“How Black Women Became Powerful”

This article from The Root examines the role of powerful black women leaders in the past and how civil rights activists have opened the doors for black women in politics today.

The second part of this article, found here, aims to explain why more black women are not running, or being elected, for political offices.


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.

Early Black Feminists in the Abolitionist Movement Part 2

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

In the period surrounding the Civil War, not all black female activists fought for their rights as women. Francis E. W. Harper, for example, was an organizer of black women who, like most other black women of her time, believed that the economic and political needs of her race trumped the needs of her gender.1

Sojourner Truth was unique among 19th century women in being aware and defensive of both her gender and her race. She recognized the special troubles of black women, having suffered much herself at the hands of slavery.  As a preacher in the North, she not only advocated abolitionism, but also women’s rights and protection of the poor. Sojourner Truth was the only one to speak for black women as people under the double edged sword of race and gender oppression at a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in 1867. Here she claimed that, “If it is not a fit place for women, it is unfit for men to be there”.2 She recognized that rights for black women would mean rights for all.

Like other black women, Sojourner Truth was locked out of black society dominated by male leadership, and instead affiliated with white abolitionist and feminist circles.  She achieved her leadership status by presenting herself as an isolated, marginal figure after she became an itinerant preacher and changed her name.3  Truth especially emphasized the need to rethink the prevailing notions of black women.  Her famous speech in which she repeated the refrain, “and a’n’t I a woman?”, delivered at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, as well as others of her powerful speeches, redefined the image of black women as the “brave” and rejected the culture’s standard notions of true “womanhood” and femininity.4  She recognized the double burden that women of color must bear, but instead of hoping for a return to accepted norms of femininity, she envisioned black womanhood as having been shaped by the conditions of slavery to be more masculine.5 Truth embodied the practical, “folk” ideal of womanhood.  She regarded herself as being as strong as a man, and put forth her ideas that women and men were innately equal in her speeches.  She did not aspire for personal goals of advancing her professional career, but worked instead for the good of the black community and for women’s rights, and through religion, to bring the community closer to God.  Truth is unique because unlike most other black female activists, she had begun her life as a slave and shared many characteristics with most free black women who were also illiterate and poor.6

Sojourner Truth and other black female abolitionists advocated equality for all people, regardless of their race or gender. Their experiences as women of color living in a world that was hostile to them gave them a broader perspective to the conditions of oppressed people, and motivated them to work harder to achieve their goals. Black women in the antebellum period suffered oppression from more than one source, and felt the heavy hand of racial and gender discrimination both as slaves and as free women. History often overlooks the importance of understanding women’s history, but the broad efforts and accomplishments of black female abolitionists cannot be overlooked. Going into the 20th century, the ideas of Truth, Maria W. Stewart, and others would continue to influence African American women and lead them toward the development of a black feminist perspective.

Part 1 of this series can be found here


1.  Gerda, Lerner, ed., The Female Experience: An American Documentary (Oxford University Press, 1992), 355-356.

2.  Ibid., 487-489.

3.  Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway, ed., Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking their Minds (Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press, 2007), 129-134.

4.  Ibid., 157-162.

5.  Ibid., 163-165.

6.  R. J. Young, Antebellum Black Activists: Race, Gender, and Self (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996), 136-140.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

-Sojourner Truth, speech delivered in Akron, Ohio at the Women’s Convention of 1851

Full speech here

“…and ain’t I a woman?”