By Louise Bernikow
Thursday, January 3, 2008
January 1971: Was women's liberation only for white women?
In the U.S. women's liberation movement of the 1960s, there was no universal agreement about what it would take to free women from "patriarchal oppression," in the language of the times, nor even about the specific forms gender oppression took in racial and ethnic communities.
Did women's liberation involve black women and was it relevant to them? Not everyone thought so, including "black power" advocates. Free and legal abortion, a core demand of women's activists, was seen in some black radical cadres as race genocide. The media often focused its coverage on perceived antagonisms between factions.
"A Negro woman has the same kind of problems as other women, but she can't take the same things for granted," said Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women. In 1970, the Los Angeles Times quoted Height's opinion that joining together for the good of all women was "difficult" because of racism, but nonetheless possible, and that fighting racism was a job for all women as well as men. The story ran under the headline: "A White Fad? The Negro and Women's Lib."
The new year of 1971 began with an "Open Letter to the Women's Liberation Movement" mailed to several women's centers. Mocking the "few soul sisters" in the movement, the letter's anonymous author attacked calls for equal pay and job opportunities along with demands for abortion rights as exclusively white issues.
"Your freedom is so narrow," she wrote. "When you decide to go out and work, it's freedom! When I have to go out and work, there's no jobs," she continued. "When you want an abortion, it's because you have freedom over your own body. When I need an abortion, it's because I don't want another baby crying with hunger."
A meeting held to discuss the letter at the Los Angeles Women's Center was covered by the Los Angeles Times. The paper headlined its Jan. 15, 1971, story "Why Blacks Are Anti-Womlib."
By October, the author of the letter had identified herself as Mary E. Mebane, a black writer, teacher and activist whose autobiography about growing up in segregated South Carolina would be published in the 1980s to great acclaim. When Mebane's "open" letter was published in the New York Times that fall, the flood of responses included one from Margaret Sloan, then beginning to work on the editorial board of a new magazine called Ms., and later a prime mover of the National Black Feminist Organization.
Sloan enumerated the ways the movement did apply to black women. Black women were, in fact, having abortions, Sloan wrote, and "as many women die each year from botched, illegal abortions as American men die in Vietnam." The common enemy, not only for white and black women, but among women with different political priorities, was not another woman, Sloan said, but the media.
"Sister," her letter concluded, "what we should be doing is coming down on the white male press together instead of writing letters against each other for the delectation of white male editors."
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at email@example.com.
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Duke University Special Collections, "On the National Black Feminist Organization":
MIT Thistle, Alternative News Network, "But Some of Us Are Brave: A History of Black Feminism in the United States":
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