Two days ago, Twitter was all aflutter with online discussions concerning inequality towards women of color in the mainstream feminist community. In light of that discussion, I’d like to repost a piece I wrote (and presented here) three years ago. I thought to wait until actual Women’s Equality Day, but I thought it might be best to post immediately–a couple weeks early–and I sincerely hope it puts some of the recent discussions into historical context.
“The Truth About Women’s Equality Day”
(first posted on August 26, 2010)
I was reminded this morning that today is Women’s Equality Day. On August 26, 1920 American women were granted the right to vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. And indeed, this is a great day in history.
However, for Black women in this country, it’s not really a day that we can celebrate as a definitive moment. Because actually, to put it bluntly, this day is White Women’s Equality Day, the day they were given the right to vote. But technically, Black women didn’t become “equal” until the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965.
Why? Because Black women were specifically excluded from the U.S. Women’s suffrage movement in the nineteenth century. The early leaders of the movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, felt that the inclusion of Black women in their movement would hinder it.
In particular, Stanton was against paralleling voting rights for Black men, the Irish, Germans, and Chinese people with the White women’s struggle. She wrote in The Revolution, a publication in the nineteenth century, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”
I hope you know who Sambo is, y’all.
This racism in the movement angered Sojourner Truth, a tireless warrior for racial and gender justice in America; Sister Truth had been working with Anthony and Stanton, but then got ghost when she realized they wanted her to do the work but not reap the profits.
Later, in the early twentieth century, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett decided to start her own African American Suffragist organization in Chicago called the Alpha Suffrage Club, but at the major Suffragist march on March 3, 1913, the White organizers tried to convince Ida B. Wells-Barnett to march at the back of the procession.
Sister Wells-Barnett replied, “”I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.” Nobody saw her at the march, so they thought she had gone home, but when her delegation started down Pennsylvania avenue, she rolled right in there and marched with the other—White—suffragists from Illinois.
Most of you–of all complexions– reading this already know this history. But for Black women, this history is personal. It’s the major reason that it’s so hard for us to embrace feminism, and to embrace issues identified as feminist. It’s why it’s so hard for us to trust women outside of our community, and sometimes, even within, in the name of “female solidarity.” It’s easier for us to focus on the fight against racism because that’s been a consistent struggle within our fences.
Surely, in the Black community, we Sister have been told to put our own desires and needs—and yes, survival—to the side—because we have to consider Brothers first. But that’s only part of the issue.
The other issue is, nobody in the feminist movement is sincerely looking out for Women of Color, either. There’s been a good game talked, but when the stakes are high and Black women look behind them to see which White feminists have their back, all we hear is the wind. And in that wind, we hear the empty refrain, “Women, women, women.” But, we don’t hear anything acknowledging our specific identity as African American. Let’s not even talk about how the other groups of Women of Color are treated.
For example, recently, during the presidential campaign, we saw Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro take off after Barack Obama in The New York Times and make the campaign a “Black man vs. White Woman” issue; neither woman took the time to consider how hurtful this public discussion would be for us Black women, who had never had a chance to see even one person who looked like us in The White House, let alone two.
By the way, Gloria Steinem is the GODMOTHER of the only child of Alice Walker (the African American author of the The Color Purple).
At one dinner before a poetry reading, I was accosted by two young White female graduate students (who I had been having a great time talking to, by the way). They demanded to know who I was supporting for the presidential election. When I replied, “Barack Obama,” they smirked at each other and said to me, they thought so. It was clear that Black women always chose race over gender, they said.
I told them, “First, considering Hilary Clinton’s ‘Hardworking, White Americans’ statement it’s clear she’s choosing race over gender.”
“And second,” I said, “I have breasts and a vagina, but mine are brown, so you know, I can’t choose between race and gender.” (Yes, I actually said that.)
At another reading dinner, an elderly White woman angrily told me what Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro had already argued in The New York Times, that Barack Obama would never have been president if he had been a Black woman. She went on and on, to the point where I thought I would burst into tears. And I wondered, did she even see me? Did she understand just who she was talking to?
Then, I sucked it up, because if I was that angry, I wonder how upset Ida B. Wells-Barnett was, when they tried to make her march at the back of the procession.
In the aftermath of these reopened wounds, there need to be an acknowledgement of racism in the American feminist movement and a concerted effort made by White feminists to self-police. And there needs to be a real gesture toward healing. Notice that Hillary Clinton hasn’t once made an overture toward Black women to try to resolve her hurtful actions. Visiting Black churches and clapping off beat do not constitute healing. And let’s not even start talking about Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro and what they need to do. Where do I begin?.
So, I don’t celebrate Women’s Equality Day today, because contrary to popular mainstream American opinion, Women includes all American women, not just White ladies.
But I do celebrate those women who made this day possible for me, a Black woman. I give the credit to my Sister-ancestors on this day, like Sister Truth and Sister Wells-Barnett—not a day of equality, but a day where I at least have the right to talk about how it’s not equal. And I think that’s a good compromise, considering.