Angela Davis: Women, Race and Class – Part 1

July 14, 2010 § 2 Comments

This is not so much a review of Angela Y. Davis’ Women, Race, and Class – because how would I even begin “reviewing” such an astounding piece of research and scholarship – but a guide, with a few pertinent passages requited. I’m not sure how well-known Davis’ work is outside of the States, or even within the States, but I came to know about her work while at university. It would seem that all popular discourse about feminism as it is known in the West, and the US specifically, reference historical female figures of the past unproblematically. In essence, they draw attention to the pioneering efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others, without contextualising their often problematic connections to issues of race and class. Davis’ book, in essence, forces us to confront the myth of these pioneering women. Just how pioneering were they? Are theirs the only names that deserve mention?

Also, having limited knowledge about black history in the United States, I can only assume that Angela Davis is one of the woman to go to about issues of American class and race. Thus, I shall say no more. I’ve divided the chapter-by-chapter guide into two parts, because it seems that I do have too much to say and the book has thirteen chapters, and no one reads long blog posts, and all that. So here’s Part 1, covering chapters 1 through 7:

  • Chapter 1: Davis starts the book off with a bang, saying, “Of course black women are strong, they had to deal with all the shit of being women in the 19th century on top of doing all the shit subhuman labour of slavery.” No, she doesn’t quite say that, but that’s the gist of this chapter. She situates the upcoming feminist struggle by highlighting the legacy of slavery among black people, and black women in particular. Slavery, as it turns out, is the one system where women enjoyed “equality” with men in terms of oppression. “Black women bore the terrible burden of equality in oppression,” Davis writes. She here states her recurring point that black women were productive both in manual and domestic labour, and that rape (of black women by white men, mostly their slave-owners) was a power weapon to remind black women of their femaleness and vulnerability.
  • Chapter 2: Here, Davis looks at the birth of the women’s right movement from a general standpoint. Before the advent of industrialisation, white women’s labour was solely limited to the domestic sphere. Post industrialisation, there is an entire underclass of white working women. Davis explains how women’s role in the domestic sphere became heightened the more that their labour in the domestic sphere became obsolete (with the invention of machines). The less use they had in the home, the more they were encouraged to stay at home – as men went out to do the unfeminine work of Work. The issue of women’s emancipation and abolition of slavery coincided because there was an interesting conflation of slavery analogies among white women: the  working-class women felt that work in the mills and factories was akin to slavery, while middle and upper class white women saw the heavy chains of eternal slave-like binding pictured in the image of marriage. Davis is pretty withering of the fact that none of these situations are akin to slavery – and she is right – but her explanations of these multiple social changes at the time are illuminating. She also highlights two women who were refreshingly ahead of their times in their views on race and sex: the Grimke sisters.
  • Chapter 3 traces the lily-white, privileged roots of the Seneca Falls Movement, and sheds some unflattering light on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Seneca Falls’ main concerns were middle-class white women’s concerns: marriage, and women’s exclusion from ‘professional’ fields of work. (And Davis highlights the insidious work of racism and classism here: as the work in the mills and factories became more brutal and dangerous, the white women from land-owning families who worked these jobs were replaced by immigrant female labour.) Seneca Falls made no bones about not wanting black women present – hence Sojourner Truth’s groundbreaking “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at a convention in Akron, Ohio. Davis rightly states that, from the start, the women’s rights movement in the States had “an unquestioning acceptance of the capitalist economic system.”  Davis points to the problematic acceptance by these women of the theory that male supremacy was an inherent flaw – one that was not tied to class:

If most abolitionists viewed slavery as a nasty blemish which needed to be eliminated, most women’s righters viewed male supremacy in a similar manner – as an immoral flaw in their otherwise acceptable society.

In other words, our society is fine except for this tiny problem of slavery. Or, everything’s good except for the fact that those men hate women. Davis mentions how one women’s rights meeting in Syracuse was invaded by men brandishing pistols and knives – a typical response by the powerful when the status quo is being rocked (not far different from the ultra right-wing Malay nationalists here in Malaysia brandishing their keris at every opportunity).

  • Chapter 4 is the “Oh my fucking fairy’s ears, Elizabeth Cady Stanton said WHAT?” chapter. She said this: “In fact, it is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant white one…” Stanton was writing to the New York Standard to oppose the liberation of the black people because it will over-ride the concerns of the women’s rights movement. In other words, Stanton felt that black liberation would give the black man more rights than what a regular white woman had – which was completely unacceptable. (Black women, as you notice, don’t enter into the discussion at all.)

