How did gender inequalities affect African-American women from the late 19th century to the 1990s?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Historically, some African-American women chose to advance racial concerns before addressing gender inequality. For example, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an African-American activist, supported the 15th Amendment during Reconstruction, though it only gave African-American men, not women, the right to vote. Active in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a cause with mostly white women leaders, Harper also founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Her co-founders included Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells.

Ida B. Wells, an African-American woman, also privileged racial advancement over gender advancement. An investigative journalist, she examined lynching and launched a campaign against it. She also began a campaign against Frances Willard, the President of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, for not addressing lynching. Willard, for her part, criticized African-Americans for helping to defeat temperance legislation in the south. White women did not often include racial concerns in their activities, and African-American women were excluded from their organizations. Therefore, there was originally a disunion between some African-American women and white women in working against racism and sexism. 

In addition, African-American women were also often excluded from African-American organizations. For example, W.E.B. Du Bois excluded Ida B. Wells from the list of the original founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, though she had wanted to be included and she had fought alongside Du Bois to end the lynching of African-Americans. Mary White Ovington, a white woman, was included as one of the founders of the NAACP.

Later, during the Civil Rights movement, women were often excluded from the leadership. For example, the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other male preachers, though Ella Baker, a woman, served as its staff member. Nevertheless, African-American women, including Rosa Parks, played a critical role in the movement. Later, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee developed during a student meeting that Ella Baker had organized. Women such as Diane Nash, who led the Nashville sit-in movement in 1960, were critical to the movement, but it was mainly led by men at the top levels, including Stokely Carmichael and others. 

Over time, African-American women's groups developed, including the Black Women's Liberation Committee, founded by Frances Beal and others in 1968. Beal wrote "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female," which discussed the racism and sexism that affected African-American women. Alice Walker, Bell Hooks, and others have now expanded the study of African-American women to understand how they are affected not only by racism but also by sexism and class background. Legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw was the first person to use the term "intersectionality" in 1989 to discuss the overlapping identities of gender, class, and race that affect African-American women.

 

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