1955-2016: Comparing the Evolution of the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements

Most people realize that the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements were quickly followed by the Women’s Suffrage and Liberation movements, but many underestimate the full extent of their similarities. Even with my Women’s Studies major I was surprised to notice during the spring trip just how much the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements appeared to mirror each other, and how this mirroring seems to have continued up until the present day.

Last week we spent most of our time learning about the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, so I’ll start my explanation there. As was the case in the 1800s with the women’s suffrage and Abolitionist movements, the Women’s Liberation movement was partly in response to the Civil Rights movement. With so much of a spotlight finally being shown on the inequalities in society, women began to realize that they too faced oppression in several ways, many of which they saw blacks experiencing as well.  At the time, the most visible sections of the movements were the large organizations, which were mostly run by the older generations. These organizations included the SCLC (run by MLK and his generation) and NOW (cofounded by Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique, a book that’s said to have ultimately launched the Women’s Liberation movement in 1963). This “mainstream” movement was augmented by smaller grassroots groups that were run by younger, more radical supporters. These groups often sprung up out of colleges, and the students who ran them were often more willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to protest the status quo. A few examples of these types of grassroot protests were the sit-ins which popped up all over the south, many of which were organized by university students and SNCC, and the protest of the 1968 Miss America pageant, in which members of the New York Radical Women tossed traditional feminine products like make-up, pots and pans, and bras into a trash can labeled “Patriarchy” before crowning a sheep the winner of the pageant and unfurling a banner reading “Women’s Liberation” movement. Both protests received worldwide attention.

Despite the younger and older generations having very similar long term goals, the two groups within both movements often didn’t get along. The older leaders such as MLK and Betty Friedan were worried that the younger more radical groups like the Black Panthers and the New York Radical Women were too extreme in their expression, and that their goals seemed unrealistic. Similarly, the younger movement tended to believe the older movement was not pushing hard enough, and therefore was not as committed to the cause. Another concern was that the older generation’s movement only acknowledged one form of women or black person (respectively), rather than exploring the differences between inner groups as the smaller organizations were able to.

In the 1970s and 80s, this idea of studying intergroup difference began to grow in popularity. Within the Women’s Liberation movement, the “white feminism” of Friedan went out of fashion, to be replaced by LGBT and multiracial feminism. Black feminists in particular began taking a seat at the table during this time, proving they were some of the best theoretical thinkers of the movement. Many, including bell hooks and Audre Lorde, wrote about how certain identity factors such as race, gender, sexuality and class could all compound an individual’s oppression. It wasn’t until 1989 that another black feminist, Kimberle Crenshaw, would finally give a name to describe this intersection of identities: Intersectionality.

Because of the idea of intersectionality and shared identity within different groups, different social movements were now beginning to collaborate. The black movement worked with the women’s liberation movement, which worked with the LGBT movement, which worked the AIDS movement, which worked with the immigrant rights movement, which worked with the anti-Vietnam movement, which worked with anti-apartheid movement, et cetera et cetera.

Since the invention of intersectionality in 1989, the women’s movement in particular has been working to become more inclusive. One of the more defining characteristics of this current generation of feminists is their focus on promoting a definition of gender which knows no boundaries. This has thereby also finally given voice to the gender-queer movement–a group of individuals in direct contest with the traditional gender binary.

After a short hiatus from the public eye, the Black rights movement (now termed the Black Liberation movement) has arisen again with new force in the form of Black Lives Matter. However, a distinct difference between this movement and what we’ve seen in the past is their emphasis on inclusion, which is quite similar to the current women’s movement. Black Lives Matter makes it clear on the front page of their website that “Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.”

The evolution of these movements has brought all of us so much closer to understanding each other and what makes each person powerful and unique. I look forward to seeing what each movement takes on next, and the opportunity to advance society that it provides.

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