Women’s Liberation Movement and Black Feminism

Courtesy of the British Library

Within the history of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the role and intricacies of ethnic minorities are more often than not forgotten or purposefully excluded. When we remember second wave feminism, we may conjure highly generalised ideas of women fighting over issues of sexuality, reproductive rights and domestic violence. We do not tend to remember the Black Feminist Movement, a highly distinct movement with roots in the black radicalism of the 1960s, and a highly critical voice against “mainstream” feminism. Additionally, their experience of Second Wave Feminism was different to white feminists’ experience and thus they deserve their own historical narrative; a place within our history and populist imagery. Their existence is an exposure of the racial issues within white feminism of the 1970s and 80s and provides an image of the diverse shape that feminism can take when you look beyond the mainstream.

British black feminism was condemning. It suggested that white feminism did not understand the needs of black women. It did not understand how racism structured the lives of black women, and implied that black women were ultimately invisible to the mainstream feminist movement. The black women’s movement from the very beginning sought to expose how class and race intersected with the gendered experience. Natalie Thomlinson has used periodicals as an exploration of Black Feminist critiques, and her work has shown that by 1985, newsletters like Speak Out and FOWAAD began to reject the very term ‘feminism’ in substitute for ‘womynism’ (‘womanism’). For these journalists, “Black Womynism”, rather than the traditional white feminism, acknowledged the oppression of ‘Black Womyn’. The 1980s saw the Black Feminist Movement moving further and further away from the traditional white liberationists as they failed to incorporate the needs of minorities into their discourse. The middle-class educated demographic further neglected and undermined the desires of ethnic minorities as they continued to corroborate the notion of a traditional nuclear family. The fact that the educated middle- class woman remained at the forefront of the movement, the working class ethnic minorities were underrepresented and subdued.

If calling oneself a “feminist” and partaking in efforts to achieve equality could be motivation for outside criticism of white women during the 1970s and 80s, then this was even more true for black feminists during the long decade. John P. Bowles identifies the difficulty as being ‘derided as traitors both by white women and black men’, and draws attention to American poet Audre Lorde’s way of dealing with this problem: by ‘blurr[ing] the distinction between being a man or a woman’. Whilst white feminism was attempting to expand what was acceptable for women  – operating outside the home; taking contraception, for example – black feminism, or womanism, was recognising a need to reject womanhood in order to enjoy the freedoms white women were beginning to covet. Bowles uses Adrian Piper’s character, the Mythic Being, as an example of this, as Piper has stated that the Being’s ambiguous race and gender allowed her to act in a way she couldn’t act as a black woman. Put simply, feminism was complicated for black women by the added factor of race, and thus black feminists head to tread more carefully and black women enjoyed the greater freedoms of second wave feminism to a lesser extent.

Adrian Piper’s rejection of womanhood was radical of course; most black women in the 1970s were not participating in drag. A more widespread expression of the problem, black women experiencing less freedom from criticism than white women, and thus can be seen in black feminists’ repression of their outward sexuality. For so long, the stereotype of hypersexuality had been used to attack black women, making them – particularly black lesbians – into a danger for white women to fear. To express their sexuality was to give weight to the stereotype; it was seen as race betrayal. In the decade that saw white feminists erode some of the shame around their sexuality, black women were arguably no less subject to shame.

Bibliography

  • Natalie Thomlinson, ‘Second Wave’ Black Feminist Periodicals in Britain, (Taylor & Francis Online, 2017)
  • John P. Bowles, Adrian Piper: Race, Gender and Embodiment , (Duke University Press, 2011)

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