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Women, Race, & Class [Book Review]

Summary

Women, Race, & Class by Angela Davis was published in 1981 and analyzes the individual histories and intersections of sexism, racism, and classism in America. The book primarily focuses on the women’s liberation movement and provides an overview of the movement’s complete timeline as well as in-depth coverage of specific eras. I picked up Women, Race, & Class thinking that it would be about Black women, their experiences, and activism within these systems of inequality. It certainly is but Women, Race, & Class goes further by also exploring how White women have functioned within and been affected by these systems of inequality.

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Show Notes

Women, Race, & Class begins during slavery as it is during this time that the attitudes and customs surrounding racism and sexism with regards to Black people would take root. While there was a clear delineation between what was considered “male” and “female” work in slaveholding White society, this was not the case among slaves. Contrary to what’s often portrayed in movies and television shows, most slaves did not work in the house but rather in the fields. Men and women generally working alongside each other doing the same kind of work.

Black women were not treated as fragile beings who needed to be kept from work that was physically demanding or dangerous. They were regarded much as male slaves, chattel used to work the land like any other beast of burden. The unpaid labor they provided generated profits which helped to enrich slave owners. As the status of the mother dictated the status of their offspring, any children they gave birth to become additional assets for the slave owner.

When slave traders were no longer allowed to import slaves it became vitally important for slave women to have children, especially in large amounts. This was a means of cost-effectively replenishing and expanding the slave population. Thus Black women were regarded as one would an ox, providing labor in the field as well as offspring that could be traded and sold commercially. Conversely, at the time White women were prized within society for their “feminine weakness” and roles as housewives and mothers.

Sometimes in reading books about Black history or the Black experience you get the sense that the target audience isn’t necessarily Black people. I was disappointed to a degree because I was looking for a book about how Black women have been affected by and fought back against sexism, racism, and classism both within the Black community and general society. But, Davis’ goal might have been to show how White women, particularly of the middle class, have been both allies and adversaries to other groups in the various equality movements. That’s not to say that there’s no information about Black women but rather that Women, Race, & Class at points centers on White women.

Davis states that many women (but she means White women) joined the anti-slavery movement as they felt imprisoned within White society and thus felt a connection with enslaved Black people. I don’t doubt that some White women were empathetic to the circumstances of Black people and were involved in the movement. But I got the feeling that Davis might have been overstating the number of White women that felt conflicted about slavery and those who took action against the institution. She states that “many” White women became involved but what does that mean in terms of a percentage of the population and based on what data? And sure, some women’s rights activists compared their lot as women to the enslaved but Davis’ later examples show that being for women’s rights didn’t mean they were against other forms of prejudice and inequality.

Women’s rights and racism are often linked because they both deal with forms of oppression. Thus I understood the logic of using slavery and the resulting racism as an analogy for sexism. But by White women using slavery in this way it ignored that some slaves were women and some of the women affected by sexism were Black. It symbolically erased Black women from both the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements. This is a perfect example of the phrase “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men”.

The chapters that cover Black men and White women jostling for positions to obtain the right to vote seemingly ignore that Black women existed. At first, it seemed like this might have been a matter of people using the term “men” in the old-fashioned manner of referring to people in general. But it eventually became clear that the White women’s rights activists were specifically referring to Black men and seemingly unconcerned with Black women. It also threw me off a bit when Davis used the term “women” in several instances where she was specifically referring to White women.

This isn’t completely Davis’ fault as while Black women were affected by both systems of oppression and thus active in both movements their unique circumstances and contributions were often ignored. It might seem like an insignificant thing but speaks to a persistent issue of the discussion of women’s rights being thought of solely in terms of the needs and experiences of White women. As well as the movements for Black equality being framed in terms of the needs and experiences of Black men.

Further complicating matters is that some people who supported the abolitionist movement pushed back against White women being publicly active. There were efforts to silence them based on their gender due to the fear that their activism might alienate those who believed in abolition but not gender equality. This was a precursor for later issues within the Civil and Women’s Rights Movements and the emergence of womanism. Davis delves into the backstory and activism of the Grimke sisters which gives important context showing that the two movements of the time were linked and should have been treated as such rather than an either-or situation.

I’m aware of modern-day patriarchy and sexism within America and that some sexist practices are now regarded as being old-fashioned and only observed in “backward” countries. America experienced huge upheavals with regards to racism and sexism in the 1960s and there’s still a lot of room for improvement but other countries are referred to as archaic. Yet, it was still a bit weird to read that less than 200 years ago it was scandalous in America for women to speak in public before an audience. Let that sink in for a moment.

