The Struggle for Women's Equality in Black America
By Ron Daniels
Copyright 2000. The Jackson Advocate, Jackson, Mississippi. Published in the April 6-12, 2000 edition. Permission to reprint and post granted by Ms. Alice Thomas-Tisdale, Associate Publisher.
As we reflect on the extraordinary contributions of African women in America to the Black freedom struggle and the sustenance of the Black community, it is also important to note that Black women have had to confront and overcome double oppression -- racism and sexism. Though there is some evidence that women enjoyed greater status and rights in ancient and traditional African civilizations and societies, in large measure the experience of African women in America has been conditioned by the patriarchal values of the system of male domination operative in Euro-American society.
Generally speaking, for much of the history of Africans in America, the reality is that inside the Black community Black women worked the fields, nursed the children, prepared the meals and tended to the housekeeping chores with the assumption that the man was the head of the household/family and leader in the affairs of the community. The role of the Black man was to provide for and protect the family and to take care of his woman. The protests of Black men about the highly provocative movie The Color Purple notwithstanding, domestic violence against women and incest has also been far more prevalent than many in the Black community have been willing to acknowledge.
It is a well known fact that Black women have most often been the backbone of the churches and civic organizations in the Black community, the worker bees that have made Black institutions and organizations viable and effective.. For much of our history in this country, however, leadership was seen as a role reserved for men. Hence, Black women often performed the tasks essential to the survival and success of Black institutions and organizations while Black men enjoyed the fruits of their labor by being the leaders.
For years Black women could be teachers and nurses, but being a doctor, dentist, lawyer, scientist, or engineer was off limits. Similarly, driving a truck or a bus, working on the assembly line in a manufacturing plant or working in the construction industry was taboo. These were considered men's jobs. To the degree that Black women aspired to enter these professions and occupations it was often considered a threat to the role of the Black man as head of the family/household. In the church, the idea that a woman could be a minister was unthinkable.
Obviously much has changed in Black America as it relates to the struggle for women's equality. Indeed Black women have never been totally subservient within the Black community. Black women and men have had to stand together in the common fight against racial oppression and economic exploitation. Hence, the struggle for women's equality in the Black community has been qualitatively different from the struggle of white women. Because of the reality of racial oppression, however, sometimes Black men have been reluctant to confront and address issues of sexism and gender inequality in the Black community.
During the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 60s and 70)s, Black women increasingly proclaimed that they would not be confronted to the clerical and administrative work and risk their lives as organizers while being excluded from leadership roles. Though the debate and tensions over the issue of gender inequality was inevitably influenced by the "women's liberation movement" unfolding in the larger society, Black women evolved their own agenda for equality within the framework of the Black freedom struggle. While some aspects of the women's liberation movement were decidedly anti-male, by and large, this was/is not the case within the Black community. Black women have simply not been content to play a secondary role in the Black freedom struggle or to settle for anything less than the right to fulfill their dreams and aspirations as Black women free of the prejudices, misconceptions and constraints of patriarchy and male domination.
As I argued during the debates leading up to the Million Man March and Day of Absence in 1995, equality, collaboration, cooperation and partnership should be the values which guide Black male-female relationships, not patriarchy. Being put on a "pedestal" by Black men is not a substitute for genuine equality, power and leadership in the Black community. No occupation, no field of endeavor should be viewed as the exclusive preserve of men. Black women and men must be free to fulfill their dreams free of barriers of race, gender and class. And Black men should not feel threatened by the success and leadership of Black women in the family or the community.
Indeed, Black men have all affirmative duty to fight against sexism/gender inequality and to advocate for full freedom for Black women. Such a commitment by Black men will give authenticity to our salutes and tributes to contributions of Black women to the survival and development of Africans in America. Only when Black women are able to proclaim, "free at last,' will the entire race be truly liberated.