  • In Chapter 5, Davis makes the sobering revelation that after a quarter of a century of freedom for the black slaves, black women are still universally oppressed as a class. The “economic opportunities” they were allowed to participate in – the only ones – had working conditions no better than that of slavery. In domestic labour, black women were still yoked to their employers (white people) in a triple bind of race, sex, and class. Sexual abuse by their white male employers was rampant, giving rise to the notion of the “sexually available black woman.” White men used that as an excuse, and white women felt better believing it rather than acknowledging that their husbands were keen on raping and molesting the domestic help. One of the more repulsive and fascinating quotes that Davis cites is by a white woman who said that she took in black people as domestic help “because they look more like servants.” Because servants are made, not born. And they come wearing a black face. Astounding.
  • In the sixth chapter, Davis tries to show that it wasn’t all privilege and nasty racism. Here, she describes how sisterhood between black and white women was entirely possible, especially when the common cause was the right to education. This chapter details the women who set up schools and taught black children despite public outrage, mocking, violent threats, and the risk of jail-time. Yes, teaching black people was punishable by law – but it didn’t deter women like Prudence Crandall and Margaret Douglass. It was interesting to note that it was white women who were willing to teach black students. Historically, teaching was a female occupation, and no doubt this is why that was the case. But if nothing else, this is damning indictment of the white men crafting the legislations and making the laws who could have done so much more – but didn’t.
  • Chapter 7 details the efforts of Susan B. Anthony in the suffrage moment, and is a bleak reminder of how individuals can enable systemic / institutional racism (or sexism and classism) just by doing nothing, saying nothing, and glossing over what shouldn’t be glossed over. While Davis emphasises that, as an individual, Anthony was against racism, she did nothing to quell the anti-racist sentiment of the suffrage movement in general – primarily by acquiescing to the demands of others not to open up the Suffrage Association to black women. She did this so as not to “alienate” the white Southern women who were being drawn into the movement. They were very much against the idea of opening up the movement to black women. Here, we get a clear idea of how early feminism in the States was pretty much similar to everything else that was “man”-made, be it colonialism or capitalism, because it capitulated to essentially non-egalitarian demands simply to keep its numbers. In other words, early-American feminism was predicated on deals, brokering, and negotiations. Nothing very equal about that, as equality should have been had on its own terms, not on a “if x, then y” premise. Davis writes:

Objectively, an open invitation had been extended to Southern women who were not about to relinquish their commitment to white supremacy. At best, this noncommittal posture on the struggle for Black equality constituted an acquiescence to racism, and at worst, it was a deliberate incentive, on the part of an influential mass organisation, for the violence and devastation spawned by the white supremacist forces of the times.

Another quote that hammers the point home:

The last decade of the nineteenth century was a critical moment in the development of modern racism – its major institutional supports as well as its attendant ideological justifications. This was also the period of imperialist expansion into the Philippines, Hawaii, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The same forces that sought to subjugate the peoples of these countries were responsible for the worsening plight of Black people and the entire U.S. working class. Racism nourished those imperialist ventures and was likewise conditioned by imperialism’s strategies and apologetics.

Upper-class white women, whether they knew it or not (and many probably did), propped up male white supremacy because of their racism, and actively fought for “women’s rights” within the narrow sphere of their immediate interests – thereby further entrenching their roles as irrevocably female, nurturing, motherly, and nothing more.


§ 2 Responses to Angela Davis: Women, Race and Class – Part 1

  • CJ Bauer says:

    Really good synopsis, IMO. Davis’ book must have been published just after I graduated from university or I would likely have encountered it in the classroom. In 1982, women’s studies/women’s history was still so new I was the first to earn the new minor in WS at my institution. I’m just reading the book now, for a book group. Since Hillary Clinton’s defeat and the election of the rich, white, male misogynistic, predatory A-hole-in-chief to the presidency of our declining democracy, I’ve been actively looking for understanding of how 53% of white women in the US were willing to vote for him over her. I tracked the vicious MALE misogyny at play all the way through the campaign but I didn’t see Clinton’s loss coming at the hands of white women. Five months later I still wake up every day in disbelief.

    Davis’ book, though flawed in several respects, has helped me understand why black women reject the term “feminist”. I’m a white woman, open minded, educated, aware and sensitized, and I STILL have been profoundly enlightened by this book as to what the obstacle could be with white women. It’s not flattering. In fact it’s downright nauseating and inexcusable, but it is enlightening to me. Illumination accomplished, Ms Davis.

    It’s been nearly 40 years since I sat in a classroom to learn what kids are taught about our history. My guess is girls still don’t learn about the strength, brilliance and resiliency of our foremothers of any race or class. History is, if anything, even bmore marginalized today overall in public school curriculum, and the scholarship that has brought these women’s stories out of the darkness has not penetrated that disinterest. It’s going to be up to the mothers and the aunties to learn themselves, screw their heads on straight and SHARE THIS HISTORY, its lessons and insights with our little ones. Until we join as sisters across racial and class lines, we will not gain equality. We hold ourselves back now. No excuses.

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