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.
Introduction: Deepen your commitment to social justice by understanding how racism, classism, and sexism are intertwined.
When Angela Davis published her landmark book Women, Race and Class in 1981, people started hailing her as an important new feminist. The book illuminated the struggles of marginalized women whose voices are usually not heard, and pushed for a more radical, inclusive struggle for women’s emancipation.
But at the time, Davis shrugged off the term “feminist.” It didn’t feel right. In a 2017 speech, she remembers thinking, “I’m not a feminist! I’m a Black revolutionary!”
How could the author of a book so concerned with women’s rights not accept the term “feminist?”
Because back then, middle-class, white concerns dominated mainstream feminism. It was a feminism that ignored the needs, experiences, and interests of women who didn’t fit that mold.
Nowadays, feminism is opening up thanks to work done by feminists of color, working-class women, and trans women. It’s evolving into what’s called intersectional feminism – a feminism that takes into account how various forms of oppression like racism, classim, and sexism intersect into different modes of discrimination. It ventures to understand the complexity of prejudice experienced by people with overlapping marginalized identities in order to combat those interconnected oppressions.
Women, Race and Class is a pioneering text of intersectional feminism, and in this summary we’ll explore its key arguments. We’ll go through a history of the women’s rights movement in the US that you probably didn’t get in history class – and draw out the lessons from mistakes made in the past.
Before we begin, note that we’ll be discussing rape, violence, racism, and other potentially triggering topics. Please take care when reading.
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.
Abolitionism and women’s rights: Two interrelated struggles
By the 1830s, abolitionists were gaining significant momentum. In 1831, the enslaved Nat Turner led an uprising in Virginia; this marked the beginning of the organized abolitionist movement. And in those years, abolitionism – more than any other social cause – drew in white women, who eventually formed a significant base of the movement.
White women were attracted to abolitionism partially due to the outrage they felt learning that their Black sisters were so often sexually assaulted. The movement also gave middle-class white women a purpose after industrialization had stripped them of their formerly productive roles in society and left them dissatisfied in their domestic lives. Through their activism, they found recognition beyond their roles of wife and mother. Working-class women also supported the cause in large numbers. But as 12-hour workdays were customary at the time, they weren’t as visible because they had far less time to organize and petition.
Most notably, however, white women – housewives and workers alike – joined the cause because they saw that their own oppression was linked to the oppression of Black people. Working-class mill women went on strike in 1836, protesting that their exploitative conditions were only barely different from slavery. And middle-class women, dissatisfied at home, frequently compared marriage to slavery.
As white women agitated and organized for abolition with increasing fervor, their own oppression came into sharper focus. After all, they were formally excluded from the political arena, could not vote for their cause, and continually experienced sexism within the anti-slavery campaign. When abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled all the way to London for the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, they were furious to find themselves excluded by majority vote and literally fenced off from the conversation.
Mott and Stanton used their frustration – and the activist skills they’d acquired in campaigning for abolitionism – to kick off the organized women’s rights movement. In 1848, they held the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
Stanton was eager to push for women’s suffrage at the convention. But at the time, this was too radical even for her co-organizer Mott. Along with most of the other women at the convention, Mott found it too far-fetched. She also believed it would undermine the nascent support for women’s rights.
The only participant of the convention who publicly supported Stanton was the formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass – who was also the convention’s only Black attendee. He powerfully argued for women’s suffrage, and it received marginal support.
Besides the question of women’s right to vote, the most prominent topic of the convention was the institution of marriage, and how it robbed women of their property rights. In this way, the convention primarily reflected the dilemmas experienced by white middle-class women with property to worry about; it all but ignored the interests of working-class women.
As for Black women? They weren’t invited, nor even mentioned in the convention’s documents, despite the women’s rights movement originating from an affinity for the plights of Black people – and Black women in particular!
The convention’s failure to consider Black and working-class women’s needs and interests foreshadowed a more overt racism and classism in the movement that would develop in the following decades. We’ll consider this, and other historical missteps, in the next section.
Racism and classism in the women’s rights movement
After Seneca Falls, women’s rights conventions popped up all over the country. But women’s suffrage would continue to be highly controversial for years – and would not be achieved until 1919. The question was debated at a women’s convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, where the formerly enslaved Sojourner Truth was the only Black woman in attendance. There, she single-handedly saved the convention from male supremacist provocateurs.
The boisterous hecklers argued that the women’s right to vote was incompatible with feminine weakness. How could something as important as the right to vote be granted to a woman, who couldn’t even walk over a puddle or step into a carriage without the help of a man?