Throughout history, people have selectively interpreted and otherwise manipulated religion to support their actions and desires. It was interesting to see how religion and stereotypes about traits in Black vs. White people were used to justify the enslavement of Black people. And then when the Grimke sisters (White women) began to speak out against slavery the religious establishment attempted to use religion to shame them into silence. In the case of the Grimkes the church fathers pushed back against their activism by trying to make it seem like the Grimkes weren’t speaking out against other humans but rather the will of God and his plans for how things should be. I came away from the section on the Grimkes seeing some flaws in their perspective but a degree of respect for their activism.

I’d previously heard of and read Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman speech and knew she gave it at a women’s rights convention. But it wasn’t until reading Women, Race, & Class that I truly understood the context in which it was given. As someone who enjoys debates, it was a high point for me. Reading about the sexist arguments that were being used to explain why women shouldn’t have equal rights in society being refuted with pure logic helped to give even greater context to Truth’s speech. This wasn’t a one-sided speech from someone on stage speaking to a captive audience but rather a battle of words between Truth and hecklers in the crowd.

This was especially riveting as Truth had been born a slave but had the natural intelligence and confidence to stand up and speak out when few of the other women in attendance were willing or able to do so. Her speech at the convention in Akron serves as an example of Black women and their particular needs being ignored only to have Black women come through in the clutch and help everyone move forward. These women were against Truth speaking at the meeting but she turned out to be the most impactful attendee.

As the Civil War was ending and discussions began about granting Black men the right to vote, some White women saw this as an opportunity to push for their enfranchisement. Some radical activists pushed for Black men and White women to be enfranchised at the same time. But realizing that supporting Black male voting rights might alienate some racists, a faction of White female activists continued the push for their voting rights while remaining publicly neutral on the topic of racial equality and enfranchisement for Black men.

And then there was the faction of White women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton who pressed for them to receive the right to vote and Black men later, if at all. These women allied themselves with the racist White power structure and argued for White women to be enfranchised based on a platform of racial solidarity and the preservation of White supremacy. I remember learning about Stanton in school but only sanitized information about her efforts for women’s rights. But seemed to be incredibly selfish and racist based on the quotes and excerpts from her speeches and letters that were featured in Women, Race, & Class. Her ideology showed that despite a person being oppressed themselves, some are willing to not just tolerate but actively encourage the oppression of others.

The Black male enfranchisement activists felt voting rights were important as a tool to stop the racial violence in the South. Regardless of the details, White women were citizens of America and should have had the right to vote as well. And Black women were also being victimized throughout the South so they also needed legal and political protection. There were certainly multiple valid arguments for Black male voting rights but no logical explanation as to why women shouldn’t have received the right to vote at the same time. Yet, because the intersectional needs of Black women were effectively being ignored, the two movements could continue arguing for their individual needs while ignoring areas of overlap or commonality.

Some Black female activists of the time (and even in the present) felt that race was a more important issue than gender. So as the two factions jostled for position, some Black women automatically sided with Black male enfranchisement. But then this allowed their issues with sexism within general society and the Black community to be put on the back burner. And then when Black women became active in the women’s rights movement, their needs were ignored and they experienced racism within that movement. If Black women face unique and complex forms of oppression due to both race and gender why should one be deemed more pressing than the other? This results in Black women being used as foot soldiers in both movements while continuously having their needs ignored.

It was interesting to read Davis’ breakdown of how the factions of the various rights movements following the Civil War became pawns in the fight for political power. As at most other points in American history when oppressed groups would have benefited from joining together, they instead allowed themselves to be played against each other. The obvious solution should have been to define citizenship and make all adults who fit the criteria eligible to vote.

The Democrats supported the movement to prioritize giving White women the right to vote but not because of some newfound concern for women’s rights or gender equality. Instead, having more White voters in the form of women would increase the overall number of eligible White voters and help to obstruct the enfranchisement of Black men or at least nullify the impact of their votes. And Republicans backed the movement to give Black men the right to vote as a means of increasing the number of eligible would-be Republican voters but not out of any real concern for Black people.

Men and women who were of age regardless of their race or gender should have been given the right to vote. The political chips would have fallen wherever they did. But with each faction focused on their agendas and with politicians in the mix, the leaders of both movements allowed themselves to get drawn into the political fight.

White women aligned with White supremacists to obtain the right to vote although some of these same people were oppressing them through sexism. Poor and working-class White people aligned with the middle class and wealthy White supremacists in exchange for racial privilege although these same people would oppress them through classism. And some Black people aligned with sexists based on gender and middle class and wealthy White supremacists based on class.

