In 1851, black abolitionist and women’s right’s activist Sojourner Truth addressed the OHIO Women’s Right’s convention.
“I think that ‘twixt de niggers of de South and the women of de North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about? That man over there say that women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have de best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? Then they talks ’bout this ting in de head; what this they call it?” (“Intellect,” whispered someone near.) “That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or nigger’s rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?”
Over one hundred years later, black feminist Audre Lourde stood before the New York University Institute for the Humanities Conference.
‘Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Colour to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”
In 1979, Michele Wallace wrote:
“We exist as women who are Black who are feminist, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle-because being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one has done: we would have to fight the world.”
Then bell hooks stepped forward in 1981, writing:
‘The process begins with the individual woman’s acceptance that… women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labelling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization.
It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term “feminism,” to focus on the fact that to be “feminist” in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.”
Decades later, Angela Davis spoke at a US university, telling students: “The assumption that feminism is only about gender is the result of a yearning for simplicity that has racialised feminism as white. The kind of feminism I talk about can embrace more and more complexity.”
These are the black women who came before me. In 2013 I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. The truth is, thousands of black women made the case for intersectionality before I was even born, and thousands more will make the case for intersectionality long after I’m cold and dead in the ground. In 2013 we have developed terms to describe the issues Audre, bell, Michele, Angela and Sojourner speak of. We use intersectionality to describe the bridging of those gaps between liberation movements. You see, liberation movements have a nasty habit of recreating the ugly hierarchies they try to oppose. It is our duty to resist them. Miriam Dobson’s illustration describes this better than I could write it. We use the term privilege to describe the unearned structural advantages that are created as a result of vast, entrenched structural inequality.
Yet here we are in 2013. There’s no point referencing any of the recent debates. Women before me fought this fight, women after me will, and it’s a burden all of us invested in ending a viciously unequal status quo will have to bear. Do you think we’ve made any progress?