The white women were tongue-tied, but Sojourner Truth stood up and powerfully refuted the men in a now-famous speech called “Ain’t I A Woman?” With arresting simplicity, she pointed out that nobody had ever helped her over a puddle, or into a carriage. But did that mean she wasn’t a woman? She had worked as hard as any man, and been lashed just as any male slave had. But was she not a woman? She had given birth to 13 children, and had felt a mother’s grief of seeing nearly all of them sold off into slavery. Who were these men to tell her she was of a weaker sex?
The men were dumbstruck, and many of the women wept out of pride and gratitude. But beyond saving the convention from sexist hecklers, Truth’s speech was significant because it is a clear example of how feminism is more powerful when integrated with anti-racist and anti-classist perspectives. Because Truth wasn’t just asking the men “Ain’t I A Woman?” – it was also a comment on the class and race biases of the women in attendance. Those women may have applauded Truth when she proved useful to “their” cause, but several of them had attempted to prevent her participation in the first place.
As the century progressed into the outbreak of the Civil War, mainstream feminists repeatedly failed to integrate women’s rights with anti-racist and anti-classist struggles. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, was vehemently against Black men’s suffrage. She believed that if the newly freed Black men got the vote before women, it would render Black men superior to white women – and male supremacy would pervade.
Or take Susan B. Anthony, the suffragists’ most prominent leader. She may have privately endorsed anti-racist struggles and been a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad in her youth, but she ultimately capitulated to the rising racism of the postwar climate. Publicly, she set aside her anti-racist commitments for, in her own words, “the sake of expediency.” She even refused to admit Black women into the suffrage association in order to appease its white Southern members.
The slackening of Stanton’s and Anthony’s solidarity with Black people reflected how pervasively racism plagued the end of the nineteenth century. By 1894, legalized segregation, economic deprivation, and the reign of lynch law terrorized Black people across the country. Anthony’s public “neutral” stance on matters of race implied that something as abominable as lynching could pass by without comment. And, in effect, the suffrage association symbolically abandoned the nation’s entire Black population during the dangerous period following emancipation – a period marked by intense repression and suffering.
Classism also set the movement back. In 1893, under Anthony’s leadership, the suffrage association passed a resolution suggesting that the right to vote should only be granted to those with literacy. Originally, this idea was proposed to convince white Southerners to support women’s suffrage; a literacy test would exclude the majority of Black voters and would thereby secure white supremacy. But the resolution also excluded working-class people and immigrants from voting, who by and large couldn’t read either. In this way, the suffrage association indirectly expressed alignment with the capitalist class, who had a lot to gain from blocking working-class people’s access to political power.
With this betrayal of the interests of Black and working-class women, Davis argues, the mainstream women’s rights movement had become a thoroughly white, middle-class endeavor by the turn of the century. Once again, the interests of privileged, bourgeois white women soared above all other marginalized groups.
The need for an intersectional women’s rights movement
Now let’s take a look at how this failure to incorporate women’s rights movements with an intersectional approach plays out in an issue that’s still highly relevant today: the struggle for reproductive rights.
As Davis asserts, the right to birth control is advantageous to all women, regardless of class or ethnicity. For women of color, it was arguably more urgent in the decades leading up to Roe v. Wade, as far higher rates of Black and Puerto Rican women were dying due to illegal abortions than white women. It could have been an issue that united women of all social backgrounds – and become far more powerful because of this. But the abortion rights campaign failed to attract substantial numbers of women of color.
How could this happen?
Well first, the early feminists advocating for reproductive rights emphasized birth control as a means of acquiring education and better careers – opportunities that excluded Black and working-class women, whether or not they had children. And second, the activists began to circulate the idea that impoverished people had a moral obligation to curtail the size of their families in order to create less of a drain on society.
Furthermore, birth control advocates began to accept the increasingly widespread fear of “race suicide.” The end of the nineteenth century saw a decline in the middle-class white birth rate, which led to a booming eugenics movement that seeped into many aspects of American life. In 1905, President Roosevelt even proclaimed in an official speech that “race purity must be maintained.”
These ideas began to infiltrate the reproductive rights campaign – and eventually became the movement’s central issue. Just as suffragists appealed to white supremacists for the right to vote, the birth control advocates sought support from racists: they popularized the idea of birth control as a way for white people to maintain their higher numbers in the population and prevent Black and immigrant reproduction.
