all rise: angela davis & the feminist struggle Angela Davis' philosophy of Black liberation often emphasizes the necessity of a socialist system for all individuals to be truly liberated; however, she feels that it is crucial to address the specific concerns of racism and sexism within this socialist movement. Through much of her work, Davis discusses the concerns of women, and more specifically Black women, as she traces their history of oppression in the United States and searches for solutions to ameliorate these issues. Here, an exploration and dissection of Davisâ€™ ideas about female oppression and how they aid us in a search for a path to a society where men and women of all races are perceived as equals.
By Heather Mongilio
the legacy of slavery In discussing feminism, Angela Davis notes the significance of slavery’s influence on shaping American society’s concept of Black women. She argues that as a result of slavery, Black women were forced to join the labor force and were frequently viewed by white society as a commodity, rather than as individuals. As the slave trade ended, reproduction was seen as the only means of sustaining a labor force, and thus, women were stripped of their control of their children and families, as well as their sexuality. Additionally, the widespread practice of sexual abuse on plantations created cycles of domination and fear in Black women, drawing the discussion of the significance of slavery in creating a space for resistance. This resistance included Black women’s participation in larger abolition movements, but also involved daily acts of defiance such as poisoning a slave owner’s food, or the even more subtle but equally affective act of learning to read or write in a society that didn’t value their education. the role of education The systematic exclusion of Black women from education has greatly hindered their ability to be liberated. However, she also points to historical examples of Black women succeeding in increasing educational opportunities in the United States. Davis notes that although it is frequently overlooked in historical accounts, during Reconstruction, African-American and white women worked together to tackle the widespread issue of illiteracy in the South. The mutual respect and shared goals allowed these women’s efforts to be successful, as Davis writes, some 247,333 pupils were attending 4,329 schoolsand these were the building blocks for the South’s first public school system, which would benefit Black and white children alike. (Women, Race and Class 109). Today, education remains a major concern for women. Even though women have broken into higher education in large numbers over the past few decades, there is much work to be done for those who do not yet have the access to these opportunities. Throughout her work, Davis notes the importance of intersection of class, race, and gender for Black women in the United States. Following slavery, Black women struggled to be economically successful in a society that has greatly limited their opportunities.
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for African-Americans and systematically excluded Black women from any access to higher education. African-American women found that one of the few jobs that society offered to them was to work as in white households performing domestic service. Davis discusses how this occupation perpetuated systems of oppression as it limited opportunities for Black women while simultaneously exposing them to the threat of sexual abuse from the “man of the house”.
"the struggles are not so much about the individual, but about uplifting the entire community" Sexism in activist organizations has made difficulties for working women as well as Black women to have voices equal to their male counterparts in addressing various issues of oppression. Davis feels the categories of race, gender, and class are not discrete, they must be explored where they overlap. This does not mean ignoring the separate causes of oppression; it instead involves acknowledging the areas where these separate struggles can find common ground and thus become stronger than they would be divided. It is important to view the case for Women’s Rights from a global perspective because of both the value in learning from the experiences of other countries as well as the potential for individuals to work together to aid oppressed women internationally. Davis’ participation in international conventions that address women’s emancipation shows her desire to spread her message of liberation throughout the world. Davis participated in the activist organization Women for Racial and Economic Equality (WREE), which presented a document entitled “The Effects of Racism and Militarization to the
STANDING TALL: At left: Davis rallies as an unofficial, honorary, member of the Black Panther Party, 1970’s ; Below: several pins used in supporting and proclaiming Davis’ innocence in her murder trial, the feminist and black power symbols as representations of womanism
United Nations. She notes that among the major issues that need to be addressed by women internationally are the need for the economic independence of women, the guarantee of equal pay to their male counterparts, as well as the improvement of the quality of life for all women in the areas of health care, education, housing, and protection against police brutality. She notes the need for women to from “a united, multiracial, antimonopoly women’s movement” in order to aid all oppressed women throughout the world. In her studies of such cases, documented in her book Women, Race, and Class Angela Davis discusses the origins of women’s rights movements in the United States and discusses the significance of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s work to mobilize large numbers of women during the 19th century. However, she notes that one of the shortcomings of these movements was their tendency to overlook the dire and basic living needs of both Black women during this time period,
as well as white working women. As the Civil War came to and end, a fierce debate erupted over whether or not Black men deserved to vote before white women had secured this right. Although Davis sympathizes with the concerns of the women who were dissatisfied with the 14th Amendment’s failure to include women, she feels that their reaction to this event displayed the racist undercurrents that existed in women’s suffrage movements. These racist sentiments would continue far into the 20th century, as Davis feels that Black women have had to constantly struggle against oppression because of both their race and their gender, which has placed them in a unique condition that makes it difficult to find allies in other movements. During the 20th century with the emergence of Civil Rights Movements, Black women were frequently viewed as a threat to their Black male counterparts. Davis not only discusses this in her writing, she also lived through it during her work in the 1960s and 1970s. However, Davis showed strength Angela Davis & the Feminist Struggle 3
