“Social Movements are involved in conflictual relations with clearly identified opponents; they are linked by dense informal networks and share a distinct collective identity (Porta, 2006)”. A movement is not merely a crowd; it involves collective behaviour, innovation, network orientation, multi-centeredness, membership that is open of all and willingness of the members to change the existing social order. This paper aims to understand the emergence and growth of the Black Feminist Movement with an insight to the theories of social movements.
The Black Feminist Movement grew because of gender and sex discrimination in the Black Liberation Movement and the Women’s Movement respectively. In the Women’s Movement, black women were racially oppressed as well as sexually oppressed in the Black Liberation Movement. Black women came to the terms that “black” was equated with the black men and “woman” with the white women due to which the black women were treated as an invisible group and their needs were ignored. The oppression of the black women in both the movements and ignorance towards their needs gave rise to the Black Feminist Movement. The main purpose of the movement was to develop theories which would address the intersectionality of class, gender and race in their lives and policies that would take action against the discrimination of class, sex and race.
Black Women in Black Liberation Movement
In the Black Liberation Movement, the black women were subjected to constant sexism. The interest of the black men in the movement was in controlling the sexuality of the black women. “To explain their disapproval of inter-racial relationships black men emphasized that white men sexually exploit the black woman (Hooks, 1960)”. The freedom to access and control over the women’s body was considered as freedom and right of men. Sexual discrimination was a part of daily life for the black women. Elaine Brown in her book ‘A Taste of Power’ sites an incident where in the Black Congress organizational meeting, she and other black women were forced to wait for the food for which all of them have contributed money because the food was first served to men and women are supposed to wait until they finish. It was explained to her that sisters should stand behind their black men to support and respect them; it was “unsisterly” of them to want to eat with the brothers. The black men disregarded the equality of black women and men.
Black Women in Feminist Movement
During 1960, the black women who participated in the Feminist Movement have faced racial discrimination which was there in the form of exclusion. Black women were never being invited to participate in the conference panels and even the conferences were specifically on based on white and middle-class women. In most of the women’s movement writings, the white middle-class women’s experiences were considered as “universal” experiences of women, completely ignoring the different experiences of black and white women due to race and class. In many situations, black women realised that white feminists in the Women’s Movement were unwilling to admit their racism. Also, the belief that those who are oppressed cannot oppress others, gave rise to the unwillingness. White women who were challenging the oppression by the white men were supporting and advocating racial ideologies and were acting as racist oppressors to black women.
Towards Black Feminist Movement
By the end of the nineteenth century, black women started organizing themselves into their own network of clubs. These groups not only supported women suffrage but also addressed the social and political issues that affected black communities especially the black women. Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Bernett challenged racist terrorism as well as sexual stereotyping of Black women as immoral in contrast to white women. The National Association of Colored Women was formed in 1896 which brought more than hundred black women’s clubs together.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the primary focus of black women’s activism was to challenge racism and work on the social and economic problems. In the weekly newspaper of the United Negro Improvement Association, Amy Jacques Garvey wrote about the women’s rights and expressed her concern about the situation of black women in America. In 1947, an article was published by novelist Ann Petry in the widely circulated Negro Digest entitled “What’s Wrong with Negro Men?”, criticized sexism within the Black community. In 1950s and 1960s when black women participated in the Civil Rights Movement, the male dominance as well as the narrowness of the white feminist’s agendas was the reason they began to confront the sexist and racist oppression in their own lives.
In 1973, the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) by a group of black feminists in New York and held a conference which was attended by huge number of black feminists all over the country. Black women for the first time started questioning the reality of sexual oppression within the black community as well as sexism in the society as a whole that have impacted them as black women. The work of black feminist writers and theorists such as Alice Walker, Michele Wallace etc. led to national debates on sexual politics in the black community.
In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a feminist organization in Boston issued a paper that highlighted the intersection of oppression in black women’s lives. This work broke significant new grounds because it was socialist, addressed homophobia and called for sisterhood among the black women of various sexual orientations. The role of Black lesbian feminists such as Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker and others was crucial in the initial phase of the movement especially when many heterosexual black women were hesitant to identify themselves as feminists. As the decade continued, the black feminist challenged the white feminists to eradicate racism, to broaden the scope of women’s issues, to integrate their organization and to share leadership with women of colour.
