Thou shalt not covet they neighbor's house,
thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife,
nor his manservant,
nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass,
nor anything that is thy neighbor's.
— tenth commandment
The optimism of politics before a revolution is exceeded only by the pessimism of politics after one. One current optimistic theory sees all the oppressed classes of America joining together to storm the citadel of their oppressor. Black liberation and women's liberation as movements, blacks and white women as people, will fight together. I respect black liberation, and I work for women's liberation, but the more I think about it, the less hope I have for a close alliance of those who pledge allegiance to the sex and those who pledge allegiance to the skin. History, as well as experience, has bred my skepticism. That blacks and women should have a common enemy, white men and their culture, without making common cause is grievous, perhaps. They even have more in common than an enemy. In America they share the unhappy lot of being cast together as lesser beings. It is hardly coincidence that the most aggressively racist regions are those most rigidly insistent upon keeping women in their place, even if that place is that of ornament, toy, or statue. Of the ten states that refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the vote, nine were southern. The tenth was Delaware. Gunnar Myrdal, in a brief appendix to An American Dilemma, his massive study of American blacks, tersely analyzed this peculiar national habit Both blacks and women are highly visible; they cannot hide, even if they want to. A patriarchal ideology assigns them several virtues: blacks are tough; women fragile. However, the same patriarchal ideology judges them naturally inferior in those respects that carry »prestige, power, and advantages in society.« As Thomas Jefferson said, even if America were a pure democracy, its inhabitants should keep women, slaves, and babies away from its deliberations. The less education women and blacks get, the better; manual education is the most they can have. The only right they possess is the right, which criminals, lunatics, and idiots share, to love their divine subordination within the paterfamilias and to obey the paterfamilias himself.
The development of an industrial economy, as Myrdal points out, has not brought about the integration of women and blacks into the adult male culture. Women have not found a satisfactory way both to bear children and to work. Blacks have not destroyed the hard doctrine of their unassimilability. What the economy gives both women and blacks are menial labor, low pay, and few promotions. White male workers hate both groups, for their competition threatens wages and their possible job equality, let alone superiority, threatens nothing less than the very nature of things. The tasks of women and blacks are usually grueling, repetitive, slogging, and dirty. After all, people have servants, not simply for status, but for doing what every sensible person knows is unappetizing.
Blacks and women also live in the wasteland of American sexuality, a world which, according to W. E. B. DuBois, one of the few black men to work for women's emancipation, »tries to worship both virgins and mothers and in the end despises motherhood and despoils virgins.« White men, convinced of the holy primacy of sperm, yet guilty about using it, angry at the loss of the cozy sanctuary of the womb and the privilege of childhood, have made their sex a claim to power and then used their power to claim control of sex. In fact and fantasy, they have violently segregated black men and white women. The most notorious fantasy claims that the black man is sexually evil, low, subhuman; the white woman sexually pure, elevated, superhuman. Together they dramatize the polarities of excrement and disembodied spirituality. Blacks and women have been sexual victims, often cruelly so: the black man castrated, the woman raped and often treated to a psychic clitoridectomy.
These similarities in the condition of blacks and women add up to a remarkable consistency of attitude and action on the part of the powerful toward the less powerful. Yet for a white woman to say, »I've been niggerized, I'm just a nigger, all women are niggers«, is vulgar and offensive. Women must not usurp the vocabulary of the black struggle. They must forge their own idiom by showing how they are, for instance, »castrated« by a language and a tradition that makes manhood, as well as white skin, a requisite for full humanity.
Women's protest has followed black protest, which surged up under the more intense and brutal pressure. Antislavery movements preceded the first coherent woman's rights movement, black male suffrage, woman's suffrage, the civil rights movement, the new feminism. For the most part, white women have organized, not after working with blacks, but after working on behalf of them. Feminism has received much of its impetus from the translation of lofty, middle-class altruism into the more realistic, emotionally rugged salvation of the self.
The relationship between black rights and woman's rights offers an important cautionary tale, revealing to us the tangle of sex, race, and politics in America. It shows the paradox of any politics of change: we cannot escape the past we seek to alter, any more than the body can escape enzymes, molecules, and genes. As drama, the story is fascinating. Blacks and white women begin generous collaborations, only to find themselves in bitter misalliance. At crucial moments, the faith of one in the other changes into doubt. High principles become bones of contention and strategies violate high principles. The movements use each other, betray each other, and provoke from each other abstract love and visceral hostility. The leaders are heroic—men and women of great bravery, resilience, intellectual power, eloquence, and sheer human worth whose energy is that of the Christians and the lions together. And the women of the nineteenth century, except for their evangelical Christianity, sexual reticence, and obsequious devotion to marriage, the family, home, or at least to heterosexuality, worked out every analysis the new feminism is rediscovering.
Unhappily, whenever white radical men control the agencies of black liberation, their feelings about women are unwittingly first-class tools in making feminists out of their wives, sisters, and lovers. Henry B. Stanton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's husband, warned her that he would stay out of town if she took part in the 1848 Seneca Falls meeting (where American women first came together to organize against their oppression). She did take part; he did leave town. Ironically, Stanton, an agent for antislavery societies, wrote his business letters on paper embossed with the figure of a kneeling, manacled black female slave. That Stanton might be unsympathetic to feminism had been apparent for some time. Eight years earlier, Angelina Grimke Weld, the prominent white antislavery agitator from Charleston, South Carolina, had written: »We were very much pleased with Elizabeth Stanton who spent several days with us, and I could not help wishing that Henry were better calculated to mould such a mind«.
The editors of The History of Woman Suffrage summarized the trouble women radicals had. The most liberal of men, they said tartly, find it almost impossible »to understand what liberty means for woman. Those who eloquently advocate equality for a southern plantation cannot tolerate it at their own fireside.« To be fair, such failures of the masculine imagination, such needs of the masculine ego, were not present in several of the most notable male radicals. Nor were they limited to white men. In 1833 black students joined their white colleagues in an attempt to keep women out of Oberlin College. Nor were men the women's only opponents. Women themselves, even activists, denounced militant women, even before they were militant feminists. Catharine A. Beecher, an educator, exemplifies such failures of the feminine imagination, such weaknesses of the feminine ego. In 1837 she published An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females. This prim, stiff little tract tells an anonymous male friend why he should refuse to join an abolitionist society and a clearly labeled Angelina Grimke' why she should refuse to urge women to join one. I loathe slavery, Miss Beecher sniffed, but those exasperating, divisive abolitionists simply refuse to recognize the necessity of gradual emancipation of the slaves. Women may work against slavery, but only if they appeal to kindly, generous, peaceful, benevolent principles. Their soft pleas must never go beyond domestic and social circles. After all, Miss Beecher said:
Heaven has appointed to one sex the superior and to the Other the subordinate station. ... It is therefore as much for the dignity as it is for the interest Of females, in all respects to conform to the duties of this relation.
Miss Beecher, a rubber stamp of her age, never doubted her station. Only eccentric women did.
