lets Check Our Privilege
Wikipedia: White feminism
“White feminism is a form of feminism that focuses on the struggles of white women while failing to address distinct forms of oppression often faced by women of colour and women lacking other privileges.
Over the past 400+ years, in predominantly white societies, issues with black women have continuously not been talked about, so the true historical struggles of black women are not widely known. African American women have always been viewed as a different “kind/type” of woman than American white women. White women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not expected to work and were expected to stay at home and take care of the kids and the house. They were always seen as too delicate to go out and work a job. But, black women were expected to work all day, come home and cook, then take care of the kids and the house. Society never let black women be seen as “feminine” or delicate as white women, so they always had to carry a heavier social workload. This is how black women have been perceived since the 1700s during slavery, so by the time the first wave of feminism came around, black women and their issues were not included in the feminist movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony prioritized their suffrage over black men, so black women were not even a consideration to receive suffrage. This is all ironic due to women being excluded from the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment, but then the feminists excluded other marginalized groups from getting the same rights that they fought for. Now, in these third and fourth waves of feminism, it is okay to say that black women are treated the same as white women, but this is just not always the case. Within the feminist movements, white women are overall still at the forefront and still discuss issues that directly affect them. So, the issues that are specific to minority women are still being pushed to the side as they were during the first wave of feminism.
In first-wave feminism
First-wave feminism began in the 19th century and continued into the early 20th century, and focused primarily on legal issues pertaining to women, especially women’s suffrage. This wave officially started after Seneca Falls and emerged out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics and the goal of this wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage. It was a movement predominantly organized and defined by middle-class, educated white women, and concentrated mostly on issues pertaining to them.
Some ethnic minority women were embraced in the movement, such as suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh among the British first-wave feminists. However, there is little evidence that black women participated in the British suffragette effort. In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation to grant women of all races the right to vote; this was met with anger from suffragists including Millicent Fawcett, who expressed displeasure that Māori women in one of the British colonies were able to vote, while British women of society were not. Susan B. Anthony (a staunch abolitionist) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for white women to get the right to vote in the United States of America, prioritising this above black men getting the right to vote. Anthony and Stanton were wary of creating an “aristocracy of sex”; rather, they proposed universal suffrage, such that the black community and women (including black women) get enfranchised at the same time.
In second-wave feminism
Second-wave feminism, particularly at its outset, was similarly shaped by middle-class, educated white women, and again did not tend to consider issues relevant specifically to ethnic minority women
During the second and third-wave feminist periods, scholars from marginalised communities began to write back against the way feminist movements had been essentializing the experiences of women. The notable feminist scholar bell hooks brought this issue to the forefront of feminist thought, regularly writing about the struggles that black women experienced and emphasizing that the feminist movement was exclusionary towards those women by virtue of its inattention to the interactions between race, gender, and class. Hooks argued that white women should recognise that they, like ethnic minority men, occupied a position of being both oppressed while also being oppressors.
Today’s feminists sometimes emphasize intersectional perspectives in their work.Despite this, some have argued that feminist media continues to overrepresent the struggles of straight, middle class, white women. The position held by certain modern feminist authors that racism is not an element of society that feminism needs to be concerned with has also been cited as exemplifying white feminism.
It has also been argued that the beliefs of some feminists that hijabs, burqas, and niqabs are oppressive toward Muslim women are representative of white feminism. Notably, many Muslim women have spoken out in defense of their religious dress practices.
White feminism portrays a view of feminism that can be separated from issues of class, race, ability, and other oppressions. An example of white feminism in the present day can be seen in the work of Emily Shire, the politics editor at Bustle and an op-ed contributor for The New York Times. Shire argues that feminism excludes some women who do not share political viewpoints when it takes positions on Israel and Palestine, efforts to raise the minimum wage, and efforts to block the construction of oil pipelines. Shire’s position contrasts with intersectional feminist activists who view pay equity, social justice, and international human rights as essential and inseparable commitments of feminism, as articulated in the Day Without a Woman platform that “[recognizes] the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system – while receiving lower wages and experiencing greater inequities, vulnerability to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity”. While Shire advocates for a feminism that achieves inclusivity by avoiding political positions so as to not alienate women who disagree with those positions, organizers of the Women’s March hold the principle that “women have intersecting identities” necessitating a movement that focuses on a “comprehensive agenda”.“
“Since the now-infamous Miley Cyrus / Nicki Minaj feud back in August, we’ve been talking more and more about White Feminism — feminism that blatantly leaves out the concerns and issues of women of color. It’s not always a pleasant conversation to have, but it’s a conversation that is more necessary now than ever. There are a lot of things feminists of color want white feminists to know. Hopefully, now that the feminist movement is finally beginning to address how women of color have historically been disregarded in the fight for gender equality, women of every demographic will start listening to each other.The hard truth is white feminists are privileged in ways that feminists of color simply can’t relate to, and it’s not even really their fault. Yes, some white feminists don’t acknowledge their privilege, and that’s wrong. However, our society is also to blame for pretending that race relations in the U.S. are more advanced than they actually are.
