“You’re a male chauvinist pig.”
That was my feminist catchphrase from the 1980s. I discovered it somewhere on TV, and I found it useful in my everyday life. In my family, the patriarchy was obvious and tolerated. My father sat at the head of the table, and my mother was subservient to his needs. That never sat well with me. In my eyes, my mother was as skilled as my father.
I didn’t use the chauvinist pig moniker with my father, I did use it on a few other men in my family, though. They didn’t know what to do with me spouting off at 12-years-old. I might not have had a word for it at the time, but I understood that men were treated with more favor than women.
Though I adopted my catchphrase from a sitcom, there is nothing funny about the oppression of Black women.
At 12, I had not yet learned that Black women supplied the labor force that built this country. I didn’t know that Black women were raped as punishment, but also to create more workers. And after they birthed children from love relationships and instances of terror, their children could be sold away like chattel.
I had learned about slavery in elementary school, and I believed that I would have run away with the likes of Harriet Tubman, but those are dreams. The real stakes were so much more dire than a wish to be free. It took bravery and determination. And even some of those who possessed these traits were trapped in an enslavement that even escaping could not free them from.
Freedom from male domination would take a while for me to aspire to, as I grew up subservient to the needs of men, any man. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I started reading bell hooks who opened the flood gates of Black feminist literature to my thirsty mind.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins Sept. 25, 1952, bell hooks was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky as the first daughter of six children. Hooks is one of the most recognizable names in feminist studies. She began writing her seminal text, Ain’t I a Woman, while still a student at Stanford University, and she published the groundbreaking book in 1981. It has come to define Black feminism as a sphere of feminism essential for Black women’s liberation, especially.
Though other Black feminists like Audre Lorde, Michelle Wallace and Toni Cade Bambara had been writing from the Black feminist perspective prior, hooks publicly criticized the larger feminist movement for its racism, staking a position for the need of Black feminist studies. For generations Black women intellectuals and scholars had written about the double jeopardy, the multiple oppressions and the intersectionality of race, gender, and class that inhibited them from a fully human experience.
She says that White feminists didn’t think that sexism was an issue for the stereotypically “strong Black woman”, because they thought racism was the issue Black women should be more concerned with. Hooks knew that Black women suffered as victims of “sexist-racist oppression.” Hooks made inroads into the feminist movement by speaking directly to the establishment about sexist-racist oppression with critical inquiry.
There is a long history of Black feminism in this country. And as a proponent for Black women’s rights, Anna Julia Cooper, famously said, “only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” She knew that once Black women were liberated from oppression, so too, would Black men.
In reverse, if Black men were liberated that didn’t necessarily mean that Black women would be, too, because of the sexism women face. Black feminism rose out of a need for Black female voices to advocate for themselves because the status quo was either responding to Black men or White women in the fights for racist and sexist liberation.
During the movement for civil rights, women were often relegated to the margins by Black men. Not only does hooks call out White feminists, but she also calls out Black men who want their patriarchal rights at the detriment of Black women’s liberation. In her research for Ain’t I a Woman she noticed that when scholars wrote about Black people, they were generally referring to Black men and when they wrote about women, they were generally referring to White women.
Though Black men’s right to vote was not fully valued throughout the U. S. population at the time, they were granted the right to vote in 1870. Women weren’t granted the right to vote until 1920. Black women like Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell were among the women in the 19th century fighting for the rights of Black women by considering their conditions as Black and female.
In contemporary culture, feminism has come to mean very different things than it did when Black women suffragists were demanding their right to vote in the 19th century. The latest wave of feminism, Fourth Wave Feminism, is empowering women with the use of internet tools. But it also focuses on intersectionality which is the point at which social and political identities like race, class, gender, nationality and/or religion cause oppression.
The term intersectionality was coined by a Black female lawyer, Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. But the makings of this term stem as far back as Black women like Anna Julia Cooper who wrote of double enslavement, Frances Beal who called it double jeopardy, Claudia Jones who wrote about triple oppression, and Deborah K. King who coined the term multiple jeopardy.
Today, feminism is more tolerated than it has ever been. It’s become mainstream with celebrity endorsements, but are we out of the thick of the weeds of sexism and racism where Black women are concerned? Are Black women no longer discriminated against or differentiated because of their race and sex? Does the proliferation of Black women at the top of the Billboard charts and in the highest offices in our land mean that sexist-racist oppression against us is over?
Though the line is finer, there are still some indications that when we look closely, we can see the presence of sexist-racism. Black female sexuality oozes out of media industries today, but just because women are willingly making themselves sexual beings doesn’t mean that sexist- racist oppression isn’t still present. Just because the Vice President and a Supreme Court Justice of the United States are Black women doesn’t mean they too do not face sexist-racism.
The representation in seats of power that Black women are enjoying now doesn’t diminish the importance of the fight to abolish sexist-racist oppression as much as it is necessary for us to identify it, denounce it, and prevent it.
“From the onset of my involvement with the women’s movement I was disturbed by the white women’s liberationists’ insistence that race and sex were two separate issues. My life experiences had shown me that the two issues were inseparable, that at the moment of my birth, two factors determined my destiny, my having been born black and my having been born female.”
– Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks
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