Antislavery work of women, even outside domestic and social circles, was magnificent. Obvious as organizers, fundraisers, and agitators, they were also an imperceptible moral force. The now misunderstood Uncle Tom's Cabin was written by a woman. In the last of his autobiographies, Frederick Douglass, the fugitive slave who became the most famous black leader of the nineteenth century and who had his own troubles with white male abolitionists, said:
When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman's cause. Her heart and her conscience have supplied in large degree its motive and mainspring. Her skill, industry, and patience, and perseverance have been wonderfully manifest in every trial hour. Not only did her feet run on »willing errands«, and her fingers do the work which in large degree supplied the sinews of war, but her deep moral convictions, and her tender human sensibilities, found convincing and persuasive expression by her pen and voice.
The women had to be durable. During one national convention of the American Anti-Slavery Women in Philadelphia, they were physically attacked. They continued to speak as stones flew through the windows. That night a mob, maddened by the idea of the abolition of slavery and by the sight of women meeting, especially with black men, burned the meeting hall.
The reasons why women who later became America's great feminists were first active in antislavery work must have been complex, various, and deeply personal. Many of them, for example, came from slavery-hating families, and the antislavery movement was already there for them to enter. However, I think one overriding motive drove women into such work, making, in Douglass' words, »the cause of the slave ... peculiarly women's cause«. In 1884 Frederick Engels decreed: »The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.« Decades before that American women felt themselves to be slaves. Their society, unlike modern society, had forcefully reduced them to that social, legal, economic, and psychological state. Not only did women feel that they had always been slaves, but they clearly identified themselves with the American black slave. Recognizing the severe oppression of the black, they saw, perhaps for the first time, an image of themselves. The horrible biblical injunction, »Servants, obey your masters«, became synonymous with »Wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.«
The identification white women made with black slaves was pervasive. The wife of a southern planter described herself to Harriet Martineau, the traveling English intellectual, as »the chief slave of the harem.« The call for a woman's rights convention, the ante-bellum ancestor of teach-ins and consciousness-raising sessions, to be held in Worcester, Massachusetts, proclaimed:
In the relation of marriage (woman) has been ideally annihilated and actually enslaved in all that concerns her personal and pecuniary rights, and even in widowed and single life, she is oppressed with such limitation and degradation of labor and avocation, as clearly and cruelly mark the condition of a disabled caste.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, speaking before the New York State Legislature in 1860, hammered home the point:
The Negro has no name. He is Cuffy Douglas or Cuffy Brooks, just whose Cuffy he may chance to be. The Woman has no name. She is Mrs. Richard Roe or Mrs. John Doe, just whose Mrs. she may chance to be. Cuffy has no right to his earnings; he cannot buy or sell, or lay up. Mrs. Roe has no right to her earnings; she can neither buy nor sell, make contracts, nor lay up anything that she can call her own. Cuffy has no right to his children; they can be sold from him at any time. Mrs. Roe has no right to her children; they may be bound out to cancel a father's debt of honor. Tie unborn child, even by the last will of the father, may be placed under the guardianship of a stranger and a foreigner. Cuffy has no legal existence; he is subject to restraint and moderate chastisement. Mrs. Roe has no legal existence; she has not the best right to her own person. The husband has the power to restrain, and administer moderate chastisement.
Witty, passionate, Stanton went on:
The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way. The Negro's skin and the woman's sex are both prima facie evidence that they were intended to be in subjection to the white Saxon man. The few social privileges which the man gives the woman, he makes up to the (free) Negro in civil rights.
The feminists saved their keenest empathy for black women. They showed an intuitive respect, a warmth, often missing in the white male radicals of the period. Angelina Grimke first rebelled against slavery when, a child, she saw a woman slave being mercilessly beaten. Perhaps the white women also felt some guilty relief at not being black, an impulse leading to moral action as well as to the more naive gestures of philanthropy. An anecdote about Elizabeth Cady Stanton is suggestive. One of Stanton's cousins, who ran a station on the Underground Railway, took her and some other young girls to visit a quadroon woman hiding on his third floor. The fugitive slave told her story. Somewhat pedagogically, Stanton asked if she did not find a similarity between being a woman and being a slave. »Yes«, the fugitive allegedly answered, »... but I am both. I am doubly damned in sex and color. Yes, in class too, for I am pool and ignorant; none of you can ever touch the depth of misery where I stand today.«
It is a measure of the deep sense of identification between women and black slaves that even the opponents of woman's rights used the analogy between the two. Their tone, of course, was one of self-righteous approval, not of righteous outrage. The New York Herald decreed in an 1852 editorial:
How did woman first become subject to man as she now is all over the world? By her nature, her sex, just as the Negro is and always will be, to the end of time, inferior to the white race, and therefore, doomed to subjection; but happier than she would be in any other condition, just because it is the law of her nature.
The ever-reliable Catharine Beecher had earlier given the game away. Asking the North to understand the South, she had written: »the Southerner feels (as irritated by the) interference of strangers to regulate his domestic duty to his servants as ... a Northern man would ... in regard to his wife and children.«
The more mature the feminist movement became, the more deftly it compared chattel slaves and white women for strategic gain. Once Susan B. Anthony, the unyielding mistress of civil disobedience, heard that a white man had incarcerated his wife and child in an insane asylum. Such locking up of rebellious wives, sisters, and daughters was not, it seems, an uncommon agent of repression. The woman, despite her family's testimony to her sanity, had been in the asylum for eighteen months. Anthony helped the woman and child to escape and to hide. Defending herself, Anthony drew upon public support for fugitive women. She reasoned: »In both cases an unjust law was violated; in both cases the supposed owners of the victims were defied, hence in point of law and morals, the act was the same for both cases.« Less dramatically, Lu-cretia Mott utilized the slaveholder to clarify the behavior of all men. She did not expect men, unlike women, to see how they robbed women. After all, slaveholders »did not see that they were oppressors, but slaves did.«
Inseparable from the psychological identification feminists had with slaves and the political use they made of it was a profound moral faith. All persons—men, women, whites, blacks—have certain inalienable rights; self-determination is one. In the Declaration of Independence and even in the Constitution, America organizes itself around those rights. When they protest, women and blacks are only seeking the simple human rights that they ought naturally to prossess, but of which they have been unnaturally deprived. Moreover, any good person who fights for the freedom of one enslaved class must fight for the freedom of another. Liberation groups are all alike because all groups should be liberated. Loving the right for its own sake means loving the right everywhere.
The editors of the History of Woman Suffrage say flatly that the antislavery struggle was the single most important factor in creating the woman's rights movement in America—even more important than the material demands of an underdeveloped country and the spiritual support of a still-lively revolutionary tradition. Certainly the antislavery struggle gave feminism its energetic, triumphant, articulate morality. In the company of »some of the most eloquent orators, the ablest logicians, men and women of the purest moral character and best minds in the nation«, women learned the »a.b.c. of human rights«, including their own. Angelina Grimke asserted:
- The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own. I have found the Anti-Slavery causes to be the high school of morals in our land—the school in which human rights are more fully investigated, and better understood, than in any other.
