Main Women, Race, & Class

Women, Race, & Class

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A powerful study of the women's movement in the U.S. from abolitionist days to the present that demonstrates how it has always been hampered by the racist and classist biases of its leaders.
Year:
1983
Edition:
1st Vintage Books ed
Publisher:
Vintage
Language:
english
Pages:
288
ISBN 10:
0394713516
ISBN 13:
9780394713519
File:
EPUB, 1.90 MB
Download (epub, 1.90 MB)

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10 [image: ] Communist Women



In 1848, the year Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published their Communist Manifesto, Europe was the scene of countless revolutionary uprisings. One of the participants in the Revolution of 1848—an artillery officer, and close co-worker of Marx and Engels, named Joseph Weydemeyer—immigrated to the United States and founded the first Marxist organization in the country’s history.1 When Weydemeyer established the Proletarian League in 1852, no women appear to have been associated with the group. If indeed there were any women involved, they have long since faded into historical anonymity. Over the next few decades women continued to be active in their own labor associations, in the anti-slavery movement and in the developing campaign for their own rights. But, to all intents and purposes, they appear to have been absent from the ranks of the Marxist socialist movement. Like the Proletarian League, the Workingmen’s National Association and the Communist Club were utterly dominated by men. Even the Socialist Labor party was also predominantly male.2 

By the time the Socialist party was founded in 1900, the composition of the socialist movement had begun to change. As the general demand for women’s equality grew stronger, women were increasingly attracted to the struggle for social change. They began to assert their right to participate in this new challenge to the oppressive structures of their society. From 1900 on, to a greater or lesser extent, the Marxist Left would feel the influence of its female adherents.

As the main champion of Marxism for almost two decades, the Socialist party supported the battle for women’s equality. For many years, in fact, it was the only political party to advocate woman suffrage.3 Thanks to such socialist women as Pauline Newman and Rose Schneiderman, a working-class suffrage movement was forged, breaking the decade-long stronghold of middle-class women on the mass campaign for the vote.4 By 1908 the Socialist party had created a national wome; n’s commission. On March 8 of that year women Socialists active on New York’s Lower East Side organized a mass demonstration in support of equal suffrage, whose anniversary continues to be observed all over the world as International Women’s Day.5 When the Communist party was founded in 1919 (actually, two Communist parties, which later united, were established), former Socialist party women were among its earliest leaders and activists: “Mother” Ella Reeve Bloor, Anita Whitney, Margaret Prevey, Kate Sadler Greenhalgh, Rose Pastor Stokes and Jeanette Pearl were all Communists who had been associated with the left wing of the Socialist party.6 

Although the International Workers of the World was not a political party—and, in fact, opposed the organization of political parties—it was the second major influence on the formation of the Communist party. The IWW, popularly known as the “Wobblies,” was founded in June of 1905. Defining itself as an industrial union, the IWW proclaimed that there could never be a harmonious relationship between the capitalist class and the workers it employed. The Wobblies’ ultimate goal was socialism, and their strategy was unrelenting class struggle. When “Big Bill” Haywood convened that first meeting, two of the leading labor organizers who sat on the platform were women—“Mother” Mary Jones and Lucy Parsons.

While both the Socialist party and the IWW admitted women to their ranks and encouraged them to become leaders and agitators, only the IWW embraced a complementary policy of forthright struggle against racism. Under the leadership of Daniel DeLeon, the Socialist party did not acknowledge the unique oppression of Black people. Although the majority of Black people were agricultural workers—sharecroppers, tenant farmers and farm laborers—the Socialists argued that only the proletarians were relevant to their movement. Even the outstanding leader Eugene Debs argued that Black people required no overall defense of their rights to be equal and free as a group. Since the Socialists’ overriding concern was the struggle between capital and labor, so Debs maintained, “we have nothing special to offer the Negro.”7 As for the International Workers of the World, their main goal was to organize the wage-earning class and to develop revolutionary, socialist class consciousness. Unlike the Socialist party, however, the IWW focused explicit attention on the special problems of Black people. According to Mary White Ovington,


(t)here are two organizations in this country that have shown they do care about full rights for the Negro. The first is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.… The second organization that attacks Negro segregation is the Industrial Workers of the World.… The IWW has stood with the Negro.8 



Helen Holman was a Black Socialist, a leading spokesperson in the campaign to defend her imprisoned party leader, Kate Richards O’Hare. As a Black woman, however, Helen Holman was a rarity within the ranks of the Socialist party. Prior to World War II, the numbers of Black women working in industry were negligible. As a consequence, they were all but ignored by Socialist party recruiters. The Socialists’ posture of negligence vis-à-vis Black women was one of the unfortunate legacies the Communist party would have to overcome.

