Devaluation of the Black Female Body

Henrietta Lacks

The rape of enslaved women in the era before emancipation had a profound effect on perceptions of black women in America. The exploitation of black women during slavery is the root of a continued devaluation of black women and their bodies in society. Stereotypical images of women were based on the idea that black women were immoral, regardless of the fact that they were powerless against sexual exploitation.1

The devaluation of the black female body is not limited to sexual exploitation, however.  As a historically marginalized group, black women have also been subject to exploitation in scientific and medical fields too.  Women of color, viewed as the inferior “other”, a group placed outside of the accepted norm, have had their bodies or body parts used for the advancement of science.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is a famous example. In 1951, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. During her treatment, slivers of tissue were removed from her cervix and given to Dr. George Gey, a researcher interested in tissue culture.  Eventually, those cells became the famous HeLa line, acontinuously growing and widely used cell line that has been instrumental in cancer research, the development of vaccines such as the polio vaccine, and cell research in general.  Although those cells have been so useful to scientists, helped save many lives, and launched a multibillion dollar industry in cell culturing, Henrietta had no idea before her death in 1951, and neither did her family until two decades later.  At the time, Johns Hopkins’ public wards served predominantly poor African Americans, and it was the common belief of the doctors that “since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment”.2  There were no consent forms required by law for Henrietta to sign to allow the scientists to take pieces of her tissues, and no one in her family was told that her cells were to be kept alive for decades after.

Henrietta’s position as a poor, black female with little education gave the doctors and scientists little reason to think twice about using and exploiting her remains for their research. As her cells were used in labs throughout the world, it is likely that not many people thought about the individual from which they came. Henrietta’s family was deeply affected by her loss, not only because she was greatly loved, but because the loss of their mother would alter her children’s lives for the worse. Her family would continue to live in difficult conditions, not being able to afford health insurance even though strangers far away were profiting from a piece of their relative that was still “alive”.

Henrietta’s story illustrates institutional racism occurring during treatment and afterwards in her family’s lives.  Her story shows how scientists might see themselves as privileged to examine the bodies of people considered as inferior, all done in the name of research.
In recent years, scientists have found that fetal tissue has value in therapeutic treatments and could be of value to researchers and pharmaceutical companies. Khiara Bridges examines the consequences that making the sale of fetal tissue by the woman who aborts legal may have, and points out that allowing fetal tissue sale to be an option would have negative ramifications particularly on Black women.  The reason for this is that Black women are especially marginalized in the United States, have high poverty rates, and have disproportionally high abortion rates.  Historically, Black women have been devalued by society and tend to undervalue themselves as a consequence.  This “’internalized oppression’, makes the Black woman more likely than other women to participate in a market in fetal tissue because a woman’s willingness to engage in such a market will be in part related to her vision of herself and her agency”.3 The commodification of fetal tissue further subjugates women because the “commodification of the body forces women to conceptualize themselves as a means to an end –rather than an end in and of itself”.4

From a black feminist perspective, once black women realize the power that they have been denied over their own bodies, they will be better equipped to fight against sexist-racist oppression.5  Regaining control over their bodies has been a concern for the women’s movement in general, and is definitely a primary concern for black feminists.


1.  bell hooks. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, MA:  South End Press, 1981), 52-54.

2.  Rebecca Skloot. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2009), 30.

3.  Khiara M. Bridges. “On the Commodification of the Black Female Body: The Critical Implications of the Alienability of Fetal Tissue”, Columbia Law Review 102(2002):6.

4.  Ibid., 12.

5.  hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 74-81.

Black Feminist Organizations

Barbara Smith, founding member of the Combahee River Collective.


The social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s saw more women reflecting on the power structure and trying to understand sexist oppression. Second Wave feminism essentially rose out of the activism of the Civil Rights movement. But a black feminist ideology did not easily develop. Many black women simply rejected feminism, and many felt disillusioned by and excluded from the male dominated Civil Rights movement and the white dominated Women’s Liberation movement.

As black female writers and activists began to recognize the importance of analyzing gender and race oppression, they faced the challenge of demonstrating that feminism need not be only for white women. Black feminist organizations rose up during the 70’s to raise awareness of the interconnectedness of racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic prejudices. As their goal, they wanted to destroy capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy as the key to liberating all oppressed people.

The Combahee River Collective, for example, was a socialist feminist organization which rejected gender as their primary source of oppression and worked to raise consciousness of issues related to the continuum of black women’s suffering. The Combahee River women began to meet in Boston in 1974 in small groups to develop a theoretical and intellectual framework for black socialist feminism. Combahee was part of a backlash against the social movements of the 60s and their failure to achieve true equality. Most of the founding members were lesbians, who in an era of homophobia in the country, felt they had the least to lose with radical politics. The Combahee River Collective built on the writings of Toni Cade, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and others. Their greatest contribution was a document written by founding members Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, “A Black Feminist Statement”. 1

The Combahee River Collective and other black feminist groups helped create a black feminist presence and define the movement after the 70s.


1.   Breines, Wini.  The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 121-149.

The Obstacle of Black Patriarchy

Black feminist organizations recognized that patriarchy is not only the privilege of white upper class men, but of all men regardless of race. Black men shaped the early black liberation movement so that it reflected a patriarchal bias. The emerging black feminists were reacting against black male leaders that supported patriarchy, as well as the sexism that occurred within and outside of race lines. 1

bell hooks describes the importance of resisting patriarchy in her 1981 book Ain’t I A Woman.  She argues that as long as sexism divides black men and women, they cannot focus on working together in the fight against racism.  She says that wherever there is a “master/slave relationship, an oppressed/oppressor relationship”, legacies of racial imperialism, “violence, mutiny, and hatred will permeate all elements of life”. 2 This powerful thought is an example of the black feminist ideology of the 70s and 80s.