In 1919, Margaret Sanger, the leader of the birth control movement, declared “the chief issue of birth control” to be “more children from the fit, less from the unfit.” The struggle for birth control became redefined as a racist mandate for population control.
The effect of this shift was disastrous. The Eugenics Society used the panic over “race suicide” to push compulsory sterilization laws in at least 26 states by 1932, mandating “unfit” women to be surgically prevented from giving birth.
By 1970, approximately 20 percent of Black and Chicana women were sterilized. By 1976, an estimated 24 percent of Indigenous women were sterilized. And throughout the 70s, an appalling 35 percent of Puerto Rican women were sterilized. All of these women were robbed of their reproductive futures by a racist population policy.
By aligning with eugenicists and promoting racist ideals, the early reproductive rights advocates fractured the movement and hampered its progressive potential. Davis suggests that if the reproductive activists of the 1970s had examined this problematic history of their movement, they may have understood why so many women of color were reluctant to join the cause.
Ultimately, reproductive rights have continued to be under attack. And Indigenous, Chicana, Puerto Rican, Black, and immigrant women have continued to be sterilized involuntarily. Angela Davis calls for an integrated reproductive rights movement: one that also struggles for the right to reproduce, and wages war against sterilization abuse.
The key message in this summary is that mainstream feminism must expand to include the perspectives of BIPOC, working-class, immigrant, and other marginalized women. Struggles against social inequalities are strongest when they take an intersectional approach. By tracing the historical missteps of the mainstream women’s rights movement, Davis invites us to consider how history may have unfolded differently if acts of solidarity were more common – and challenges us to learn from past mistakes.
About the author
Angela Y. Davis is a political activist, scholar, author, and speaker. She is an outspoken advocate for the oppressed and exploited, writing on Black liberation, prison abolition, the intersections of race, gender, and class, and international solidarity with Palestine. She is the author of several books, including Women, Race, and Class and Are Prisons Obsolete? She is the subject of the acclaimed documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners and is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
History, Society, Culture, Feminism, Race, Politics, Philosophy, Theory, Social Movements, Social Justice, Anti Racist, Sociology, Gender Social Sciences, Feminist Theory, African American Demographic Studies
Table of Contents
1. The Legacy of Slavery: Standards for a New Womanhood
2. The Anti-Slavery Movement and the Birth of Women’s Rights
3. Class and Race in the Early Women’s Rights Campaign
4. Racism in the Woman Suffrage Movement
5. The Meaning of Emancipation According to Black Women
6. Education and Liberation: Black Women’s Perspective
7. Woman Suffrage at the Turn of the Century: The Rising Influence of Racism
8. Black Women and the Club Movement
9. Working Women, Black Women, and the History of the Suffrage Movement
10. Communist Women
11. Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist
12. Racism, Birth control and Reproductive Rights
13. The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-class Perspective
From one of our most important scholars and civil rights activist icon, a powerful study of the women’s liberation movement and the tangled knot of oppression facing Black women.
Angela Davis provides a powerful history of the social and political influence of whiteness and elitism in feminism, from abolitionist days to the present, and demonstrates how the racist and classist biases of its leaders inevitably hampered any collective ambitions. While Black women were aided by some activists like Sarah and Angelina Grimke and the suffrage cause found unwavering support in Frederick Douglass, many women played on the fears of white supremacists for political gain rather than take an intersectional approach to liberation. Here, Davis not only contextualizes the legacy and pitfalls of civil and women’s rights activists, but also discusses Communist women, the murder of Emmitt Till, and Margaret Sanger’s racism. Davis shows readers how the inequalities between Black and white women influence the contemporary issues of rape, reproductive freedom, housework and child care in this bold and indispensable work.
“Angela Davis is herself a woman of undeniable courage. She should be heard.”—The New York Times
Longtime activist, author and political figure Angela Davis brings us this expose of the women’s movement in the context of the fight for civil rights and working class issues. She uncovers a side of the fight for suffrage many of us have not heard: the intimate tie between the anti-slavery campaign and the struggle for women’s suffrage. She shows how the racist and classist bias of some in the women’s movement have divided its own membership. Davis’ message is clear: If we ever want equality, we’re gonna have to fight for it together. – Amazon.com Review
As useful an exposition of the current dilemmas of the women’s movement as one could hope for. -Los Angeles Times Book Review
A powerful study of the women’s movement in the U.S. from abolitionist days to the present that demonstrates how it has always been hampered by the racist and classist biases of its leaders.