By Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, Special to the AFRO
In 1991, in eight major newspapers around the country, more than 1600 Black women signed and published a statement publicly defending and standing up for and with Anita Hill. They wrote that they were outraged by her racist and sexist treatment and that they were no longer willing to tolerate the dismissal of their experiences and their truth. They vowed then to speak up with protests, with outrage, and with resistance. This commitment to each other and political activism has a long history within the Black feminist community. Hearkening back to the work that Black women were engaged in to end American enslavement; this is the type of political and social action that has long been a tradition within the Black community.
From voter registration to community activism, Black women have effectively organized from within and on behalf of the community. During the early days of the Women’s Movement, even though their participation was not always included in the history books, they were at the meeting tables helping to organize, fundraise and demonstrate for change. They fought many battles including working to end American enslavement and working to establish the right to vote for Black people. When the Civil War ended, and Black men were granted the right to vote, activist Black women turned their attention to both supporting this right and to working to achieve this right for all women. Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper are just a few of the 19th Century Black women who raised their voices and their pens against racial and gender inequality.
Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
Since the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Black women have always worked to either run, campaign for, or raise monies for political candidates who represented their interests and their concerns, including education, housing, and economic mobility. They are the forerunners for the 20th Century Black women who continued to work to eradicate and document these inequalities while seeking to get elected to help to shape the laws and policies that govern this country. In 1896, the National League of Colored Women and the National Federation of Colored Women joined forces, forming the National Association of Colored Women, which was the first national Black organization in the country and focused exclusively on social reform and racial betterment. It was a space for Black women to support one another, to stand in solidarity, and to bend their privilege to protect and uplift the Black community. They were committed to “lifting” as they “climbed” so that their success was uniquely tied to the success of our community as a whole. This organization was the foundation upon which the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), founded in 1935, and the four Black sororities, established between the years of 1908 and 1922, were built. The women in these organizations played a significant role in the struggle for civil, social, political, and economic rights.
Even with their collective and ongoing efforts, the first Black woman, Shirley Chisholm, would not be elected to Congress until 1969. Since then, more than 70 women of color have been elected to Congress, including Carol Mosely Braun, the first Black woman elected to the Senate in 1993 (and only the second Black Senator since the Reconstruction Era). It is important to note that after close to 100 years of political mobilizing and activism, Black women are still not adequately represented in Congress though with the recent record number of women being elected to political office, there is a sense that our society is on its way to becoming more inclusive, more diversity, and more just. At the same time, there are some members of our society, including our current president Donald Trump, who are focused on pushing an agenda replete with white nationalism, Islamophobia, sexism, and white separatism. All ideas that are designed to drive us further apart rather than bring us together but Black women are pushing back.
Earlier this week, in Washington, D.C., Black women from around the country came together, including Angela Davis and Barbara Ransby, to stand with and for the Hon. Ilhan Omar. They came together, dressed in white, to put this country on notice by simply saying that if this country does not recognize the work of Black women, they will. If this country does not highlight their contributions, they will. If this country does not protect Black women, then they will. They are saying that they will not be silent. They will not be complicit, and they will not go quietly into the night. In their own words, “We vote. We organize. We fight. And we will not tolerate the racist and sexist abuse of Black women in office.” I stand with them because we are Black women, and we must stand in defense of ourselves.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the organizer of the “In Defense of Ourselves” curriculum. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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