Hidden in Plain View: African American Women, Radical Feminism, and the Origins of Women's Studies Programs, 1967-1974

By Franklin, V. P. | The Journal of African American History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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Hidden in Plain View: African American Women, Radical Feminism, and the Origins of Women's Studies Programs, 1967-1974


Franklin, V. P., The Journal of African American History


One of the most significant changes that occurred in U.S. higher education in the second half of the twentieth century was the advent of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs and departments in Black Studies, Women's Studies, Chicano Studies, and for other ethnic minority groups. (1) One of the unique aspects of this important educational change was that in many places these programs arose as a result of protests and demands coming from the students themselves. Emerging out of social protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, these new programs changed the face of U.S. higher education and also informed the educational changes that occurred at colleges and universities in other parts of the world as well. (2)

Students, who in the early 1960s played a significant role in the nonviolent direct action protests associated with the Civil Rights Movement, soon turned their attention and energies to the social and educational conditions on college campuses and demanded significant change. The connections between the emergence of the "Free Speech Movement" in Berkeley, California, and the various campaigns for "student rights" and the Civil Rights Movement were direct. Many students who had been active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other civil rights groups joined with the members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to bring about the end to parietal regulations ("in loco parentis" rules), greater choice in courses of study, the end of university participation in military research, as well as the hiring of women and minority faculty members and creation of women's and ethnic studies programs. (3)

The recent scholarly research on gender and the social protest movements of the 1960s, however, has added important qualifications and contradictions to the story as previously told and understood. In particular, the research on the contributions of African American women to the Civil Rights, Women's Liberation, and Black Power movements has raised a number of important issues about the emergence of Black Studies and Women's Studies programs that have yet to be fully explained. (4) In this essay I will explore some of the reasons why black nationalists in Black Studies programs and radical feminists in the Women's Studies movement initially ignored the experiences of African American women and rendered them invisible. I will also examine some of the responses of African American feminists to the racist practices they encountered in the women's movement in general, and to their "invisibility" in the Women's Studies curricula in the late 1960s and 1970s in particular. (5)

BLACK POWER, WOMEN'S LIBERATION, AND AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN

Sara Evans' Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left, published in 1979, was one of the first works to make explicit the connections between the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements. While some feminist critics have pointed to the continuities between the campaigns for "women's rights" following World War II and the emergence of the Women's Liberation Movement, Evans documented the disillusionment on the part of women who had been active in civil rights campaigns with the overt sexism they experienced in New Left groups and their increasing demands for "women's liberation." (6) While black and white women assumed prominent roles in the antiwar movement and campus protests, they used these experiences to further the cause of women's liberation. Aileen Hernandez, former union official and member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, civil rights activists Pauli Murray, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Flo Kennedy, and politician Shirley Chisholm we re among the African American women who served as founding members of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. (7)

Beginning in 1967 Black Studies programs and departments were formed at many colleges and universities and were considered the academic structures that emerged from the various movements for "Black Power.

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Hidden in Plain View: African American Women, Radical Feminism, and the Origins of Women's Studies Programs, 1967-1974
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