The antislavery movement taught women the austere disciplines of organizing for an unpopular cause, especially the need for patience in any long social struggle.
More important, women broke the near-psychotic taboo against their participation in public life. At first, the American Anti-Slavery Society would permit Angelina Grimke to speak only before small private groups of women. Then men began to sneak in surreptitiously to hear the lady abolitionist from the South. The Anti-Slavery Society saw it had a good thing going and scheduled Miss Grimke for large public meetings. Predictably, the churches were horrified. Theodore Dwight Weld, the abolitionist who was passionately in love with her, and whom she married in 1838, wrote that: »... folks talk about women's preaching as tho' it was next to highway robbery—eyes astare and mouth agape.« However, after hearing Miss Grimke, Sojourner Truth (called the »Lybian Sybil«), Lucretia Mott, Abby Kelley Foster, Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, and others, the »folks« became a more silent majority. In general, working against slavery made women stronger, more confident, and more responsible. Such qualities made their lack of rights even more implausible.
Ironically, the antislavery movement probably helped feminism most by treating women so shabbily It imnnserl independence upon them. Women had been part of the movement from the beginning. A Lydia Gillingham had been an officer of the first Anti-Slavery Society in America. Women were in Philadelphia on December 4, 1833, when a national convention of abolitionists formed the American Anti-Slavery Society. To its shame, the convention
refused to seat women delegates. To their glory, the women, black and white, met together five days later in a schoolroom to found a separate Female Anti-Slavery Society Rejection bred an unpredictable rebellion. Or as the editors of the History of Woman Suffrage report grimly: »... through continued persecution was woman's self--respect sufficiently developed to prompt her at last to demand justice, liberty, and equality for herself.«
Feminists in the antisiavery movement had two groups of enemies. The first were their friends. Sympathetic to woman's rights, they still asked antisiavery women not to preach feminism for a while. In effect the women were iked, as they are today, to sacrifice themselves in order to help others stop still others from sacrificing still others. Angelina Grimke and her intelligent sister Sarah, the second of the GrimkS family's exiled and alien daughters, were early subjected to such pleas. Let your lives symbolize feminism, Theodore Weld told them at length, not your actual speeches. You are damaging the cause of the slave; you are losing your value as agitators. John Greenleaf Whittier, the radical poet, accused the sisters of splitting the left. His rhetoric should be hauntingly familiar to those who, for example, wish to work both against the Vietnamese war and for justice for the Panthers. »Is it necessary«, he asked
- ... for you to enter the lists as controversial writers on this question (of woman's rights)? Does it not look, dear sisters, like abandoning in some degree the cause of the poor and miserable slave. ...
.............................................Is it not forgetting the great and dreadful wrongs of the slave in a selfish crusade against some paltry grievance of our own?
The Grimkés listened, consulted their consciences, and replied: »The time to assert a right is the time when that fight is denied«. If men were to reject them as antisiavery agitators simply because they were women, then they had to defend themselves as women before they could be effective antislavery agitators. Appealing to his political self-interest, they asked Weld if he could not see that a woman »could do, and would do a hundred times more for the slave if she were not fettered?« Angelina, defending Sarah, the more ardent feminist of the two, said:
I am still glad of sister's letters (about woman's equality), and believe they are doing great good. Some noble-minded women cheer her on, and she feels encouraged to persevere, the brethren notwithstanding. I tell them that this is a part of the great doctrine of Human Rights, and can no more be separated from emancipation than the light from the heat of the sun; the rights of the slave and of woman blend like the colors of the rainbow. However, I rarely introduce this topic into my addresses, except to urge my sisters up to duty. Our brethren are dreadfully afraid of this kind of amalgamation.
A second group of enemies of feminism among »the brethren« was nakedly hostile. They loathed woman's rights, either because they loathed woman or because they had a notion of her place in life that failed to include an antislavery movement. Their chauvinism helped to split the abolitionist movement in 1840. One group, led by William Lloyd Garrison, welcomed women, even letting them hold office; the other group excluded them. In that same year, in London, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, male chauvinism enjoyed international triumph.
Some American women asked to be seated as delegates. Yelped the Reverend Eben Galusha of New York: »I have no objection to woman's being the neck to turn the head aright, but do not wish to see her assume the place of the head«. Intoned the Reverend A. Harvey of Glasgow: »if I were to give a vote in favor of females, sitting and deliberating in such .....as this, ... I should be acting in opposition to the plain teaching of the Word of God«. The convention after hours of debate, overwhelming.............to keep ladies out.
Wendell Phillips, ......................... they could follow the convebtion with as much interest....from their seats behind a curtain as they could from the floor. Would you say that, the women snapped back, to Frederick Douglass or to any other black man? That night Lucretia Mott, the Quaker moralist, who saw authority in truth, not truth in authority, walked down Great Queen Street with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They decided to hold a woman's rights convention in America as soon as they got back. The men to whom they had just listened were obviously in need of some education on the subject. Eight years later, in the Wesleyan Chapel of Seneca Falls, New York, the convention was finally held. Mott and Stanton, women of several causes, were to bring their greatest zeal to woman's rights. For the first time, their view of wrong was subjective, their vision a part of their own flesh.
The erratic bonds between women's rights and black liberation finally ruptured after the Civil War on the rough edges of the suffrage issue. Before the Civil War nearly all feminists were fierce abolitionists; during the Civil War they willingly stopped their arduous work on their own behalf. The last woman's rights convention was held in February 1861. There the invincible giants of early feminism—Mott, Anthony, Stanton—spoke for emancipation of the slaves, though crowds, as they often did, gave the women a hard time. Conventional war-relief tasks soon bored Anthony and Stanton, and the indifference to the war and to the principles of freedom on the part of many northern women appalled them. The women of America, Anthony said, »have been a party in complicity with slavery.« To stamp out that complicity, she and Stanton organized the Loyal League.
The Loyal League was to gather 400,000 signatures on petitions demanding emancipation for every slave. It was to turn the feminists into tough, efficient organizers. Yet its first meeting in New York in May 1863 foreshadowed the conflict between militant feminists, who said that justice for woman was a more important step in national safety than freedom or franchise for any race of men, and other women, who said several things. The New York gathering was more or less serene. However, a resolution linking the rights of women and those of blacks came up for a floor vote. It read, »There can never be a true peace in this Republic until the civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent and all women are practically established«. Mrs. Hoyt of Wisconsin thought the resolution inexpedient. Bringing feminism into war work would frighten away war workers; the Loyal League should not involve itself »in any purely political matter, or any ism obnoxious to the people.« Sarah M. Halleck thought the resolution unfair to blacks. Their rights, she said, echoing prewar and postwar debate, have priority over women's rights. »The negroes have suffered more than the women, and the women, perhaps, can afford to give them the preference. ... It may possibly be woman's place to suffer. At any rate, let her suffer, if by that means, mankind may suffer less.« Halleck suggested that the words »all women« be deleted. From the audience came an anonymous cry, »You are too self-sacrificing«. The older warriors supported the resolution. The orator Ernestine L. Rose, a Polish exile, declared that women must not be thrown out of the race for freedom. How, she asked rhetorically, can man be free if woman is not? Besides, she went on, women have been the equivalent of slaves. To support freedom for some slaves, and not for others, would be a foolish inconsistency. Then Angelina Grimke Weld spoke:
I feel that we have been with the (Negro)... True, we have not felt the slaveholder's lash; true, we have not had our hands manacled, but our hearts have been crushed.... I want to be identified with the Negro; until he gets his rights, we never shall have ours.
