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
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.