The fact of the matter is that the anti-slavery movement inspired the suffragist movement. As renowned historian and founder of women’s studies Gerda Lerner said “It was not so much that black women were helped and sustained through the sympathies and organizational efforts of white women. Even from the outset, things worked in the opposite way. It was through the struggle for the rights of black people that many Northern white women first became aware of their own oppression” (The Majority Finds Its Past, 1979). Before abolition, anti-slavery meetings were the most likely space to see interracial and gender solidarity in a deeply segregated nation. This connection translated into the women's movement. Indeed, the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls 1848 included abolitionist, suffragist and former slave Frederick Douglass. And in 1851 during a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth, suffragist, former slave and abolitionist, made her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman”that codified the intermingling of race and gender in a way like no other woman could. This dynamic between the struggles of black people in America for equal rights and a broader women’s movement continues today and black women, in particular have always led the way. Black women are the conscience of America whether as unheralded slaves in the home or field, courageous revolutionaries like Harriet Tubman, anti-lynching activists like Ida. B. Wells, civil rights leaders like Fannie Lou Hammer, radial intellectuals like Angela Davis, or the universe of black feminists on- and offline today. So then, how can it be that black women continue to experience unrelenting sexism and racism while, it seems, some potential white women allies fail to recognize the critical role of black women’s leadership in our collective emancipation?
This week a dehumanizing and racist photo circulated the web. Russian socialite and Garage Magazine Editor-In-Chief Dasha Zhukova was interviewed by online magazine Buro 24/7 and photographed on a black woman bondage chair. To add insult to injury, the interview and photo emerged on Martin Luther King Day (something likely lost in translation since Buro 24/7 is a Russian magazine). The internet went alight. One of the first outlets to comment on the incendiary photo was online fashion blog for women of color, Fashion Bomb Daily (FBD). In a post by FBD Editor Claire Sulmers she says “Every other day, we see black women demeaned, disrespected, and overly sexualized by the ‘other,’ our image sacrificed in the service of art.”
Sulmers' article also comments on a recent clothing design by Peggy Noland that features Oprah Winfrey’s head superimposed on a nude black woman’s body. And of course the model featured wearing this full length dress is white. Noland who resides in suburban Kansas City, MO calls her conceptual designs "white trash meets high class." The design is a collaboration between Noland and graphic artist Sally Thurer, both white women. Noland says Thurer made the graphic and decided to feature likely the most famous modern philanthropist and cultural icon because “Oprah’s most effective qualities is that she’s a placeholder, she’s a stand-in for you with her foibles and her failures…” Noland continues, “I’m interested and sensitive to this increased access that we have to celebrities… I feel like it’s kind of my own personal exploration and exploitation of just that.” Both incidences speak to a colonial mentality still held by some white women in which their inherent value is linked to the exploitation of black women. Further, this psychology insists that as women in a man’s world, white women must project on to black women a comparable sexualized, patriarchal domination that they are subjected to by white men. Such ignorance exists in both subtle and gross form. However, the most resonant analysis of racism in a modern “post-racial” America is colorblind ideologyas introduced by Duke University sociology professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Colorblind ideology or colorblind racism is an outgrowth of progress in equal rights, backlash to equality, insufficient systemic change and discomfort with addressing racism for fear of engendering racism. The result is an often non-articulate but definitively racist policy and practice in both public and private spheres: see Peggy Noland and Sally Thurer.
Speaking to the reality of modern feminism, a March 2013 poll released by Ms. Magazine of women presidential voters revealed over half of women self-identify as feminists; 54% of older women and 58% of younger women. Additionally the number increased to 68% overall when the dictionary definition of feminist was provided. A feature article for Ms. by Eleanor Smeal exploring the research revealed the fact that Latina women voters, black women and white women identified as feminist at 71%, 66%, and 52% respectively. It seems that women of color who vote are the most likely to self-identify as feminist. However, white women hold court on popular discussion of feminist identity.
Again, what we see here is that that popular understanding of feminism is manipulated by white supremacy and ignorant of the facts. My point is that, just as a number of feminists discuss a need to “rebrand” feminism we must take a moment to RECLAIM FEMINSIM. This is a first installment in series of articles to explore the need to RECLAIM FEMINISM from the history books, from conservative rhetoric, from popular misconception, from racism, sexism, and classism. The first point being made is that black women are an integral part of American feminist history. And it was the ideological solidarity between black and white women (and men) that toppled the first layer of institutional African slavery in the United States, supported the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements, and empower the challenges we face today—none of these movements were/are perfect, mind you. Naturally, much remains to be done in the interest of greater equality, especially in a nation with widening economic inequality, yet we continue on.