In a world that is dominated by men, especially White men, feminism is, for me, an empowering concept. It is a movement, which in the United States, according to Wikipedia, is aimed at “defining, establishing and defending equal social, economic and political rights for women.”
It is certainly possible to argue that women have come a long way, but while we out-enroll men in college attendance, we don’t out earn them, no matter our level of education. We don’t out-represent them in elected office, or even in the higher echelons of employment, such as the Fortune 500 corporations. Women are doing better than we ever did and we still have a long way to go.
The feminist movement shows up differently in the African American community. Our nation’s antipathy toward Black men suggests that men of African descent are not the same oppressors that White men are, bearing the burden of oppression themselves. At the same time, who rapes and beats Black women? Dare I say that the oppressors of African American women are likely to be African American men? Do I dare say that sisters need to step up and raise their voices without risking the inevitable backlash that comes from Black men? When African American women embrace the title ‘feminist’ we are somehow seen as attacking Black men. Actually, we are simply standing up for ourselves and for our communities.
African American people can’t fight the war against racism if half of the army is disabled. We can’t fight for our boys and, yes, our girls unless more of us speak up, stand up, and surround our babies with tender loving care. We can’t build whole and healthy communities unless the needs of both women and men are addressed. President Obama has addressed ‘My Brother’s Keeper.’ Who will be my sister’s keeper?
When African America women, and especially our young girls, see attention focused on Black men, won’t they wonder, “What about me?” All of our young people are under attack, but while Black men explode into riveting headlines, Black women implode eating too much (obesity among us is nearly 50%), giving too much, and not taking care of self at all. Who takes care of these women and reminds them that it is okay to stand up for themselves?
That’s why through it all, I stand firm on my feminism. I want women to know that they are enough. I tell young women that men are like icing, and women like cake. You can have cake without icing, but not icing without cake. Nobody is kicking our brothers to the curb, and women need the affirmation that they are okay, partner or not, child or not. And that we, women, can lean on our sisters, and ourselves when other support is not there.
Of course, we are inextricably intertwined, the women and the men and the children who must support each other and live out our dreams in tandem. These dreams only work in tandem when the dreamers consider themselves equal partners in this game called life. The same patriarchy that allows White men to oppress women shows up in a twisted form when Black men, with much less power than White men, oppress women.
During this Women’s History Month, I write in the name of Maria Stewart, a sister who, in the early 19th century, spoke about women’s rights and supported the anti-slavery movement. She was the first American woman who spoke to a mixed audience of men and women (according to Wiki and other Internet sources) and the first African American woman to speak about women’s rights. She started her professional life as a maid, and ended it in Washington, D.C. as a teacher and a matron at Freedman’s Hospital. In the middle, she shook it up, earning both the respect and the ire of her colleagues.
If you stand on the shoulders of Maria Stewart, you are undergirded by this amazing feminist who took to the stage before the White Grimke sisters did. What price did she pay? How was she affected?
Even as we passionately support Black men we must, in the name of Maria Stewart, embrace and support Black women. We lift as we climb. Let’s lift us all!
(Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.)