For Women’s History Month, Jezebel and The Root are partnering for JezeRoot, a series that focuses on women of color, domestic workers and sex workers.
In December of last year, Gloria Steinem, a woman whose name and face has come to symbolize the feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s, spoke before the Massachusetts Women’s Conference about the #MeToo movement and the importance of defining sexual harassment.
The conversation turned to the importance of black women in building the current movement against sexual and gender violence. Many are familiar with Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement a decade ago, but far less people know that key legislation barring sexual harassment in the workplace came as a direct result of lawsuits black women filed.
“The problem, and what [many feminists today] are not saying,” Steinem told the crowd, “is that women of color in general—and especially black women—have always been more likely to be feminist than white women.”
If it is an astonishing statement, particularly coming from a white woman, it is also a true one.
Black women and women of color have actively fought for the rights and livelihoods of women for more than two centuries, yet their stories and contributions are often sidelined in the mainstream narrative of the feminist movement.
They did so at a greater risk of violence, and they did so even as white suffragettes actively rallied against civil rights for black Americans, as Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, did when she argued that black women “have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women.”
“Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!” Shaw added.
And when white feminists weren’t actively undermining the efforts of feminists of color, their absence and silence around issues women of color faced was conspicuous. For instance, as white feminists fought for reproductive rights, they largely overlooked the complicated relationship women of color, who had historically been subjected to sterilization programs without their knowledge or consent, had to the movement.
As more Americans embrace intersectional feminism and its emphasis on inclusion, it’s important to remember that intersectional feminism has alway been practiced by black women and women of color, who combated the gender violence of their day as well as confronted racial abuse and exploitation of their labor. Below, we’ve listed some of those women—some whose names may be familiar and some whose names aren’t.
As we see below, the fight for workers’ rights has always been a fight for women’s rights, particularly for women of color, and the erasure of labor as part of the feminist movement says more about the work and the women this country has historically valued than it does about their contributions.
The efforts of these women to fight management abuses and racial and sexual abuse in the workplace have bettered the lives of an uncountable number of women, and their organizing tactics laid the groundwork for battles that continue to this day. For that reason, the women of the labor movement are featured prominently on this list.
This list is by no means a complete one. It is, we hope, a helpful starting point for getting reacquainted with the centuries of labor that women of color have put into making this country a fairer, more equitable place for everyone.
Born into slavery, Truth was among the first to articulate the divide between black womanhood and white womanhood in America.
In her 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, which remains one of the most famous women’s rights speeches ever delivered, Truth asked the Akron, Ohio, audience:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! But ain’t a woman? Look at me. Look at my arm. I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?
She is the sole black woman to have a literal seat at the table at artist Judy Chicago’s iconic “Dinner Party” installation, which features some of the most prominent women in history.
In June 1866, a group of newly freed black women working as laundresses in Jackson, Miss., formed the state’s first labor union, the Washerwomen of Jackson. Together, the women sent a resolution to then-Mayor D.N. Barrows that demanded a “uniform rate for our labor.” The bold action inspired other freedmen to write their own resolutions petitioning for fair wages, all in a climate where white planters and politicians were trying to re-enslave them through notorious “Black Codes” legislation.
Parsons, born Lucy Eldine Gonzalez, is believed to have been born into bondage, though much of her early life is undocumented. Many believe she was of black, Mexican and Native American origin, though she only ever acknowledged her Mexican and indigenous heritage.
Parsons and her husband, Albert, were trailblazing figures among American anarchists and in the radical labor movement. Her feminism was grounded in class issues. The staunch anti-capitalist helped organize the 1915 Chicago Hunger Strike of Chicago, in which demonstrators marched on behalf of unemployed and hungry men, women and children.
Cooper was one of the pre-eminent scholars of her day, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Oberlin College despite having been born a slave in North Carolina just before the Civil War.
A black-liberation activist, Cooper spoke and wrote frequently about black womanhood. Her 1892 book, A Voice From the South by a Black Woman of the South, is a classic black feminist text, and her 1893 speech, “Women’s Cause Is One and Universal,” delivered in front of a mostly white audience at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago, illuminated the stark differences between white women and black women:
The white woman could least plead for her own emancipation; the black woman, doubly enslaved, could but suffer and struggle and be silent. I speak for the colored women of the South, because it is there that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history, and there her destiny evolving.
