Second-wave feminism always had to grapple with questions of inclusion, democracy and power. The writings of black feminists from bell hooks to Barbara Smith lamented the condescending, patronizing and sometimes outright racist treatment they experienced in predominately white feminist circles in the ’70s.
Even when racism was not there on an interpersonal level, there was a political struggle to stretch the definition of feminism from a narrow set of issues that impact all women to include racial oppression and economic exploitation. Issues like poverty, the prison system, police harassment, economic injustice and welfare, for many poor women and women of color, had to be central to any movement for liberation.
Over the past few years a number of writers have teased out the ways in which race politics are embedded in our definition and practice of feminist politics.
Liberal and radical feminists have very different histories, analyses and track records on the issues of race and class politics. Nevertheless, organizing across these lines is the persistent challenge of progressive activists in search of a common movement.
Current coalition challenges
The planners of the April 25 March for Women’s Lives had to wrestle yet again with the difficult task of principled coalition-building. The American Civil Liberties Union, Black Women’s Health Imperative, Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are the principal organizers and pooled efforts and resources to lay the groundwork. Other progressive organizations signed on as cosponsors. March organizers initially intended to focus on defending a woman’s right to reproductive choice, but through input from black women’s organizations the name was changed to reflect the multiple areas of oppression women face.
On April 1, a diverse group of feminists came together in Chicago for a forum organized by The Public Square to discuss the legacy and future of feminism. The event, held at the Harold Washington Library, was attended by some 300 people. Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority, was joined on stage by Lisa Jervis of Bitch magazine, Beth Richie, a black feminist leader of the anti-violence movement and initiator of INCITE: Radical Women of Color Against Violence, and Mary Morten, former head of The Chicago Foundation for Women, Chicago NOW and one of the conveners of a black feminist network that has been meeting in Chicago for the last nine months. The multiple voices spanned generations, sexual orientations and race. And the issue that was front and center in the discussion was that of coalition.
Beth Richie argued that issues like the growing prison industry and its insatiable appetite for black bodies had to be central to a progressive feminist agenda because it is paramount to black communities. Mary Morten highlighted the various ways women come to embrace the term feminism and how our historical reference points are different. Lisa Jervis reminded the audience of the importance of the independent media. She started Bitch, which emphasizes the use of the term “bitch” as a verb not a noun, as a “young feminist response to popular culture.” Without an independent media, the multiplicity of voices, whether in concert or contestation, are less likely to be heard, Jervis insisted. Eleanor Smeal spoke from her experience as former national president of NOW and a veteran of the women’s movement. After insisting that feminism is not dead, or even ailing, she talked of the difficult but necessary work of coalition-building. For the first time a national march initiated by feminists reached out to more traditional civil rights groups as partners and cosponsors, including the ACLU and the NAACP. In addition, Sistersong, a black feminist organization founded by Atlanta-based human rights activist Loretta Ross, has be key in planning.
Moving politics ahead
This kind of democratic outreach and linkage is a critical step in revitalizing a unified progressive movement in this country.
Lisa Duggan’s new book, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy challenges us to go even further. In it she calls for a renewed coalition of left forces that connects identity politics to the demand for economic justice, a demand muted by the politics of neoliberalism. A false separation between culture and class has made the left less adept at doing what the right and neoliberals have done: link issues of sexuality, race and gender to their corporate economy agenda. A revitalized progressive movement has to do the same but in the interest of a more egalitarian society. Feminists, people of color, and poor and working-class people have to be central to that effort Duggan insists. And I agree.
The March for Women’s Lives is a single-event coalition. If we accept Duggan’s challenge, it has to be an expanded and sustained process of community-building.
Barbara Ransby is a professor of history at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. She is a longtime activist and a founder of the group Ella’s Daughters. Most recently she works with the growing Movement for Black Lives and The Rising Majority