The early chapters of Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class were palpably powerful and forthright in their analysis of black women’s enslavement and empowerment in 19th Century America. These twin, interwoven narratives tell a story whose importance demands one’s attention. For my own part her vivid descriptions of the horrors visited on black women in the institution of slavery caused me to pause in my reading, staring at the page before finally closing my eyes for a moment, offering some feeble form of remembrance for the women whose stories she brought to life. They were not just passive recipients of abuse, however, but active agents in their liberation. Brave resistance seemed to meet, blow for blow, every whip, cruel word, sexual advance, balled fist or backbreaking labour that these women’s masters could bring to bear or muster.
In this lies the point of Professor Davis’ narrative. This point is twofold: one, it is meant to elucidate on the gendered realities facing black women in the institution of slavery, and two it is meant to show that black women are best understood as oppressed but also as very active in resisting that oppression (which is why she spares no harsh words in criticising Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its portrayal of a passive black female slave who was somehow oblivious to slavery’s horrors until her masters threatened to take her children away). The next few chapters expand on her analysis of that resistance from multiple angles. She looks at the early participation of black women in the broader struggle for women’s rights, how black women problematised a universalist concept of womanhood early on, and how some radical white women saw the struggle against racism as one with the struggle against sexism.
The crucial realisation for me was that in her lengthy narrative, suffused with many compelling excerpts from primary source material and personal testimony from men and women of the time, was a very different story about the abolitionist movement and the fight for women’s rights than what I had been taught growing up. She immediately takes a torch to the idea that the women’s movement only began at Seneca Falls and demonstrates quite convincingly that the foundations of feminism had deeper roots than even that. Many American students know Susan B. Anthony, and a smaller but still significant number will have heard the name Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Yet not even Microsoft Word recognises the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two radical white women who were literally bullied and forced into an all too premature retirement from their forceful oratory that spoke passionately for the liberation of blacks as well as women in America. Few people would associate Frederick Douglass with the women’s rights movement, despite the pivotal, almost keystone-like role he played in the suffrage movement’s heady early days. His article “Why I Became a Women’s Rights Man” can be found in a few latter day feminist theory anthologies. But neither his face nor Sojourner Truth’s made it to the back of a US quarter.
The prominent figures in Davis’ history are certainly altered. Stanton and Anthony, while praised for their foresight in some areas, find their flaws and personal racism writ large in the story woven by Professor Davis, and contrasted very unfavourably with heroines whose names are shadowed beneath the sands of our dominant historical narratives: the Grimke sisters, Frances Dana Gage, Myrtilla Miner, and Prudence Crandall. It is curious that the names of these white women are lost to history while the two whose racist demons plagued the early women’s movement have now become forever synonymous with it. Angela Davis’ historiography does much to correct this imbalance. In my own mind, Anthony and Stanton did well. I have a good friend who has made it her mission to unearth some of the more radical writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton from academic obscurity and I wish her well in this endeavour. She- like myself- is conscious of Stanton’s racism but also of her more intellectual contributions which have been elided even as she and Susan B. Anthony have been valorized as suffragette scions. Nevertheless, their failures would be drawn into sharper relief by the examples set out by Angela Davis. Proof that it was possible for white bourgeois women to overcome their racism and stand astride the artificial divisions that so ensnared those in Anthony and Stanton’s milieu.
Yet even more important was Davis’ elevation of previously unheard black women’s voices in the movement for Black liberation and for women’s rights. Ida B. Wells and Frances E.W. Harper were two women of letters who are not often associated with the various rights struggles of the time, but their acumen was no less keen than that of the white luminaries that history better remembers. Sojourner Truth, to whom I will return, also lent a voice of unparalleled conviction to these interlocked causes of freedom. The crux of the story Angela Davis tells in these chapters is how racism would come to divide the fragile alliance made between black liberationists and early feminists, particularly over the acrimonious debate that followed black men being given the franchise but women (white and black) being left behind. Davis’ analysis is penetrating; not only does she condemn the outright racism that underlay many of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s claims about black inferiority, but also the liberal ideology that held the vote as an end in itself. Suffrage, she claimed, was not the sole determinant of freedom or citizenship, and it was hardly a panacea. The ardour with which some bourgeois white women fought for it, however, indicated that they did indeed see that as one of the only obstacles to their full actualisation as citizens. Davis critiques this view and points out the plain fallacy of Anthony and Stanton’s view that black men were now somehow ahead of white women in the post Civil War era. Yes, she argues, they had the vote, and precious little else. Indeed, in a few short years, even that solitary right would be denied them by the force of Jim Crow.
In the midst of the maelstrom that defined the progressive politics of this age came Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. Davis describes it in hortatory terms and in my own estimation it deserves every word of praise the scholar can muster for it. Truth’s words echo down the decades and centuries to follow as a rallying cry for all women who find themselves at a crossroads of oppression in their lives. Native women, transgender women, queer women, labouring and working class women would all take up the clarion call of Truth’s blunt challenge to not only male supremacy, but also to white cis female racism and classism (and later, trans and homophobia). It was a double bladed sword she thrust and parried at those who would presume to rob her of her dignity. In a timeless evisceration of the classic patriarchal argument that uses imposed chivalry to justify women’s subordination, she deftly remarked that she had never been the recipient of such chivalrous acts and had indeed been made to labour as hard as any man with no special treatment; the dainty artifice attached to upper class white womanhood was utterly foreign to her- and to many other women besides. Like a lightning strike on a dark night she illuminated with stark clarity a great truth hidden in plain sight: black women were living proof of the fact that women could work on a par with men, that chivalry was not necessary, that strength of all sorts was as much a woman’s lot as nurturing was. In the terrible conditions foisted on women of colour and immigrant women lay the grand contradiction of the emerging industrial patriarchy: the myth that women were weak dominated a society that was in great measure held up by women’s hard labour.
To this day we still live with the myth that men were the only ones whose labour was exploited in this time, and that the industrial economy of unsafe hard labour was the sole province of men. While it was often conceived of as such, and reified through popular imagery of the white housewife and mother, the reality was far more complex and embodied in the muscle that Sojourner Truth bore to the audience gathered in Akron as she enjoined them to answer her timeless question. In laying bare these complexities and stark but unregarded realities, Davis continues the legacy of powerful orators like Truth who, as later folks might say, tell it like it is.