Mar 16

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.

Nov 14

Western Feminism’s Burden

In my blog for my Women’s Studies class, I’ve recently spent a fair amount of time discussing “White Man’s Burden.” The term refers to the deep-seated idea that since white people are the “superior, more privileged” race, it is their responsibility to raise all other races up to their standard of living–which again, is superior to all other lifestyles, and obviously preferable to any chosen “victimized” culture’s current situation. And because of this, anytime white people try to “help” those in different cultures, they should logically be received with gratitude for their charitable efforts. Most people have realized by that this is simply untrue. It’s a colonialist idea that was really only relevant until the end of the civil rights movement. At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe.

Coming to college, I’ve noticed a few things I was never really aware of before. One of which is the fact that, although conservatives in America are typically thought to be the “bigoted ones,” there’s a lot liberals here who are too. If nothing else, this is because of a lack of information. The thing is, when you call a liberal out about it, it’s a lot harder for them to accept that they’ve said or done something prejudiced, because one of the defining traits they often see in themselves is a fair and just willingness to help others. When they’re made aware of it, they often are ashamed, but at the same time they might feel somewhat justified. After all, they support efforts to help the very people they’re prejudiced towards. Their intention was never to be prejudiced… But that doesn’t mean they aren’t.

The same goes for white/western/upper-middle class feminists. While our intentions may be noble, we will never truly understand who we’re helping until we learn to look past stereotypes. And if we don’t understand people, we won’t understand how to help them. As feminists trying to help women in the “third world” (another subjective term, stemming from the West’s superiority complex) we’ll focus on “issues” we as Westerners would consider problems, or which we find “terrible” (think unfamiliar/foreign). These chosen areas of focus often include the termination of basic cultural norms in other countries, such as the veiling of women or genital mutilation. We could spend all our time on this wasted effort–trying to change a culture which isn’t ours, and once again becoming the safeguarding oppressors of the globe. But in truth, the women of the region themselves may want–and need–different types of support. And unless we’ve talked to them explicitly about those needs, chances are we as Westerners would never consider them a problem, simply because we’ve never had to think about them before. For example, many women spend hours each day carrying clean water back to their homes, just to make one meal for their family. Access to clean water is a constant struggle in these regions, but practically unheard of in the West. In Africa, hundreds of women and children die each day because of a shortage in health care for infants and pregnant women–but this is hardly an issue where we live. We also tend to have relatively safe working environments over here, so we don’t consider things like the structural unsoundness of buildings to be a feminist issue. However, if you’ve been paying attention to the recurring collapses of textile mills in India (which for the most part employ women and children), you probably realize that it is.

If we take the time to see women in other countries as people like us, who all have different needs, we will be able to provide support for our fellow women in a much more meaningful, efficient way. But we can only give people what they’re willing to accept. If we only focus on giving them what we think they need, they’ll never be able to have what they actually need. And if all we’re trying to do is make their culture just like ours, we’re only oppressing them even more.


Hooks, Bell. Global Feminism, 2000.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Under Western Eyes, 1984.

Shiva, Vandana. Our Violent Economy Is Hurting Women, 2013.

Oct 14

Intersectionality and What It’s Done For Feminism

In December of 1851, Sojourner Truth gave feminism’s first speech regarding intersectionality:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?        (Truth 1851)

What she means by “Ain’t I a woman” is that sure, she may be black, but that’s not the only thing which defines her. She’s a woman too, and she’s a mother and former slave as well. This is what intersectionality is: A theory about the ways all people’s experiences of life are created by the intersection or coming together of multiple identities, including race, ethnicities, social class, familial background, and so on (Shaw & Lee 2010). Feminism has thoroughly embraced this concept, as is evidenced by how often the above poem, Ain’t I A Woman, is still referenced today. In fact, every form of social justice has learned to intensely value intersectionality, because by it’s very definition, it connects all of them together. Feminism is connected to the LGBTQ movement, because many women aren’t straight, and the LGBTQ movement is connected to the movement against racism, because LGBTQ people come from different ethnic background. And that movement is connected to the movement against domestic abuse, which is connected to women’s birth control rights, and so forth. It’s all connected, and it’s all because of the concept of intersectionality.

Beyond integrating all the movements into one another, intersectionality can be used as a tool for social justice in several different ways. First, it makes it easy to recognize that all identities are multifaceted. It’s like Sojourner Truth was saying. Yes she is black, but that’s not the full extent of what makes her who she is. I, for example, am white, but I’m also female, straight, and cisgender. I’m American and I grew up in a highly educated, middle-class family in a college town. Basing my identity off of only one of those traits would greatly degrade who I am as a person, and would also open the door for stereotypes about the single trait.

This is another way intersectionality helps social justice: by discouraging stereotypes and discrimination. If you were considering nothing about my identity except that I am a young white woman, you might assume I like to wear Ugg boots. But in reality, I would never wear Ugg boots because I grew up around a lot of artistic people who taught me how to express myself through my clothes, and there’s simply no message I want to send to the world by wearing them (No offense to people who like Ugg boots. They’re really comfy. But we both know they’re basically the least attractive and least interesting form of women’s footwear available). You might also assume that, since I’m young, that I’m not very cultured–even though I’ve traveled out of the country six times and speak three languages.

This is what intersectionality is used for–understanding that one trait does not define a person. And this is why feminists love the term so much. According to intersectionality, being a woman doesn’t mean you’re delicate. It doesn’t mean like you to wear dresses, or think Ryan Gosling is sexy, or enjoy pumpkin spice lattes. All those things might be true, but it could be true for thousands of different reasons. In essence, being a woman is no more significant to your identity than anything else that makes you you. Which means a woman can be or do anything that a man can be or do, and vice versa. Intersectionality is a way of embracing how everyone is different, and at the same time, have to potential to be the same. Which certainly goes well with social justice, doesn’t it?


Lee, Janet and Shaw, Susan. Women’s Voices, 2010.

Truth, Sojourner. Ain’t I A Woman, 1851.


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