In the 1960s, many women had embraced the Black Power movement with the hope that it would increase the solidarity felt between black women and men. This solidarity, however, was weakened by male dominance and sexism in the movement. Black Power developed as a response to white supremacy and had as its goals putting an end to colonialism, imperialism, and racism. Black women were primarily concerned with the issue of racism, but as they participated as Black Power activists, they were increasingly frustrated and disappointed by sexism from male activists.3

The central goal of black nationalist movements was “for the black man to recover the manhood that had been destroyed by racism, to transform himself from a Negro into a black man”.4 Male leaders of the movement such as Amiri Baraka often used images of femininity and homosexuality to characterize and denigrate white men.  Baraka was particularly committed to the establishment of patriarchy within the black household.5  The sexist and homophobic rhetoric that was common among Black Power leaders kept women from achieving or even aspiring to achieve leadership positions. In many instances, the male-dominated view was internalized by black women, and many female activists agreed on the claim that black men had been more damaged by racism than black women had.  Even so, some radical women activists such as Angela Davis and Toni Cade were unwilling to buy into patriarchal politics. They continued to work aggressively to achieve their goals and grew personally and politically within the movement, inspiring the next generation of black female activists.6

Black Panthers during a rally in Oakland, California, 1968. Female members of the party endured sexual harassment and blatant sexism from their male counterparts, but some still felt inspired to bring about change and break through the party's gender boundaries.


1. bell hooks. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, MA:  South End Press, 1981), 89.

2.  Ibid., 117.

3.  Breines, Wini.  The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 51-53.

4.  Ibid., 55.

5.  hooks, Ain’t I A Woman, 95.

6.  Breines, Trouble Between Us, 56-67.

Together and Apart

Activists Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes

It is interesting to note that a racially integrated women’s liberation movement did not develop out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s nor subsequently, Second Wave feminism.  The divergence of white and black feminists is somewhat surprising after both groups of women had initially come together as advocates of civil rights.  A traditional narrative of the emergence of the Second Wave defines the women’s liberation movement as rising out of the Civil Rights movement, but since the 1990’s, this has been rejected because it places white women’s experiences at the center and all but ignores the women’s lib movement led by black women, which developed in parallel.1  

So why did their movements diverge in the first place?

A lot has to do with race problems that existed between them during the civil rights movement itself.  Racism is “a social structural system that works unconciously in individuals” 2, it is not only a matter of personal beliefs. As members of the dominant group, white female activists undoubtedly absorbed some of their group’s attitudes.  Early black feminists wrote that they felt repelled by the racial biases of white feminists, and felt that they could not see themselves in the movement.  They felt that some of the white activists were arrogant and condescending because of their white privilege.  The white feminists embraced gender as their identifying characteristic, while for black women it was race.  They had a flawed idealism that made little sense to their black counterparts, and an image of universal sisterhood that never actually happened. 3 It was important to recognize that black women had been under the double-edges sword of racism and sexism, but “white feminists tended to romanticize the black female experience rather than discuss the negative impact of that oppression”. 4

The white middle- to upper-class women that started the second women’s liberation movement came from a very different perspective and background than the black Southern women they worked beside as activists during the 60’s.  Although both groups were victims of sexist oppression, they could not see eye to eye.   At the peak of the women’s movement, white feminist literature discussed the impact of sexism, while black women’s literature often argued that there was nothing to gain from women’s liberation. 5  It took a while for black feminist activists to begin to examine how issues of gender and race are inextricably intertwined.


1. Enke, Anne.  “Troubling Feminism, Troubling Race”.  Reviews in American History 34 (2006): 546.

2.  Breines, Wini.  The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 11.

3.  Ibid., 8-12.

4.  hooks, bell.  Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981), 6.

5.  Ibid., 7-8.

Late 19th and Early 20th c. Black Feminists and the Suffragists

Ida B. Wells

In the first half of the 19th century, Maria W. Stewart had set the stage for other black activists to move out of the private domain and step into the public as speakers and politicians to extend their influence. She inspired the work of late 19th and early 20th century feminists to follow in her footsteps.1

Ida B. Wells was an outspoken social activist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She championed women’s suffrage and black civil rights, even against attacks and criticism from black male leaders of the time such as Booker T. Washington, who thought her ideas were too radical. Her contributions to theoretical analyses of race and gender were significant, and yet, she is often missing from or underemphasized in history books.2

Another prominent African American woman of the late 19th century is Anna J. Cooper, whose A Voice from the South is the earliest written work expressing black feminist ideology.  Her writing questioned notions of traditional femininity and conventional womanhood. She was critical of the educational system’s inability to address the specific needs of African American women.  She also challenged leaders of the women’s movement because they did not oppose racism.  Suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had voiced anti-black sentiments because they felt slighted by the passage of universal male suffrage when white women still could not vote, alienating black women from the women’s movement.3  Even though Cooper recognized the intersection of race and gender, she failed to recognize issues of socioeconomic class.   Her “bourgeois notions of respectability and genteel femininity[…]prevented her from recognizing the intellectual and leadership abilities of black women laborers“.4  Recognition of dimension of class in theorizing the black female experience would appear later in the 20th century.

Anna J. Cooper


1.  Evelyn M. Simien, Black Feminist Voices in Politics (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006), 65-66.

2.  Ibid., 20.

3.  Ibid., 42.

4.  Ibid., 2-3.