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The Truth of the Matter: The Exclusion of Black Women from the Women’s Rights Movement

Sojourner Truth, a civil and women's rights activist, delivered a speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 that has come to be known as, “Ain’t I a Woman?” In her address, Truth pointed out the inconsistency of claiming that women were physically inferior to men when female slaves were forced to do backbreaking labor that was supposedly “men’s work.” Truth not only critiqued both racism and sexism in one speech, but she also did so through connecting these two forms of oppression. More than 165 years have passed since Truth’s speech, yet in many aspects, the struggle she has described continues today. The intersection of racism and sexism still leads to the exclusion of Black women and other women of color from the women’s rights movement — a reality that we must work to change.

One of the major critiques of the early women’s rights movement in the United States is that it focused on the rights of middle class white women. Issues of class and race and how they related to sexism were largely ignored in the fight for women’s suffrage and temperance. In fact, some white suffragists actively dismissed and separated themselves from Black suffragists. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was known to discourage Black women’s clubs from affiliating with them. They believed that their goal of obtaining the right to vote would be hindered by including Black women in their platform. While the 19th Amendment gave all women the right to vote in the United States in 1920, many Black women and other women of color were prevented from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the 1960’s, the Civil Rights Movement led to federal legislation that banned racial discrimination, segregation, and unequal application of voter registration requirements. Despite this progress, the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s still focused on the needs of white women, particularly when it came to issues in the workplace and sexuality. This was largely due to ignoring intersecting issues, rather than purposefully excluding women of color, but the effect was ultimately the same. As a result of this marginalization, a new movement arose in the 1980’s, known as womanism. First coined by Alice Walker in 1983, womanism addressed issues that Black women and other women of color faced because of the intersecting oppression of both sexism and racism.

In recent years, mainstream feminism has become more inclusive, but often fails when it comes to addressing the concerns of women of color. This issue has come to a head in recent months, particularly during the January 2017 Women’s Marches, which many believe failed to adequately represent the interests of women of color. In Pittsburgh, this led to two separate Women's marches taking place on January 21, 2017. Without a doubt, there is still much work to do to ensure that feminism represents and supports all women. We can start by acknowledging the exclusion of Black women and other women of color from the women’s rights movement, and continue by working to make sure that our feminism is truly intersectional. When we take into account the full scope of issues facing women, we will be able to make significant strides in achieving equality for all women — not just white women.

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