American Black feminist movements emerged in dialogue with antiracist and women’s rights struggles during three periods of U.S. history:
- Abolitionist era
- The Long Civil Rights Movement
- The Era of Retrenchment
The Abolitionist Era
Black feminist consciousness emerged during enslavement as Black women challenged the rudiments of workplace sexual harassment. During slavery, Black women performed exploitative productive labor typically reserved for men. Even in the White intimate sphere of the home, Black women did marginal and exploitative work providing for the bodily needs of Whites:
They were compelled to provide sexual services, they were forced to reproduce, and they were forced to provide care often wholly inadequate to enslaved dependent and to provide far better resourced care to White children1
Even after slavery, Black women faced marginalization as White women engaged in hate strikes and to prevent equal integration.
The Long Civil Rights Movement
Black women like Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper fought for the right to vote, the end of economic subordination, and the elimination of racial violence. As in slavery society believed Black people existed to serve Whites. Black women were expected to meet the physical, sexual, and emotional needs of White men and their families. Black and White women conflicted in the post-abolition era.
Wells also served as a member of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) along with Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper. As “clubwomen” and descendants of former slaves, they used their middle-class status to advocate for poor and working-class Black people. For instance, Ida B. Wells chronicled antiblack violence that fostered Black economic and political subordination in the postbellum era. She noted the racialized gender politics of lynching, which White men claimed protected White women from hypersexual Black men but actually served to protect their political status and economic interests.
Post-Civil Rights: An Era of Retrenchment
While many people think #BlackLivesMatter represented a return to the Civil Rights movement, the Black Radical Tradition has never ceased in the U.S. Several groups centered on uplifting Black women took form in the years following the Civil Rights movement:
- Third World Women’s Alliance
- Combahee River Collective
- National Welfare Rights Organization
- National Black Feminist Organization
These groups argued intersections existed among race, class, and gender oppression. These interlocking oppressions resulted in a system of racial domination that had long inhibited Black women’s capacity to engage in sexual, reproductive, and caretaking liberties. In the wake of slavery Black domestic labor sustained the White American intimate sphere:
And even as Black women left direct service in White homes as maids, cooks, and nannies, and direct service to White homes as laundresses and seamstress, their work in service occupations continued to make possible White women’s advancements in the professions.2
From this positionality, Black women critiqued feminists like Betty Friedan whose view of the female body and labor ignored the history of Black women in the U.S.
What We Learn From Black Women’s Labor
Recognizing Black women’s unique contributions to the formation of modern society brings us to recognize the body politic should be understood as the politics of the body. According to Threadcraft, the politics of the body means the body becomes an object of politics that social contexts constrain. For Black women, this means that violence has been part of their daily lived experience. This is why the fight for equality requires intersectionality.