Angela Davis: Women, Race and Class – Part 2

July 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

To continue with my “non-review” of the book, here is Part 2. Part  1 is here.

  • Chapter 8 was a bit of a snore, although it shed some light on occasion. Focusing on the rise of black women’s clubs, it was interesting insofar as it provided a perspective on why black women needed their own clubs: “It was in response to the unchecked wave of lynchings and the indiscriminate sexual abuse of Black women that the first Black women’s club was organised.” As Davis explains, clubs for white women were usually spaces for millions of women “whose lives were not filled up by domestic and religious pursuits.” For black women, it was a political necessary to challenge the double-binds of racism and sexism.
  • In Chapter 9, things get intense as Davis shows us the intricate manoeuvrings of class and gender that characterised the right for the women’s vote in the US. Susan B. Anthony, of whom we typically only hear heroic things, had this to say:

An oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor; an oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant; or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex which makes father, brother, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household; which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects – carries discord and rebellion into every home of the nation.

Crafty lady, that Susan… being well-off, educated, and Saxon. It will never stop being incredibly disheartening to read about how the roots of the suffrage women were also predicated upon inequality – and an insidious majority privilege (rich white women don’t have the rights… give rich white women their rights, screw the various other hues and colours and economic backgrounds). Davis claims that while black women suffragists enjoyed proportionately higher support from black men as compared to the white women, white women organisers of the suffragette parade still rigidly segregated the spectators and participants. She writes, “They even instructed Ida B. Wells to leave the Illinois contingent and to march with the segregated Black group – in deference to the white women from the South.” The highlight is that “Ida B. Wells was not one to follow racist instructions, however, and, at parade time, she slipped into the Illinois section.” Yes… take THAT, Susan B. Anthony.

  • Chapter 10! The heart-stirringly intriguing chapter entitled “Communist Women”. (Forgive me, being Malaysian anything with the world “Communist” in it just invites one to go, “Ooooohhh…” Anyhow. This chapter is basically an overview of key female figures in Communism who were also involved in the women’s movement in the States. Among these women are Lucy Parsons; Ella Reeve Bloor – a white woman who saw how racism was intricately bound with the socialist cause; Anita Whitney – another white woman who bravely spoke out against lynching even while other white “liberals” did not; and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was one of the early proponents of the cause to unshackle black women from the “threefold bond of oppression.”
  • “The myth of the black rapist” is the topic Davis addresses next in Chapter 11. She explores how the myth arose in the first place – coincidentally, the idea took root and flower during the Reconstruction period, after the abolition of slavery. Davis draws attention to statistics that reveal the numbers of black women who were raped by white men employers or masters during slavery – but who were given no recourse through law. “The pattern of institutionalized sexual abuse of Black women became so powerful that it managed to survive the abolition of slavery.” While acknowledging that “racism has always drawn strength from its ability to encourage sexual coercion,” Davis shows how the same ideology also victimised a whole class of black men as perpetrators of sexual violence. No doubt, black men could rape as well as any other man. But the ideologue of the black man as rapist, it was not about eradicating sexual violence in and of itself – which would mean protecting both white women AND black women from the threat of rape – but protecting white women, particularly white upper-class women, from the threat of rape of black men. Because that would naturally be a threat to the masculinity and white, upper-class patriarchy. All that aside, however, black men suffered brutally under this particular racist ideology, as the myth of the black rapist is what gave rise to the mass lynchings that took place post-slavery and post-Civil War. Feminists like Susan Brownmiller comes under Davis’ attack, as she talks about Brownmiller’s “discussion on rape and race evinces an unthinking partisanship which borders on racism,” although the passages she quotes us from Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape are not bordering on racism, they’re outrightly racist. But the real cause lies in economic disparity, of course, as Davis explains:

As the basis of the license to rape Black women during slavery was the slaveholders’ economic power, so the class structure of capitalist society also harbors an incentive to rape. It seems, in fact, that men of the capitalist class and their middle-class partners are immune to prosecution because they commit their sexual assaults with the same unchallenged authority that legitimizes their daily assaults on the labor and dignity of working people.

The dangerous ideology, to which important figures in American feminism like Brownmiller have contributed to, seems to insinuate, in Davis’ own words “armies of Black men, their penises erect, charging full speed ahead toward the most conveniently placed white women.” Shulamith Firestone, whose The Dialectic of Sex is something I’ve always wanted to read, also disappoints, as Davis explains how Firestone “transposes Freud’s Oedipux complex into racial terms,” with “white man as father, white woman as mother, and Black people as the children.” Following this, then, Firestone’s premise is that black men are forever out to kill their “fathers” (white men) in order to posses their “mothers” (white women). In this scenario Black women are presumably simply standing around, combing each other’s hair.

