Just as women tended to be excluded from historical accounts prior to the second wave of the Women’s movement and the push for a discipline in Women’s studies, Blacks and other people of color tend to be left out from history. With this in mind, it was important to us that we acknowledge the history of the South and the fact that Durham was still largely segregated during the period that we researched. We did not wish to present a history that only included white women. More than just being aware of the races and classes of the people we interviewed, though, we sought to understand the racial dynamics of the movement.
Drawing from Kimberley Springer’s book entitled Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980, our narrators have shared experiences that support the author’s idea that there is no one picture of Black and White interactions in the women’s movement. However, there was for many, a tension that came along with activism at this time for women of color. They seemed to be on one hand racially oppressed in the Women’s Movement and on the other, sexually oppressed in the Civil Rights Movement. For some, the term Women’s movement really meant the (White) Women’s movement, an understood fact that this was a movement for only a certain demographic. Because of White women’s place as a part of the racial majority, they may not have been aware of themselves in racial terms, assuming that the movement identified with “all women” and that their ideas of what was important applied to all women. However, within the black community, there were stigmas associated with being called a feminist.
(Are you comfortable using the term feminist to describe your identity or your philosophy?)
“No, no, womanism is more me.”~Meri-Li Douglas
Although women participated, the Civil Rights Movement failed to address all the issues that were important to them. “Too often women were expected to perform the ‘housework’ of the movement, to assume clerical tasks, and to remain outside of the limelight” (Evans, 23). Rather than finding that African-American women and other women of color were universally absent from the picture, our research shows that some of these women sought to make the movement their own by both forming their own feminist organizations and by fighting for issues that were most pertinent to women of color, even if they did not use the feminist title in their organizing. Similar to the idea that there are a spectrum and plurality of feminisms, the experiences of the women we interviewed force us to expand the idea of what might be considered an ‘issue’ for the Women’s Movement. For women of color, the issues most important to them were often outside the realm of abortion or reproductive rights. Out of this sentiment came organizations such as Black Women Organized for Action, the Third World Women’s Alliance, and the National Alliance of Black Feminists.
Women were both united and divided in the movement. Being women was a common factor, and this should not be ignored. For some women, their perspective of the Women’s Movement was that it transcended their differences as they rallied around specific causes. Our narrator Yvonne Peña speaks of how in her experiences, which were mostly with other students, little attention was placed on race.
In other instances, organizations such as the National Women’s Political Caucus brought together women from NOW and the National Black Feminist Organization to form networks and work together (Evans, 66). These were examples of African-American women and White women working together, rather than being separated by race.
Even with this acknowledgment, racial (and class) differences created very different lives for these women, affecting what they saw as the most important issues of the time. Springer’s argument gives a number of explanations for the lack of integration in the movement: 1) these women “perceived increasing relational tensions between black men and women 2) were concerned that black women’s activist energies would take away from the civil rights movement, 3) black and white women’s distrust of one another deterred interaction, and 4) racist history and cultural stereotypes”. These four factors are a critical part of understanding the dynamics between African-American women (and more broadly, women of color) and White women during the movement.
“You’re a woman, you understand this, and so men are not going to respect you and so… men are not your ally in this. I never had a problem with that, and I wasn’t willing to put down black men I mean that was part of the issue within the black community is between black men and women…was this tension between…you have to support your man because the society is not. And so there was never any affirmation of black womanhood. Did a lot of stuff without men; you know, it was sometimes easier to have income coming in because you could always do laundry or housekeeping stuff and men had a harder time with that I think. So there was already issues going on between black men and women and I…while I identify philosophically with these white women that were wonderful people to hang out with, there was this part of me that, and all my black friends…I just didn’t tell them what I was doing…I knew they would be so disapproving.~Meri-Li Douglas”
[audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_bec15/files/2011/04/MERI-LI-Douglas-4-4-11_1_0.mp3|titles=Meri-Li Douglas on Race and Feminism ]
Some women of color, like Meri-Li Douglas, did join predominantly white organizations. She identified the stigma around being involved in the women’s movement that existed in the Black community. Meri-Li recalled that women’s organizing was absent from her college campus at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university. There was a push for Black women to identify as Black before identifying as a woman. This is in stark contrast to Yvonne Peña’s experience as a woman of color, but was a reality for many women.
“There were two other women who were African-American women who were very involved in the community and who did a lot of work in Housing Projects and doing Women’s Support Groups, who were doing all kinds of great stuff in the community. But, their groups were not so interested in plugging into the Women’s Center. There was a cultural divide still at that time where African- American women were feeling a lot of pressure to choose between their identity as a woman and their identity as African-American. It was a very difficult time for them because they, the Civil Rights Movement was not as huge and not in the news and as dramatic as it had been earlier, but was definitely still an issue. There was the issue that racism had really harmed African-American males more than African-American females, looking at salaries, and equity. The African-American males made less than African-American women were paid. There were all types of demographic measures that men were getting the worst impact of racism- higher incarceration rate, higher unemployment. There was a lot of pressure to turn that around and support their men. For women to start talking about women’s issues was viewed as an abandonment of their culture as African-Americans”. ~Suzi Woodard
[audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_bec15/files/2011/04/Suzi-Woodard-Interview-1_0.mp3|titles=Suzi Woodard on Race Relations ]
As Suzi Woodard states, women-of-color felt that there was a decision to be made of whether their loyalties lied with being a woman or an African- American. Meri-Li, an African-American woman, experienced this tension first hand. She describes an experience where she quite explicitly was asked to choose between these two identities.
“Yeah yeah… I mean I was dating a guy that was really frustrating and we had this conversation, and we broke up because he says, “Meri-Li, you have to decide, you know, you are a black woman first, you are black first, and then you are woman.” And I thought that was, that was the end of that relationship. I mean, I guess we were on our way out. And that was kind of the way that many people looked at it-and I had a hard time, separating that… in my mind’s eye.” ~Meri-Li Douglas
[audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_bec15/files/2011/04/MERI-LI-Douglas-Black-Backlash.mp3|titles=MERI-LI Douglas Black Backlash]
Forced sterilization occurred in North Carolina, at its highest in the mid 50′s and 60′s. According to the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, more than 7,600 people were sterilized in the state alone, a disproportionate number being African-American women. Particularly the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s brought about a threat to normal structures of power and privilege, making groups such as Blacks and Latinos targets of eugenicists. Claiming that these women were ‘feeble-minded’ or otherwise unfit to bear children, the Eugenics board sanctioned for many young African-American women to be sterilized after giving birth to their first child. Other women ‘consented’ to being sterilized, making the decision to either sign papers in agreement or to have their families cut off from welfare checks. Tellingly, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina was a part of the Department of Public Welfare. The department encouraged the use of sterilization as a way to reduce poverty and illegitimacy. North Carolina’s history is especially shocking. As the accompanying article highlights, North Carolina was the only state in which social workers could petition people for sterilization. In respect to the Triple Jeopardy on Sterilization, this is an example of yet another initiative that wasn’t picked up by the larger women’s movement, but was important and very relevant to Black women and Black Feminist Organizations. They were active in this arena, while many white feminists, even those who were extremely active as many of our narrators were, were just unaware. Articles such as this not only raised awareness of the sterilizations, but also identified the socio-economic prejudice spurring them.
Source: Winston-Salem Journal accessed: http://againsttheirwill.journalnow.com/
For a close look, please visit the gallery of Triple Jeopardy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27628370@N08/sets/72157605547626040/