Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis

Angela Y. Davis is well-known in the United States and internationally for her work on issues of race, class and gender. An academic, political activist and writer, Davis has experienced racial discrimination first hand.  In her ambitious work Women, Race, and Class, she offers a critical analysis of the women’s movement in the United States.

Davis examines the efforts of the first and primarily white, feminist movement in the United States and through them she introduces the ways that gender, race and class worked together to shape inequality and racism. The early leaders of the movement, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, recognised that there was a connection between the slavery abolition movement and the women’s rights movement. Unfortunately, that way of thinking didn’t last long. The predominant assumption in those early days, was that ‘woman’ meant ‘middle – class white’ woman.

Despite the efforts of women like Sojourner Truth and the Grimké sisters, who connection between the liberation of women and the liberation of African Americans, the leaders of the movement began distancing themselves from the fight for abolition, thinking that they could “go back” and fight for it again once they had won the right to vote.

The transition from slavery to the capitalist labour market brought a qualitative change to the lives of black women but racial oppression continued. The “economic opportunities” they were allowed to participate in had working conditions no better than that of slavery. These middle-class, well-educated, white women failed to recognize that their notion of womanhood did not represent the majority of women, especially black women whose lives had been profoundly affected by their experiences during slavery. They failed to confront racism and tackle adequately the inequality brought about by the capitalist system, Davis argues.  They challenged male dominance while preserving the status quo.

Angela Davis examines in detail the myth of the ‘black rapist’ and how it was used to victimise a whole class of black men. The spread of disfranchisement, lynching and segregation brought the rise of the black women’s clubs. “Black women of the early twentieth century club movement resisted the lie of black promiscuity by leading a movement for temperance, modesty and respectability”, says Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent. They worked to raise the self-esteem of black women while challenging both racism and sexism.

In the final chapters, Angela Davis discusses the right to birth control and abortion and the issue of housework and child care. She also devotes a chapter to communist women activists who were active in the labour struggles of the early 20th century, women whose contributions often go unreported.

“The real problem of feminism is how it has confused the condition of one group of women with the condition of all women”, stated states Elizabeth Spellman in her book Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought.Until we work together, recognising our respecting differences and taking into account the complexity and diversity of women’s lives, it would be difficult to challenge inequalities that prevent individuals from living together in a free society.