Davis Chapters 1-4

9 Mar

Angela Davis is a scholar, activist, and teacher known for her work on issues of race, class, gender, and feminism. In her book Women, Race and Class, Davis begins by tracing the efforts of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. and how racism and classism has interfered with the ability of the women’s rights movement to achieve equality. She begins her analysis with the legacy of slavery and the abolitionist movement.

In chapter 1, Davis explains how the Black slave woman’s experience is underrepresented and missing from publications that focused on slavery. Davis recognizes this absence and proposes an exploration and reexamination of the multidimensional role of Black women within the family and within the slave community as a whole. Davis counters the assumption and stereotype that Black slave women worked as house servants. In reality, the majority of slave women were field workers just like men. In this way, “the oppression of women was identical to the oppression of men” (6). Yet, Davis adds that slave women suffered in other ways as victims of sexual abuse, barbarous mistreatment, and rape. Slave women were also essentially classified as “breeders” instead of “mothers,” and their children were sold away from them. Pregnant slave women were still expected to the agricultural work and were subject to mistreatment and punishment. Davis raises an important point regarding femininity and masculinity and the experience of slave women: “when it was profitable to exploit them as if they were men, they were regarded, in effect as genderless, but when they could be exploited, punished, and repressed in ways suited only for women, they were locked into their exclusively female roles” (6). Rape was a weapon of power to remind Black women of their femaleness and vulnerability.

Davis mentions the “Moynihan Report,” a government report written by President Johnson’s assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan called for action to employ and empower Black men, claiming they were emasculated by discrimination and matriarchal Black women. The Moynihan report was centered on male supremacist and patriarchal thinking, and its consequences led to the submission of Black women to promote male authority instead.

In addition, Davis discusses the ways in which Black women resisted and challenged the inhuman institution of slavery. Some of these ways included poisoning their masters, sabotaging, fleeing north, and joining maroon communities—or runaway slave communities. More subtly, they also engaged in acts of resistance by learning reading and writing skills and education. Davis pays tribute to Harriet Tubman, the “only woman in the United States ever to have led troops into battle,” –the Combahee River Raid. Davis also mentions how slave women experienced sexual equality within domestic life—“the labor that slaves performed for their own sake and not for the aggrandizement of their masters was carried out on terms of equality” (18).

Davis also mentions a popular piece of abolitionist literature—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the book, Stowe shares ideas about the injustices of slavery. In the process however, the story popularized many racial stereotypes. Davis criticizes the book for its “utter distortion of slave life,” as it “fails to capture the reality and the truth of Black women’s resistance to slavery” (29).

In chapter 2, Davis outlines women’s role in the anti-slavery movement. She points out how white middle class housewives ignorantly began to define marriage as a form of slavery, and how women workers also compared their economic oppression to slavery. She introduces several important women who participated in the abolitionist movement: Prudence Crandall—a schoolteacher and activist who ran the first school for Black girls in the U.S., Lucretia Mott—a Quaker minister who spoke out to an all-male audience, and the Grimke sisters. Davis explains how white women working in the abolitionist movement “learned about the nature of human oppression—and in the process, also learned important lessons about their own subjugation” (39). In addition, “the anti-slavery movement offered women of the middle class the opportunity to prove their worth according to standards that were not tied to their role as wives and mothers” (39).

In chapter 3, Davis continues her conversation on women involvement within the abolitionist movement. She explains how the women’s rights movement was provoked by the male supremacy present within the anti-slavery campaign. Frederick Douglass was a prominent proponent of the political equality of women. The Seneca Falls Declaration’s main concerns were centered around middle-class white women—including concerns of marriage and exclusion from professional fields of work. No reference was made in this declaration to Black women and slave women were entirely disregarded. Davis criticizes the abolitionist campaign for “its failure to promote a broad anti-racist consciousness” (59), and the failure to recognize the potential for an integrated women’s movement. Davis also mentions an extremely important speech: Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” emphasizes the need to fight for equal rights for Black women.