According to the Communist leader and historian, William Z. Foster, “during the early 1920’s, the Party … was neglectful of the particular demands of Negro women in industry.”9 Over the next decade, however, Communists came to recognize the centrality of racism in U.S. society. They developed a serious theory of Black Liberation and forged a consistent activist record in the overall struggle against racism.

LUCY PARSONS


Lucy Parsons remains one of those few Black women whose name has occasionally appeared in the chronicles of the U.S. labor movement. Almost universally, however, she is simplistically identified as the “devoted wife” of the Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons. To be sure, Lucy Parsons was one of her husband’s most militant defenders, but she was far more than a faithful wife and angry widow who wanted to defend and avenge her husband. As Carolyn Asbaugh’s recent biography10 confirms, her journalistic and agitational defense of the working class as a whole spanned a period of more than sixty years. Lucy Parsons’ involvement in labor struggles began almost a decade before the Haymarket Massacre and continued for another fifty-five years afterward. Her political development ranged from her youthful advocacy of anarchism to her membership in the Communist party during her mature years.

Born in 1853, Lucy Parsons became active in the Socialist Labor party as early as 1877. Over the years to come, this anarchist organization’s newspaper, the Socialist, would publish her articles and poems, and Parsons would also become an active organizer for the Chicago Working Women’s Union.11 Following the police-instigated riot on May 1, 1886, in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, her husband was one of the eight radical labor leaders arrested by the authorities. Lucy Parsons immediately initiated a militant campaign to free the Haymarket Defendants. As she traveled throughout the country, she became known as a prominent labor leader and a leading advocate of anarchism. Her reputation caused her to become an all-too-frequent target of repression. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, the mayor banned a speech she was scheduled to deliver during the month of March—and her refusal to respect this banning order led the police to throw her in jail.12 In city after city,


(h)alls were closed to her at the last moment, detectives stood in every corner of the meeting halls, police kept her under constant surveillance.13 



Even as her husband was being executed, Lucy Parsons and her two children were arrested by Chicago police, one of whom made the comment: “(t)hat woman is more to be feared than a thousand rioters.”14 

Although she was Black—a fact miscegenation laws often caused her to conceal—and although she was a woman, Lucy Parsons argued that racism and sexism were overshadowed by the capitalists’ overall exploitation of the working class. Since they were victims of capitalist exploitation, said Parsons, Black people and women, no less than white people and men, should devote all their energies to the class struggle. In her eyes, Black people and women did not suffer special forms of oppression and there was no real need for mass movements to oppose racism and sexism explicitly. Sex and race, according to Lucy Parsons’ theory, were facts of existence manipulated by employers who sought to justify their greater exploitation of women and people of color. If Black people suffered the brutality of lynch law, it was because their poverty as a group made them the most vulnerable workers of all. “Are there any so stupid,” Parsons asked in 1886, “as to believe these outrages have been … heaped upon the Negro because he is black?”15 


Not at all. It is because he is poor. It is because he is dependent. Because he is poorer as a class than his white wage-slave brother of the North.16 



Lucy Parsons and “Mother” Mary Jones were the first two women to join the radical labor organization known as the International Workers of the World. Highly respected in the labor movement, both were invited to sit in the presidium alongside Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood during the 1905 founding convention of the IWW. In the speech Lucy Parsons delivered to the convention delegates, she revealed her special sensitivity to the oppression of working women who, in her view, were manipulated by the capitalists as they sought to reduce the wages of the entire working class.


We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it … but we have our labor.… Wherever wages are to be reduced, the capitalist class uses women to reduce them.17 



Moreover, during this era when the plight of prostitutes was virtually ignored, Parsons told the IWW convention that she also spoke for “my sisters whom I can see in the night when I go out in Chicago.”18 

During the 1920s Lucy Parsons began to associate herself with the struggles of the young Communist party. One of the many people who was deeply impressed by the 1917 workers’ revolution in Russia, she became confident that eventually the working class could triumph in the United States of America. When Communists and other progressive forces founded the International Labor Defense in 1925, Parsons became an active worker for the new group. She fought for the freedom of Tom Mooney in California, for the Scottsboro Nine in Alabama and for the young Black Communist Angelo Herndon, whom Georgia authorities had imprisoned.19 It was in 1939, according to her biographer’s research, that Lucy Parsons formally joined the Communist party.20 When she died in 1942, a tribute in the Daily Worker described her as


 … a link between the labor movement of the present and the great historic events of the 1880’s …

She was one of America’s truly great women, fearless, and devoted to the working class.21 



