Feminism, the age old F-word, is a key reason why millennial women are able to do the things they do.
Feminism has broken down barriers of inequality and liberated the daughters of a past generation to have it all: college educations, fulfilling careers, relationships on their own terms, and progressive status within their families. As women, we owe a lot to the feminist movement and to the leaders like Gloria Steinem who inspired a generation.
In honor of Black History Month, and in honor of the feminists women of color who have gone unacknowledged in the mainstream folds of the movement, I present to you a list of some of the most radical black feminists of all time.
Radical and revolutionary are terms that can be empty when not understood within their context. The following women are radical feminists because of their desire to bring attention to the plight of black women, which in some cases was and is different from the struggles of white women. Dealing with social conditions like slavery, structural racism, poverty and a denial of education, they called attention to the needs of black women in the U.S. in their own unique ways. And like other feminists, they were not afraid to be the first to do so.
1. Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)
Cooper was a mixed race woman born in 1858. She was a fierce supporter of education for black women, believing that they could make deep contributions to society. She is best known for being the first black feminist and for publishing the book A Voice from the South. Despite her focus on Black American issues, she was traveled and lived in Europe, collaborating with black intellectuals there. Cooper lived to the age of 105 and saw slavery, emancipation, the Civil War, the early rise of the American feminist movement, World Wars I and II, and the Civil Rights movement.
2. Amy Jacques Garvey (1895-1973)
As you might have guessed, Amy Garvey was the wife of Marcus Garvey. On her own, she was a leading Pan-Africanist and Black Nationalist. Her feminist contribution came in the form of highlighting the voices of Black women by publishing their writings in a column of the newspaper “The Negro World.” After her husband was expelled from the U.S., she came to lead the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), advocating and raising funds on its behalf.
3. Florynce Kennedy (1916-2000)
Kennedy was known to be the kind of lawyer who did not take “no” for an answer, and who refused to back away from controversial, high-profile cases. She fought her way to an admission at Columbia Law School after being rejected for being a woman. In 1948, Kennedy went on to be the second Black woman to graduate from CLS.
She opened her own practice in 1952 and went on to represent clients like female members of the Black Liberation Front, the Black Panthers and Billie Holiday. As a lawyer and social activist, she became active in struggles against racism, sexism and homophobia in the government, private corporations and media. In few words, Florynce Kennedy was a badass. How else can you describe the woman who helped found the Women’s Political Caucus, the National Black Feminist Organization,and the National Organization of Women, and who also was an early supporter of pro-choice legislation?
4. Cheryl Clarke (b. 1947)
Clarke is a female black lesbian poet in the style of a feminist favorite, Audre Lorde. Clarke received her Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University and has contributed to understanding the intellectual production of queer women in the Black Arts Movement. She is the author of several books of poetry and prose, but by far "After Mecca": Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement is her best known work. Clarke represents new directions for black feminists in the 21st century.
Though still contending with problems of structural racism and poverty, black feminists are now trying to continue the work of building coalitions across racial, ethnic, political, and sexual identities.
I leave you with this quote from famed scholar and Black feminist Angela Davis:
"For me, revolution was never "a thing to do" before settling down; it was no fashionable club with newly-minted jargon or new kind of social life--made thrilling by risk and confrontation, made glamorous by costume. Revolution is a serious thing, the most serious thing about a revolutionary's life. When one commits oneself to the struggle, it must be for a lifetime." — Angela Davis: An Autobiography, p. 162