Black Feminist Foremothers

By Bennefield, Robin M. | Black Issues in Higher Education, May 27, 1999 | Go to article overview

Black Feminist Foremothers


Bennefield, Robin M., Black Issues in Higher Education


EARLY RACE WOMEN FROM SLAVERY TO CIVIL RIGHTS

In 1977, Barbara Smith coined the phrase "Black Feminist Criticism" in her essay of the same title(Conditions, 1977). She discusses invisibility of Black women and Black feminist thought in academia, arguing that critics needed to acknowledge the literature and work of Black women and their unique perspective on "the complex system of sexism, racism, and economic exploitation." But before Smith and other modern-day Black feminist critics, there were women who, in their day, paved the way by articulating their views on race, class, and gender. The following chronology places them in a historical context.

Slavery and Freedom

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Abolitionist and feminist, Sojourner Truth is probably most known for her question, "Ain't I a woman?" The question was posed at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Truth demanded that Black women not be forgotten in the quest for civil rights, while challenging the racial and sexual stereotypes of the day. She joined the ranks of known abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and counseled Abraham Lincoln on race policy.

Maria W. Stewart: (1803-1879)

Maria Stewart was the first American-born woman to break the social taboo of women publicly speaking before a crowd of men and women, especially on political issues. Some 20 years before Sojourner Truth asked, "Ain't I a woman?," Stewart questioned a Boston audience, "What if I am a woman?"-noting the fact that White women have been honored and acknowledged for their wisdom and achievement while her own people went unrecognized. Her speeches were published in William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator and she published her own political pamphlets. Stewart was an advocate of Black self-determination and independence from Whites.

Harriet Jacobs (1825-1911)

Recounting sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of her slave owner, Harriet Jacobs became the first Black woman to pen a slave narrative in the United States. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) placed Jacobs in the company of Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, offering a first hand account of the special injustices women faced during slavery. Jacobs was also active in the antislavery movement, caring for Black Civil War soldiers and refugees and speaking on their behalf.

Frances W. Harper (1825-1911)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper may have been one of the most prolific writers of the 19th century. For 68 years, she wrote, recited, and published poems, letters, speeches, and books aimed at teaching people how to live with a moral purpose and a sense of social responsibility. While advocating the uplift of the race, she also worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women's rights. Harper was one of the earliest Black women to publish a novel, Ida Leroy (1892), which told the tale of a Black woman's struggle to maintain dignity and racial pride during slavery and reconstruction.

Reconstruction

Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)

In her collection of essays, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (1892), Anna Julia Cooper challenges Black male sexism and White liberal racism, marking what some call the first Black feminist publication. A true scholar, Cooper taught at Wilberforce University and St. Augustine's College and became one of the first African Americans to receive a Ph.D.--in 1925 in French from the University of Paris. She was also the only woman member of the 19th century think-tank, the American Negro Academy, along with W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Jesse E. Moorland, and Arthur A. Schomberg. Cooper considered the higher education of Black women to be the key to the "regeneration of the race."

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)

As a journalist and activist, Ida Wells-Barnett uncovered the political and economic reasons for lynching in the South through her critical scholarship and courageous investigative skills.

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