ELLA REEVE BLOOR



Born in 1862, the remarkable labor organizer and agitator for women’s rights, Black equality, peace and socialism, who was popularly known as “Mother” Bloor, became a member of the Socialist party soon after it was founded. She went on to become a Socialist leader and a living legend for the working class across the country. Hitchhiking from one end of the United States to the other, she became the heart and soul of untold numbers of strikes. Streetcar operators in Philadelphia heard her first strike speeches. In other parts of the country, miners, textile workers and sharecroppers were among the workers who benefited from her astounding oratorical talents and her powerful skills as an organizer. At the age of sixty-two Mother Bloor was still thumbing rides from one state to another.22 

When she was seventy-eight Mother Bloor published the story of her life as a labor organizer, from her pre-Socialist days through the period of her Communist party membership. As a Socialist, her working-class consciousness did not include an explicit awareness of Black people’s special oppression. As a Communist however, Mother Bloor fought numerous manifestations of racism and urged others to follow her example. In 1929, for example, when the International Labor Defense held its convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,


(w)e had engaged rooms for all the delegates in the Monogahala Hotel. When we arrived late at night with twenty-five Negro delegates, the manager of the hotel said that while they could stay there that night, they must all get out immediately the next morning.

Next morning, we voted that the whole convention should adjourn to the hotel in an orderly fashion. We marched to the hotel carrying banners emphasizing “no discrimination.” We filed into the lobby, which by that time was filled with newspapermen, policemen, and curious crowds …23 



During the early 1930s Mother Bloor addressed a meeting in Loup City, Nebraska, in support of women who had struck against their poultry-farm employers. The strike assembly was violently assaulted by a racist mob opposed to the presence of Black people at the meeting. When the police arrived, Mother Bloor was arrested, together with a Black woman and her husband. The Black woman, Mrs. Floyd Booth, was a leading member of the local Anti-War Committee and her husband was an activist in the town’s Unemployed Council. When the local farmers raised sufficient bail money to obtain Mother Bloor’s release, she refused their aid, insisting that she would not leave until the Booths could accompany her.24 


I felt I could not accept the bail and leave the two Negro comrades in jail, in an atmosphere so dangerously charged with bitter hate of Negroes.25 



During this period Mother Bloor organized a U.S. delegation to attend an International Women’s Conference in Paris. Four of the women included in the delegation were Black:


Capitola Tasker, Alabama sharecropper, tall and graceful, the life of the whole delegation, Lulia Jackson, elected by the Pennsylvania miners; a woman who represented the mothers of the Scottsboro Boys; and Mabel Byrd, a brilliant young honor graduate of the University of Washington, who had had a position with the International Labor Office in Geneva.26 



At the 1934 Paris conference, Capitola Tasker was one of three U.S. women elected to serve as a member of the assembly’s executive committee—along with Mother Bloor and the woman representing the Socialist party. Mabel Byrd, the Black college graduate, was elected as one of the conference secretaries.27 

Lulia Jackson, the Black representative of Pennsylvania miners, emerged as one of the Paris Women’s Conference’s leading personalities. In her persuasive response to the pacifist faction attending the gathering, she argued that support for the war against fascism was the sole means of guaranteeing a meaningful peace. During the course of the women’s deliberations, a committed pacifist had complained:


I think there is too much about fighting in that (anti-war) manifesto. It says fight against war, fight for peace—fight, fight, fight … We are women, we are mothers—we don’t want to fight. We know that even when our children are bad, we are nice to them, and we win them by love, not by fighting them.28 



Lulia Jackson’s counterargument was forthright and lucid:


Ladies, it has just been said that we must not fight, that we must be gentle and kind to our enemies, to those who are for war. I can’t agree with that. Everyone knows the cause of war—it is capitalism. We can’t just give those bad capitalists their supper and put them to bed the way we do with our children. We must fight them.29 



As Mother Bloor relates in her autobiography, “everyone laughed, and applauded, even the pacifist,”30 and the anti-war manifesto was consequently approved by the entire body.

When the conference was addressed by Capitola Tasker—the Black sharecropper from Alabama—they heard her compare the current European fascism with the racist terror suffered by Black people in the United States. Having vividly described the Southern and mob murders, she acquainted the Paris delegates with the violent repression aimed at sharecroppers who were attempting to organize in Alabama. Her own opposition to fascism ran deep, so Capitola Tasker explained, for she herself had already been victimized by its terrible ravages. She concluded her speech with the “sharecroppers’ song,” which she adapted to fit the occasion:


Like a tree that’s standing by the water,

We shall not be moved—

We’re against war and fascism

We shall not be moved.31 



As the U.S. delegation returned home by boat, Mother Bloor recorded Capitola Tasker’s moving testimony about her Paris experiences:


“Mother, when I get back to Alabama and go out to that cotton patch back of our little old shack, I’ll stand there thinking to myself, ‘Capitola, did you really go over there to Paris and see all those wonderful women and hear all those great talks, or was it just a dream that you were over there?’ And if it turns out that it really wasn’t a dream, why Mother, I’m just going to broadcast all over Alabama all that I’ve learned over here, and tell them how women from all over the world are fighting to stop the kind of terror we have in the South, and to stop war.”32 



As Mother Bloor and her Communist party comrades concluded, the working class cannot assume its historical role as a revolutionary force if workers do not struggle relentlessly against the social poison of racism. The long list of stunning accomplishments associated with the name of Ella Reeve Bloor reveals that this white Communist woman was a deeply principled ally of the Black Liberation movement.