As an individual of mixed race, displays of White Feminism (like seeing white women as the primary spokespeople for feminist theories which women of color created in the first place) are difficult for me to stomach. On a more personal level, I’ve witnessed hardworking nonwhite women in my family face systemic prejudices that most white women will never understand, such as low-quality healthcare and low-wage jobs that promise little hope of upward mobility.
I know I can’t singlehandedly fix all the discord within the feminist community, but I can tell you these seven things this feminist of color wants white women to know.
1. There Is A Lot Of Racism In The History Of Feminism
Some of America’s most well-known feminists were unfortunately racist. In the early 1900s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leader of the American suffrage movement, expressed anger over the fact that white women were denied the right to vote while “degraded black men” were given the opportunity to line up at the polls. Another suffragist, Frances Willard, refused to support the prevention of lynching in the South because she believed that black men were drunken menaces who were collectively guilty of raping white women.
Moreover, white women leading equality campaigns in Washington, D.C. blatantly requested that black suffragists walk at the back of their parades. As a result, some black women chose not to march at all, refusing to participate in yet another form of segregation.
2. White Feminism Is Very Real
White Feminism marginalizes women of color. White Feminism fails to give feminists of color a platform to discuss how racial inequality relates to gender inequality. It consistently reminds us that the beauty standard in our culture remains thin, blonde, and white.
White Feminism is present in academia, Hollywood, our government, and the Internet. In addition to excluding women of color from feminism, it excludes women who aren’t straight or able-bodied as well.
3. We’re All Responsible For Making Feminism More Inclusive
It’s easy to accuse women like Miley Cyrus and Lena Dunham of promoting White Feminism in the media, but pointing fingers won’t help the feminist movement progress. A more useful way for feminists to spend their time is to collectively strive for intersectionality.
Often, women of privilege don’t even realize that they’re excluding other marginalized groups. This isn’t an excuse for their behavior, but it is a chance for women of color to honestly tell feminists of privilege how their lack of self-awareness affects other women. By helping each other recognize that women of different races, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses experience gender inequality differently, we can all become more inclusive feminists.
4. Some Women Of Color Don’t Feel Comfortable Calling Themselves Feminists
Because of the tension between themselves and White Feminism, it’s no surprise that many women of color are uneasy identifying as feminists. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t lobbying for equal rights across the board; we just can’t ignore the racism in the movement’s history. More importantly, we’re hyper-aware of the harmful discourse that has been developed in mainstream feminism, and we’re rightfully upset about the fact that our disenfranchisement is largely ignored.
These feelings aren’t new. In the 1980s — when pale, blonde Gloria Steinem was the poster child for mainstream feminism — women of color were birthing the womanist and mujerista movements in response to being left out. In her book In Search Of Our Mothers’ Garden , Alice Walker defined a “womanist” as a black feminist or feminist of color. Then, mujerista (developed from the Spanish word for woman, mujer) was seized by Latinas to “claim their space over white feminists.”
Both of these movements still have their followers today. However, many feminists of color don’t identify with these groups either, so they simply don’t feel like they have a place in the feminist movement at all.
5. Our Struggle Is Different Than Yours
The plight of a middle-class, straight, white, American woman is not the same as that of an uneducated, gay, American woman of color. While the former fights for equal pay and paid maternity leave, the latter is more concerned with stopping race-related police brutality, acquiring better funding for inner-city public schools, and developing more comprehensive treatment programs for HIV.
In an essay for Salon, Brittney Cooper, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, puts it into perspective. She points out that feminists are concerned with equality, while feminists of color (especially black feminists) are battling injustice. She says, “One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.”
Until we can all understand this difference and find a way to bridge these two goals, many women of color will refuse to identify themselves as feminists.
6. We Want To Be Heard
As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in a thought-provoking piece for Ravishly, when women of color speak up truthfully about race and feminism, we’re either dismissed or “told that our complaints are ‘divisive,’ and that we should be focusing on the ‘real enemy.’” In other words, we shouldn’t talk about how racial inequality and gender inequality intersect. For example, when Nicki Minaj used Twitter as a platform to shed light on the lack of representation of black women in the 2015 VMA nominations, Miley Cyrus told The New York Times that she was “not very polite.”
