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.

References:

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.

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