ANITA WHITNEY



When Anita Whitney was born in 1867 to a wealthy San Francisco family, no one would have suspected that she would eventually be the chairperson of the California Communist party Perhaps she was destined to become a political activist, for as a fresh graduate of Wellesley—the prestigious New England women’s college—she did volunteer charity and settlement-house work and soon became an active champion of woman suffrage. Upon her return to California, Anita Whitney joined the Equal Suffrage League and was elected president in time to see her state become the sixth in the nation to extend the vote to women.33 

In 1914 Anita Whitney joined the Socialist party. Despite her party’s posture of relative indifference toward Black people’s struggles, she readily supported anti-racist causes. When the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded, Whitney enthusiastically agreed to serve as a member of its executive committee.34 Having identified with the positions of left-wing members of the Socialist party, she joined those who established the Communist Labor party in 1919.35 Shortly thereafter, this group merged with the Communist Party, U.S.A.

Nineteen-nineteen was the year of the infamous anti-Communist raids initiated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Anita was destined to become one of the many victims of the Palmer raids. She was informed that a speech she was scheduled to deliver before clubwomen associated with the Oakland Center of the California Civic League had been banned by the authorities. But despite the official prohibition, she spoke on November 28, 1919, about “The Negro Problem In the United States.”36 Her remarks were sharply focused on the issue of lynching.


Since 1890, when our statistics have their beginning, there have occurred in these United States 3,228 lynchings, 2,500 of colored men and 50 of colored women. I would that I could leave the subject with these bare facts recording numbers, but I feel that we must face all the barbarity of the situation in order to do our part in blotting this disgrace from our country’s record.37 



She went on to pose a question to the audience of white clubwomen: Did they know that “a colored man once said that if he owned Hell and Texas, he would prefer to rent out Texas and live in Hell …”?38 His reasoning, she explained in a serious vein, was based on the fact that Texas could claim the third largest number of racist mob murders committed throughout the Southern states. (Only Georgia and Mississippi could boast of more.)

In 1919 it was still something of a rarity for a white person to appeal to others of her race to stand up against the scourge of lynching. The generalized racist propaganda, and the repeated evocation of the mythical Black rapist in particular, had resulted in the desired division and alienation. Even in progressive circles, white people were often hesitant to speak out against lynchings, since they were justified as unfortunate reactions to Black sexual attacks against white womanhood in the South. Anita Whitney was one of those white people whose vision remained clear despite the power of the prevailing racist propaganda. And she was willing to risk the consequences of her anti-racist stance. Although it was clear that she would be arrested, she chose to speak about lynching to the white Oakland clubwomen. Sure enough, she was taken into custody at the conclusion of her speech and charged by the authorities with criminal syndicalism. Whitney was later convicted and sentenced to San Quentin Prison, where she spent several weeks before her release on appeal bond. It was not until 1927 that Anita Whitney was pardoned by the governor of California.39 

As a twentieth-century white woman, Anita Whitney was indeed a pioneer in the struggle against racism. Together with her Black comrades, she and others like her would forge the Communist party’s strategy for working-class emancipation. In this strategy, the fight for Black Liberation would be a central ingredient. In 1936 Anita Whitney became the state chairperson of the Communist party of California, and was elected soon thereafter to serve on the party’s National Committee.


Once she was asked, “Anita, how do you regard the Communist Party? What has it come to mean to you?”

“Why,” she smiled incredulously, a bit taken aback by such an amazing question. “Why … it has given purpose to my life. The Communist Party is the hope of the World.”40 



ELIZABETH GURLEY FLYNN



When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn died in 1964 at the age of seventy-four, she had been active in Socialist and Communist causes for almost sixty years. Raised by parents who were members of the Socialist party, she discovered, at an early age, her own affinity with the Socialists’ challenge to the capitalist class. The young Elizabeth was not yet sixteen when she delivered her first public lecture in defense of socialism. Based on her readings of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and August Bebel’s Women and Socialism, she delivered a speech in 1906, at the Harlem Socialist Club, entitled “What Socialism Will Do for Women.”41 Although her somewhat “male-supremacist” father had been reluctant to allow Elizabeth to speak in public, the enthusiastic reception in Harlem caused him to change his mind. Accompanying her father, she became familiar with street speaking, which was a typical radical tactic of the period. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn experienced her first arrest soon thereafter—charged with “speaking without a permit,” she was carted off to jail with her father.42 

