Black feminism

No, Gloria Steinem Did Not Create Black Feminism

Recently, I saw a viral Tik Tok wherein a young Black woman makes quite a claim: Black feminism in the U.S. results not from the long history of Black women advocating against the intersecting oppressions of racism and sexism, but from the machinations of a former CIA agent – the one and only Gloria Steinem.

According to this TikToker, Gloria Steinem posed as Michele Wallace to write and publish the landmark Black feminist text Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. While displaying a screenshot of an anonymous blog post and the cover of an issue of Steinem’s Ms. Magazine, she asserts that Wallace described Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth as “ugly” and “stupid” due to their support of Black men. This blog post goes on to claim that Steinem used the book to “define the future of Black relationships” and ultimately opened the gateway for a movement against Black men. Therefore, the CIA created and manipulated the U.S. Black feminist movement from the very start. The TikToker ends the video by reasserting the point about how a book that has “nothing positive about the Black man” has had a negative effect on Black relationships.

The above assertion has several logical fallacies, a common characteristic of conspiracy theories, particularly those rooted in outdated Afrocentric ideologies. These logical fallacies include:

  • The Hasty Generalization Fallacy
  • The False Dilemma Fallacy
  • The Slippery Slope Fallacy
  • Guilt by Association Fallacy

In this blog post, I set the record straight and debunk the myths, while also providing education on the above logical fallacies, so as to encourage people for falling for these and similar myths.

The False Dilemma of Black Feminism

Often, conspiracy theories about Black feminism rely on the “false dilemma fallacy”:

Sometimes called the “either-or” fallacy, a false dilemma is a logical fallacy that presents only two options or sides when there are many options or sides. Essentially, a false dilemma presents a “black and white” kind of thinking when there are actually many shades of gray. [1]

Proponents of this fallacy essentially feel that a movement for Black women is by definition opposed to Black men. They then extrapolate from this position to assert that opposition to Black men includes opposition to Black relationships and Black families.

On the contrary, Black feminists oppose systemic forms of oppression rather than individuals or groups of people. In reality, Black feminists affirm intimate relationships among Black people and criticize the harm the state, the nation, and white supremacy have done to Black families, as Michele Wallace does in the introduction of the book the TikToker criticized:

In the process of assimilation, integration and accommodation, blacks had taken on the culture and values of whites in regard to sexuality and gender. This did more than make it inevitable that black men would be sexist or misogynistic: it also made inevitable black women’s completely dysfunctional self-hatred. For me, then, to say that black men hated black women or vice versa was simply an extension of saying that black people hated themselves. The resulting mythology was really an extension and reversal of the white stereotypes about black inferiority.[2]

Within the context of her actual words, we see that Wallace was not initiating a movement of hatred against Black men, but rather addressing how society socializes Black people to adopt the values of white supremacist patriarchy, which entails sexism and misogyny towards women, through racists tropes about both Black masculinity and femininity.

Hasty Generalizations about Black Feminism

The quote above shows that Wallace addresses hatred between Black men and women rather than hatred from Black women to Black men, as the TikToker originally claimed, which reflects the hasty generalization fallacy:

The hasty generalization fallacy is sometimes called the over-generalization fallacy. It is basically making a claim based on evidence that it just too small. Essentially, you can’t make a claim and say that something is true if you have only an example or two as evidence.[3]

Several hasty generalizations characterize the argument that Black feminism started due to Gloria Steinem. First, the author claims Steinem’s involvement in the CIA included posing as Michele Wallace to produce a book that would cultivate hatred against Black men. In reality, Gloria Steinem’s work with the CIA began in 1958 as she addressed in an interview:

The extent of Steinem’s involvement with the CIA includes the use of the agency’s money to fund student groups that had previously used CIA money to fund their projects – none of which involved Black feminists. Further, while Steinem did found Ms. Magazine, she did so in 1971. Despite claims to the contrary, no evidence exists that proves this venture received funding from the CIA. Steinem did not feature Wallace’s book on the cover until 1978, nearly two decades after her involvement with the CIA.

As for the claim that Wallace came out of nowhere, on the contrary, Wallace has quite a family history. Her mother, Faith Ringgold, is a renowned Black feminist artist, while her father Robert Earl Wallace performed as a pianist. Her ability to command the attention of Steinem more so reflects her class background and status position rather than a sinister plot by the CIA to undermine Black men through Black feminism. Indeed, by the time Wallace published the first edition of her book in 1979 as a twenty-seven-year-old woman, the Black feminist literature by Black women of America’s middle class had existed for nearly a century, if we use Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South published in 1882 as a starting point.

