Did Black Folks Gain from the Women's Movement? (Speaking of Education)

By Malveaux, Julianne | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Did Black Folks Gain from the Women's Movement? (Speaking of Education)


Malveaux, Julianne, Black Issues in Higher Education


I have always been intrigued by the career of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The Stanford Law School graduate's legal career was clearly affected by sex discrimination, yet O'Connor has tended to take mixed positions in cases of race discrimination. Her opinion in the Croson case was, at best, disappointing. She suggested that African American businesses would have to "prove" past discrimination, and suggested an arithmetic formula to show underrepresentation in business activity. The problem with the formula is that it took history as given, ignoring the fact that the universe of Black firms competing for opportunities had been shaped by exclusionary laws, discrimination in business lending and other factors. "Except in cases of sexual discrimination, she has generally resisted judicial activism," says the Encyclopedia.com entry about Justice O' Connor.

Yet many of us link the civil rights movement with the women's rights movement, and would like to think that the two movements share goals. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Nearly two generations ago, we thought these laws would quickly move us toward equality. Now, the ink has dried, the laws have been tested, and we still have unfinished business. The pace of progress has been slow, and it has been uneven. I'm not sure we can adequately compare African Americans and women in terms of the pace of progress, but it does make sense to wonder, especially in Women's History Month, if African Americans have benefited from the women's movement.

How might we measure the benefit? Do African Americans do better in institutions, especially institutions of higher education that are headed by women? Do women such as O'Connor, victims of gender discrimination, exhibit more sensitivity toward race discrimination? Someone with more time than I have might look at colleges and universities headed by women and compare them with those headed by men. Are African Americans more likely to be promoted, tenured or supported in leadership than their counterparts in other institutions? Does a leader's inner circle include more African Americans? Do women leaders have such an enhanced commitment to diversity that they improve enrollment, graduation and placement so that it shows up in their institutions? Do women legislators and leaders have a better record than men of supporting civil fights legislation? These are all questions that can be empirically tested.

Casual empiricism raises questions. One of my most searing memories is the 1984 Democratic convention, the one where the Rev. …

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