In chapter 4, Davis highlights the racism present within the abolitionist movement and the fight for suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, mainly known and highly regarded as a leader of the women’s rights movement and the main force behind the Seneca Falls Convention, held many primarily racist ideas. She wrote in 1865: “it is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant black one,” and she made several derogatory references in her writing. With underlying racism, Stanton and other women opposed Black male suffrage taking priority over the vote for women. This racist reasoning raises many questions about the merge of the women’s cause with the Black cause in 1866—The Equal Rights Association was established to incorporate the struggles for Black and woman suffrage in a single campaign. However, the Equal Rights Association came to an end after women like Stanton and Susan B. Anthony argued for its dissolution—forming the National Women Suffrage Association instead.

  1. Why did many women join the anti-slavery movement? How did the development of the abolitionist movement influence the first wave of the women’s rights movement?
  2. What are the parallels so far between the first and second wave?
  3. How does Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech expose the class-bias and racism of the new women’s movement?
  4. Why did Frederick Douglass argue that the struggle for Black suffrage should take strategic priority over the effort to achieve the vote for women? What does Davis mean by the last sentence of chapter four: “The real tragedy of the controversy surrounding Black suffrage within the Equal Rights Association is that Douglass’ vision of the franchise as a quasi-panacea for Black people may have encouraged the racist rigidity of the feminists’ stand on woman suffrage” (86)?
  5. Throughout these first few chapters, Davis relies on historical context, acknowledging and highlighting the misrepresentation or underrepresentation of various key historical moments. Why do history classes and textbooks fail to recognize the historical moments and figures Davis calls attention to?

6 Replies to “Davis Chapters 1-4

  1. History classes fail to acknowledge the conflicts between identities of great historical figures. Ordinarily, in history classes, figures like Harriett Tubman and Rosa Parks are not seen as women, but only as black activists. The history most American’s learn to create the fictional image of everything being neatly categorized, and that is not the case. Soujourner Truth’s “Aint I A Woman” is a prime example of a black activist determined to been seen for the other pieces of their identities. This is a crucial point in history that most history classes often miss because it is deemed too complicated to acknowledge womanhood and racial identity. This is also the issue with PWIs relying so heavily on February to showcase black excellence, and relying heavily on March to show off women’s history.
    Douglass wanted to focus on black suffrage as a whole because at this time the predominantly white feminists were willing to sacrifice the black feminists for their chance at voting. The white feminists argued that they should get voting rights before any black people, and used their race as justification. This act in the eyes of many could be seen as a betrayal. In one moment the feminists are advocating against slavery to build up their number of supporters and in the next moment, they are sacrificing their black supporters for their right to vote.

  2. Angela Davis strongly argues throughout the entirety of her book that the struggle of black men and women in many liberation movement is misrepresented. This is completely true throughout history that is the cause for why this country is built on systemic racism. Our school textbooks are written by white men and their skewed and ignorant perspective on liberation movements such as suffrage. We are taught a few black names such as MLK or Rosa Parks but the majority of black figures are not recognized. I think that it is extremely transparent that the education system is a major factor is racist ideologies in this country. Black and white history should not be different. The divide between the two histories has caused the stories of black men and women to be erased from history. Just as we see separation evident in college level institutions that perpetuate black struggle. Most universities will require a general history education class but all black history classes are considered elective courses. The education system is so corrupt and needs to be reformed so that as a country we acknowledge the reality of historical events. Davis makes it her goal to address the underrepresentation and shed light on the struggles that people of color went through. When women gained the right to vote, this applied to white women only. Women of color were not held to the same level and were denied from this right long after the victory of women’s suffrage.

