Black Feminism Theory

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Sept 14, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


What Is Black Feminism?

Black feminism focuses on the lived experiences of Black women, allowing them the opportunity to discuss and highlight the many aspects of their identity and how this relates to gender inequality.

Black feminism considers how Black women are oppressed by the patriarchy but also by capitalism and racism. They argue that Black women have been excluded from mainstream feminist movements due to their race while also being excluded from Black liberation movements due to their gender. For this reason, Black feminism is essential to ensure that Black women’s voices are heard. 

According to many Black feminists, the most discriminated against people in society are Black and minority-ethnic, working-class women. Thus, Black feminism often takes an intersectional analysis emphasizing the multiplicity of oppressions Black women face (Brewer, 2020).  

There are many types of Black feminists. For instance, radical Black feminists take a stance that is not only anti-racist but anti-capitalist and desire to uproot the patriarchy. Liberal Black feminists, on the other hand, are likely to focus on reforms to improve equality for Black women within the existing systems of society (Brewer, 2020). 

What Is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a critical term in much of Black feminism. It describes ‘how intersecting power relations influence social relations across diverse societies as well as individual experiences in everyday life’ (Collins & Bilge, 2020).

Intersectional theory views characteristics of individuals such as race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, ability, and age as interrelated and influencing one another. Through intersecting factors, people can experience multiple types of oppression. 

In Black feminism, it is often understood that Black women face two types of oppression in society. The first is that they are Black, and the second is that they are women. Thus, Black women may face inequalities and discrimination in the form of sexism and racism while also understanding that sexism and racism can influence each other to create unique experiences for Black women. 

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in her 1989 paper, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. Despite being coined in 1989, ideas of intersectionality were believed to have emerged decades earlier when Black feminists began speaking out about the white, middle-class nature of mainstream feminism. 

Crenshaw used an example of a Black woman who felt discriminated against being hired for a job to help explain intersectionality. The woman believed she was discriminated against for being Black and a woman.

However, the employer argued that she could not have been discriminated against for her race since the company hired Black individuals (Black men). They also argued that she could not have been discriminated against for her gender since the company hired women (white women). 

Crenshaw recognized that Black women’s oppression was often ignored or disregarded because of a lack of societal understanding about how there are interconnecting oppressions that affect people in different ways.

Intersectionality has therefore contributed to Black feminism in that there is a broader societal understanding of the oppressions that Black women face. 

The History of Black Feminism

The history of Black feminism is extensive, with many different figures and movements. Below are some of the critical Black feminists and influential movements of the waves of feminism.

Sojourner Truth

In the 1800s, the early feminist movement was connected to the abolishment of slavery, with speakers such as women’s rights advocate and abolitionist Sojourner Truth speaking out on this issue. 

In 1851, Truth gave a speech at a women’s rights convention in which she challenged both racism and sexism faced by Black women. Her speech was titled ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’  in which her words vividly contrasted the character of oppression faced by white and Black women. 

Truth noted that while white middle-class women have traditionally been treated as delicate, over-emotional, and needing help from men, Black women have been vilified and subjected to racist abuse. 

Anna Julia Cooper

In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper established and co-founded several organizations to promote Black civil rights causes. She believed in educating and encouraging Black women’s success which would, in turn, improve the African American community. 

Cooper also published a book titled A Voice from the South, in which she described the importance of the voices of Black women for social change. This book is widely acknowledged as one of the first expressions of Black feminism, which led to many giving her the title of ‘the Mother of Black Feminism.’ 

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was an activist and journalist who published her own newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. When three of her friends were murdered in the 1890s for being Black, she turned her paper into a powerful weapon against lynching. 

She was forced into exile when racists threatened her life and destroyed her offices. When this happened, she launched an effective crusade against lynching. She traveled to many cities and towns all over the United States, calling for all to oppose the reign of lynch laws.

Her tour abroad encouraged Europeans to organize solidarity campaigns against the lynching of Black people in the United States (Davis, 1981). 

Second wave feminism

During the civil rights movement, many Black women experienced intersectional racism within the feminist movement while simultaneously experiencing sexism within the civil rights movement.

In response to the racism and sexism faced by Black women and other women of color in the 1960s came the development of organizations against their oppression. 

Black women from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed the Third World Women’s Alliance in 1968. This group helped to create space in anti-racist organizations and leftist racial movements for women’s voices and issues.

In 1973, a group of notable Black feminists formed the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), which addressed the double burden of sexism and racism faced by black women. They also emphasized economic survival issues important to Black and working-class women (Brewer, 2020). 

In the 1970s, a group of Black feminists formed the Combahee River Collective. This group recognized that the double burden of sexism and racism was integral to the distinction between their movement and white feminism.

The group’s statement linked Black women’s liberation to anti-imperialism, dismantling patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. 

Fourth wave feminism 

One of the most famous Black movements of the current wave of feminism is the Black Lives Matter movement, created around 2013.

This movement was developed by three Black community organizers – Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi in protest of anti-Black violence, especially in the form of police brutality. 

