A Revolutionary Feminist History: A Review of Women, Race & Class

A Revolutionary Feminist History: A Review of Women, Race & Class

It is not uncommon in school to learn about women’s suffrage. Most of us are familiar with the names of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton because of it. As far as feminist history, this is often the beginning and the end of the story. If we want to know about the lives of women under slavery, the role that Black men and women played in achieving women’s suffrage, the treatment of working-class women by suffragists, and the stances that Black women took on the abortion and anti-rape movements, then we have to look elsewhere. Angela Davis’s 1981 masterpiece Women, Race & Class is where you can find all this and more. High school and college classrooms around the country would do well to add it to their syllabi.

White women of every kind

Women, Race & Class is the quintessential primer of essential American history that most of us were not taught in class. We may have heard murmurs about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton being typical white feminists who tossed Black women out of their movement when it darkened their image, but most of us don’t know the whole story.

In terms of a racialized history of feminism, I was actually more surprised to learn that there were almost a dozen white women whose solidarity Davis praised, including Sarah and Angelina Grimke and Myrtilla Miner. Of course, Davis tells the stories of dozens more Black women and men, and of many a racist white women as well. But knowing that there were this many notable white women allies even as early as the mid-1800s shows that we have little excuse for exclusionary white feminism today.

Historical context

Brilliant books on intersectional feminism continue to fill bookstore shelves every day, like Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism, Ruby Hamad’s White Tears / Brown Scars, and Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism. Just because Women, Race & Class is over 40 years old, that doesn’t mean it is any less essential than these new analyses. Women, Race & Class is already a history book as it is. Davis traces Black women’s experience of the feminist movements from their time in slavery to the 1970s—when white women couldn’t understand why Black women, many of whom were suffering from sterilization abuse, weren’t thrilled about the passing of Roe v. Wade (which, again, many of them didn’t benefit from anyway thanks to the Hyde Amendment). Davis’s historical account gives needed context to the popular books that analyze the movement today.

Women, race & communism

Women, Race & Class includes a full chapter documenting the work of communist women whom Davis admires. This is fitting considering that Angela Davis herself is a famous communist and was a longtime member of the Communist Party USA. I’ve been increasingly drawn to socialism for a long time, so seeing the way that Davis brilliantly ties oppression to monopoly capitalism in a way that few of her historical subjects did was refreshing. (There are differences between socialism and communism, but many people, including Davis, use them interchangeably.)

It’s been said that nowadays, “socialism” is becoming an overused buzzword, but I disagree. People like me, who are living in a world literally destroyed by capitalism, are finally acquainting ourselves with socialism from famed primary sources like Davis who have spent their lives in socialist and communist spaces. Just because something good, like socialism or intersectional feminism, is popular, does not mean it is being ruined. Both terms can and sometimes do get misused, just like any other word that is being picked up more and more. But hipster socialists should be glad to see this movement spreading to the mainstream.

I have a lot of learning to do about socialism, and Women, Race & Class was a perfect place to start. It incorporated struggles I was already familiar with—women’s suffrage, equal education, reproductive rights—and, explicitly naming capitalism as the cause and socialism as the solution, demonstrated that fights that might seem disparate can be fought more efficiently when we see our oppression as tied to that of our sisters’.

2 thoughts on “A Revolutionary Feminist History: A Review of Women, Race & Class

  • May 28, 2023 at 9:27 pm

    Brilliant stuff.
    It’s been way too long since I’ve delved into Ms. Davis’ work. Thanks for the reminder.

  • June 1, 2023 at 3:03 pm

    I really need to read this. I’ve been a socialist since I was radicalised in my early teens by a very cool grandmother figure I had locally (in my very right-wing, conservative and Conservative neighbourhood) and have long admired Davis without ever having actually read her. Thank you for the reminder!


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