The Slippery Slope of Black Feminism

The Tik Tok video critiquing Black feminism makes the claim that Wallace’s book launched a tidal wave of sentiment against Black men, a claim that rests on the slippery slope fallacy:

A slippery slope fallacy occurs when someone makes a claim about a series of events that would lead to one major event, usually a bad event. In this fallacy, a person makes a claim that one event leads to another event and so on until we come to some awful conclusion. Along the way, each step or event in the faulty logic becomes more and more improbable.[4]

No evidence exists of a movement of hatred against Black men and women that transpired after Wallace’s book. The majority of Black feminist books published after Wallace’s are mostly in the fields of academia and literature.[5] Overwhelmingly, these books center on the experiences of Black women rather than critiques of Black men. Additionally, these books rarely achieved mainstream appeal and also received little attention from Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine.

By and large, despite the best efforts of Black feminists like Wallace to provide education about how racialized sexual stereotypes are the actual culprit for the perceived discord among Black people, like broader society, most Black people have not adopted feminism of any kind. Therefore by the merits of their own argument, proponents of this belief would have to concede that the lack of influence of any material that fits this description suggests that Black women cannot hate Black men as a result.

Guilt by Association to White Feminism

I believe these myths persist due to the fallacy of guilt by association:

A guilt by association fallacy occurs when someone connects an opponent to a demonized group of people or to a bad person in order to discredit his or her argument. The idea is that the person is “guilty” by simply being similar to this “bad” group and, therefore, should not be listened to about anything.[6]

Wallace and her book’s guilt by association started out at the outset. I would argue that misconstrued characterizations of critiques published in the journal The Black Scholar in a 1979 special issue titled “The Black Scholar Reader’s Forum on Black Male/ Female Relationships” might explain some of the characterizations of her work in the present day. For example, in an essay titled “Black Male/Female Relations: A Political Overview of the 1970s,” Askia M. Touré brings up Steinem’s involvement in the CIA as a stain on her character but does not attribute it to initiating Black feminism. In the next paragraph, Touré goes on to say:

If one views the white, middleclass elitism of Ms. magazine, its basic values (procapitalist, “liberal” white supremacist), and remembers Ms. Steinem’s alleged political history, then naturally one is both suspicious and annoyed when a close-up of Michele Wallace’s face becomes its front cover.[7]

Given this statement and the essay’s title, this critique implies that the occasional support some Black feminists receive from powerful white feminists harms Black heterosexual relationships. However, this essay also observes that Wallace was one of the first Black feminists featured on the cover of Ms. Magazine, which suggests that even a liberal feminist like Steinem practiced the erasure of Black women. Indeed, the longstanding erasure, invisibility, and suppression of Black women within antiracist and antisexist movements serve as a principal reason why Black feminists began their own movements.

Ways Forward for Critiques of Black feminism

In this essay, I evaluated a conspiracy theory about how the CIA uses Black feminism to promote hatred against Black men through the work of Michele Wallace and her support from Gloria Steinem. In reality, the conspiracy relies on several fallacies to leverage the very attack against Black feminism it claims exists against Black heterosexual relationships. I stress that this conspiracy focuses on heterosexuality due to its relationship to other misconceptions about Black feminism, namely the erroneous belief that a movement to uplift Black women and LGBTQ people somehow emasculates cisheterosexual Black men. The confluence of these misconceptions is how we end up with memes like the one below.

I think since the original critiques published by The Black Scholar in 1979, people have come to generalize the perspectives of Afrocentric writers and academics on Wallace’s book to Black feminism as a whole. However, the fallacies of the contemporary iteration weaken it and rely on half-truths and outright lies. For example, the TikToker claimed that Wallace’s book criticizes Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman for their support of Black men, calling them “ugly” or “stupid.” In fact, Wallace makes no such claim. Instead, the first time she invokes these women she actually states:

As suffragette and abolitionist efforts mounted, the “strong” black woman became an increasingly threatening presence to the slaveholder. She endangered the prevailing notion of women as weak and helpless, and thus the whole system of the oppression of women. She doubled the potential strength of black men. Women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were present in the front lines of every camp of escaped slaves.[8]

Wallace goes on to praise these women as exemplars of the role Black women played in supporting their families and Black men during slavery. I cite this section to address how conspiracy theories that misrepresent the source material leave room for more accurate critiques of not only Wallace’s work but Black feminism as a whole. So, rather than continue to perpetuate this myth, I recommend those interested in a critique of Black feminism to read Joy James’s 1999 book Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics.

  1. ↩︎
  2. Wallace 2015 ↩︎
  3. ↩︎
  4. ↩︎
  5. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins offers a brief history of Black feminist writing in the late twentieth century as does Joy James in Shadowboxing . ↩︎
  6. ↩︎
  7. Touré (1979:47) ↩︎

1 Comment

  • I love that you took the time to clear this false narrative of its accurate details! I was online purchasing what was “labeled” a black feminist T-shirt and I saw Steinem’s name attached as an creator of Black Feminist. As a result, I sent the seller a long detailed email with probably too much historical information. I was so upset because if someone didn’t know better they would take that as fact. Now I understand it probably stems from the TikTok video.Thank you for always providing such a wonderful body of research!