Angela Yvonne Davis, Women, Race & Class

The issue of women’s rights has always been complicated by its connections to other rights. When one class of women achieve professional and political power, have another class of women lost out? How do feminists reconcile that with principles of equality?

Angela Yvonne Davis, feminist, radical and scholar, tackled such complications in her 1981 work Women, Race & Class. Because of America’s racial divide, there were always two threads in the women’s movement, but equal rights for women were historically closely tied with the abolition of slavery. Many women of the 1800s, newly freed from spinning, weaving, and all the other tasks that had moved from the home to the factory, turned their energies to social reform, and slavery was the most urgent target.

Davis explains how strong alliances and tensions arose between White women and people of colour. In fighting for abolition, these women came out of their homes to organise, sign petitions, march in protest, raise awareness and change the law. At the same time, the legacy of slavery, as she writes in her opening chapter, offered a new standard for womanhood. Davis evokes the freed slave Sojourner Truth, who rolled up her sleeve in a public meeting, at a time when few women spoke publicly, to show a muscular arm and declare that she had all her life worked as hard as any man.

When slavery was finally made illegal in all states in 1865, and women’s voting rights were postponed indefinitely, the two movements diverged. Each group aligned itself with opposing political and business interests.

Davis goes into the economic history of African-American women after emancipation, and here we get on home ground. Even those who qualified as teachers and typists could only get work as domestic servants, and accounts from the early 1900s testify they were “exploited beyond human endurance”. The same feminists who marched for voting rights and better working conditions for factory girls could not acknowledge that they were inhuman to their own help. Davis traces the struggle of African-American women for education and their organised protests against mob violence that routinely killed thousands of African-American men, often on false charges. She also documents the relationship of racism and trade unions.

Davis raises issues of race, gender and class that remain uncomfortable to this day. One is rape and accusation of rape as a racist tool. Another is the two-faced approach toward reproductive rights, a matter of personal empowerment for White women but a means of population control over Native Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics.

It is ironic that even this most radical feminist ends with a chapter on housework. Housework can be industrialized, writes Davis, if the capitalists would only allow it. Teams of trained and well-paid workers could move from dwelling to dwelling, accomplishing efficiently and swiftly what each woman now does alone and unrewarded. That challenge remains, she concludes.

Thirty-two years on, the reader must add, almost all of these challenges remain.

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