Eventually the resolution, which had a terrible prophetic truth, passed. The militants had taken the first, brief, parliamentary battle.
When the Civil War ended, many women had toiled to the point of exhaustion. Josephine Sophie Griffing, for example, had done relief work of an extremely systematic sort for freed slaves and she had also helped to found the ill-fated Freedman's Bureau. Feminists were legitimately convinced that their devotion to the Union, to blacks, and to the Republican party merited a reward. Their strategy was to act out the 1863 Loyal League resolution, to make black rights and woman's rights dependent upon each other. The next five years were to make paper boats of their hopes, mired in the mud of party politics and prejudice, luffing before the irresistable power of black claims.
The feminists also had to confront the fact that during the war, when only Susan B. Anthony had kept up even part of a guard, some legal rights for women, won at such expense of body and spirit, had been lost. The New York State Legislature, for example, had weakened a law of 1860 giving women the right to equal guardianship of their children. The amended law simply forbade a father to bind out or will away a child without the mother's written consent.
The immediate question was who in the great mass of the disenfranchised should obtain the ballot. The arena was a series of amendments to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment provided that if the right to vote were denied to any »male inhabitants« of a state (excluding Indians not taxed), who were law-abiding citizens over twenty-one, that state's basis for representation in Congress would be proportionately reduced. Its purpose was to give the vote to black men. The militant feminists, led by Stanton and Anthony, furious that the word »male« should be put in the Constitution for the first time, sought to have it struck out. They would then claim the right to vote under the altered amendment. According to the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote could not be abridged because of »race, color, or previous condition of servitude«. Its purpose was to insure the vote for black men. The militant feminists wanted to add the word »sex«. All else failing, the woman decided to press for a Sixteenth Amendment, specifically giving them the ballot.
Suffrage, a symbol of citizenship, is also a source of power and self-protection. Having it often seems irrelevant, but not having it is degrading. For women, who had to pay taxes, the vote meant that the old revolutionary American war whoop, »No taxation without representation«, would finally have some substance. Perhaps the militant feminists would not have freely chosen suffrage as their do-or-die issue at this time, but suffrage as an issue was there. The women had to respond to the pull of the gravity of the black civil rights movement. The cannier strategists also figured that unless women took advantage of the current national concern about suffrage, they would have to spend years making the country interested in the question again.
Their demands were just. Freedom and civil rights were the natural property of everyone, not one sex. It was politically illogical and bitterly unfair to put two million black men into the polling places and to keep fifteen million black and white women out. Susan B. Anthony spoke out sharply against the oligarchy of sex that made men household sovereigns and women subjects and slaves. Arguments given in support of black male citizenship in debate and court were mimicked to support woman's full citizenship. In 1867 the great black woman Sojourner Truth put it all together:
There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again. ... I am above eighty years old. ... I have been forty years a slave and forty years free, and would be here forty years more to have equal rights for all.
As morally impeccable as the militant feminists position was, its support was negligible. Facing the enmity of old friends and of time itself, for it was the Negro's hour, they were lonelier, more beleaguered than they had ever been before and they were ever to be again. The Republican party opposed them. Its more honorable members thought that black men, for whom they had fought the Civil War, deserved the vote; more cynical politicians figured that freed slaves would gratefully feel that the Grand Old Party deserved their vote. Democratic party maneuvers added to Republican distrust. Democrats, including a notorious bigot, George Francis Train, used the question of woman suffrage to embarrass the Republicans. Why not give the women the vote, they taunted, if your concern about civil rights is so pure that you wish to give it to black men? (Their cute ploys foreshadowed those of southern Democrats in 1964, who put women under the protection of the Civil Rights Act. Their concern for women was patently false, but their hope that taking care of women would prevent people from taking care of bracks was patently sincere.) Accepting the loud public support of Train, the militant feminists damaged their reputations and their cause among blacks and whites.
Nearly all the white male abolitionists, even those sympathetic to women, opposed woman's suffrage at this time. They saw black male suffrage as the fitting triumph of their decades of antislavery toil. They sensed that the turbulent American political climate favored them at last. They felt that the same climate did not favor women, since too many people still irrationally believed that votes for »strong-minded women« were simply the folly of »weak-minded men«. Fusing woman suffrage to black suffrage would lead to anger, confusion, and defeat. Many feminists agreed with them, perceiving themselves not as suicidally self-abnegating, but as shrewd and ethical. They reasoned that the advance of black men out of the pit of disenfranchisement would speed their own.
Necessarily, most black leaders also opposed the militant feminists. Among them was Frederick Douglass, who had long supported woman's rights. In Rochester, New York, he had founded an active Female Anti-Slavery Society, whose members included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth. Arguing with Douglass from 1842 on, Stanton had swept away his arguments against woman's rights, until he came to believe that women had precisely the same right to participate in civil government as men and beautifully analyzed the reasons why women might not recognize their own unique oppression. His Rochester newspaper had supported woman's rights conventions; indeed, at Seneca Falls, he had been almost alone in supporting Elizabeth Cady Stanton's call for the vote for women, then thought, if not blasphemous or wildly daring, at the very least counterproductive. He had also insisted that meetings of black free men be open to women. Now he was as surprised by the militant feminist refusal to support suffrage for blacks before suffrage for women as they were angered by his refusal to make suffrage for women a condition for suffrage for blacks.
Douglass eloquently, repeatedly, stated his powerful case. The black man needed the vote more than the white woman, because the black man lacked the thousand ways a woman had »to attach herself to the governing power of the land«. Woman might be »the victim of abuses ... but it cannot be pretended . . . that her cause is as urgent as that of ours«. In 1868 he wrote to Josephine Griffing in Washington to decline an invitation to speak for woman's suffrage. »The right of woman to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man«, he said. However, for the moment, his loyalties were to his race:
to a cause not more sacred, certainly more urgent, because it is a life and death to the long-enslaved people of this country. . . . While the Negro is mobbed, beaten, shot, stabbed, hanged, burnt, and is the target of all that is malignant in the North and all that is murderous in the South his claims may be preferred by me without exposing in any wise myself to the imputation of narrowness or meanness towards the cause of women.
