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.
- 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?
- What are the parallels so far between the first and second wave?
- How does Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech expose the class-bias and racism of the new women’s movement?
- 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)?
- 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?