THE MORAL MAJORITY is on the offensive. Ronald Reagan is celebrating his first year in the White House. The Left is still picking up the pieces and learning the lessons of its near dissolution in the '70s. And the women's movement is torn by dissent over a range of troubling issues from equal rights to welfare rights to the rights of lesbian mothers.
It's an opportune moment for Reagan's old nemesis Angela Davis to remind us that to break the contemporary impasse we must mine history for insights and guidance. Women, Race & Class is a collection of 13 essays by Davis on the most problematic of the historic divisions rending the women's movement. In it she places in context the often acrimonious debate over the whiteness and elitism of feminism.
Davis traces a disgraceful history of racism and betrayal of black women by the predominantly white women's movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. She notes the absence of black women at the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848. She details the rapid growth of racism in the movement after the Civil War when the Republican party moved to enfranchise black men to ensure Northern control of the South. Davis quotes abolitionist and leader of the women's rights and suffrage movements, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on black male suffrage: "It becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and let 'Sambo' walk into the kingdom first."
Stanton's compatriot Susan B. Anthony said of the Fifteenth Amendment, "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman."
Davis follows this strain of racism as it wends its way through the history of women's struggles. In 1909 Gertrude Stein characterized one of her female characters as possessed of "the simple promiscuous unmorality of black people." Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger fell prey to the white race salvationist theories of eugenics and in 1919 advocated, "more children from the fit, less from the unfit."
Women, Race & Class also treats the exclusion of white and black working women's concerns from the agenda set by the doctors' and preachers' wives who ran the women's rights movement. Davis describes conditons in the early textile mills whose workers were for the most part black and immigrant women: "Incredibly long hours--twelve, fourteen or even sixteen hours daily; atrocious working conditions; inhumanly crowded living quarters." The primary interest of these women in working conditions and wages was largely ignored by suffragettes like Stanton and Anthony who encouraged women to cross the picket lines of striking workers to gain entry into new trades.
Black women suffering under the double oppression of racism and sexism saw early that they needed far more than just the vote. Davis grimly reminds us that, "after the long- awaited victory of woman suffrage, Black women in the South were violently prevented from exercising their newly acquired right."
Never one to shy from struggle, Angela Davis conjures up the images of black women fighting to educate their children, surreptitiously under slavery and openly under segregation. She devotes a too brief chapter to the Black Women's Club movement organized in 1892 in the aftermath of a speaking tour by Ida B. Wells. Wells, a remarkable black newspaper publisher and reporter, spent her life building an international campaign against lynching. In another chapter, "Communist Women," Davis celebrates the lives of five other activist women, among them Wobblies Lucy Parsons and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
While Davis' treatment of the early years of women's rights offers little new information, it is a well-documented compilation of information vital to the discussion of the movement's current problems. Her comments on recent history, however, seem curiously dated, almost as though she's been out of the country since the late '70s.
Davis repeats the now familiar charge of racism against Susan Brownmiller for her 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. She also justly excoriates Jean MacKellar for her claim in Rape: The Bait and the Trap that over 90 percent of all rapes are committed by black men.
About the "myth of the black rapist," Davis observes that it has been used to imprison and execute black men since slavery began. From 1930 to 1967, 405 of the 455 men executed for rape convictions were black. Black women have not joined the anti-rape groups because their white members are insensitive to the danger of the myth, according to Davis.
On reproductive rights, Davis reveals the ugly cooperation of birth control advocates with the Eugenics Society. She explains the absence of black and Puerto Rican women from the ranks of the pro-choice movement. These women were suspicious of an abortion rights movement which failed to address their serious concern with sterilization abuse. Davis quotes a 1970 Princeton University study which showed that 20 percent of all married black American women had been sterlized. Thirty-five per cent of all Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been sterilized by the 1970s according to Linda Gordon's Woman's Body, Woman's Right, quoted by Davis.
Despite its factual abundance, Women, Race & Class is ultimately disappointing because it is incomplete. By failing to focus on ways to mend and reinvigorate the movement, the book becomes merely a gathering of disparate essays. While Davis calls repeatedly for the overthrow of monopoly capitalism and its replacement with socialism, she hardly suggests how racism and sexism are to be overcome in the progress toward a new society. Perhaps a longtime affiliation with the Communist Party has limited her view, for she also fails to present a vision of an authentic American socialism.
Two other new books grapple more directly with pulling black, white and working-class women back together. In Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (Anchor/Doubleday, paperback, $8.95), Gloria L. Joseph and Jill Lewis contrast black and white views of feminism, mother-daughter relations, and the media treatment of women, while also proposing ways to begin building a non-elitist feminism open and responsive to women of all races.
Bel Hooks' Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (South End, $17.50; paperback, $7) takes its title from Sojourner Truth's powerful speech before an 1851 women's convention in Akron, Ohio. Like Davis, Hooks examines black female slavery and the devaluation of black womanhood. Hooks' treatment of these issues is more thorough however, and she appears better versed in feminist theory, more deeply immersed in its contemporary debates.
Though more personal than Women, Race & Class, these books deal more concretely with feminist attempts to meet the challenges of race and class. They document the gradual coming together of abortion-rights and sterilization-abuse organizations. They discuss the growing sensitivity of anti-rape groups to the dangers of racism. They note the growing number of black women who by working with the feminist movement are forcing it to deal with them and their concerns and thereby to grow.
No doubt Angela Davis will soon update and complete her analysis of race, class and the women's movement. Her experience and scholarship will then give her recommendations great resonance. Meanwhile, the point is not just to understand the historic failings of the women's movement, but to remedy them.y