While this movement does not explicitly apply to only Black feminist issues, it draws on Black feminist understandings of intersectionality and solidarity between all Black lives, regardless of sex, class, age, sexual orientation, immigrant status, religion, or ability. 

Criticisms of ‘White feminism.’

Patricia Hill Collins (2001) explained that many African American women reject the term ‘feminism’ due to its perceived association with being white. Many often see feminism exclusively for white Western women, with being Black as the opposite. 

Angela Davis (1981) contested that the theory and practice of white feminists failed to address the centrality of racism. In many cases in feminist history, white feminists have fought for white women’s rights while being complicit with structural racism (Brewer, 2020). 

During the first wave of feminism, when women campaigned for the right to vote, many white feminists sought to exclude Black women from the movement, or Black women would have their own movement, separate from the white feminists. 

Crenshaw notes that when Sojourner Truth rose to speak at the women’s rights convention in 1851, many white women wanted her silenced, fearing that she would divert attention away from the women’s suffrage movement (Crenshaw, 1989). 

A notable figure in the suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, has been criticized for using discriminatory language against Black people. Stanton, among others, argued that Black men should not be permitted to vote before white women, often using a racist stance to push their agenda (Davis, 1981).

Other criticisms of ‘white feminism’ come later, specifically when looking at the book ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ written by Betty Friedan in 1963. The target audience for Friedan’s book was middle-class housewives who were dissatisfied with their lives of completing housework and childcare. 

This book is criticized for not applying to many Black or working-class women who would not have been able to afford Friedan’s proposal to hire domestic workers to perform their household chores while they were at work. 

Friedan also praised mothers who sought well-paid careers. However, she failed to address the lives of the domestic workers these women hire, who also work all day but then return home to face their housework and child-care responsibilities. 

Gerda Lerner criticized Friedan’s book by stating that she only addressed the problems of middle-class, college-educated women, which was one of the shortcomings of the suffrage movement. Lerner explained that Black women were disadvantaged not only by the feminine mystique but also by the more pressing ‘disadvantages of economic discrimination’ (Horowitz, 1996). 

What Are The Goals Of Black Feminism?

It is important to note that many types of Black feminism exist, including radical, liberal, queer, and trans.

Each would have its own specific goals, such as Black liberal feminists aiming to have more Black women in positions of power. However, many radical Black feminists would seek to dismantle the patriarchal systems that only benefit white men. 

The aim of intersectionality within the Black feminist movement has been to build a stronger movement for women’s liberation that is meaningful for all women. Intersectionality aimed to empower Black women by analyzing how the mutual systems of oppression contribute to social inequalities (Collins, 2015). 

Intersectionality has become more common for modern-day feminists who welcome all types of women into their movement, regardless of race, sexual orientation, social class, age, and ability. Feminism has thus become more inclusive with the help of Black feminists. 

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded on the principles of intersectionality. This means that their focus is on all groups of Black individuals rather than on one group. 

Black Lives Matter works to uplift not only Black women but all of humankind. One of the movement’s most well-documented aims is to highlight and tackle the disproportionate violence that Black men and women face, specifically at the hands of the police.

This movement aims to gain equal human rights, racial equality, and social and criminal justice for all people through activism and solidarity.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Sept 14). Black Feminism Theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/black-feminism.html

Online Sources

  • Black Thought and Black Culture

    Black Thought and Culture is a landmark electronic collection of approximately 100,000 pages of non-fiction writings by major American black leaders—teachers, artists, politicians, religious leaders, athletes, war veterans, entertainers, and other figures—covering 250 years of history.

  • African American Studies Librarians Interest Group (AASLIG)

    The African American Studies Librarians Interest Group (AASLIG) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) broadly addresses the scholarly research and services associated with identifying, preserving and disseminating resources for the study of African American history, culture and life.

  • Black Feminist Activism: Research Tools

    Bates College Black Feminist Activism Research Guide with databases and primary sources. This will be helpful to find books, journals, and articles.

  • Black Feminist Activism: Research Tools

    Black Feminism introductory research guide highlighting the works of Black women within the collections of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the New York Public LIbrary, created by Amara Green. These works specifically engage in the black feminist tradition of working towards the inclusion of black female narratives, highlighting black women's involvement in black liberation and gender equality movements.

References

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Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought in the matrix of domination. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, 138(1990), 221-238.

Collins, P. H. (2015). The social construction of black feminist thought. In Women, Knowledge, and Reality (pp. 222-248). Routledge.

Collins, P. H. (2001). Like one of the family: race, ethnicity, and the paradox of US national identity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 24(1), 3-28.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Collins, P. H. (2015). Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas. Annual review of sociology, 41(1), 1-20.

Collins, P. H. (2020). Defining black feminist thought. In Feminist theory reader (pp. 278-290). Routledge.

Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2020). Intersectionality. John Wiley & Sons.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. In Feminist Legal Theories (pp. 23-51). Routledge.

Crenshaw, K. W. (2013). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. In The public nature of private violence (pp. 93-118). Routledge.

Davis, A. Y. (1981). Women, race, and class. Vintage.

Horowitz, D. (1996). Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor union radicalism and feminism in cold war America. American Quarterly, 48(1), 1-42.