The brief history of the American Equal Rights Association typifies the tension between the few who put woman's suffrage first and the many who put black suffrage first. The Eleventh National Woman's Rights Convention had bred the Equal Rights Association in May 1866. Its goal was nothing less than the reconstruction of the national sense of right; its hope was to »bury« the concepts of the black man and of the woman in the grander concept of the citizen. It worked vigorously for universal suffrage for a year. However, the Association nearly broke apart during its first national convention, held in the Church of the Puritans, New York, in May 1867. The fissure appeared in a floor fight over another of the resolutions irrevocably linking black suffrage to woman's suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her faction supported it, those opposing it argued that anything that delayed getting the vote for black men was immoral and that black suffrage did not necessarily imply that the fight for woman's suffrage would be harder. The quarrel then degenerated into an odious squabble about whether blacks were more oppressed than women. Lucy Stone had written that black men, having legal and social rights women lacked, were better off. Nonsense, Abby Kelley Foster answered, »(The Negro is) without wages, without family rights, whipped and beaten by thousands, given up to the most horrible outrages, without that protection which his value as property formerly gave him.« Behind the competition for the unpleasant title of Most Oppressed Class in America lay a serious moral and political question. If history, which is so miserly about justice, is to help only one of several suffering groups, what standards can we possibly use to choose that group?
The resolution did pass. However, that autumn the citizens of Kansas generously voted not to amend their state constitution to permit either women or blacks to vote. The militant supporters of woman's suffrage, who had also campaigned for black suffrage, working nearly a year, traveling from twenty to forty miles a day under frontier conditions, facing down the hostility of liberal whites, suspicious blacks, and local Republicans, were blamed for the defeat of black male suffrage. The 1868 annual convention of the Equal Rights Association was bitter, and the 1869 annual convention divisive. The Association broke apart over the question of endorsing a woman's suffrage amendment. Frederick Douglass said:
When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts . . . then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.
A voice shouted, »Is that not all true about black woman?« Douglass, who loved human rights for all, put race before sex. »Yes, yes, yes«, he answered, »it is true of the black woman, but not because she is a woman, but because she is black.« A black woman, Mrs. Francis Harper, a powerful orator, abolitionist, and feminist, concurred. Forced to choose between race and sex, she must let »the lesser question of sex go. Being black is more precarious and demanding than being a woman; being black means that every white, including every white working-class woman, can discriminate against you«. Harper argued bitterly: »the white women all go for sex, letting race occupy a minor position.«
On May 14 friends of woman's suffrage, including delegates to the Equal Rights Convention, met separately in the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A few days later, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association; a few months later, some of its members, motivated by personal animosities and a lesser devotion to militancy, created the more decorous American Woman Suffrage Association. The feminist movement, schismatic itself, was formally separated from the antislavery and black suffrage movement.
On March 30, 1870, Douglass celebrated the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment. Using the considerable grace and power at his command, he immediately called for a campaign for woman's suffrage. He and his friends among the feminists resumed their old, warm ties. Perhaps American culture had exposed itself when it granted the vote to black men fifty years before it granted it to any woman. However, black men were soon virtually to lose the vote in the South. American culture also exposed itself in the fact that women never lost what they were eventually so laboriously to win.
On their own, the feminists still compared themselves to black slaves. One of the most intriguing, grotesque uses of the metaphor occurred at the Louisana Constitutional Convention in 1879. Mrs. Caroline E. Merrick, an able woman, was lobbying for either full or limited suffrage for her sex and the Convention asked her to address it. Her son encouraged her to speak, and her husband, the Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court before the Civil War, permitted her to do so. Perhaps, Mrs. Merrick suggested, men might find women's demands for their rights as surprising as a procession of slaves approaching »the lordly mansion of their master with several spokesmen chosen from their ranks, for the avowed purpose of asking for their freedom«. Still, men must not refuse to give women the vote simply because they have never asked for it. Remember, Mrs. Merrick said:
In old times most of our slaves were happy and contented. Under the rule of good and humane masters, they gave themselves no trouble to grasp after a freedom which was beyond their reach. So it is with us to-day. We are happy and kindly treated (as witness our reception here to-night) and in the enjoyment of the numerous privileges which our chivalrous gentlemen are so ready to accord; many of us who feel a wish for freedom, do not venture even to whisper a single word about our rights.
It is hard to tell whether Mrs. Merrick's plea, during which she played the seemingly incongruent roles of slave, gentle rebel, and mistress of an old plantation, was sincere, spurious, or ironically cajoling.
However, the notion of woman as black slave slowly slipped from feminist thought and rhetoric. Soon the white working-class girl was to replace the slave as the object of the privileged woman's sympathy. The movement also turned against the black man: the once heroic slave became the besotted freedman. Women angrily compared themselves to the voting black. There was no reason, they argued, why an illiterate black man should exercise a power the educated woman lacked. »You have lifted up the slave on this continent«, said Madam Anneke, an ardent German feminist from Milwaukee, »listen now to woman's cry for freedom.« The women also deeply resented the potential power a black man might exercise over them. Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked sardonically:
Are we sure that the (Negro) once entrenched in all his inalienable rights, may not be an added power to hold us at bay? ... Why should the African prove more just and generous than his Saxon compeers?
She also said, a strong elitism mingling with her racism:
Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who can not read the Declaration of Independence or Webster's spelling-book, making laws for Lucretia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, and Anna E. Dickinson. Think of jurors and jailors drawn from these ranks to watch and try young girls for the crime of infanticide, to decide the moral code by which the mothers of this Republic shall be governed!
For a while most feminists preserved a vague ideal of sisterhood. They kept some faith with black women. Matilda Joslyn Gage, before a congressional committee in 1876, observed: »I know colored women in Washington far the superiors, intellectually and morally, of the masses of men, who declare that they now endure wrongs and abuses unknown in slavery.« Yet sisterhood proved fragile. The old moral solidarity between feminists and blacks gave way to a sexual solidarity, which, in turn, gave way to a primitive racial and class solidarity. A thoroughly ugly white supremacy infested the movement. Frederick Douglass had once said that »the government of this country loves women. They are the sisters, mothers, wives and daughters of our rulers; but the Negro is loathed.« The white Anglo-Saxon sisters, mothers, wives, and daughters, hoping for self-rule, or at the least a joint throne, used the loathing of their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons for political gain. Transforming the Negro's hour into the woman's, they sacrificed the black.
