A Narrow History of Feminism Impoverishes Activism

While it is a truism that 1970s feminist activism gave rise to women’s history, whose feminist activism counts in histories is often quite limited. At our present historical moment, with myriad calls for revived activism, we are feeling the consequences of our narrow historical view. Nowhere is this clearer than the position that the Combahee River Collective occupies in too many scholarly discussions of feminist activism. As Clare Hemmings’ perspicacious delineation of chronologies of feminist theory shows black feminism is erroneously anchored to the 1980s despite Combahee’s origin point of 1974 and their renown statement of April 1977. The interplay of black women’s culture and direct political action led by Combahee participants in Boston from 1978 to 1979 offers more evidence for the inadequacies of the standard narrative of feminism’s trajectory.[1]

A shocking series of murders of black women in the first months of 1979 prompted Combahee member Barbara Smith to draft “SIX BLACK WOMEN WHY DID THEY DIE.” This pamphlet combined a list of local resources with trenchant feminist analysis. Smith directly countered paternalist suggestions that women stay at home or rely on black men for protection with a thorough feminist explication of the causes of violence against women.

Boston members of Combahee joined with the Coalition for Women’s Safety, a “predominantly white” anti-violence against women organization, to organize a mass protest. On April 1, 1979, 1500 demonstrators took to the streets to mourn the slain women and to demand that the city stop ignoring the murders and that the press stop trivializing them.

How is this multi-ethnic coalition that involved the most famous black feminist group of its era not part of the standard history of feminist activism?[2] Again, Hemmings hints at a possible explanation for this curious absence; black feminism too often appears in trajectories of feminism as only a critique of white feminism.[3] The model this protest offered, women of different ethnicities and sexual identities finding ways to prioritize black women’s voices and black women’s safety, does not fit that narrative.

The coalition was facilitated by relationships that had been created in 1978 as part of Varied Voices of Black Women: An Evening of Words and Music. Members of the Combahee River Collective formed the core of the Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective (August 1978), which produced the event, but it also included white women from Boston’s thriving women’s music scene.[4] Women’s music has been viewed as an almost exclusively white domain, replete with what critics have labeled “essentialism” which Hemmings notes is too often feminist shorthand for racist. Yet, the multi-ethnic Collective revolved around a shared belief that “black women’s culture [was] a politically transforming force, buried under white male rule.”[5] Black women’s culture was linked to “a consciously anti-racist women’s movement”[6] and the Collective presented itself as a model for a feminist anti-racist practice.

Tia Cross, a member of the Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective, was also a member of the Coalition for Safety. It was Cross as well who captured the now famous photograph of women marching behind the banner “3rd World Women. We cannot live without our lives” during the protest. The banner attests to the important role of women’s culture in political protest and the fruitful meeting ground culture provided for feminists of diverse identities. The line is from a poem by white lesbian feminist Barbara Deming that was taken up by Audre Lorde in her multi-voice poem Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices written in response to the Boston murders.[7] The poem was performed as part of the protest and the banner continued to be used in subsequent Boston feminist events appearing on the stage for example when readings from This Bridge Called My Back occurred, a visible reminder not only of the protests, but that indeed poetry was not a luxury.

Just four days after the protest, three members of the Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Tia Cross, joined with Freda Klein to write what became highly influential consciousness-raising guidelines to facilitate conversations about racism. Again, existing relationships facilitated this process, something the authors emphasized, recommending a “substantial amount of time sharing personal histories and feelings in order to build trust” before the consciousness-raising sessions occurred. When the guidelines made their way into academia via the 1981 NWSA conference “Women Respond to Racism,” they lost the crucial insight no “political action without personal interactionmuch as the complex work done by members of Combahee River Collective in the late 1970s, which involved coalitions built around women’s culture and direct political action, is too often ignored in favor of name dropping their renown statement. Thus most histories, as Hemmings analysis would lead us to expect, position Combahee as a chronological breaking point, the emergence of a black feminism, which it certainly was, but it was also a powerful example of complex feminist alliances that we could use today.

[1]For a detailed history of these events, albeit without the emphasis on culture, see the fifth chapter of Wini Breines’ The Trouble Between Us. The work of Combahee in this protest is mentioned in history of black feminism, but more seldom in overviews of US feminist movement, which almost always include Combahee’s statement. In recent years, the event has been the subject of online articles. See Who is Killing Us, Combahee River Collective Leads Protest in Response to String of Murders in Boston, 1979, Black Herstory: Who Is Killing Us?.

[2] At the time, Combahee’s work on this protest was clearly understood as part of the larger feminist movement to end violence against women. The final version of the pamphlet appears in Fight Back!: Feminist Resistance to Male Violence.

[3] This particular framing has led to insufficient attention being paid to the larger context — the impressive theorizing by black feminist in the 1970s, particularly Smith’s path-breaking essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” and the editing of Conditions Five (cfp issued April 1978 volume published November1979), a truly astounding piece of intellectual labor that brought together an array of black women’s art, literature, history, and music. The insights and analysis of the Smith’s “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” are woven throughout Varied Voices right down to lines appearing verbatim in the program indicating the extent to which her literary analysis informed her activist praxis and vice versa.

[4] Combahee River Collective participants include Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Ellie Johnson, and Mercedes Tompkins. Tia Cross, Barbara Smith’s partner at the time, had organized the 1975 Boston Women’s Music Weekend and Emily Culpepper, then a Harvard Divinity student, was active in both the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and in the women’s music scene.

[5] Draft statement by the Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective

[6]Program Varied Voices of Black Women.

[7] Poetry was central to this protest. In the third version of the pamphlet, each subsequent version appeared to mark the deaths of more women, the section of feminist analysis was replaced with Ntozake Shange “with no immediate cause” a poem that accomplished the same goal of providing feminist explication of the systemic causes of violence against women.