By the time Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was sixteen, her career as an agitator for the rights of the working class had been launched. Her first task was the defense of Big Bill Haywood, whose frame-up on criminal charges had been instigated by the copper trusts. During her westward travels on behalf of Haywood, she joined the IWW’s struggles in Montana and Washington.43 After two years as a Socialist party member, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn became a leading IWW organizer. She resigned from the Socialist party, “convinced that it was sterile and sectarian compared with this grass-roots movement that was sweeping the country.”44 

With an abundance of strike experiences behind her, including numerous clashes with the police, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn headed for Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912 when the textile workers went out on strike. The grievances of the Lawrence workers were simple and compelling. In the words of Mary Heaton Vorse,


Wages in Lawrence were so low that thirty-five percent of the people made under seven dollars a week. Less than a fifth got more than twelve dollars a week. They were divided by nationality. They spoke over forty languages and dialects, but they were united by meager living and the fact that their children died. For every five children under one year of age, one died.… Only a few other towns in America had higher death rates. These were all mill towns.45 



Of all the speakers addressing the strike meeting, said Vorse, who was covering these events for Harper’s Weekly, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the workers’ most powerful inspiration. It was her words which encouraged them to perservere.


When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spoke, the excitement of the crowd became a visible thing. She stood there, young, with her Irish blue eyes, her face magnolia white and her cloud of black hair, the picture of a youthful revolutionary girl leader. She stirred them, lifted them up in her appeal for solidarity.… It was as though a spurt of flame had gone through this audience, something stirring and powerful, a feeling which had made the liberation of people possible.46 



As a traveling strike agitator for the IWW, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn sometimes worked alongside the well-known Native American Indian leader, Frank Little. In 1916, for example, they both represented the Wobblies during the Mesabi iron range strike in Minnesota. It was barely a year later when Elizabeth learned that Frank Little had been lynched in Butte, Montana. He had been attacked by a mob after making agitational speeches to the miners on strike in the area.


… (S)ix masked men came to the hotel at night, broke down the door, dragged Frank from his bed, took him to a railroad trestle on the outskirts of town and there hanged him.47 



A month following Frank Little’s death, a federal indictment charged that 168 people had conspired with him “to hinder the execution of certain laws of the United States …”48 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the only woman among the accused, and Ben

Fletcher, a Philadelphia longshoreman and leader of the IWW, was the only Black person named in the indictment.49 

Judging from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s autobiographical reflections, she was aware, from the very beginning of her political career, of the special oppression suffered by Black people. Her consciousness of the importance of anti-racist struggles was doubtlessly intensified by her involvement in the IWW. The Wobblies publicly proclaimed that


(t)here is only one labor organization in the United States that admits the colored worker on a footing of absolute equality with the white—the Industrial Workers of the World.… In the IWW the colored worker, man or woman, is on an equal footing with every other worker.50 



But the IWW was a syndicalist organization concentrating on industrial workers, who—thanks to racist discrimination—were still overwhelmingly white. The tiny minority of Black industrial workers included practically no women, who remained absolutely banned from industrial occupations. Indeed, most Black workers, male and female alike, still worked in agriculture or domestic service. As a result, only a fraction of the Black population could be reached through an industrial union—unless the union strenuously fought for Black people’s admission into industry.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn became active in the Communist party in 193751 and emerged soon afterward as one of the organization’s major leaders. Working on an intimate basis with such Black Communists as Benjamin Davis and Claudia Jones, she developed a new understanding of the central role of Black Liberation within the overall battle for the emancipation of the working class. In 1948 Flynn published an article in Political Affairs, the party’s theoretical journal, on the meaning of International Women’s Day. As she argued in this article,


(t)he right to work, to training, upgrading, and equal seniority; safeguards for health and safety; adequate child care facilities—these remain the urgent demands of organized workingwomen, and are needed by all who toil, especially Negro women …52 



Criticizing the inequality between women war veterans and men war veterans, she reminded her readers that Black women veterans suffered to an even greater degree than their white sisters. Indeed, Black women were generally caught in a threefold bond of oppression.


Every inequality and disability inflicted on American white women is aggravated a thousandfold among Negro women, who are triply exploited—as Negroes, as workers, and as women.53 



This same “triple jeopardy” analysis, incidentally, was later proposed by Black women who sought to influence the early stages of the contemporary Women’s Liberation movement.

While Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s first autobiography, I Speak My Own Piece (or The Rebel Girl), provides fascinating glimpses into her experiences as an IWW agitator, her second book, The Alderson Story (or My Life as a Political Prisoner), reveals a new political maturity and a more profound consciousness of racism. During the McCarthy Era assault on the Communist party, Flynn was arrested in New York, along with three other women, and charged with “teaching and advocating the violent overthrow of the government.”54 The other women were Marian Bachrach, Betty Gannet and Claudia Jones, a Black woman from Trinidad who had immigrated to the United States as a young girl. In June, 1951, the four Communist women were taken by the police to the New York Women’s House of Detention. The “one pleasant episode” which “lighted up our stay here” involved the birthday party which Elizabeth, Betty and Claudia organized for one of the prisoners. “Discouraged and lonely,” a nineteen-year-old Black woman had “happened to mention that the next day would be her birthday.”55 The three women managed to obtain a cake from the commissary.


We made candles of tissue paper for the cake, covered the table as nicely as possible with paper napkins, and sang “Happy Birthday.” We made speeches to her and she cried with surprise and happiness. The next day we received a note from her as follows: (exact spelling)

Dear Claudia, Betty and Elizabeth. I am very glad for what you did for me for my birthday. I really don’t know how to thank you.… Yesterday was one of the best years of my life. I think even thou you all are Communist people that you are the best people I have ever met. The reason I put Communists in this letter is because some people don’t like Communists for the simple reason they think Communist people is against the American people but I don’t think so. I think that you are some of the nicest people I ever met in my hol 19 teen years of living and I will never forget you all no matter where I be.… I hope you all will get out of this trouble and never have to come back to a place like this.56 



After the three women’s Smith Act trial (Marian Bachrach’s health problems led to the severance of her case), they were convicted and sentenced to serve time in the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, Virginia. Shortly before they arrived, the prison had been placed under court order to desegregate its facilities. Another Smith Act victim—Dorothy Rose Blumenberg from Baltimore—had already served a portion of her three-year sentence as one of the first white prisoners to be housed with Black women. “We felt both amused and flattered that Communists were called upon to help integrate prison houses.”57 Yet, as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn pointed out, the legal desegregation of the prison’s cottages did not have the result of ending racial discrimination. The Black women continued to be assigned to the hardest jobs—“on the farm, in the cannery, in maintenance and at the piggery until it was abolished.”58 

As a leader of the Communist party, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had developed a deep commitment to the Black Liberation struggle and had come to realize that Black people’s resistance is not always consciously political. She observed that among the prisoners in Alderson,


(t)here was greater solidarity among Negro women, undoubtedly a result of life outside, especially in the South. It seemed to me that they were of better character, by and large, stronger and more dependable, with less inclination to tattle or be a stool pigeon, than the white inmates.59 



She made friends more easily among the Black women in prison than she did among the white inmates. “Frankly, I trusted the Negro women more than I did the whites. They were more controlled, less hysterical, less spoiled, more mature.”60 And the Black women, in turn, were more receptive to Elizabeth. Perhaps they sensed in this white woman Communist an instinctive kinship in struggle.

CLAUDIA JONES



Born in Trinidad when it was still the British West Indies, Claudia Jones immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was still quite young. She later became one of the countless Black people throughout the country who joined the movement to free the Scottsboro Nine. It was through her work in the Scottsboro Defense Committee that she became acquainted with members of the Communist party, whose organization she enthusiastically joined.61 As a young woman in her twenties, Claudia Jones assumed responsibility for the party’s Women’s Commission and became a leader and symbol of struggle for Communist women throughout the country.

Among the many articles Claudia Jones published in the journal Political Affairs, one of the most outstanding was the June 1949 piece entitled “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women.”62 Her vision of Black women in this essay was meant to refute the usual male-supremacist stereotypes regarding the nature of women’s role. Black women’s leadership, as Jones pointed out, had always been indispensable to their people’s fight for freedom. Seldom mentioned in the orthodox histories, for example, was the fact that “the sharecroppers’ strikes of the 1930’s were sparked by Negro women.”63 Moreover,


Negro women played a magnificent part in the pre-CIO days in strikes and other struggles, both as workers and as wives of workers, to win recognition of the principle of industrial unionism, in such industries as auto, packing, steel, etc. More recently, the militancy of Negro women unionists is shown in the strike of the packinghouse workers, and even more so in the tobacco workers’ strike, in which such leaders as Moranda Smith and Velma Hopkins emerged as outstanding trade unionists.64 



Claudia Jones chided progressives—and especially trade unionists—for failing to acknowledge Black domestic workers’ efforts to organize themselves. Because the majority of Black women workers were still employed in domestic service, she argued, the paternalistic attitudes toward maids influenced the prevailing social definition of Black women as a group:


The continued relegation of Negro women to domestic work has helped to perpetuate and intensify chauvinism directed against all Negro Women.65 



