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Facing Racism and Sexism: Black Women in America

From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, black women were in a difficult position. Between the civil rights and feminist movements, where did they fit in? They had been the backbone of the civil rights movement, but their contributions were deemphasized as black men — often emasculated by white society — felt compelled to adopt patriarchal roles. When black women flocked to the feminist movement, white women discriminated against them and devoted little attention to class issues that seriously affected black women, who tended to also be poor.

Historically, black women have chosen race over gender concerns, a choice that was especially poignant during Reconstruction when African American female leaders, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, supported the Fifteenth Amendment giving black men the right to vote over the objections of white women suffragists.

Black women have a long feminist tradition dating back to 19th-century activists such as Maria W. Stewart and Sojourner Truth as well as organizations like the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC) and the National Council of Negro Women, founded in 1896 and 1935, respectively. Events of the 1960s and 1970s, not to mention black men's changing attitudes regarding the role of black women, focused awareness around new concerns such as race, gender, and class, and several organizations attempted to address these issues:

  • The ANC (Aid to Needy Children) Mothers Anonymous of Watts and the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO): Johnnie Tillmon was an early pioneer of addressing the concerns of poor black women. A welfare mother living in Los Angeles's Nickerson Projects, Tillmon helped found ANC (Aid to Needy Children) Mothers Anonymous of Watts in 1963. She was later tapped to lead the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), founded in 1966. Through these organizations, Tillmon addressed such issues as equal pay for women, child care, and voter registration.
  • Black Women's Liberation Committee (BWLC): Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member Francis Beal was one of the founders of the Black Women's Liberation Committee (BWLC) in 1968. In 1969, Beal helped clarify the struggles of black women in the influential essay "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female" that also appeared in the landmark 1970 anthology The Black Woman, which ushered in a new wave of black female writers. Beal identified capitalism as a key factor in the chasm between black men and women. During the early 1970s, the BWLC evolved into the Third World Women's Alliance.
  • National Organization for Women (NOW): Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray is a cofounder of the nation's most prominent feminist organization, the National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966.
  • The National Black Feminist Organization: While many black women remain active in mainstream feminist organizations only, other black women have created organizations aimed at addressing black women's unique concerns more effectively. The National Black Feminist Organization launched in 1973 with the specific goal of including black women of all ages, classes, and sexual orientation. Although it and similar organizations didn't outlive the 1970s, the legacy of black feminism lives on.

In 1983, Alice Walker coined the term womanism, a feminist ideology that addresses the black woman's unique history of racial and gender oppression. Women such as Angela Davis; law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw; academics Patricia Hill Collins, Beverly Guy Sheftall, and Bell Hooks; and historians Darlene Clark Hine, Paula Giddings, and Deborah Gray White have greatly expanded the context in which black women and their history and activism are discussed by underscoring black women's issues related to race, gender, and class.

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