White racism was consciously manipulated as early as 1867. Henry B. Blackwell, a New Englander married to Lucy Stone, wrote an open letter to southern state legislatures. Some of the arguments of »What the South Can Do« were blatantly expedient. Give women the vote, Blackwell urged, and rest in peace. The combined vote of white men and women will always outnumber the combined vote of black men and women. »In the light of the history of your Confederacy, can any Southerner fear to trust the women of the South with the ballot?« he crooned. If white supremacy were so guaranteed, the South could live with the Fourteenth Amendment. Neither its basis of representation in Congress nor its congressmen need be reduced. Moreover, »the Negro question would be forever removed from the political arena«. The North would ignore southern politics, but confident of stable politics, it would invest in the South. Blackwell then gilded realpolitik with morality: »If you must try the Republican experiment, try it fully and fairly.«
The most leprous racism appeared in the last part of the nineteenth century as the movement suffered a serious ideological shift. The older feminists lost their vision of a seamless web of human rights, and accepted the argument of younger women that the rights of women were separate from those of blacks. The movement also concentrated its energy on suffrage, since its members were convinced that unless women found the grail of the vote, they would lack both equality and the muscle to bring about reform. Suffrage would help women bring right into a wrongful world: northern women might abate the evils of industrialism, southern women might shore up white supremacy. Such ends would justify a number of shabby means. Feminism also simply reflected its age: the northern refusal to see the black, the southern demand to dominate him, and the gluttonous national need to expand, which used white hatred of blacks as a sick psychological rallying cry.
The more popular the movement became, the more conservative its leaders and members were. During the 1890s chapters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association were organized in the South despite rigid regional resistance. In 1895 the National Association met in Atlanta; in 1896 the national board elected its first southern officers. The older feminists, some of them abolitionists, were quiescent. Susan B. Anthony attacked Jim Crow laws, in private. She spoke before the black Phillis Wheatley Club in New Orleans in 1903, unofficially. The club president, obviously a person of great dignity, told her guest that black women had »a crown of thorns continually pressed upon their brow, yet they are advancing and sometimes you find them further on than you would have expected«. The president then assured Miss Anthony that she had helped the club to believe in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and »at least for the time being in the sympathy of women.«
The records of the feminists' national conventions make sorry reading. In 1899 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the women refused to support the resolution of a black woman delegate, Mrs. Lottie Wilson Jackson, that protested Jim Crow laws on trains. In 1903 in New Orleans, the national board of directors promptly denied a local newspaper's charge that they were soft on race. The national association only cared about suffrage; state chapters could do what they wanted about race. The directors hastened to add:
Like every other national association (we are) made up of persons of all shades of opinion on the race question and on all other questions except those relating to its particular object. The northern and western members hold the views on the race question that are customary in their sections; the southern members hold the views that are customary in the South. The doctrine of State's rights is recognized. ... The National American Woman Suffrage Association is seeking to do away with the requirement of a sex qualification for suffrage. What other qualifications shall be asked for it leaves to other states.
On the last evening of the convention in New Orleans, Miss Belle Kearney, a famous Mississippi orator, spoke, advocating woman's suffrage as the national hope for government by the educated, propertied white. To great applause she warned:
Just as surely as the North will be forced to turn to the South for the nation's salvation, just so surely will the South be compelled to look to its Anglo-Saxon women as the medium through which to retain the supremacy of the white race over the African.
The response of the national president, Mrs. Carrie Chapman Cart, queasily allied a nod to principle and a low bow to pragmatism. She first affirmed the principle of state's rights. Then, as a woman who found Negrophobia Neanderthal, she added that Anglo-Saxons were »apt to be arrogant« about their blood. She reminded her audience that the Romans thought Anglo-Saxons too »low and embruted« to be slaves and suggested that Anglo-Saxons would cease to be dominant if they proved unworthy of the honor. Finally, she concluded brightly:
... the race problem is the problem of the whole country and not that of the South alone. The responsibility for it is partly ours but if the North shipped slaves to the South and sold them, remember that the North has sent some money since then into the South to help undo part of the wrong that it did to you and to them. Let us try to get nearer together and to understand each other's ideas on the race question and solve it together.
In 1904 In Washington, D.C., Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, took the floor. The editor of the History of Woman Suffrage, exposing editorial pathology, describes Mrs. Terrell as »a highly educated woman, showing little trace of Negro blood.« Mrs. Terrell asked the feminists to support blacks:
You will never get suffrage until the sense of justice has been so developed in man that they will give fair play to the colored race. Much has been said about the purchas-ability of the Negro vote. They never sold their votes till they found that it made no difference how they cast them. My sisters of the dominant race, stand up not only for the oppressed sex but also for the oppressed race.
The convention, neatly juxtaposing present policy against past radicalism, swept on to adopt resolutions of regret for the death of many pioneer suffragists.
In other ways white feminists insulted black women and evaded the support of black organizations. Now and then, if black women seemed middle class, if black women escaped the white charge of sexual promiscuity, the movement patronized them. Ironically, the most ebullient white supremacists almost wrecked the national movement. Its grand strategy had been to make woman's suffrage a matter for state conventions and constitutions, but it became clear that it might be quicker to make woman's suffrage a matter for the federal Constitution. Some southern women deplored the notion of a federal amendment, because it might violate the principle of state's rights, might help Republicans hurt Democrats. In 1913 they organized the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference with Kate M. Gordon, an energetic civic leader from New Orleans, who helped bring a sewer system to her city, as its prime mover. Only a revitalized national association, only a determined Mrs. Catt, fully committed to a federal amendment, subdued the Southern Conference.
The suffrage movement was no worse than other women's groups. Mrs. Josephine Ruffin, an early black suffragist in New England, the editor of a black newspaper, was verbally and physically attacked in 1900 in Milwaukee at a convention of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Young Women's Christian Association put black women in segregated units. The elite northern women's colleges, which had endured the most massive sexual prejudice, rarely rose above racial prejudice. By 1910 Smith and Radcliffe had each graduated four black women, Bryn Mawr, Mills, and Barnard none. Nor, if such forces can be measured, was the women's racism as virulent as that of many of their opponents. Indeed, some women even clearly tried to shake off the disease.
What is sad is that woman's rights leaders, who had such a vivid sense of right, and woman's suffrage leaders, who worked so hard for a civil right, should have succumbed willfully to the corrupting gods in the Anglo-Saxon pantheon. What is instructive is that a coalition of the oppressed fell apart when the vital self-interest of one group collided with that of another. In 1865 blacks could hardly have been expected to wait for the vote for their men until the nation was willing to grant it to women. No group can reasonably be asked to stay either slaves or political beggars. What is appalling is how quickly morality and compassion went underground when anyone began to taste of power.
A black liberation movement has been active in America since the first black arrived in Virginia; only white belief in it has been erratic. The liberal civil rights movement which began in 1960, during the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins and ended around 1966, during the healthy purge of white power and participation, helped to generate contemporary women's liberation. The growth of women's liberation has imitated that of modern black protest. Civil rights activity, which demands equality within a system, breeds revolutionary activity, which demands a radically new system. Civil rights and liberation groups live together, more or less uneasily, their common enemy forcing a loose loyalty. The public, insensitive to bold differences of ideology and tactics, thinks of them as one.
There are really no formal bridges between integrated black civil rights groups and white women's liberation groups as there were in the nineteenth century, as there are in contemporary white radical gatherings. Reliable people also think that surprisingly few of the new feminists were seriously involved in civil rights. More came out of the New Left or in response to discriminatory post-World War II work conditions. The women who were committed to black causes, if they could shake loose from the roles of Lady Bountiful, Sister Conscience, or Daring Daughter, each in its way an archetypal woman's role, gained political and personal consciousness.