Let woman’s claim be as broad in the concrete as in the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritisms, whether of sex, race, country or condition. If one link of the chain be broken, the chain is broken. A bridge is no stronger than its weakest part, and a cause is not worthier than its weakest element.
Less than 20 years after the Civil War ended, thousands of black laundresses in Atlanta went on strike in the summer of 1881 to lobby state officials for higher wages and better working conditions, including greater control on how their work was organized.
The strike began with 20 black laundresses who formed the Washing Society, a trade union seeking “higher pay, respect and autonomy over their work, and established a uniform rate at $1 per dozen pounds of wash,” the AFL-CIO notes.
Over three weeks of striking, the Washing Society expanded to include 3,000 strikers, including white laundresses (at the time, white women made up less than 2 percent of washerwomen in Atlanta).
The Washing Society not only succeeded in raising wages but also inspired other domestic workers throughout the city to employ similar methods to advocate for their rights.
A prominent journalist, Wells was also a suffragette and fought just as fervently for women’s rights as she did for civil rights. She formed the first suffrage organization for black women, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, and is considered one of the first American women to keep her last name after marriage.
Like many of her peers, her advocacy for women was met with open racism from white feminists. At the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., white organizers demanded that black women march at the back of the demonstration. When an Illinois organizer told Wells she could only march if she did so with an all-black delegation, the famed anti-lynching activist said that she refused to join unless she could march under the Illinois banner.
And march under that banner she did.
Moreno, a Guatemalan, never gained U.S. citizenship, but her work was instrumental in advancing the rights of women who work, particularly Latinas.
A gifted labor organizer, she traveled throughout the South and California to call attention to the poor working conditions in sweatshops, canneries and agricultural fields. Moreno also brought awareness to the abuse of Latina workers in these industries.
A famed labor organizer, Springer Kemp was instrumental in advancing labor movements on four different continents, most notably in Africa. Springer Kemp used her leadership status to push for integration within unions. As USA Today notes, while organizing a drive for the war effort in 1942, Springer Kemp deliberately scheduled an event in Chinatown at which people from all backgrounds could participate:
“We organized a blood bank with black and white workers laying table by table, giving blood because the Chinese didn’t ask what color blood it was,” Springer Kemp said, according to Daniel Katz’s book, All Together Different. “She was one of the early leaders, who was a strong advocate for unionism and civil rights,” says [historian Yvette Richards] Jordan, who teaches at George Mason University. “She saw those two movements in tandem.”
One of the most commanding and passionate voices of the civil rights movement, Hamer was so powerful, she had President Lyndon B. Johnson shook.
A former sharecropper, Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus toward the end of her life, in 1971.
But she is perhaps most well-known for her 1964 speech, “I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired”:
For 300 years, we’ve given them time. And I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change. We want a change in this society in America because, you see, we can no longer ignore the facts and getting our children to sing, “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed.” What do we have to hail here? The truth is the only thing going to free us. And you know this whole society is sick. And to prove just how sick it was when we was in Atlantic City challenging the [Democratic] National Convention, when I was testifying before the Credentials Committee, I was cut off because they hate to see what they been knowing all the time, and that’s the truth.
More than a decade before the 1963 March on Washington, there was the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. In 1951, this group of black women organized and descended upon Washington, D.C.
They were explicit in condemning the state’s complicity in racist violence, particularly against black women. Combining socialist concepts with black nationalism, the group sought to mobilize black women in domestic fights and international fights for justice, protesting against Jim Crow as well as the United States’ Cold War policies. While the radical protest organization was short-lived, it was the first communist-left group to be led by black women.
In 1968, the same year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Chisholm became the first black woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress. The unbought and unbossed congresswoman co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and was also the first African-American major-party candidate for president and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Her legislative achievements include championing a bill ensuring domestic workers received benefits, advocating for improved access to education and child care, fighting for the rights of immigrants, and expanding the government-funded food stamps program (also known by the acronym SNAP) to every state.
Her famous line, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” continues to inspire black women and women of color seeking public office to this day.
