As we celebrate women’s history this March, it’s important to explore the role of Black women in the feminist movement. The complex intersection of being Black and a woman cannot be denied. Black women have long played a crucial role in the feminist movement. From the early days of the suffrage movement to the modern-day fight for intersectional feminism, Black women have been instrumental in shaping the conversation around gender and racial equality. Despite these foundational contributions, because of their race, Black women have long been ignored, abused or overlooked by the women’s movement.
In 1848, while slavery was still legal, the women’s suffrage movement started to rise. For over 70 years white women fought for their right to vote, and Black women fought for their right to exist.
Despite their overwhelming obstacles, Black women demanded a seat at the suffrage table. One of the most notable Black suffragettes was Sojourner Truth, who gave her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech at a women's rights convention in Ohio in 1851. Truth, who was born into slavery, argued that women deserved the same rights as men, regardless of their race. She pointed out that while white women were fighting for their rights, Black women were also oppressed, and their struggle was often ignored.
As the movement moved through history, and slavery was finally abolished in 1865, Black women continued to fight for their place. A new wave of laws, segregating Black people from white, threatened to further marginalize Black women in the suffrage movement. In 1913, activist Ida B. Wells was asked by her white peers to give up her seat at a suffrage parade and join the Black participants in the back, but Ida refused. Not only was she and other Black suffragettes facing abuses from men, but from their sisters in feminism.
Black women forged forward in the suffrage movement. Countless Black activists continued to advocate for women’s rights including Mary Church Terrell, who was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women and worked tirelessly for women's suffrage. Finally, in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was established, giving women the right to vote.
In the heart of the civil rights movement, a second wave of feminism emerged. This time the movement focused on issues such as reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, and sexual harassment. And just as in the suffrage movement, Black female leaders came to advocate for their community.
One of the most influential Black feminists of this era was bell hooks, who wrote the groundbreaking book "Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism." In her work, she explored the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. Hooks argued that mainstream feminism had failed to address the unique experiences and needs of Black women and other women of color, and that a more inclusive and intersectional approach was needed. For example, as white women fought for the right to work, Black women had been in the workforce for sometime. Black women weren’t fighting for the right to work, they were fighting for higher wages, better working conditions, childcare and more.
Another important figure in the feminist movement was Angela Davis, who is a scholar, activist, and member of the Black Panther Party during the civil rights movement. In the latter half of the 20th century, Davis was a vocal advocate for reproductive rights and was also active in the anti-war and prison abolition movements. She argued that feminism needed to be intersectional, taking into account the multilayered experiences of each individual's identity. Like many Black feminists during this time, she had to constantly balance the world of civil rights and women’s rights. These women not only faced discrimination and violence on the basis of their race, but they faced discrimination and violence on the basis of their gender.
Despite these challenges, Black women continued to fight for gender and racial equality, and their efforts laid the groundwork for the modern-day feminist movement. Their work continues to influence Black women today who advocate for civil rights and women’s rights – from Kimberlé Crenshaw, Ayọ Tometi, to Stacey Abrams.
Even though the intersectionality of being Black and a woman remains complicated and difficult, honoring the foundational work of historical Black feminists should no longer be overlooked. This Women’s History Month, we celebrate their achievements as Black women continue to fight for their place at the table.