  • Reproductive rights is the subject of Chapter 12; Davis traces the genesis of birth control rights to abortion rights as it moved along the continuum of race and class. Birth control, as a cry for “voluntary motherhood”, should have been embraced by black, Latina, and immigrant women in general – because they more than anyone else knew what it was like to have no choice and control over the number of children they brought into the world within the conditions they lived in. However, it was *precisely* those ideological underpinnings that isolated them from the abortion and reproductive-rights movement, according to Davis. Here’s where Davis adopts a slightly moralistic tone that I found off-putting: “When Black and Latina women resort to abortions in such large numbers, the stories they tell are not so much about their desire to be free of their pregnancy, but rather about the miserable social conditions which dissuade them from bringing new lives into the world.” Fair enough; but being “free from pregnancy” is almost always tied to one’s social conditions. I get that Davis deplores the use of abortion as a means of remaining “free from pregnancy” in order that one might be able to experiment sexually; but I see some moralising being done here in assuming that all black, Latina, Native American, or immigrant women *only* want access to reproductive rights for noble reasons. But Davis draws a cogent argument about how reproductive rights arguments as framed by middle-class white women blurred “the distinction between abortion rights and the general advocacy for abortions.” As she points out, black women have been aborting themselves for years under slavery because they couldn’t bring children into a world where unending slavery seemed to be the only option for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, while “voluntary motherhood” was genuinely liberating for women – emancipating them from home and hearth and giving them the time, space, and energy to become political beings – Davis says that the vision was “rigidly bound to the lifestyle enjoyed by the middle classes and the bourgeoisie.” And horrifyingly enough, while birth control was a privilege to the lower class – typically black and immigrant women –*population control* was enforced upon black people, in the form of forced sterilisation. While Roosevelt lamented the “race suicide” of white people as more white women opted for birth control (at the same time that US expansion was extending to the Philippines), white feminists tried to align themselves to the imperialist cause of their beloved nation by adopting that stance and introducing birth control as a “duty” for the poor folks and the black folks – in order not to sully the nation with the inferiority of their stock. Margaret Sanger, our feminist “hero” of the birth control revolution, was a socialist with a flawed understanding of capitalist exploitation. She held poor families to task for reproducing beyond their material means, and bought into the racist ideologies of eugenics to propound the notion of “more from the fit, less from the unfit.” This ideology lead to a racist and classist double-bind for non-white working classes: they were criticised for reproducing too “much”, yet access to safe birth control and abortions were out of their reach because it was too expensive, and so they were made to undergo sterilisation – ensuring that they could never reproduce again, thus keeping their numbers down. Birth control and reproductive “rights” naturally, became a misnomer, and it was applicable only to a select few.
  • The final chapter discusses the dreaded Housework – also known as Domestic Work – also known as What Your Wife/Girlfriend/ Mother/Sister SHOULD Do for You, If You Had Your Way. Which, as it turns out, most men do – my most “progressive” girlfriends (and I mean that completely in the Sex and the City way, whatever that means) with high-flying careers (whatever that means) are still somehow expected to, whether overtly or subtly, to cook and clean up after their respective husbands / partners. And it’s 2010. When Davis was writing about this in the late 70s and early 80s, men weren’t rushing to the forefront to relieve women of the menial, thankless, repetitive job of housework, either. And nor were they volunteering for childcare. But Davis wasn’t keen on the idea of the “desexualization of domestic labour” so much as she was advocating the socialisation of domestic labour, because the discussion of men and women being equal partners in housework is, again, a privileged one – as working class (and typically non-white) men AND women simply couldn’t afford the time to devote to housework. For them, the discussion couldn’t even begin because both partners were overworked and underpaid; but as typically the female was the more underpaid, the burden of cutting back hours at work and focusing more on housework and child care fell to the female. Therefore, to Davis, the answer was clearly in the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare. Citing examples from Marx, and to a greater extent, Engels, Davis outlines how societies before the advent of private property saw greater equality between the sexes in the types of labour. In those communities, women were still largely associated with childcare, but in a communal sense – as both domestic and field or agricultural labour was divided up in a relatively equal ratio between men and women. In post-industrialist societies, the distinctions between domestic and public space intensified and became a structural separation, and the value on domestic labour correspondingly dropped (because it was neither productive nor profitable) – and interestingly enough, this saw the domestic realm becoming further enmeshed with the idea of womanhood and femininity. The Housewife was born. Thus, it seemed like women could not escape the trap of motherhood and domesticity unless they literally marched out in protest; which is what they did, in protest. The largely middle and upper class white women, that is. And, as in the case of capitalism’s inherent mechanism of outsourcing unwanted labour to subaltern groups, domestic labour became the domain of black women in post-Reconstruction America. As has been said before, while this sounds great in theory, we’ve seen in practices like socialised childcare in the Soviet Union how it simply can’t work within the larger sphere as long as socialism is practiced selectively in parts of the world, within a larger global capitalist framework. Perhaps a major restructure of capitalism as a collective effort will take place one day with the birth of a new Narnia, I don’t know.

The reason one comes up with a two-part “review” of a book of this nature is simply to say: READ IT. Davis leaves us with plenty to think about; and plenty to consider in the light of historical changes and current stagnations. Her prose is always clear and lively, there’s no need to wade through heavy pontificating or pseudo-academic jargon before one grasps the essential social conditions she’s trying to describe, and to some effect, remedy. Certainly, her own activism, Communism, and chequered past with the law has made her a rather controversial figure. I’ll end this epic blog post with a link to an interview conducted with Davis in 1997.


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