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Angela Y. Davis

An Alternative View of the Feminist Struggle for Liberation

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Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis exposes the intertwined nature of sexism, racism and class oppression while highlighting the struggles of black women in history.


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    Womanhood under slavery

    Let’s begin our historical survey of women’s rights at the start of the nineteenth century, back when social roles were clearly divided by sex in the most clichéd of ways. If you were a woman in the 1800s, you were meant to be a mother, and your essential qualities were considered to be nurturing, gentle, and fragile. 

    That is, unless you were enslaved. 

    Though the role of Black women under slavery is typically depicted as a domestic worker, the majority of enslaved women – like their male counterparts – worked in the fields. From sunrise to sunset, seven out of eight enslaved people labored under the harsh threat of the whip, with both men and women experiencing regular flogging and mutilations. 

    But though they were considered genderless on the fields, women suffered two additional oppressions under their slaveholders on account of their sex.

    First, they were classified as “breeders” and were exploited for their reproductive capacity to their biological limits. Since the international slave trade had been abolished at the beginning of the nineteenth century, slaveholders placed a premium on an enslaved woman’s ability to multiply the slave labor force in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Slaveowners did not, however, exempt their prized “breeders” from fieldwork if they were pregnant or nursing. 

    The second special abuse that women experienced under slavery was sexual coercion. Although rape was a problem that afflicted women regardless of their class or ethnicity, it plagued Black women in particular, due in part to enduring racist stereotypes that Black women were promiscuous and immoral. But it was also a direct expression of the slavemaster’s presumed right over a woman’s body and life. Rape was a constantly wielded weapon of domination over Black women’s will to resist, and it was used to demoralize their husbands and lovers. It was a tactic employed to remind women of their essential femaleness – which, according to the male supremacist view of women at the time, was passive, helpless, and weak.

    And yet, enslaved women were anything but weak. 

    Besides the physical strength they acquired from endless hours toiling in the field, the particularly inhumane oppression they endured led them to develop strong personalities considered at odds with the ideals of nineteenth-century womanhood. These qualities are epitomized by Harriet Tubman – but they weren’t exclusive to her. 

    Testimonies reveal that many enslaved women fought for their autonomy and asserted their equality with as much, if not more, passion than their male counterparts: they regularly fought their rapists with tooth and nail, poisoned their masters, planned work stoppages and revolts, formed runaway communities, and led each other north toward freedom. One historian notes that, most likely due to the constant threat of rape, enslaved women placed a special emphasis on haste in plotting escape; they expressed frustration with the slower pace of white abolitionists.

    Furthermore, Black women were considered the social equals of men in their communities, sharing domestic duties and achieving an equality in their domestic lives that set them apart from other women of their time. In this way, they accomplished something truly extraordinary: they converted the negative equality of shared oppression into a positive equality expressed in their private lives. 

    The narratives and contributions of enslaved women are often glossed over or excluded, but the ongoing struggle for women’s emancipation has a lot to learn from them. Their accumulated experiences led them to develop new standards of womanhood for themselves that emphasized self-reliance and sexual equality – a remarkably modern stance in the nineteenth century.

    This would lay the groundwork for Black women to play a key role in asserting equality in the interrelated struggles of womanhood, race, and class. It also meant that they had specific needs and struggles in the women’s rights movement yet to come, which white women often misunderstood and betrayed. We’ll dive deeper into the messy history of the women’s rights movement in the following section. 

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    Worum geht es in Women, Race & Class?

    Women, Race and Class (1981) is a collection of essays that expose how racism, sexism, and classism intertwined in the struggle for women’s suffrage in the United States. With special emphasis on the historical missteps of the mainstream feminist movement, it charts a path for an anti-racist and anti-classist feminism. 

    Wer Women, Race & Class lesen sollte

    • Feminists looking to understand intersectionality more deeply
    • History buffs
    • Anyone invested in the ongoing struggle for justice

    Über den Autor

    Angela Yvonne Davis is a celebrated author, academic, and activist born in Birmingham, Alabama. She obtained her PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University in Berlin, and is a Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is widely recognized for her lifelong activism combating various forms of oppression.

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