Even more troubling than how women of color are underrepresented in the media, though, is the fact that black and Latina women are disproportionately poor and receive very little public aid, and that black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.
Asking women of color to keep quiet about how racial inequality affects them will keep the feminist movement divided.
7. We Don’t Want To Be Spoken For
The overwhelming majority of writers, activists, and celebrities representing feminism are white women of privilege. Think of Patricia Arquette’s infamous speech at last year’s Oscars ceremony, or Emma Watson’s status as ambassador for the He for She campaign. It’s not that these women aren’t doing good things, but that women of color can no longer disregard the fact that we aren’t properly represented in our society or in the feminist movement.
In a memorable debate about the whiteness of feminism between Rebecca Traister and Judith Shulevitz, two senior editors of the New Republic, Traister brought up how ironic it was that both participants were white, educated women from New York City.
Regardless of their good intentions, white feminists should not be the only feminists speaking for women of color. We deserve a platform from which we can discuss how our race impacts our feminism, and we deserve to be included in the mainstream feminist movement. Period.”
“Not to be confused with feminism practiced by white people, white feminism is a brand of feminism that minimizes, forgets or wilfully ignores the experiences of women of colour. It looks at womanhood through a beige-coloured, middle-class lens and ignores the many ways that women’s issues specifically affect Black women, and Latina women, and Indigenous women, and any women who aren’t… well, white. Whiteness has always been positioned as the “standard,” and it’s no different when it comes to feminism. This means white women are very often pushed to the forefront of conversations about gendered and sexual violence and workplace harassment, leaving women of colour and their experiences to wither away in the margins.”
“Today’s feminist movement cannot ignore women of color — not because women of color are needed to support causes championed by white women, but because women of color have often been the ones on the front lines, championing feminist causes when white women won’t. Black women are the ones who voted overwhelmingly to defeat Roy Moore. They also voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, with just 3 percent casting a vote for Trump.
Women of color are already leading activism on issues ranging from reproductive justice to pay equality, but they haven’t always been recognized as leaders by white feminists or mainstream feminist groups. In a recent example, Zahara Hill noted at Ebony that initial coverage of the #MeToo hashtag failed to credit Burke, and that in the social media conversation around the hashtag, “Black women were quickly isolated from the dialogue before we could familiarize ourselves with it.” Exclusions like that can’t happen if feminism is to be relevant as a political force in 2018.”
Detroit Free Press: Pink pussyhats: The reason feminists are ditching them
“A year ago, they stormed the streets of big cities and small towns to make their views known: Women’s rights are human rights. Many wore on their heads what became the de-facto symbol of feminism in 2017, the pink pussyhat.
The Women’s March is back in 2018 with its Power to the Polls anniversary protests on the weekend of Jan. 20-21. The focus during this Women’s March reboot is to register more women to vote, and to elect women and progressive candidates to public office. But this time when marchers take to the streets in cities from Lansing to Las Vegas, there could be fewer pink pussyhats in the crowds.
The reason: The sentiment that the pink pussyhat excludes and is offensive to transgender women and gender nonbinary people who don’t have typical female genitalia and to women of color because their genitals are more likely to be brown than pink. “I personally won’t wear one because if it hurts even a few people’s feelings, then I don’t feel like it’s unifying,” said Phoebe Hopps, founder and president of Women’s March Michigan and organizer of anniversary marches Jan. 21 in Lansing and Marquette…
…The Women’s March chapter in Pensacola, Fla., posted to its Facebook page that it is discouraging marchers from wearing the hats to this year’s event.
“The Pink P*ssy Hat reinforces the notion that woman = vagina and vagina = woman, and both of these are incorrect. Additionally, the Pink P*ssy Hat is white-focused and Eurocentric in that it assumes that all vaginas are pink; this is also an incorrect assertion,” it posted to its Facebook page. The post has been shared more than 1,200 times.
“The Pensacola Women’s March organizers understand that this idea was a knee-jerk reaction to the heinous, sexist, misogynistic Trump administration, but it is also just that: a knee-jerk reaction, not fully thought out. Therefore, we ask that march goers refrain from wearing this hat and instead, pick an alternative headwear that focuses on collective women’s liberation for ALL women: transgender women, multinational women, disabled women, queer women — the most marginalized. It is only through the centering and leadership of these groups that women will be liberated — not through exclusionary white feminism, which the Pink P*ssy Hat is indicative of.”