Jones was not afraid to remind her own white friends and comrades that “(t)oo many progressives, and even some Communists, are still guilty of exploiting Negro domestic workers.”66 And they are sometimes guilty of “… participating in the vilification of ‘maids’ when speaking to their bourgeois neighbors and their own families.”67 Claudia Jones was very much a Communist—a dedicated Communist who believed that socialism held the only promise of liberation for Black women, for Black people as a whole and indeed for the multi-racial working class. Thus, her criticism was motivated by the constructive desire to urge her white co-workers and comrades to purge themselves of racist and sexist attitudes. As for the party itself,


in our … clubs, we must conduct an intense discussion of the role of Negro women, so as to equip our Party membership with a clear understanding for undertaking the necessary struggles in the shops and communities.68 



As many Black women had argued before her, Claudia Jones claimed that white women in the progressive movement—and especially white women Communists—bore a special responsibility toward Black women.


The very economic relationship of Negro women to white women, which perpetuates “madam-maid” relationships, feeds chauvinist attitudes and makes it incumbent on white women progressives, and especially Communists, to fight consciously against all manifestations of white chauvinism, open and subtle.69 



When Claudia Jones’ Smith Act conviction led to her imprisonment in Alderson Federal Reformatory for Women, she discovered a veritable microcosm of the racist society she already knew so well. Although the prison was under court order to desegregate its facilities, Claudia was assigned to a “colored cottage,” which isolated her from her two white comrades, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Betty Gannet. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn especially suffered from this separation, for she and Claudia Jones were close friends as well as comrades. When Claudia was released from prison in October of 1955—ten months after the Communist women had arrived at Alderson—Elizabeth was happy for her friend yet aware of the pain she would suffer in Claudia’s absence.


My window faced the roadway, and I was able to see her leave. She turned to wave—tall, slender, beautiful, dressed in golden brown, and then she was gone. This was the hardest day I spent in prison. I felt so alone.70 



On the day Claudia Jones left Alderson, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote a poem entitled “Farewell to Claudia”:


Nearer and nearer drew this day, dear comrade,

When I from you must sadly part,

Day after day, a dark foreboding sorrow,

Crept through my anxious heart.

No more to see you striding down the pathway,

No more to see your smiling eyes and radiant face.

No more to hear your gay and pealing laughter,

No more encircled by your love, in this sad place.

How I will miss you, words will fail to utter,

I am alone, my thoughts unshared, these weary days,

I feel bereft and empty, on this gray and dreary morning,

Facing my lonely future, hemmed in by prison ways.

Sometimes I feel you’ve never been in Alderson,

So full of life, so detached from here you seem.

So proud of walk, of talk, of work, of being,

Your presence here is like a fading fevered dream.

Yet as the sun shines now, through fog and darkness,

I feel a sudden joy that you are gone,

That once again you walk the streets of Harlem,

That today for you at least is Freedom’s dawn.

I will be strong in our common faith, dear comrade,

I will be self-sufficient, to our ideals firm and true,

I will be strong to keep my mind and soul outside a prison,

Encouraged and inspired by ever loving memories of you.71 



Soon after Claudia Jones was released from Alderson, the pressures of McCarthyism resulted in her deportation to England. She continued her political work for a while, editing a journal called the West Indian Gazette. But her failing health continued to deteriorate and she soon fell ill with a disease which claimed her life.


To my mother,
Sallye B. Davis



[image: ]



1 [image: ] The Legacy
of Slavery: Standards
for a New Womanhood



When the influential scholar Ulrich B. Phillips declared in 1918 that slavery in the Old South had impressed upon African savages and their native-born descendants the glorious stamp of civilization,1 he set the stage for a long and passionate debate. As the decades passed and the debate raged on, one historian after another confidently professed to have deciphered the real meaning of the “peculiar institution.” But amidst all this scholarly activity, the special situation of the female slave remained unpenetrated. The ceaseless arguments about her “sexual promiscuity” or her “matriarchal” proclivities obscured, much more than they illuminated, the condition of Black women during slavery. Herbert Aptheker remains one of the few historians who attempted to establish a more realistic basis for the understanding of the female slave.2 

During the 1970s the slavery debate reemerged with renewed vigor. Eugene Genovese published Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.3 John Blassingame’s The Slave Community4 appeared, as did Fogel and Engerman’s ill-conceived Time on the Cross5 and Herbert Gutman’s monumental Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.6 Responding to this rejuvenated debate, Stanley Elkins decided it was time to publish an expanded edition of his 1959 study Slavery.7 Conspicuously absent from this flurry of publications is a book expressly devoted to slave women Those of us who have anxiously awaited a serious study of the Black woman during slavery remain, so far, disappointed. It has been equally disappointing to discover that with the exception of the traditionally debatable questions of promiscuity versus marriage and forced versus voluntary sex with white men, scant attention has been focused on women by the authors of these new books.

