INTRODUCTION

“Social Movements are
involved in conflictual relations with clearly identified opponents; they are
linked by dense informal networks and share a distinct collective identity
(Porta, 2006)”.  A movement is not merely
a crowd; it involves collective behaviour, innovation, network orientation,
multi-centeredness, membership that is open of all and willingness of the
members to change the existing social order. This paper aims to understand the
emergence and growth of the Black Feminist Movement with an insight to the
theories of social movements.

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The Black Feminist Movement
grew because of gender and sex discrimination in the Black Liberation Movement
and the Women’s Movement respectively. In the Women’s Movement, black women
were racially oppressed as well as sexually oppressed in the Black Liberation
Movement. Black women came to the terms that “black” was equated with the black
men and “woman” with the white women due to which the black women were treated
as an invisible group and their needs were ignored. The oppression of the black
women in both the movements and ignorance towards their needs gave rise to the
Black Feminist Movement. The main purpose of the movement was to develop
theories which would address the intersectionality of class, gender and race in
their lives and policies that would take action against the discrimination of
class, sex and race.  

Black
Women in Black Liberation Movement

In the Black Liberation
Movement, the black women were subjected to constant sexism. The interest of
the black men in the movement was in controlling the sexuality of the black
women. “To explain their disapproval of inter-racial relationships black men
emphasized that white men sexually exploit the black woman (Hooks, 1960)”. The
freedom to access and control over the women’s body was considered as freedom
and right of men. Sexual discrimination was a part of daily life for the black
women. Elaine Brown in her book ‘A Taste of Power’ sites an incident where in
the Black Congress organizational meeting, she and other black women were
forced to wait for the food for which all of them have contributed money because
the food was first served to men and women are supposed to wait until they
finish. It was explained to her that sisters should stand behind their black
men to support and respect them; it was “unsisterly” of them to want to eat
with the brothers. The black men disregarded the equality of black women and
men.

Black
Women in Feminist Movement

During 1960, the black
women who participated in the Feminist Movement have faced racial
discrimination which was there in the form of exclusion. Black women were never
being invited to participate in the conference panels and even the conferences
were specifically on based on white and middle-class women. In most of the
women’s movement writings, the white middle-class women’s experiences were
considered as “universal” experiences of women, completely ignoring the
different experiences of black and white women due to race and class. In many
situations, black women realised that white feminists in the Women’s Movement were
unwilling to admit their racism. Also, the belief that those who are oppressed
cannot oppress others, gave rise to the unwillingness. White women who were
challenging the oppression by the white men were supporting and advocating
racial ideologies and were acting as racist oppressors to black women.

Towards
Black Feminist Movement

By the end of the
nineteenth century, black women started organizing themselves into their own
network of clubs. These groups not only supported women suffrage but also addressed
the social and political issues that affected black communities especially the
black women. Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Bernett challenged racist
terrorism as well as sexual stereotyping of Black women as immoral in contrast to
white women. The National Association of Colored Women was formed in 1896 which
brought more than hundred black women’s clubs together.

During the first half
of the twentieth century, the primary focus of black women’s activism was to challenge
racism and work on the social and economic problems. In the weekly newspaper of
the United Negro Improvement Association, Amy Jacques Garvey wrote about the
women’s rights and expressed her concern about the situation of black women in
America. In 1947, an article was published by novelist Ann Petry in the widely
circulated Negro Digest entitled “What’s Wrong with Negro Men?”, criticized
sexism within the Black community. In 1950s and 1960s when black women
participated in the Civil Rights Movement, the male dominance as well as the
narrowness of the white feminist’s agendas was the reason they began to
confront the sexist and racist oppression in their own lives.

 

In 1973, the National
Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) by a group of black feminists in New York
and held a conference which was attended by huge number of black feminists all
over the country. Black women for the first time started questioning the
reality of sexual oppression within the black community as well as sexism in
the society as a whole that have impacted them as black women. The work of black
feminist writers and theorists such as Alice Walker, Michele Wallace etc. led
to national debates on sexual politics in the black community.

In 1977, the Combahee
River Collective, a feminist organization in Boston issued a paper that
highlighted the intersection of oppression in black women’s lives. This work
broke significant new grounds because it was socialist, addressed homophobia
and called for sisterhood among the black women of various sexual orientations.
The role of Black lesbian feminists such as Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Pat
Parker and others was crucial in the initial phase of the movement especially when
many heterosexual black women were hesitant to identify themselves as
feminists. As the decade continued, the black feminist challenged the white
feminists to eradicate racism, to broaden the scope of women’s issues, to
integrate their organization and to share leadership with women of colour.

By 1990s, the black
feminism had a positive effect in many aspects in the society which led to the
development of Black women’s studies. Many black feminists spoke about the
patriarchal assumption of the male. However, black feminism rooted in the
struggle of generations of black women continues to play a vital role and also
there has to be a working dialogue between the white feminists and the black
feminists to continue to develop a theory and action which strives towards the
end of sexism.