Co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America union, Huerta is also the woman behind the movement’s famous slogan, “Sí, se puede.” Outraged by both racial and economic injustice, Huerta was indefatigable in her efforts to advance the wages and working conditions of California’s farmworkers, most of whom were black, Mexican, Filipino, Japanese and Chinese working families. For this work, Huerta was threatened and attacked by farm owners and Teamsters, and beaten up by police.
“When we talk about spiritual forces, I think that Hispanic women are more familiar with spiritual forces,” Huerta once said. “We know what fasting is, and that it is part of the culture. We know what relationships are, and we know what sacrifice is.”
Lauded in the Asian-American community as being “ahead of her time,” Kochiyama, a Japanese American, was a staunch advocate for the rights of black, Latinx and indigenous communities as well as Asian Americans. Her family was among those interned during World War II, an experience that would profoundly impact Kochiyama and her fight for racial justice.
During her years as a human rights activist, Kochiyama advocated for black liberation, Puerto Rican independence and the rights of political prisoners. In the 1980s, she and her husband successfully lobbied the U.S. government to grant reparations and issue a formal apology to Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II.
Before “intersectional feminism” entered the mainstream, Lorde embodied its ideals. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde centered her writing and activism on dismantling racist, homophobic and sexist structures, and recognized those battles as fights that were part and parcel of each other.
In fact, her famous line about using the “master’s tools” to dismantle the master’s house was directed toward the feminist movement, and it’s worth remembering the quote in full:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
Lorde added, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?”
A pioneer for transgender rights, Johnson was a key figure in the 1969 Stonewall uprising, during which members of the LGBT community confronted police following a violent raid on a gay bar by New York City police. Stonewall is seen as a major turning point in the LGBT fight for equal rights, and Johnson was among the vanguard.
From her recent New York Times obit:
“Marsha P. Johnson could be perceived as the most marginalized of people— black, queer, gender-nonconforming, poor,” said Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona. “You might expect a person in such a position to be fragile, brutalized, beaten down. Instead, Marsha had this joie de vivre, a capacity to find joy in a world of suffering. She channeled it into political action, and did it with a kind of fierceness, grace and whimsy, with a loopy, absurdist reaction to it all.”
One of the most iconic figures of the Black Power movement, Davis rejected the idea that black women ought to choose between the women’s movement and the black rights movement. In her influential book Women, Race and Class, Davis examined the history of black women in the United States through a Marxist perspective. In the book, she highlighted the reproductive rights movement and how sterilization programs on communities of color complicated their relationship to the movement.
In 2013, Davis wrote:
Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism (I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple Feminisms, right). It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism and racism and colonialism and post colonialities and ability and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name.
Founded in Boston by three self-identified queer black feminists, Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith and Barbara Smith, the Combahee River Collective issued one of the clearest and most effective documents on the intersections of racial, gender and sexual oppression. They have also been recently credited with articulating the true inclusive power of identity politics.
“Most radical politics come directly” from black women’s identity, the women wrote in the Combahee River Collective Statement:
If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
In June 1982, Chen led one of the largest Asian-American strikes in history in New York’s Chinatown. Through the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, 20,000 garment workers, most of them women, took to the streets to push back on wage cuts and benefit cutbacks from their employers.
LaDuke’s life work as an indigenous activist, environmentalist and writer centers on protecting Native lands and life ways. It is through our relationship with the earth, LaDuke says, that communities derive their power, and only by challenging current hierarchies and paradigms can real gender progress be made:
I don’t understand all the nuances of the women’s movement. But I do understand that there are feminists who want to challenge the dominant paradigm, not only of patriarchy, but of where the original wealth came from and the relationship of that wealth to other peoples and the earth. That is the only way that I think you can really get to the depth of the problem.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the cases of these four black women—all government employees who had been sexually harassed at their respective jobs—helped expand civil rights protections to include sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. Before, legal definitions of sex discrimination were narrower, confined to outright assault or being denied employment because of one’s gender. These women’s individual lawsuits, and subsequent landmark legal victories, helped redefine protections for women in the workplace in ways that reverberate to today.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this list included noted Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller. After reflecting on her role in excluding black freedmen from the Cherokee Nation, however, we’ve opted to take her off, as it undermines the intersectionality that so many others on this list have emphasized in their work.