Often black women were the sole breadwinner for a family devastated by slavery and discrimination. The new sexism that some women playfully indulge in today, laughing with irony at the image of a white, cartoon femininity, is a luxury that black women on the front lines of struggle cannot enjoy (Thomas 2010). As noted by white feminist historian Marilyn Frye: “As a white woman I have certain freedoms and liberties. When I use them, according to my white womans judgment, to act on matters of racism, my enterprise reflects strangely on the matrix of options within which it is undertaken” (Frye 1983, p. 110).
The different experiences of black women and white women have often generated different perceived political interests between the two groups. For example, as noted by scholar Ellen DuBois in her book Woman Suffrage and Womens Rights, when black men but not black women won the right to vote in the 19th century, many white female suffragists condemned the 14th Amendment, while anti-slavery male and female activists stressed the need for black men to gain some economic traction in America. Additionally, simply because women and African-Americans have shared a common history of oppression does not mean that they have always had experienced the same type of discrimination the history of America. The need for black men to establish their manhood and eschew racist stereotypes can come at a cost to the equality of black women in the black community; white women have justified their demand for equal rights, such as during the early 19th century, in terms of their right to have parity with uneducated men, an idea that has implicit racism within its tone. This polarizing rhetoric ignores black womens dual status as black and female.
Womanist poets like Walker pay tribute to African-American mothers of the past as a way of creating a movement that honors the unique needs and perspective of African-American women in the present. “To be white is to be a member of an in-group, a kin group, which is self-defining. Just as with fraternities or sororities, the power to draw the membership line is jealously guarded. A liberal while feminism would seek equality; we can hardly expect to be heard as saying we want social and economic status equal to that of, say, Chicanos” (Frye 1983, pp.110; 126).
Of course, many white female suffragists, such as Alice Paul, were uncompromising radicals in their demands for equality (Pollack 1996). But Walkers cry that her “mamas generation” were true women is still a necessary way of setting history straight by underlining the fact that a real army, as well as an army of protestors, was required to make the America that exists today. An America where black women such as Alice Walker can read, lecture, educate, and cry out for the need for more justice.
DuBois, Ellen. Woman Suffrage and Womens Rights. New York: NYU Press, 1998.
Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality. New York: The Crossing Press, 1983.
Gray, Deborah White. Aint I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South.
W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
One Woman, One Vote. Directed by Ruth Pollak. PBS Video. 1 Dec 1996
Quindlen, Anna. “Everyday equality: Each of us rose on the shoulders of women who had come before us.” Newsweek. 25 Sept. 2006.
Thomas, Christine. “Women and the Struggle for Socialism.” The Socialist. 15 Sept. 2010
Valenti, Jessica. “For Women.