Standing on the shoulders of giants

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?

7 thoughts on “Standing on the shoulders of giants

  1. True but they haven’t changed, they will never change. It is a waste of time to talk to them I talk to my own community. We need to organize ourselves not waste time trying to explain reality to white people, they can deal with reality themselves when it hits them.

    Also Sojourner Truth was from the north, she didn’t talk like that white people wrote it like that because that’s what they wanted to hear Black people sound like. They won’t even pay attention to what you say unless you express it the way they want. They don’t usually write white people’s speeches phonetically to show their accents. Her speech is intelligent and clear, but it annoys me every time I read the way they changed it. like the guardian readers who accused a Black columnist of not writing his own column because it didn’t sound authentically uneducated. OFF TOPIC.

  2. Thanks for this, Reni. It’s so valuable for me as a white person to be reminded of the situation my black sisters have faced in feminism. I’d love to say things are different, now, but they’re not, as recent history and articles continue to show. We have so much further to go, and I’m happy to support you, however is best.

  3. I would hope there has been progress but what there has has clearly been very slow. I read once that the main driver of destroying a lot of the old class hierarchy in the UK was WW2, where our rationing and isolation forced the Govt. to adopt an ‘all in it together’ attitude that made it impossible to just go back to the idea of people being born in their station. But even that obviously took years to begin to change things and class is still so clearly marked, even if the right to ‘better’ yourself is there. Recently, I saw a series of US publicity shots of women building war machinery during WWII, replacing the lost male workforce who were out fighting. You consider all those soldiers who were trusting their lives to machines built by women, and yet they came home and so many of them still had the notion of ‘man’s work’. Anyway, clearly more of a white narrative here (I am white) so apologies, as I don’t wish to distract from your point any more.

    I hope things are progressing and I hope they progress faster. Your narrative above covers 160 years! Things have changed in that time. Hopefully they will change a lot more in less than half that time, but I can’t see those in power changing any time soon unless maybe there is an event of the scale of WWII, although hopefully without the tragedy.

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  6. Just to note, I think you’re quoting Gage’s version of Sojourner Truth’s speech.

    Gage rewrote Marcus Robinson’s 1851 report into stereotypical “slave” dialect, based on Black Southern English: but Sojourner Truth was born in Dutch New York and never lived in the South.

    The original version of this part of her speech is

    I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, — for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.

    I think it’s a shame that it’s very much easier to find the Gage version of the speech online than the original. I wish that when people quoted Truth’s speech, they referenced the proper version.


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