For many of us, civil rights activity was only a part of the interminable process of wooing knowledge, courage, and self-esteem. Other influences on our feminism may have been the psychological and moral need to have a cause, especially an impeccable but unconventional one; emotional or intellectual insults from the masculine world; and, to an interesting degree, a mother, grandmother, or aunt who, whether she wanted to or not, rebelled against woman's business as usual. For others, civil rights activity may have been crucial. It was, I am sure, different for northerners and southerners.
All learned something about the ideal of equality and how to organize to get it. Sensing the limitless possibilities of the protest movement also made us sense the impossible limits of old sex roles. Lillian Smith talks about the genteel church ladies who organized the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. No feminists, the ladies still helped to corrode the iron myth that white women were chaste butterflies. They had realized »that all a woman can expect from lingering on exalted heights is a hard chill afterwards.«
Like their ancestors in the antislavery movement, some women in the civil rights movement felt abused. They were given work supportive in nature and negligible in influence; they were relegated to the »research library and to the mimeograph machine.« If they were sexually exploited, their own sexual exploits were judged according to a double standard that let men sow wild oats but told women to reap the whirlwind. Not only did movement men tend to be personally chauvinistic, but many of the movement's ideals—strength, courage, spirit—were those society attributes to masculinity. Women may have them, but never more than men. The more paramilitary, the less nonviolent, black protest became, the less women and the putative womanly virtues were honored.
Still another pressure upon women in civil rights was the virility cult of white liberals officially concerned with the »Negro Problem«. In 1965 the Moynihan Report made its notorious to-do about strong women and weak men. Behind its analysis lurked a grim belief in the patriarchal family. The Report declared:
When Jim Crow made its appearance towards the end of the 19th century, it may be speculated that it was the Negro male who was most humiliated thereby; the male was more likely to use public facilities, which rapidly became segregated once the process began, and just as important, segregation, and the submissiveness it exacts, is surely more destructive to the male than to the female personality. Keeping the Negro »in his place« can be translated as keeping the Negro male in his place; the female was not a threat to anyone.
Compounding its errors of fact and spirit, the Report went on:
Unquestionably, these events worked against the emergence of a strong father figure. The very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four-star general, is to strut.
A brief, appealing memo illustrated the complex mood of some women in the peace and freedom movements at this time. Written by Casey Hayden and Mary King to other women, it asked how we might »live in our personal lives and in our work as independent and creative people.« The women quietly admitted that working in the movement intensified personal problems, especially if people start applying its lessons to themselves and if women assume a new role which is only, ironically, the logical consequence of the ideology they have been preaching. Hayden and King, writing before the new feminism became a coherent force, felt alone. No one talked publicly about women; no one organized them. Few men took the issue seriously, even though it involved the »strait-jacketing of both sexes«, even though it involved the kind of private agony that the movement wishes to make a public responsibility. Lacking a »community for discussion«, Hayden and King hoped to create a community of support.
Their ideas now seem mild. A few years ago they were whispers. Women, caught up in a sex caste system, must work around and outside of hierarchal structures of power. Their subordination is also assumed in their personal relationships. If they wish to struggle against their situation, they find few laws to attack; the enemy is more elusive. If they wish to work, they find only »women's« jobs. They have trouble asserting themselves against the world, let alone over others. Yet Hayden and King asserted that women cannot realistically withdraw from the system. A solution is to rethink the institutions of marriage and childrearing and the cultural stereotypes that bind.
The influence of black protest on women's liberation is more pervasive than the effect of one public event on the private lives of some valuable, interesting women. The civil rights movement scoured a rusty national conscience. Moral and political struggle against a genuine domestic evil became respectable again. The movement clarified concepts of oppression, submission, and resistance and offered tactics—the sit-ins, boycotts, demonstrations, proofs of moral superiority—for others to use to wrest freedom from the jaws of asses. Confrontation politics became middle class again as the movement helped to resurrect the appealing American tradition of rebellion. The real domino theory deals with the collapse of delusions of content. Once these delusions are exposed for one group, they tend to be obvious for others. The black became, as he had been before, the test of white good will. Being treated like blacks became proof of exploitation.
All of the women's liberation groups, even the more conservative, have drawn deeply on the inadvertent largesse of the black movement. Some women look to it for encouraging political lessons. It teaches that the oppressed must become conscious of their oppression, of the debasing folly of their lives, before change can come. Change, if it does come, will overthrow both a class, a social group, and a caste—a social group held in contempt. For those who place women's liberation into the larger context of general revolution, black people »have exposed the basic weakness of the system of white, Western dominance which we live under.« Brutal versions of the theory of the survival of the fittest have been refuted: the weaker can defeat the stronger. Their tactics will prove the virtue of flexibility, speed, and cunning. Those who were expelled from the civil rights movement are grateful for being forced to take stock of themselves, instead of taking stock of blacks. So isolated, they often go on to praise black models of the doctrine of separatism.
Even more commonly, women use blacks to describe themselves. They draw strenuous analogies between themselves and blacks, between women's civil rights and black civil rights, between women's revolution and the black revolution. The metaphor litters even the most sensible, probing, and sensitive thought of the movement. One influential pamphlet, which I like, deploys it no less than eleven times:
- Women, like black slaves, belong to a master. They are property and whatever credit they gain redounds to him.
- Women, like black slaves, have a personal relationship to the men who are their masters.
- Women, like blacks, get their identity and status from white men.
- Women, like blacks, play an idiot role in the theatre of the white man's fantasies. Though inferior and dumb, they are happy, especially when they can join a mixed group where they can mingle with The Man.
- Women, like blacks, buttress the white man's ego. Needing such support, the white man fears its loss; fearing such loss, he fears women and blacks.
- Women, like blacks, sustain the white man: »They wipe his ass and breast feed him when he is little, they school him in his youthful years, do his clerical work and raise him and his replacements later, and all through his life in the factories, on the migrant farms, in the restaurants, hospitals, offices, and homes, they sew for him, stoop for him, cook for him, clean for him, sweep, run errands, haul away his garbage, and nurse him when his frail body alters.«
- Women, like blacks, are badly educated. In school they internalize a sense of being inferior, shoddy, and intellectually crippled. In general, the cultural apparatus—the profession of history, for example—ignores them.
- Women, like blacks, see a Tom image of themselves in the mass media.
- Striving women, like bourgeois blacks, become imitative, ingratiating, and materialistic when they try to make it in the white man's world.
- Women, like blacks, suffer from the absence of any serious study on the possibility of real »temperamental and cognitive differences« between the races and the sexes.
- The ambivalence of women toward marriage is like the ambivalence of blacks toward integration.