Wmagazine: Emma Watson Addresses Her White Privilege and ‘White Feminism’ in Letter to Her Book Club
“In the letter, which introduces the club’s first read of 2018, Reni Eddo-Lodge ‘s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, she (Emma Watson) addresses her white privilege and “white feminism,” writing, “When I gave my UN speech in 2015, so much of what I said was about the idea that “being a feminist is simple!” Easy! No problem! I have since learned that being a feminist is more than a single choice or decision. It’s an interrogation of self. Every time I think I’ve peeled all the layers, there’s another layer to peel. But, I also understand that the most difficult journeys are often the most worthwhile. And that this process cannot be done at anyone else’s pace or speed. When I heard myself being called a ‘white feminist’ I didn’t understand (I suppose I proved their case in point). What was the need to define me — or anyone else for that matter — as a feminist by race? What did this mean? Was I being called racist? Was the feminist movement more fractured than I had understood? I began…panicking.”
Famous Black Feminists in History
“In December of last year, Gloria Steinem, a woman whose name and face has come to symbolize the feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s, spoke before the Massachusetts Women’s Conference about the #MeToo movement and the importance of defining sexual harassment.
The conversation turned to the importance of black women in building the current movement against sexual and gender violence. Many are familiar with Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement a decade ago, but far less people know that key legislation barring sexual harassment in the workplace came as a direct result of lawsuits black women filed.
“The problem, and what [many feminists today] are not saying,” Steinem told the crowd, “is that women of color in general—and especially black women—have always been more likely to be feminist than white women.”
If it is an astonishing statement, particularly coming from a white woman, it is also a true one.
Black women and women of color have actively fought for the rights and livelihoods of women for more than two centuries, yet their stories and contributions are often sidelined in the mainstream narrative of the feminist movement.
They did so at a greater risk of violence, and they did so even as white suffragettes actively rallied against civil rights for black Americans, as Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, did when she argued that black women “have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women.
“Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!” Shaw added.
And when white feminists weren’t actively undermining the efforts of feminists of color, their absence and silence around issues women of color faced was conspicuous. For instance, as white feminists fought for reproductive rights, they largely overlooked the complicated relationship women of color, who had historically been subjected to sterilization programs without their knowledge or consent, had to the movement.
As more Americans embrace intersectional feminism and its emphasis on inclusion, it’s important to remember that intersectional feminism has alway been practiced by black women and women of color, who combatted the gender violence of their day as well as confronted racial abuse and exploitation of their labor. Below, we’ve laid out a few of those women—some whose names may be familiar and some whose names aren’t.
As we see below, the fight for workers’ rights has always been a fight for women’s rights, particularly for women of color, and the erasure of labor as part of the feminist movement says more about the work and the women this country has historically valued than it does about their contributions.
The following women’s efforts fighting management abuses and racial and sexual abuse in the workplace have bettered the lives of an uncountable number of women, and their organizing tactics laid the groundwork for battles that continue to this day. For that reason, the women of the labor movement are featured prominently on this list.
This list is by no means a complete list. It is, we hope, a helpful starting point for getting reacquainted with the centuries of labor that women of color have put into making this country a fairer, more equitable place for everyone.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth was among the first to articulate the divide between black womanhood and white womanhood in America.
In her 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, which remains one of the most famous women’s rights speeches ever delivered, Truth asked the Akron, Ohio, audience:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! But ain’t a woman? Look at me. Look at my arm. I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?
She is the sole black woman to have a literal seat at the table at artist Judy Chicago’s iconic “Dinner Party” installation, which features some of the most prominent women in history.
Mississippi’s First Labor Union (1866)
In June 1866, a group of newly freed black women working as laundresses in Jackson, Miss., formed the state’s first labor union, the Washerwomen of Jackson. Together, the women sent a resolution to then-Mayor D.N. Barrows that demanded a “uniform rate for our labor.” The bold action inspired other freedmen to write their own resolutions petitioning for fair wages, all in a climate where white planters and politicians were trying to re-enslave them through notorious “Black Codes” legislation.
Lucy Parsons (1853-1942)
Parsons, born Lucy Eldine Gonzalez, is believed to have been born into bondage, though much of her early life is undocumented. Many believe she was of black, Mexican and Native American origin, though she only ever acknowledged her Mexican and indigenous heritage.
