Chapter 11: Black Feminism

Black feminists were part of the 1960s and ‘70s women’s movement from the beginning. However, both the mainstream feminist organizations like NOW as well as radical feminist groups had inadequate approaches to race. The separatist trends within radical feminism that were becoming more prominent in the 1970s were particularly empty for black women, who suffered from racism alongside black men. For decades, women activists had played an indispensable role in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements but were given little credit or share in the central leadership. Often they had to confront more overt male chauvinism. It is only in recent years that historians have begun fully uncovering their role and telling their story.

Women were not initially recruited to the Black Panther Party (BPP), founded in 1966, which was the most radical expression of the black freedom movement of this period. However, women joined anyway, and by the early 1970s, many sources suggest women outnumbered men in the BPP. With the huge influx in women members around 1969, debates about sexism and gender roles rocked the BPP, and eventually, the organization took a clearer stand for gender equality. While sexism remained in many aspects of membership of the BPP, this was not the defining experience of all BPP women; many rose to lead the organization at the highest levels. Similar debates on sexism took place in the Young Lords organization, which began as a Puerto Rican street gang in Chicago, and evolved into a national, self-described revolutionary nationalist political group with strong links to the BPP.

While the feminist label was mostly associated with white women and was often rejected by working-class women and women of color, the trend in the BPP was toward increased discussion and debate of women’s issues. This showed how the question of women’s liberation became central to all parts of the revolutionary movement in this period, driven first and foremost by women themselves.

With neither the feminist movement nor the black power movement able to fully articulate the problems and demands of black women, some formed their own political organizations. In 1973, black women organized the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), which rapidly grew to a membership of 2,000. The NBFO was originated by prominent feminists including Florynce Kennedy, who was a well-known left-wing lawyer, and Margaret Sloan-Hunter, a long-time activist in the Civil Rights movement who was an editor of the mainstream feminist Ms. Magazine. The founding statement of the NBFO noted that black women faced both race and sex oppression, but omitted class exploitation. The NBFO was active in many of the same areas that other feminist organizations worked in and they also worked on welfare rights and anti-sterilization campaigns. By 1976, the NBFO ceased to exist, but several chapters continued as independent organizations.

The Combahee River Collective (CRC), named for the South Carolina river where Harriet Tubman led a raid to free 750 slaves during the Civil War, was a black feminist group that originated as part of the NBFO. Formed in 1974, and based in Boston, it only lasted six years as an organization but its ideas have had a much longer reach. In its April 1977 statement, the CRC discusses the three systems of oppression affecting black women: sex, race, and class and identifies the CRC as a socialist group. The statement has become a widely read document for its clear articulation of the multiple oppressions simultaneously affecting black women, and for its argument that black women are the vanguard group within the broader movements for liberation. They made the point that the liberation of black women would require the dismantling of racism, sexism, and class exploitation, meaning that black women’s liberation would entail the liberation of all of society. The CRC also coined the term “identity politics,” although they arguably meant something different by it than many who identify with this idea today.

As Marxists, we reject any simplistic notion that “the most oppressed are always the most revolutionary.” In the Russian Revolution, the leading role in the St. Petersburg working class was initially played by the metal workers, whose economic situation was somewhat better than the overall working class and certainly compared to the poor peasants who formed the mass of the population. They also had more developed traditions of struggle. But as the revolution unfolded, it reached into the most oppressed layers of the population, the subject nationalities of the Czarist “prison house of peoples,” as Trotsky describes in his monumental History of the Russian Revolution, and this was decisive for its victory. Critically the Bolsheviks, unlike the pro-capitalist Menshevik social democrats, had always stood for the right to self determination while urging the building of united working-class organizations – trade unions and a revolutionary party – including workers of all nationalities. Without this approach, the revolution would have failed.

The evolution of the working class in different societies has a particular and distinct character. The oppression of black people, as Socialist Alternative points out in the pamphlet Marxism and the Fight for Black Freedom: Volume 1, “has been a fundamental part of capitalism in North America since its inception. Along with nationalism, racial division has historically been the key ideological tool used by the ruling class to prevent the emergence of a powerful united working-class movement which could challenge its rule.” Without a socialist revolution, there is no road to black liberation; likewise, without a multiracial workers movement and leadership, there can be no socialist revolution.

Black women have played a central and decisive role in every phase of the black freedom movement from the fight to end slavery to Black Lives Matter. Black women, and, particularly a layer of queer black women, played a key role in the development of Black Lives Matter. But more broadly, black women workers are a critical part of the American workforce today and the existing labor movement. We stand for the greatest unity possible of all oppressed groups in society and the construction of a multiracial and multi-gender leadership of a fighting working-class movement while also recognizing that every oppressed group has the right to take forward steps without waiting for the wider working class.