By 1990s, the black feminism had a positive effect in many aspects in the society which led to the development of Black women’s studies. Many black feminists spoke about the patriarchal assumption of the male. However, black feminism rooted in the struggle of generations of black women continues to play a vital role and also there has to be a working dialogue between the white feminists and the black feminists to continue to develop a theory and action which strives towards the end of sexism.
According to the theorists, “some social movement are born when certain people or certain group of people in the society feel that they are deprived of a specific good, service or resources (McAdam, McCathy & Zald, 1988)”. American scholars view collective action as crisis behaviour and have reduced the collective phenomena to individual behaviours. They define social movements are the result of wide range of frustrated expectations raised from the feeling of aggression and manifestation of feelings of deprivation experienced by individuals in relation to other subjects. For instance, the Black Feminist Movement in US became a social movement because the black women were isolated from being a part of Feminist Movement as well as Black Liberation Movement.
In Feminist Movement, the black women were alienated from the fight for right to vote and equality. As mentioned above, they were not invited to participate on conference panels, experiences of the white women were considered as universal, neglecting the struggle of black women and well known black women were treated as tokens. Criticizing Adrienne Rich who said that white fore sisters are inclusive of black men, women and children and that they follow a strong anti-racist tradition, Bell Hooks points out “there is little historical evidence to document Rich assertion that white women as a collective group or white’s women rights advocates are a part of anti-racist tradition.”
Though the Black Liberation Movement was for the liberation of the black race, merely in words, in reality it was for the liberation of the black male and black women’s rights were kept away from the movement. Freedom was considered for manhood and the freedom of blacks with the vindication of black masculinity. The loss of manhood was the real tragedy of racism; this assumption articulates how masculinity was defined within the context of patriarchy as well as how the dignity of the black women was considered as inferior as that of black men. Black men never believed in the equality of men and women as the nature has made men and women differently therefore, they could be equals.
Resource Mobilization Theory
This theory refers to the importance of available resources during the birth of a social movement. “When certain groups of individual in the society have certain grievances, they mobilize necessary resources such as money, labour, social status, knowledge, support of the media or political elites etc. so that they are able to do something to alleviate those grievances (McCathy & Zald, 1977)”. According to the sociologists, one of the advantages of this theory is that it explains about why in some situations grievances give birth to social movements, whereas in other situations the same grievances may not affect the population. Also one of the major criticisms of this theory is that it gives importance to “materialistic” resources (especially financial resources) in explaining the emergence of social movements. To the contrast there are social movements that have been born even when the resources especially the financial ones were scarce.
This theory provides a good explanation that even though there are obstacles how some of the social movements are able to grow at an exponential rate. The Black Feminist Movement is a classic example of this type. Having to decide to form their own movement, black women needed to define the goals of Black Feminist Movement and determine its focus. Several authors such as Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Kimberle Crenshaw etc. put forth the definitions of the Black Feminist Movement and their views related to intersectionality of race, gender and caste. Alice Walker coined the term “Womanist” to define the movement. Her definition emphasized on women’s stretching of her personal boundaries while on the same time calls on the women to maintain their connection with rest of the humanity. From this definition, black women were able to articulate one’s personal life in relation to one’s political life. Thus, the understanding of “Personal is Political” became a source of collective identity for them.
Black feminist writings focused on developing theories which would address the issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism in their lives. The audience of these writings were mainly black women rather than black men activists or white feminists. The Black Feminist Movement started working on specific issues which were reproductive rights, sterilization abuse, equal access to abortion, health care, child care, violence against women, rape, lesbian and gay rights, welfare rights, organization of labour, police brutality, anti-imperialist struggles, anti-racist organizing and preserving the environment. During the late 1970s and early 1980s several organizations were established and conferences were organized which encouraged thousands of black women supporters across the country to join. Some of them were:
· 1973 – National Black Feminist Organization in New York.
· 1973 – Black Women Organized for Action in San Francisco.
· 1974 – Combahee River Collection in Boston.
· 1977 – First publishing of Azalea, a literary magazine for Third World lesbians.
· 1978 – Black women varied voices concert tour.
· 1979 – Publishing of Conditions: Five, first widely distributed collection of Black feminist writings and Black lesbian writings in United States.
· 1980 – First National Conference on Third World Women and Violence in Washington, DC.
· 1980 – First National Conference for Black Women in Otara, New Zealand.