  3. I think that history class and textbooks fail to recognize the historical moments and figures Davis calls attention to because America wants to present itself to its patriots as best as possible. Things such as racism are undesirable. America prides itself on justice and liberty. Often history is taught to fit into a neat little box that America deems appropriate. However, it leads to misrepresentation and the erasure of many. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech exposes America’s tendency to fail at recognizing the intersectionality of a person. She is both black and a woman yet all America sees is her race. They fail to treat her as a woman because they do not see her as one. If the historical moments Davis mentions were taught, it would reveal just how contradicting and hypocritical America actually is. It would reveal the racism, sexism, fascism, and classism that it is actually built on. It is said the winners get to write history. Therefore, our textbooks will always bias because they will probably be written based on the account of a bourgeois white person. Until people are willing to be informed about various aspects of America’s history, the voices of the unheard will remain overlooked. The erasure of history leaves a greater chance of repeating such tragedies due to ignorance and misrepresentation.

  4. Through these chapters, Angela Davis highlights how the Black women and men’s liberalization movement have been misunderstood and ignored throughout history. The United States education system fails to properly teach students about Black history and liberation movements. Throughout the discourse of our class, we have seen how knowledge is power. America is built by slaves and its various systems (political, educational, the economy) have been built to perpetuated racism and segregation. Our history classes are clearly biased, we learn about American history through the perspective of white males. We briefly learn about MLK, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman. Beyond those important figures in Black liberation movements, we don’t learn much. The US is still a place where they keep minorities oppressed, where racism is rampant and present. I believe that not teaching students these historical moments and figures that Davis called attention to keeps younger generations silent and ignorant. By remaining uniformed the struggles, mistreatment, and oppression of minorities go forgotten and unnoticed. This ignorance gives space for the perpetuation of white supremacy.

  5. As Davis says, so many women joined the anti-slavery movement because “enough white women were manifesting their sympathetic attitudes toward the Black people’s cause to have established the basis for a bond between the two oppressed groups.” (Davis 34)
    The abolitionist movement and supporters of women’s rights were pretty connected, and the abolitionist movement influenced the first wave of the women’s rights movement. As “white women learned about the nature of human oppression – and in the process, also learned important lessons about their own subjugation.” (39), the movements were connected as both groups recognized they were oppressed. However, the women’s movement often took on a racist approach, which Sojourner Truth addressed in her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Sojourner Truth acknowledged that “all women were not white and all women did not enjoy the material comfort of the middle classes and the bourgeoisie. (…) That her race and her economic condition were different than [middle class white women] did not annul her womanhood.” (63-64) Another supporter of both movements, Fredrick Douglass believed that the struggle for Black suffrage should take strategic priority over the effort to achieve the vote for women because of the history of abuse, murder, and segregation that black people had suffered for years on end. In these first few chapters, Davis brings up points of the historical context behind black oppression that are not as commonly known as other historical facts. History classes and textbooks have failed to recognize these moments because they illustrate a dark history of the systemic oppression of black people in America. It is important to acknowledge these faults in history and learn from them, hopefully to work on dismantling white supremacy today.

  6. The first and second waves of women’s rights movement parallel especially in their willingness to ignore issues to preserve their conservative support. The first wave closely aligned itself with the abolitionism and black suffrage, yet the mainstream movement quickly fell to the comforts of white supremacy rather than engage with the more “radical” ideologies (arguments based upon equality, etc). Susan B. Anthony represents the irony without the movement as she personally acknowledged many black leaders and engaged with theories centering around equality of all persons, yet she was not very public with it and eventually hid behind Stanton and other white feminists in order to “protect their Southern support.” This same scenario reminded me of the experiences of black feminists during the second wave as their voices were constantly ignored to maintain support. For example, while many black feminist leaders pushed forward social issues including reproductive rights, but the mainstream white feminist movement cut them off to the point of literally cutting a mic while they were presenting at conventions. The women’s rights movement relies on white supremacy to maintain support among men which is a detriment to the potential of the movement. In the modern movement, it is slowly shifting to finally acknowledge and take on these issues that black leaders have been fighting for but the trends from the first and second waves still remain.

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