Parsons, along with her husband Albert, were trailblazing figures among American anarchists and in the radical labor movement. A staunch anti-capitalist, Parsons’ feminism was grounded in class issues. She helped organize the 1915 Chicago Hunger Strike of Chicago, in which demonstrators marched on behalf of unemployed and hungry men, women and children.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)
Cooper was one of the pre-eminent scholars of her day, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Oberlin College despite having been born a slave in North Carolina just before the Civil War.
A Black Liberation activist, Cooper spoke and wrote frequently about black womanhood. Her 1892 book, A Voice From the South by a Black Woman of the South, is a classic black feminist text, and her 1893 speech, “Women’s Cause Is One and Universal,” delivered in front of a mostly white audience at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago, illuminated the stark differences between white women and black women:
The white woman could least plead for her own emancipation; the black woman, doubly enslaved, could but suffer and struggle and be silent. I speak for the colored women of the South, because it is there that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history, and there her destiny evolving.
Let woman’s claim be as broad in the concrete as in the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritisms, whether of sex, race, country or condition. If one link of the chain be broken, the chain is broken. A bridge is no stronger than its weakest part, and a cause is not worthier than its weakest element.
The Atlanta Washerwomen Strike (1881)
Less than 20 years after the Civil War ended, thousands of black laundresses in Atlanta went on strike in the summer of 1881 to lobby state officials for higher wages and better working conditions, including greater control on how their work was organized.
The strike began with 20 black laundresses who formed the Washing Society, a trade union seeking “higher pay, respect and autonomy over their work, and established a uniform rate at $1 per dozen pounds of wash,” the AFL-CIO writes.
Over three weeks of striking, the Washing Society expanded to include 3,000 strikers, including white laundresses (at the time, white women comprised less than 2 percent of washerwomen in Atlanta).
The Washing Society succeeded not only in raising wages, but inspired other domestic workers throughout the city to employ similar methods to advocate for their rights.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
A prominent journalist, Wells was also a suffragette and fought just as fervently for women’s rights as she did for civil rights. She formed the first suffrage organization for black women, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, and is considered one of the first American women to keep her last name after marriage.
Like many of her peers, her advocacy for women was met with open racism from white feminists. At the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., white organizers demanded black women march at the back of the demonstration. When an Illinois organizer told Wells she could only march if she did so with an all-black delegation, the famed anti-lynching activist said she refused to join unless she could march under the Illinois banner.
And march under that banner she did.
Luisa Moreno (1907-1992)
Moreno, a Guatemalan, never gained U.S. citizenship, but her work was instrumental in advancing the rights of women who work, particularly Latinas.
A gifted labor organizer, she traveled throughout the South and California to call attention to the poor working conditions in sweatshops, canneries and agricultural fields. Moreno also brought awareness to the abuse of Latina workers in these industries.
Maida Springer Kemp (1910-2005)
A famed labor organizer, Springer Kemp was instrumental in advancing labor movements on four different continents, most notably in Africa. Springer Kemp used her leadership status to push for integration within unions. As USA Today writes, while organizing a drive for the war effort in 1942, Springer Kemp deliberately scheduled an event in Chinatown at which people from all backgrounds could participate:
“We organized a blood bank with black and white workers laying table by table, giving blood because the Chinese didn’t ask what color blood it was,” Springer Kemp said, according to Daniel Katz’s book, All Together Different. “She was one of the early leaders, who was a strong advocate for unionism and civil rights,” says [historian Yvette Richards] Jordan, who teaches at George Mason University. “She saw those two movements in tandem.”
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)
One of the most commanding and passionate voices of the civil rights movement, Hamer was so powerful she had President Lyndon B. Johnson shook.
A former sharecropper, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus toward the end of her life, in 1971.
But she is perhaps most well-known for her 1964 speech, “I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired”:
For 300 years, we’ve given them time. And I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change. We want a change in this society in America because, you see, we can no longer ignore the facts and getting our children to sing, “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed.” What do we have to hail here? The truth is the only thing going to free us. And you know this whole society is sick. And to prove just how sick it was when we was in Atlantic City challenging the [Democratic] National Convention, when I was testifying before the Credentials Committee, I was cut off because they hate to see what they been knowing all the time, and that’s the truth.
Sojourners for Truth and Justice (1951)
More than a decade before the 1963 March on Washington, there was the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. In 1951, this group of black women organized and descended upon Washington, D.C.