All of these marginalized groups compromised themselves and worked against their long-term best interests in exchange for crumbs from the table. They could have joined together as a coalition of people oppressed by gender, race, or class to overhaul the system completely. But part of the problem is that many marginalized groups don’t necessarily have a problem with other groups being oppressed or assimilating into an unjust society as long as they can benefit in some way or experience a degree of privilege.

Having anything beyond basic qualifiers for enfranchisement is exploitative. It’s unethical to make it difficult for individuals to obtain an education or purchase property and then turn around and use that as a reason to disqualify them from participation in government. After income tax was instituted, it was especially unfair to expect citizens to pay taxes on their earnings while being excluded from participation in the government. That would be taxation without representation, one of the issues that led to America’s push for its independence and the Revolutionary War.

There is an often repeated misrepresentation of reality where after generations (centuries to be more accurate) of Black people being held in slavery that any attempts to render the community with assistance to achieve a degree of parity with the rest of society is unfair. The question would be asked why former slaves and their descendants were being given opportunities to learn, acquire property, etc while poor Whites weren’t being given anything.

But the real question to ask is if White people were united by race, how did it come to pass that some had easy access to seemingly unlimited resources and opportunities while others were struggling to survive? For generations, poor White people had lived hard lives and been taken advantage of and they certainly weren’t being oppressed by Black people, the majority of whom were themselves enslaved or otherwise struggling. Black people were not the ones forcing working-class White people to work in unsafe conditions for unreasonable hours at low wages. Who was using private agencies such as the Pinkertons to violently break strikes and bust up unions?

It’s a sleight of hand where you are being exploited but the person taking advantage of you talks you into identifying with them to the point you direct your anger at someone else. Imagine a bully taking your lunch but he looks too big for you to fight him. So instead you become his lackey and help him pick on other kids so hopefully, he stops picking on you and occasionally throws some of the spoils your way. Instead of directing your anger and frustration at the person(s) doing the exploiting, you allow them to fill you with a false sense of superiority and feelings of entitlement. And thus the oppressed become the oppressors. It’s cowardly and pathetic.

This is how race classifications and racism developed as before slavery there was no concept of race. In the colonies during the early days of slavery, race was developed in part as a method for keeping the White working class and slaves divided. It helped to ensure that they would be less likely to join together and utilize their greater population numbers to revolt against the smaller wealthy ruling class.

Following emancipation, the newly freed realized that to achieve progress they needed land, political power in the form of voting rights, and access to education. With those three tools, they would be able to generate revenue, increase their likelihood of achieving financial stability, provide more options for themselves and their children, and ensure that their needs were being represented and addressed within the political establishment.

There had been an ongoing concerted effort to keep slaves and later free Black people uneducated. The excuse given was that Black people were intellectually inferior and educating them would be to their detriment. It was believed that this made them easier to control and dissuaded attempts at escape and revolt. After emancipation, keeping Black people uneducated helped to ensure continued access to a cheap source of labor. Their lack of education and skills would provide excuses for keeping them relegated to menial, dangerous, and difficult jobs.

But as Davis astutely points out, if Black people were indeed intellectually inferior, they would be incapable of learning even with access to education. The fact that attempts to procure an education had to be done in secret due to the threat of violence if one were caught learning should give pause. It exposed the reality that education was being kept from slaves and later free Black people not because they were incapable of or unfit to learn but rather because with access to knowledge they might want more out of life and thus push even harder for their freedom and opportunities to progress.

An especially enlightening chapter in Women, Race, & Class touches on historical misrepresentation and stereotypes related to rape and rape statistics. I’d read other books that discussed the strategy behind stereotyping Black men as rapists who were consumed with lust for White women. But it was eye-opening to read how this strategy developed in phases to explain why the rate of lynchings of Black people was increasing. Black men eventually became the posterchild for rapists and other men of color as well as poor and working-class would eventually be added to the group. Yet, middle-class and wealthy men maintained their unblemished reputations.

This played into the inaccurate stereotype of rapists being menacing social pariahs who jumped out from behind bushes. It’s taken decades but fortunately, more people are gradually accepting the reality that rapists do not have a look. They can come from any race, education level, and/or socio-economic background. Identifying and prosecuting someone as a rapist should be based on the facts and circumstances surrounding the accusation. The alleged victim or accused rapists’ race, appearance, title/standing in the community, etc should not affect proceedings.

