The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before there was ‘intersectional feminism,’ there was the Combahee River Collective

Chirlane McCray speaks onstage during the We Stand United NYC Rally outside Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York City in January. (D Dipasupil/Getty Images)

About US is an initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Sign up for the newsletter.

Gasps and murmurs, even a few chuckles, rippled through a roomful of women when Chirlane McCray made note of a major victory for women’s rights in 1974.

“Women got the right to have their own credit cards. Before that you had to have a husband or somebody had to sign for you,” she said. “For those of you who weren’t alive at that time, it’s hard to describe how much things have changed.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, she says, is the need for black women to assert their own brand of feminism, much as she and a group of women did in 1974, when they formed the Combahee River Collective.

McCray, wife of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, talked about the collective and black women’s current role in feminism at last weekend’s Power Rising summit in Atlanta. The spirit of the Combahee collective — which sought to develop a strategy for securing social, economic and political rights for African American and other women of color — infused last weekend’s gathering.

At inaugural Power Rising summit, black women celebrate wins, strategize for future battles

More than 1,000 women attended the conference, a rare national gathering of black women that was not convened by a social or professional membership organization, where McCray took part in panel discussions on feminism and mental-health awareness, an issue she has championed as New York City’s first lady.

“The feminist movement was very white,” McCray said, explaining the impetus behind the Combahee collective, which was active until about 1980 in Boston. “We had Angela Davis, and there were certainly lots of women doing the work, but there were no big public figures, really, outside of her.”

At the time, McCray was a student at Wellesley College who identified as a lesbian, as did many members of the group.

“For us to say we were going to identify ourselves as anything other than heterosexual … that was heresy. Even if you were white, you weren’t talking about it,” she recalled.

Barbara Smith, a feminist activist and writer, came up with the name Combahee River Collective as a tribute to a Union Army campaign that Harriet Tubman helped to plan and lead that freed more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.

In a 1977 statement defining their goals, the women wrote: “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”

Today, the concept is called “intersectionality” and is the source of debate in the news media and on social media among women of color who say that mainstream feminism is still too centered on the experiences of privileged white women.

#MeToo was started for black and brown women and girls. They’re still being ignored.

During the panel discussion and in a subsequent interview, McCray made several key points about the importance of black women asserting their voices in the feminist movement.

On the definition of feminism

“We can’t be hung up on that word, ‘feminism.’ So many people have their own perceptions of what feminism is and what it isn’t. … This is very much a movement that is about the heart and the whole of who were are. We cannot take one piece of ourselves, the brown part, and separate it from the woman part. We can’t take the part that is middle class or lower class and separate it from the rest of who we are. We have to bring our whole selves to our struggles. … That is so important, because if it doesn’t work for us, it’s not going to work for anyone else.”

On who gets to call themselves feminists

“To me, a feminist is someone who values black women first and foremost. … Someone who supports black women, helps to lift them up and encourage them. And not just those who are doing well already. That is what a feminist is to me: someone who’s working to further the lives, the cause of self-empowerment for other women and our communities.”

On women of color and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements

“A black woman is the one who started #MeToo, Tarana Burke. You can’t take that away from her. Have white women gotten more airtime and print time? Probably so. That is the nature of our society. But we cannot let that take away from our suffering, our pain. It takes tremendous courage, tremendous bravery to stand up and share our stories. We need more of that, and we have to do it in any way that we can and where we are celebrated.”

On why her focus on mental-health issues as New York’s first lady is important to feminism

“This is the reality: One in five adults suffers from a mental illness or substance misuse or both in any given year. That means every single one of us is affected either directly or indirectly. … We have to take care of ourselves. I love the Audre Lorde expression: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ ”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Harriet Tubman’s name. It has been updated.

More from About US:

Traveling while black: Why some Americans are afraid to explore their own country

‘Unbought and unbossed’: Shirley Chisholm’s feminist mantra is still relevant 50 years later

‘When They Call You a Terrorist’: A Black Lives Matter leader details the life that turned her into an activist