· 1981 – Establishment of Press named Kitchen Table: Women of Color.
· 1981 – Establishment of the Black Women’s Self-Help Collection in Washington, DC.
The two earliest organizations formed in the movement, the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) and the Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA) clearly has reflected the goals formulated by the Black Feminist Movement. The members of the organization included black women from all class levels and well educated, middle-class women worked together with women having less educational background on welfare. They addressed the issues that experienced by all of them. These organizations dealt specifically with sexism and racism as all the women were affected by them in various fields of their employment and in their households. The members of Black Feminist Movement as well as black feminist organizations were able to mobilize knowledge, labour, solidarity, legitimacy etc. among other black women which resulted in the widespread support for the movement.
This theory helps to understand the way in which social movement and the actors of the social movement create and use meaning, or how events and ideas are framed. “Framing processes alongside with resource mobilization and political opportunity processes are regarded as a dynamic in understanding the character and course of social movement (Benford & Snow, 2000)”. For instance, the understanding about how the black women have articulated their struggle on sexism and racism which gave birth to Black Feminist Movement and strategies used to fight against them.
According to Benford & Snow (2000) explains collective action frames as a situation which is problematic, but also give people a sense that those problems are something that can be overcome through concerted efforts leading towards the collective action. Collective action frames have three core tasks: Diagnostic framing, Prognostic framing and Motivational framing.
It refers to the identification of the problem. In order to be successful it is important that a problem is identified by the members of any social movement. Framing theory assumes that it is not solely about the leaders’ ability to mobilize resources which contribute to the growth of the social movement but instead it is about the ability to identify the problem correctly. “Many diagnostic frames include injustice frames which identify victims of some injustice and amplify the victimization (Benford & Snow, 2000)”. According to Gamson (1995), injustice framing is more successful if there is a specific target .ie. someone or something that is responsible for the injustice and at which moral indignation can be directed.
The sexual discrimination in the Black Liberation Movement as well as racial and class discrimination in the Feminist Movement against the black women led to the emergence of the Black Feminist Movement. The members of the Black Feminist Movement identified that the way racism, sexism and classism have influenced the lives of the black women is the main problem. They recognized that their needs are ignored by the black men in the Black Liberation Movement and white women in the Feminist Movement. The Black Feminist Movement is the result of the injustice done to the black women by the black men and white women.
Prognostic framing “involves the articulation of a proposed solution to the problem, or at least a plan of attack, and strategies for carrying out the plan (Benford & Snow, 2000)”. Specific social movement organizations diagnosed problems and the proposed solutions seem to line up which means that there is consistency in the diagnosis of the problem and the potential solution that they advocating for. “Proposed solutions fall within a narrow range based on the habits and ideology of the movement (Benford & Snow, 2000)”.
For instance, in the Black Feminist Movement, the members identified racism, sexism and classism as their problem. In order to deal with the problem, purpose of the movement was formulated which was development of theories which address the issues of race, class and gender that are interconnected with the lives of black women and to take action against discrimination on the basis of race, class and sex. Because of these ideologies and the goals of the movement they chose the strategy of writings about the issues, empowerment by raising consciousness of other black women across the country, development of mentor relationships between black women activists/scholars and young black students, both male and female and attempted to gain a society free from race, gender and class oppression for black women.
According to Benford & Snow (2000), motivational framing provides a ‘calls to arms’ or rationale for engaging in amelioration collective action, including the construction of appropriate vocabularies of motivation. It creates a reason for the people to get involved and provides a sense of agency to potential actors. For example, Black feminist writings about the oppression and situations of the black women in US encouraged a large number of black women to join the movement as they were able to relate themselves with the sufferings and wanted to fight against the oppression they go through in their daily lives at home as well as in the workplace. Also the formation of various black women’s clubs which helped in consciousness raising regarding reproductive rights, legal abortion, health care etc. for the black women motivated a lot of women to join the Black Feminist Movement.
Social movements emerge due to dissatisfaction of certain group of individuals for not being able to enjoy some privileges that are relished by others. Black Feminist Movement is one of the social movements that emerged due to frustration for not being considered as equals to white women and black men. The racial and sexual oppression that black women have faced for so many years raised their voices through writings novels, articles, slogans, songs and many more which made the movement a success. As the struggle against the black women discrimination and oppression is still going on, the Black Feminist Movement sets a landmark in making a better place in US.