Black feminism

Social Movements: 5 Key Insights from Black Feminist Scholars

Social movements are a process of collective action aimed at structural change. I am interested in the social psychology of collective action from the standpoint of Black women activists. My research adopts Black feminist thought as a lens through which to conduct a sociology of antiracist social movements in the contemporary era. However, Black feminist scholars from a wide range of fields have done research on Black women’s activism throughout history. Below is a list of five groups of Black women activists with some insights from Black feminist scholars.

1. Black Women in the Black Panther Party

The Black Panther Party was formed in 1966 in Oakland, California. This worldwide network of chapters advocated for Black self-defense and self-determination by publishing a Ten-Point platform based on anticapitalist and antiracist ideals, which included a demand to cease police violence. Their political expressions reimagined femininity, masculinity, and empowerment to challenge hegemony and patriarchy as well as to mobilize women. For example, in Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, Ashley D. Farmer argues the work of Gayle Dickson for Bobby Seale’s mayoral campaign in 1973 portrays Black women as “militant domestics” or “revolutionary women” for the purposes of communicated global solidarity among U.S. Black women.

In “Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle: Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California”, Robyn C. Spencer writes that Black Panther Party historiographies tend to portray Black women as victims or opponents of misogyny and sexism in Black nationalist social movements. However, this framing obscures the agency and empowerment of Black Panther Party women:

The Panthers created images that valorized the armed, revolutionary black woman at a time when the dominant sociological and public policy arguments said that strong black women were detrimental to the family and therefore the community, and both liberal integrationist and conservative nationalist rhetoric promoted patriarchy. In stark contrast to the image of women spontaneously and individually engaging in self–defense, which emerged from the civil rights movement, the Panthers posited black women as proactive and organized—acting alongside men as defenders of the black community.

  • Spencer (2008:99)

Spencer and Farmer’s work both highlight the significance of Black feminist thought in Black Power throughout the 1970s, challenging long-held assumption about Black women’s marginalization within the Black Power Movement.

2. #SayHerName : Black Women Resisting Police Brutality

Historically, anti-racist social movements in the west have centered men of color as the primary victims of racism. For example, the #BlackLivesMatter social movement addresses police violence as a global issue that all Black people suffer, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Yet, the media and internet advocates of #BlackLivesMatter tend to amplify police violence against Black heterosexual men.

The African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) initiated the #SayHerName campaign in December 2014 to respond to the lack of attention to Black women victims of police brutality. In 2015, AAPF Executive Director Kimberlé Williams Crenshawand Andrea J. Ritchie, a researcher in resident at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, released a report that demonstrated the pervasiveness of police brutality against Black women.


#SayHerName activists engage in multiple strategies including direct advocacy and policy suggestions to support in Black women and girls slain by police. As suggested by the “#,” advocates also use online social networking tools in their activism. Therefore, #SayHerName shows how Black feminism today uses both conventional strategies and new media to achieve its aims.

3. Black Women Organizers in the 19th Century

After the National Women’s Clubs barred black women from attending the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, they formed their own clubs. Many club women were former slaves’ children who had to contend with White feminists who held racist and classist views.

Ida B. Wells embarked on a global anti-lynching speaking tour, exposing the bigotry of American liberal organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) whose sole Black executive member was Frances Ellen Harper.

>>>Click here to listen to Making Ida B. Wells from WBEZ Chicago.<<<

Following the President of the Missouri Press Association’s retaliation to Wells’ campaign, 36 Black Women’s Clubs formed the National Federation of Afro-American Women. Margaret Murray Washington, Booker T.’s wife, was president. The organization ultimately became the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which was led by Mary Church Terrell.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, middle-class Black women spearheaded the Colored Women’s Club Movement. In her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church: 1880-1920, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the term politics of respectabilityto describe their activism. Respectability politics enabled women to combine their spiritual practices with their social and political values, allowing them to use the church as a home base for teaching, organizing, and community outreach.

4. Black Left Feminism: Black Women and Communism

According to the Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, communism is “a concept or system of society in which the major resources and means of production are owned by the community rather than by individuals.” For the most part, the role of Black women in communist movements has been suppressed. However, scholars such as Erik S. McDuffie and Carole Boyce Davies have started a new wave of literature that illuminates the legacies of Louise Thompson Patterson, Audley Moore, Eula Gray, and Claudia Jones.

Michigan State University Associate Professor of History LaShawn Harris documents this history during the Great Depression in a 2009 article, “Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party during the Great Depression,” for the Journal of African American History. The Great Depression exacerbated the existing employment problems faced by Black people including poverty, low wages, and discrimination. The refusal of governments in the South to extend the New Dealto Black Americans pushed many to turn to leftist organizations for assistance.

Communist-based organizations such as the League of Struggles for Negro Rights, the Unemployed Councils, and the International Labor Defense, provided support for issues such as housing evictions, food for the jobless and homeless, and labor marches and strikes. Additionally, the Communist Party gave Black women leadership roles in local, national, and international movements against intersecting oppressions, further propelled community growth and institution building. According to Harris, Black women’s engagement with communism to reconstruct the politics of respectability, forging strategies of liberation through new ways of protest that contrasted to the bourgeois ideals of racial uplift.

5. Reproductive Justice: Beyond the Pro-Choice Paradigm

For the most part, U.S. society frames support for reproductive rights via the pro-choice framework. However, historically, this movement’s singular emphasis on abortion gas mostly served the interests of white upper middle class white women. Furthermore, its legacy of birth control advocacy and forced sterilization emerges out of models of population control rooted in eugenics. The choice framework also conceals the state’s involvement in propagating reproductive sanctions and differentially rewarding various groups’ reproductive practices.

In “Understanding Reproductive Justice: Transforming the Pro-Choice Movement,” Smith College Associate Professor of Women & Gender Loretta J. Ross explains how Black women and other women of color developed a different strategy against reproductive oppression with the reproductive justice paradigm.

Reproductive Justice says that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is linked directly to the conditions in her community—and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access.

  • Ross (2006:14)

Ross also explains that proponents of reproductive justice fight for:

  1. The right to have a child
  2. The right not to have a child
  3. The right to parent, the children we have, as well as to control our birthing options, such as midwifery.

This engagement in reproductive rights and social justice, built on the human rights framework and intersectionality, extends the heritage of resistance among women of color, particularly Black women, to coercive and incentivized depopulation policies of the state. For example, the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, based in Atlanta, was founded in 1997 via the merger of sixteen groups funded by the Ford Foundation. Human rights principles and intersectionality were included into the group’s educational initiatives, which included national and regional trainings and seminars. SisterSong, according to Kimala Price, creates a strong collective identity in order to attract individual and organizational members, especially women disenfranchised by the pro-choice social movements.