despite these criticisms and emerged as a community leader as well as rose to national prominence by running as the Vice Presidential candidate for the Communist Party in 1980 and 1984. Davis does not feel that Black women were the only women who have been marginalized by these movements. She also notes the exclusion of working-class women, immigrants, and other minorities from activist organizations and the detrimental effects of this exclusion. This further demonstrates how Davis’ view of liberation is a vision of liberation for all, as she feels oppression must be attacked from multiple angels and not exclusively the areas of race or gender. What Angela Davis has chosen to identify with and use for the means of liberating black people in America, has been the backbone for her own intellectual growth. All of the ideologies in which she believes have
"the categories of race, gender, and cla finding a common ground in our separat been used as a foundation for how she analyzes the plight of blacks. So when people singularly brand her with titles like Communist that have their own stigmas, especially in the eyes of blacks. So with this challenge, she pressed ahead to produce words that would join her beliefs about what would bring about black liberation in ways that appeal to her people first, and to others second. She created a people’s intellectualism. Angela Davis’ thoughts are what have set her apart from other leaders of her time. While her actions and methods to create revolution have become outdated and old, unlike her afro, her thinking has not gone out of style. At the age of 26, Davis was fervent in her belief that she is first a black woman, and that her thinking has been informed by this fact. Thus, the intellectual work she has done was for the benefit of all blacks, and within that comes thoughts of black feminism. Contrary to belief by some black men, Angela Davis’ feminist background is beneficial for black people given that black women raise a majority of the race alone. If black women as a whole group have rights and opportunities denied to them because of their race and gender, it makes it
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and thus the race. Such a philosophy is informed by identity and allows for growth of the male dominated black liberation movement. Taught to believe the world is against them, that they are doomed to be victims, often assume the posture of victimizer. Firstly embracing the ideals of patriarchal masculinity that make domination acceptable, they then draw upon misogyny and sexism to experience their first use of violence, psychological or physical, to control another human being. As we learn more about the life stories of black males active in the black power movement we hear tales of their abuse of women. Taught to believe that a real male is fearless, insensitive, egocentric, and invulnerable (all the traits powerful black men have in movies) a black man blocks out all emotions that interfere with this “cool” pose. Yet it is often in relationships with females, particular romantic bonds, that black males experience a disruption of demeanor. They respond with anger and sexual predation to maintain their dominator stance. Davis argues that in order for women to be liberated, the issue of violence against women must be addressed by society.
Davis argues that in order for women to be liberated, the issue of violence against women must be addressed by society. She claims that the notion of violence can relate to overt acts of physical abuse such as rape, but also must include attacks on women’s reproductive choices and their sexuality. Thus, Davis’ notion of violence against women extends to the atrocious practice of sterilization, attacks on abortion clinics, as well as attempts to prohibit the right of gay women to have children. Rape is a major concern when discussing violence against women. Davis argues that in order to address the issues surrounding rape, the way in which the subject is discussed needs to be changed. As it exists now, victims of rape are too often perceived by society as “immoral”. Additionally, Davis notes that rape is often constructed as a sexual act, when really it is an act of power and domination. Davis feels that it will be impossible to build a multi-racial coalition against rape, necessary to liberating all women and ending cycles of violence against women.
ass are not separatete struggles only holds the possibility of making us stronger" COMMON STRENGTH: (clockwise from left) Davis protesting in 1976, a rally of female supporters for Davis during her 1970 murder trial
Davis’ forward thinking provides a catalyst for even more discussion about the impact of racism even within groups that are considered to be progressive. Considering the extent to which the ideological structures of homophobia, of transphobia, of hetero-patriarchy are embedded in our institutions, the assumption that one group of people could be more homophobic, racist, sexist, etc. than another group of people misses the mark, because we don’t address issues of attitudes. David acknowledges the need to address the institutions that perpetuate those attitudes and that inflict real violence on all human beings. When we win victories in movement struggles we change the whole terrain of struggle. So we don’t simply add on. We don’t add on women to black people, we don’t add on LGBT people to women and black people, we don’t add on trans people, and so forth. Each time we win a significant victory, it requires us to revisit the whole terrain of struggle. Therefore, we have to ask questions about the impact of racism in the femi-
nist movement. We have to ask questions about the impact of racism in the women’s movement, we have to ask questions about the impact of sexism or misogyny in black communities, and we have to ask questions about the influence of homophobia in black communities or communities of color. This notion of intersecting, or cross-patched, or over-laying categories of oppression is one that has come to us thanks to the work of women-of-color feminists- especially the work of Angela Davis.
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