One could argue black feminism began in the nineteenth century with Sojourner Truth’s declarative question, “Ain’t I a Woman” since her words are an inaugural instance of intersectionality, the notion that race and class status are inseparable from the struggle for gender equality.
But there were many black feminists in the 19th century like Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Harper, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell, who founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Black feminism has a long history.
Before and after the Sojourners for Truth and Justice’s emergence in the 1950s, black women were crucial in organizing for the labor rights of domestic workers who were predominantly women of color, and whose interests had been ignored by government policies like President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
As civil rights, black liberation, and women’s rights movements grew in the 1960s, black feminism emerged to confront sexism black women experienced in civil rights and black liberation circles, and the racism they felt among white feminists. Along other women of color feminists like Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, black feminists offered a critique of second wave feminist agendas.
For instance, black feminists understood the question of reproductive rights was more than an issue of access to contraception, but importantly, an issue concerning the forced sterilizations of women of color.
Similarly, because of the structural inequality that relegates more African Americans into poverty, black feminists did not conceive of the right to work outside the home as a victory for women; their economic situations had forced them into a low-paying workforce for generations.
The National Black Feminist Organization emerged in 1973; from there the Combahee River Collective was formed. Their statement in the 1974 insisted that women’s liberation requires freedom for all people, and it extends its conception of intersectionality to include sexuality. Also during this period, the Black Lesbian Caucus, later known as the Salsa Soul Sisters and Third World Wimmin Inc, became the first open lesbian women of color organization in New York. Today, they are known as African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change.
In the 1980s, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens introduced the term “womanism” as a kind of woman of color feminism that seeks the survival of black humanity. This approach to feminism has spiritual dimensions, and has sparked theological inquiry. The Crunk Feminist Collective understands its woman of color feminism within the hip hop generation, inclusive of men, and welcoming of all sexualities.
Watch: Lavern Cox and bell hooks, “What is Feminism?” (The New School, 2014)
There are longs lists of black feminists writing worth reading. Some of the pioneer writers and activists associated with black feminisms are Toni Cade Bambara, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Pauli Murray, Michele Wallace, Alice Walker, and Barbara Smith.
Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith eds., …But Some of Us Are Brave (1993)
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (2007)
Beverly Guy-Sheftall: Long History of Black Feminism (Makers 2014)