They were explicit in condemning the state’s complicity in racist violence, particularly against black women. Combining socialist concepts with black nationalism, the group sought to mobilize black women in domestic fights and international fights for justice, protesting against Jim Crow as well as the United States’ Cold War policies. While the radical protest organization was short-lived, it was the first communist-left group to be led by black women.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
In 1968, the same year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Chisholm became the first black woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress. The unbought and unbossed congresswoman co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and was also the first African American major-party candidate for president and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Her legislative achievements include championing a bill ensuring domestic workers received benefits, advocating for improved access to education and child care, fighting for the rights of immigrants and expanding the government-funded food stamps program (also known by the acronym SNAP) to every state.
Her famous line, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” continues to inspire black women and women of color seeking public office to this day.
Dolores Huerta (b. 1930)
Co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America union, Huerta is also the woman behind the movement’s famous slogan, “Sí, se puede.” Outraged by both racial and economic injustice, Huerta was indefatigable in her efforts to advance the wages and working conditions of California’s farmworkers, most of whom were black, Mexican, Filipino, Japanese and Chinese working families. For this work, Huerta was threatened and attacked by farm owners and Teamsters, and beaten up by police.
“When we talk about spiritual forces, I think that Hispanic women are more familiar with spiritual forces,” Huerta once said. “We know what fasting is, and that it is part of the culture. We know what relationships are, and we know what sacrifice is.”
Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014)
Lauded in the Asian-American community as being “ahead of her time,” Kochiyama was a staunch advocate for the rights of black, Latinx and indigenous communities as well as Asian Americans. A Japanese American, her family was among those interned during World War II, an experience that would profoundly impact Kochiyama and her fight for racial justice.
During her years as a human rights activist, Kochiyama advocated for black liberation, Puerto Rican independence and the rights of political prisoners. In the 1980s, she and her husband successfully lobbied the U.S. government to grant reparations and issue a formal apology to Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Before “intersectional feminism” entered the mainstream, Lorde embodied its ideals. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde’s writing and activism centered on dismantling racist, homophobic and sexist structures, and recognized those battles as fights that were part and parcel of each other.
In fact, her famous line about using the “master’s tools” to dismantle the master’s house was directed toward the feminist movement, and it’s worth remembering the quote in full:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
Lorde added: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?”
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
A pioneer for trans rights, Johnson was a key figure in the 1969 Stonewall uprising, during which members of the LGBT community confronted police following a violent raid on a gay bar by New York City police. Stonewall is seen as a major turning point in the LGBT fight for equal rights, and Johnson was among the vanguard.
From her recent New York Times obit:
“Marsha P. Johnson could be perceived as the most marginalized of people— black, queer, gender-nonconforming, poor,” said Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona. “You might expect a person in such a position to be fragile, brutalized, beaten down. Instead, Marsha had this joie de vivre, a capacity to find joy in a world of suffering. She channeled it into political action, and did it with a kind of fierceness, grace and whimsy, with a loopy, absurdist reaction to it all.”
Angela Davis (b. 1944)
One of the most iconic figures of the Black Power movement, Davis rejected the idea that black women ought to choose between the women’s movement and the black rights movement. In her influential book, Women, Race and Class, Davis examined the history of black women in the United States through a Marxist perspective. In the book, she highlighted the reproductive rights movement and how sterilization programs on communities of color complicated their relationship to the movement.
In 2013, Davis wrote:
Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism (I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple Feminisms, right). It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism and racism and colonialism and post colonialities and ability and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name.
Combahee River Collective (1974)
Founded in Boston by three self-identified queer black feminists, Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith and Barbara Smith, the Combahee River Collective issued one of the clearest and most effective documents on the intersections of racial, gender and sexual oppression. They have also been recently credited with articulating the true inclusive power of identity politics.
“Most radical politics come directly” from black women’s identity, the women wrote in the Combahee River Collective Statement:
If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
May Chen (b. 1948)
In June 1982, Chen led one of the largest Asian-American strikes in history in New York’s Chinatown. Through the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, 20,000 garment workers, most of them women, took to the streets to push back on wage cuts and benefit cutbacks from their employers.
Winona LaDuke (b. 1959)
An indigenous activist, environmentalist and writer, LaDuke’s life work centers on protecting Native lands and life ways. It is through our relationship with the earth, LaDuke says, that communities derive their power, and only by challenging current hierarchies and paradigms can real gender progress be made:
I don’t understand all the nuances of the women’s movement. But I do understand that there are feminists who want to challenge the dominant paradigm, not only of patriarchy, but of where the original wealth came from and the relationship of that wealth to other peoples and the earth. That is the only way that I think you can really get to the depth of the problem.