Towards the end of Women, Race, & Class, Davis shared her opinion on what steps could have been taken to achieve gender equality in the recent past. For about a century after the Civil War, Black women comprised a substantial part of the female workforce with the vast majority working as domestics. As America progressed from an agricultural to an industrial economy many unskilled workers found employment in factories or manufacturing. Working-class White women, in particular, found work in the garment industries.

I agreed with Davis’ perspective that factory and manufacturing work was a slog but at one point in time work on assembly lines provided people with decent salaries. The work might not have been mentally stimulating but when those jobs moved offshore or became automated it led to a lot of people losing jobs. Some jobs are cushy with high salaries, others are dangerous with comparatively low salaries, and most fall somewhere in the middle. Having to work for a living, in general, isn’t a bad thing nor do I think that domestic work is a bad or degrading job. Work is work. Likewise, I don’t think there’s any such thing as “men’s work” or “women’s work” in a household, just chores and things to get done.

Over time it has become more commonplace for women to work and have careers outside the home. Yet, most women continue to do the bulk of childcare and household chores while also working. This implies that while working-class men work, they don’t do a similar proportion of household chores or child care, if at all.

Women, Race, & Class was released some time ago and technology has changed quite a bit since then. But at the time, Davis proposed that the key to women’s liberation would be women, working-class women, in particular, getting relief from having to work both inside and outside the home. That sounds reasonable but she lost me with the idea of child care, meal prep, and other household tasks becoming the shared responsibility of society. Why wouldn’t the first step in easing the burden of responsibilities for women be men in sharing household responsibilities more equally?

In Davis’s scenario, the problem is women staying home to cook, clean, and otherwise taking care of the house because it’s deemed mundane and unproductive work. But then how is the solution getting teams of well-paid people to go from house to house to provide these services? Wouldn’t the work then be lacking in stimulation for them? If the difference is them being trained and well-paid with cleaning machinery to ease the physical burden of this kind of work, then isn’t there value in people, whether men or women, doing this within their home?

It would make more sense to ensure that working parents are earning a livable wage and working reasonable hours so they can support and be present for themselves and their families. There’s also nothing wrong with parents and/or couples sharing some responsibilities or bartering with other parents, friends, and family members. But I don’t see this as something the government or society in general needs to get involved with.

Programs such as WIC, Head Start, etc are great and should be supported. But it’s too much for strangers or the government to become involved with the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting or just keeping your home clean. It’s not harsh or unrealistic to encourage people to practice family planning and consider the number of children they can realistically manage to raise. Not just from a financial standpoint but also with regards to the amount of time and effort required to raise children.

Davis also discusses (though she doesn’t necessarily agree with) a movement at the time that was pushing for stay-at-home wives to receive a weekly income from the government. But there are rights and then there are feelings of entitlement. If a couple comes to the decision that she will be a housewife and take care of the children and home, how does it then become the responsibility of the government to provide them with a weekly paycheck for the wife? If the government is not mandating the wife to stay home or otherwise preventing her from earning a living, why should the government have to provide her with an income because she’s not earning one outside the home?

The idea is put forward that women’s contributions in the home are unappreciated and undervalued. That might be true but it’s an issue that the housewife should take up with her husband and family. And if the husband is unable to financially support the family without the wife also earning an income then the family can’t afford for her to be a housewife. This is assuming that the couple is choosing for the woman to be a housewife which is different from having to stay home to provide care for a child or other family member that has an illness or condition requiring care and/or supervision.

Granted, Women, Race, & Class was released about 40 years ago so that should also be taken into consideration. As the book centers on women and their role in the women’s rights movement, family units are discussed in terms of husband and wife. There’s no discussion of stay-at-home dads or if/how these issues play out in lesbian relationships.

Women, Race, & Class is fairly short with the ebook version that I read clocking in at 220 pages but the content is a bit dense and took a while for me to get through. Women, Race, & Class certainly isn’t boring but did require some effort to complete. I found myself at times reading a few sentences or paragraphs and disagreeing with the author. But I would then read a few more paragraphs and realize that she was sharing examples of other people’s opinions but would later clarify her thoughts. There were formatting issues at a few points with what were supposed to be block quotes that instead appeared as regular paragraphs making it difficult to follow whose idea was being expressed.

Overall, Women, Race, & Class is worth reading though I didn’t agree with all of the concepts or ideas. Some of the content early in the book is evergreen because it occurred so far back in the past that there’s a low possibility of anything happening now that would affect those events. But, it would be interesting to see an updated version of the book that comes forward to the present and explores how views and the women’s liberation movement have changed or remained the same.

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