Six Forgotten Feminists to Lift Up During Women’s History Month—And Always
Mar 1, 2018
"If any of you doesn't know that Barbara has thought up, written, organized much of what we know as feminism today, you don't know what you're missing, " Steinem said in a recent MAKERS interview. "So you have to promise me that you're going to catch up on this woman."
Here's a quick primer for you: Barbara Smith is not only an activist. She is also a teacher, critic, lecturer, author, scholar, publisher, and important leader of black feminist thought. As the founder of the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, she has dedicated her life's work to chronicling and inserting the legacy of black women within the movement—even if they didn't always identify themselves as a feminist.
"It can be difficult to place us accurately in the chronology of feminism if what you're looking for are explicit statements of 'I am a feminist,'" says Smith, author of The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom.
During a wide-ranging conversation between Smith and Steinem at the 2018 MAKERS Conference, the longtime friends debunked the myth that feminism is only a white women's movement by highlighting six black women who created change. And while Black History Month has come to an end, that doesn't mean we stop celebrating and supporting women of color.
"It's so important for women of color not to be seen as an afterthought or an add-on," Smith says. "Movements are big, broad, and inclusive. So we have to be able to work with others who are different from ourselves. We want our co-conspirators to step up and to be there with us."
How can you do that? You can support Smith's work through SmithCaringCircle.com and you can honor her legacy by sharing the stories of these incredible women all year round.
ANNA JULIA COOPER
Anna Julia Cooper, although born into enslavement, advocated for higher education and social mobility for black women. She wrote and published the book A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South in 1892 which asserted that the advancement of African Americans relied heavily on the education of black women, a topic she lectured on throughout her career.
Nannie Burroughs was a late 19th century educator and community organizer, who focused her life's work on challenging racial discrimination and political disenfranchisement. With the support of the Baptist church, she co-founded the Women's Convention, the largest black women's advancement organization in the U.S. of the post-emancipation period which addressed religious, political, and social issues.
MARY McLEOD BETHUNE
Mary McLeod Bethune was a civil rights activist who advocated for the betterment of African Americans during Reconstruction. In 1904, she started one of the first private schools for African American students in Daytona Beach, Florida. As a community organizer, Bethune played an active and leading role in the National Association of Colored Women, Southeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, and National Council of Negro Women—all of which fought for integration, political rights, and access to education.
FANNIE LOU HAMER
"Fannie Lou Hamer was a pillar of the civil rights movement," Smith says. Born into a sharecropper's family in Montgomery County, Mississippi, she grew up to become a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the 1960s. Steinem says: "I would say she was definitely a founder of the reproductive justice movement [within feminism] because she was the first person to talk about sterilization." Sterilization abuse was an unfortunate commonplace violation in which medical professionals imposed involuntary and coercive hysterectomies or tubal ligations in an effort to prevent black people from reproducing and increasing in numbers. "Sterilization was so frequent and was used so often to abuse black women that they referred to it as a Mississippi Appendectomy," Smith added.
Johnnie Tillmon was a California-based welfare reformer born in 1926. While working at a union job, she came down with an illness that forced her to go on welfare. "Out of that experience and out of the abuse of the system, she, with others, started the National Welfare Rights Organization," Smith explains. "That was a really important group for looking at issues of class and gender."
Fran Beal wrote about intersectionality before the phrase even existed. "She wrote an article called 'Double Jeopardy' [in the late 1960s], and she was talking about patriarchal attitudes and sexism within the black context," Smith says. "She also was a founder of the Third World Women's Alliance, which was explicitly feminist."