Paulette Barnes, Diane Williams, Sandra Bundy and Mechelle Vinson
In the ’70s and ’80s, the cases of these four black women—all government employees who had been sexually harassed at their respective jobs—helped expand civil rights protections to include sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. Before, legal definitions of sex discrimination were narrower, confined to outright assault or being denied employment because of one’s gender. These women’s individual lawsuits, and subsequent landmark legal victories, helped redefine protections for women in the workplace in ways that reverberate to today.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this list included noted Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller. After reflecting on her role in excluding black Freedmen from the Cherokee Nation, however, we’ve opted to take her off, as it undermines the intersectionality so many others on this list have emphasized in their work.
What “Misogynoir” Means . . . and Why It Has to End
Everyday Feminism: 4 Tired Tropes That Perfectly Explain What Misogynoir Is – And How You Can Stop It
It’s a word used to acknowledge the very specific convergence of anti-Blackness and misogyny, and therefore is not applicable to non-Black women of color (or white women).
And it’s often overlooked in feminist discourse – because it disrupts the tendency that mainstream feminism has of universalizing womanhood as a uniformly shared experience based on the default narrative of white women.
Insisting that conversations around misogyny disregard race or take a “colorblind” approach are misguided and wrong-footed. Because only by accurately naming the nuances of oppressive behavior can we understand their origins and equip ourselves with the tools to bring them down.
That’s why discussing, recognizing, and understanding misogynoir is crucial to an effective and compassionate feminism.
So let’s start by understanding the following four tropes, pervasively woven into popular media, which contribute to making society a more hostile place for Black women.
1. The Sassy Black Woman
The Sassy Black Woman is a common stereotype that portrays us as one-dimensional sasspots who click our fingers and roll our necks and shout “Mmhmm!” at any given moment. And while this may seem innocent (it’s just a joke, right?), the trope exists purely to demonstrate the supposed inherent comedy in female Blackness.
In and of itself, the SBW seems harmless enough, but this kind of lazy portrayal of Black women is not only insulting but contributes to a harmful cultural narrative which diminishes our multifacetedness. It insinuates that we’re not much more than a few well-placed “Right on, sistahs” and “Oh no she didn’ts.” It relegates us to vacuous, predictable fluff. There is no complexity permitted to us – no humanity.
It’s that much easier to pass us over as prospective dates or for housing when you don’t see us as being on your emotional level. The SBW trope leads to people thinking they can just snap their fingers and roll their necks – and suddenly they “get” what it’s like to be a Black woman, or that they can “bond” with us by parroting this parody of ourselves back at us. Newsflash: You don’t, and you can’t.
When the white man I discussed at the start of this article clicked his fingers all up in my face, he made it very clear that he wasn’t seeing me as a person in my own right, but as a mirror for his own limited understanding of Black women’s nuance.
The SBW stereotype dehumanizes us by presenting us as cardboard cut-outs with no depth of feeling or emotion. It’s sickening and so pervasive that it’s contributing to a world in which white people literally cannot empathize with or recognize the pain of black people – because they’re so insidiously used to thinking of us in such simplistic and less than human terms.
White people need to accept the fact that we are not an endless ream of hilarity for them to giggle and gawp at. We are grown-ass women with every emotion under the sun, and we deserve to be seen as such.
2. The Hypersexual Jezebel
A common misogynoiristic stereotype of Black women is that we are inherently, permanently sexual, promiscuous Jezebels (named as such after a sinful Biblical queen).
White men often talk of their desire to fuck us because they’ve heard that we’re “freaky” and “up for anything” in bed – as if Black female sexuality is a monolith. I remember a white guy hitting on me at a club and him refusing to believe that I was turning him down.
“I know you want it, girls like you always do,” he sneered at me – and it’s not too hard to see what he was insinuating. Bearing in mind that I’d already told him that I was so completely and utterly gay.
The idea that Black women are automatically sluts, whores, and hoes is prevalent (not to mention the sexist belief that women who have sex and are in the sex industry deserve to be judged and shamed). If you Google “black lesbian,” for instance, most of the results on the first page are explicitly sexual. If you just Google “lesbian,” though (which the white supremacy-led algorithm then assumes means “white”), the results are much cleaner.
Misogynoir is clear here: Blackness added to womanhood creates the expectation of rampant sexuality. Black womanhood is painted as the opposite of the “purity” of white womanhood – and many pop stars, such as Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus, have used Black women’s bodies as props to “sex up” their images. Presenting Black women’s bodies as the antithesis of the “innocence” of white womanhood marks Black womanhood as a signifier of guilt.