The potent analogy has affected the liberal conscience. A national news program declared that people who object to women entering an all-male bar are as reactionary as people who approve of Lester Maddox keeping blacks out of his chicken restaurant. The analogy has also been the root of a favorite educational device. People are told to substitute the words »black/white« for the words »female/male« in their statements. Or, the person saying, »Women love having babies«, is asked if he would burble, »Negroes love chopping cotton«. The point is to use public disapproval of discrimination against blacks to swell public consciousness of discrimination against women.
However, I believe that women's liberation would be much stronger, much more honest, and ultimately more secure if it stopped comparing white women to blacks so freely. The analogy exploits the passion, ambition, and vigor of the black movement. It perpetuates the depressing habit white people have of first defining the black experience and then of making it their own. Intellectually sloppy, it implies that both blacks and white women can be seriously discussed as amorphous, classless, blobby masses. It permits women to avoid doing what the black movement did at great cost and over a long period of time: making its protest clear and irrefutable, its ideology self-sufficient and momentous, its organization taut. It also helps to limit women's protest to the American landscape. The plight of woman is planetary, not provincial; historical, not immediate.
Perhaps more dangerous, the analogy evades, in the rhetorical haze, the harsh fact of white women's racism. Our racism may be the curse of white culture, the oath of an evil witch who invades our rooms at birth. Or our racism may dankly unite culture and the way in which white infants apprehend their bodies, the real biological punishment in the myth of the Fall from the Garden of Eden. Whatever the cause, the virus has infected us all. One story may symbolize its work. Castration, when it was a legal punishment, was applied only to blacks during the period of Western slavery. In Barbados in 1693, a woman, for money, castrated forty-two black men. White men made the law. Their fear dictated the penalty. Yet a woman carried it out. White skin has bought a perverse remedy for the blows that sex has dealt.
The racism of white women dictates more than a desire to dominate something; it also bears on her participation in what Eldridge Cleaver calls the »funky facts of life«. For the black man she may be the sumptuous symbol of virtue, culture, and power, or she may be a sexual tempter and murderer, or she may be an object upon which revenge may fall. She may think of the black man as the exotic superstud, the magic phallus. A union with him may prove her sophistication and daring. She may perceive the black woman as a threat, a class and caste hatred rooted in sexual jealousy and fear. I frankly dislike some of the assumptions about white women I find in black writers. I am neither the guiding genius of the patriarchy nor the creator of my conventional sex role nor a fit subject for rape. Being »cleanly, viciously popped«, which LeRoi Jones says that I want, but which my culture provides for me only in »fantasies« of evil, is in fact evil. Yet white women do have deeply ambiguous sexual attitudes toward black people which often have very little to do with love.
My generalizations, which obviously ignore the idiosyncratic, subtle mysteries of the psychology of individual persons, may partly explain the tensions between members of the black movement and of the woman's movement. There are also political reasons for incompatability. The logic of the ideology of separatism is one. Blacks must liberate themselves from whites, including white women; women must liberate themselves from men, including black men. Everyone's liberation must be self-won. My brief narrative of the nineteenth century surely warns us against proxy fights for freedom. The result is that black liberation and women's liberation must go their separate ways. I would be ridiculously presumptuous if I spoke for black women. My guess is that many will choose to work for the black movement. They will agree with the forceful Sonia Sanchez Knight poem »Queens of the Universe«:
... we must
return to blk/men his children full of our women/love/ tenderness/sweet/blkness ful of pride/so they can shape the male children into young warriors who will stand along side them.
They will accept the theory that »any movement that augments the sex-role antagonisms extant in the black community will only sow the seed of disunity and hinder the liberation struggle.« Any black woman's movement will also have a texture different from that of a white woman's movement.
The logic of the ideologies of class improvement also makes an alliance between blacks and white women seem ultimately unstable. Both classes suffer from irrational economic discrimination: black men the least, black women the most. If society rights this wrong, it may only multiply the competition among the outcast for the cushy jobs. More dangerously, society may fail to change its notions of work. It must begin to assume, especially in a technological age, that ability is an asexual happenstance; that doing housework and raising children are asexual responsibilities; that the nuclear family, in which a father, whose sex gives him power, guarantees the annual income, is only one of several ways of leading the good life. Changing these notions means uprooting our concepts of sex and power. Such assumptions are axioms to members of women's liberation. Whether they are or not to members of black liberation, or any other political force, is unclear to me.
Finally, those of us in women's liberation have tasks independent of those confronting black liberation. We must do much more arduous work to persuade women to recognize the realities of their life. Few blacks still need consciousness-raising. Our job is harder because white, middle-class women have so many privileges and because the national impetus toward suburbia makes each home, embracing its homemaker, not just a castle, but a miniature ghetto. Blacks have long celebrated their culture. We must discover if women have a commonly felt, supportive culture, a fertile, if academically disdained, luster of responses and beliefs. We must also confront the moral and strategic necessity of building a revolution that rejects violence. A black man, carrying a gun, despite horrified warnings that armed blacks make white blacklashes, is effective. A woman, carrying a gun, despite the fact that women can and do shoot, is politically ineffective in America. Our culture finds it bizarre, and I, for one, find it regressive.
However, people in the black movement and in the woman's movement can work together on civil rights. Nearly everyone, except the crackers of both sexes, professes belief in civil rights. However, getting them is still a matter of hard work, imaginative administration, gritty willfulnes, and often despair. Once, fighting miscegenation laws together would have been appropriate. Now raising bail money for Panther women is necessary. The movements can also form coalitions to struggle for specific ends. Such goals must appeal to the self-interest of both blacks and women. Among them might be decent day-care centers, humane attitudes toward prostitution, the organization of domestic workers, and the recognition of the dignity of all persons on welfare. Insisting upon these goals must lead to a real guaranteed annual income.
What, at last, we have in common is a gift to America from its haphazard and corrupt revolution—the belief in human right that makes civil right imperative. We also share, if we are lucky, a vision of a blessed and generous and peaceable kingdom. If not for us, for our children. In Prison Notes, Barbara Deming, the poet and activist, talks about a feeling she had when she was in the city jail of Albany, Georgia, in 1964. She had been marching for peace between Quebec, Canada, and Guantanamo, Cuba. She writes:
A kind of affection flows between us that I have known before only on other ventures like this—born in part of enduring together discomfort and danger ... and born in part of one thing more, too: our common attempt to act toward our antagonists with sympathy. This daily effort, however clumsy, to put from us not only our fear of them but our hostility draws us closer still, as we reveal ourselves to one another, disarmed and hopeful. I have never felt toward a group of people a love so sweet and so strange. The emotion of it is as sharp as though I were in love with each of them. It has astonished me to feel so sharp an affection that was not (a possessive love). And what astonishes me is to love so intensely so many people at the same time.
Perhaps Deming is too tender for those immediately caught up in a violent struggle to survive. Yet the love she offers must surely be the heart and skeleton of any peaceable kingdom. The notion of such love, as well as a passion for liberty, are what women's liberation must keep alive during the turmoil and chaos which we call revolution and during which we long for companions which present realities must deny.