Our bodies are automatically tainted with an immovable sexual lens. Thus, often it is insinuated that any sexual abuse we face is our fault because, by virtue of being Black women, we were “asking for it.” This is the victim-blaming attitude of rape-culture and it is hurting us most.
While so many white women have found empowerment on Slut Walks for example, the same cannot always be said for the vast majority of Black women. What would it mean to call ourselves sluts when the world already takes that as a given?
Liberation does not look the same across all iterations of womanhood. This trope robs us of freedom surrounding our approach to sex and sexuality. It silences and shames us.
It breeds toxic ‘respectability politics’, whereby we’re told by folks that if we are ‘good’ and do not engage in any kind of sex that isn’t strictly marital and procreative then we will be safe, and if we don’t dress a certain way we will be safe, and if we don’t date around then we will be safe.
That the only way we can actually achieve safety is if we just don’t leave the g-ddamn house – ignoring that no matter what we do, there will be someone who wants to hurt us and millions more who will find a way to justify that hurt. The hypersexualization stereotype originates from the era of slavery.
In order for white men to justify their rape of enslaved Black women, they spread the idea that Black women were sexually insatiable. In this way, any instances of sexual assault were actually just “giving them what they wanted.” We are relegated to animalistic and primitive by suggesting that we’re unable to exercise self-control, an excuse used to obfuscate the abuse done to us.
Stop using Black women’s bodies as a symbol of sex. Leave us to inhabit ourselves free from the smears of someone else’s sexuality. Learn to see our bodies as neutral, as our own, rather than dragging them down with the weight of your assumptions.
3. The Angry Black Woman
This trope plays on the idea that any discomfort expressed by a Black woman is unreasonable. Because something unreasonable is easily dismissed.
Our anger is seen as something that can be ignored – because it is not portrayed as stemming from a place of true grievance.
The Angry Black Woman stereotype paints us as irrationally mad – and is commonly trotted out to position us as the hysterical opposite to men’s (and especially white men’s) rationality.
The slew of scandalised white feminist think-pieces in the wake of Rihanna’s video for Bitch Better Have My Money reflects the discomfort that society has with the fury of Black women. White society is so used to downplaying female Black anger that the bold, unashamed and seething anger Rihanna displays in BBHMM just about caused mass panic.
Ask yourself why is there such uproar about the fictionalised violence of a Black woman, but a societal wide dearth of interest in tackling the very real violence that Black women face at the hands of white supremacy? Why is Black women’s anger seen as unacceptable but the conditions that create it are left to fester?
I have often been told that I’m “too aggressive” in my activism, especially by white feminists, even when I’m being decidedly placid and reasonable, proving how this trope plays out in real life, even in feminist circles. The prominence of the Angry Black Woman trope means that my actions are read as angry, even when they’re not.
It’s a tactic used in order to belittle our valid anger by portraying it as an inherent character flaw, rather than a justified reaction to circumstances.
4. The Strong Black Woman
The Strong Black Woman is a manifestation of misogynoir that shows up in places like the “Strong Independent Black Woman Who Don’t Need No Man” meme. It’s a cultural narrative that positions Black women as able to withstand any and all emotional difficulty we face without any support.
Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder is a perfect example of this. She is icy, impenetrable, and doesn’t let the trauma she endured in the past and present affect her at all. She (ostensibly) effortlessly take down all obstacles in her path.
Annalise’s character is unerringly steadfast. When she cries, she immediately pulls herself together. When she’s in trouble, she does whatever she needs to do to save the situation, no matter how callous.
And while this may feel like a positive stereotype, as strength is a glorified quality in our society, the Strong Black Woman trope stems from the fact that Black women have been absorbing the brunt of physical and emotional labor for not only their families, but also for the white families they were owned or employed by for centuries.
It’s been preferable for people to see us as able to deal with anything and everything, because then we can be treated in deplorable ways. This stereotype bars Black women from feeling as though they can healthily and wholly work through their issues. Instead, we must force them down and carry on in order to maintain a staunch and steadfast facade.
This trope also contributes to many Black women’s unwillingness to seek help for mental health issues and for us to be less likely believed when we do try and get help or discuss it.
Black womanhood is routinely and systematically devalued and dismissed in ways that white womanhood isn’t. And the above are just a few of the ways in which misogynoir shows itself in society.
The experience of existing at the intersection of Black and woman is a position that entails oppression from a variety of angles – and we have to be better at recognizing it, naming it, and calling it out for what it is.
The fight for women’s liberation must explicitly focus on eradicating racialized sexism if it’s ever to be effective and freeing for more than the privileged few.