The most enlightening of all these recent studies is Herbert Gutman’s investigation of the Black family. In furnishing documentary evidence that the family’s vitality proved stronger than the dehumanizing rigors of slavery, Gutman has dethroned the Black Matriarchy thesis popularized by Daniel Moynihan et al.8 in 1965. Yet, since his observations about slave women are generally designed to confirm their wifely propensities, the implication is easily drawn that they differed from their white counterparts only to the extent that their domestic aspirations were thwarted by the exigencies of the slave system. According to Gutman, although institutionalized slave norms accorded women a great degree of premarital sexual freedom, they eventually settled into permanent marriages and built families based as much on their husband’s input as on their own. Gutman’s cogent and well-documented arguments against the matriarchy thesis are extremely valuable. But how much more powerful his book might have been had he concretely explored the multidimensional role of Black women within the family and within the slave community as a whole.

If and when a historian sets the record straight on the experiences of enslaved Black women, she (or he) will have performed an inestimable service. It is not for the sake of historical accuracy alone that such a study should be conducted, for lessons can be gleaned from the slave era which will shed light upon Black women’s and all women’s current battle for emancipation. As a layperson, I can only propose some tentative ideas which might possibly guide a reexamination of the history of Black women during slavery.

Proportionately, more Black women have always worked outside their homes than have their white sisters.9 The enormous space that work occupies in Black women’s lives today follows a pattern established during the very earliest days of slavery. As slaves, compulsory labor overshadowed every other aspect of women’s existence. It would seem, therefore, that the starting point for any exploration of Black women’s lives under slavery would be an appraisal of their role as workers.

The slave system defined Black people as chattel. Since women, no less than men, were viewed as profitable labor-units, they might as well have been genderless as far as the slaveholders were concerned. In the words of one scholar, “the slave woman was first a full-time worker for her owner, and only incidentally a wife, mother and homemaker.”10 Judged by the evolving nineteenth-century ideology of femininity, which emphasized women’s roles as nurturing mothers and gentle companions and housekeepers for their husbands, Black women were practically anomalies.

Though Black women enjoyed few of the dubious benefits of the ideology of womanhood, it is sometimes assumed that the typical female slave was a houseservant—either a cook, maid, or mammy for the children in the “big house.” Uncle Tom and Sambo have always found faithful companions in Aunt Jemima and the Black Mammy—stereotypes which presume to capture the essence of the Black woman’s role during slavery. As is so often the case, the reality is actually the diametrical opposite of the myth. Like the majority of slave men, slave women, for the most part, were field workers. While a significant proportion of border-state slaves may have been houseservants, slaves in the Deep South—the real home of the slaveocracy—were predominantly agricultural workers. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, seven out of eight slaves, men and women alike, were field workers11 

Just as the boys were sent to the fields when they came of age, so too were the girls assigned to work the soil, pick the cotton, cut the cane, harvest the tobacco. An old woman interviewed during the 1930s described her childhood initiation to field work on an Alabama cotton plantation:


We had old ragged huts made out of poles and some of the cracks chinked up with mud and moss and some of them wasn’t. We didn’t have no good beds, just scaffolds nailed up to the wall out of poles and the old ragged bedding throwed on them. That sure was hard sleeping, but even that felt good to our weary bones after them long hard days’ work in the field. I ’tended to the children when I was a little gal and tried to clean house just like Old Miss tells me to. Then as soon as I was ten years old, Old Master, he say, “Git this here nigger to that cotton patch.”12 



Jenny Proctor’s experience was typical. For most girls and women, as for most boys and men, it was hard labor in the fields from sunup to sundown. Where work was concerned, strength and productivity under the threat of the whip outweighed considerations of sex. In this sense, the oppression of women was identical to the oppression of men.

But women suffered in different ways as well, for they were victims of sexual abuse and other barbarous mistreatment that could only be inflicted on women. Expediency governed the slaveholders’ posture toward female slaves: 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.

When the abolition of the international slave trade began to threaten the expansion of the young cotton-growing industry, the slaveholding class was forced to rely on natural reproduction as the surest method of replenishing and increasing the domestic slave population. Thus a premium was placed on the slave woman’s reproductive capacity. During the decades preceding the Civil War, Black women came to be increasingly appraised for their fertility (or for the lack of it): she who was potentially the mother of ten, twelve, fourteen or more became a coveted treasure indeed. This did not mean, however, that as mothers, Black women enjoyed a more respected status than they enjoyed as workers. Ideological exaltation of motherhood—as popular as it was during the nineteenth century—did not extend to slaves. In fact, in the eyes of the slaveholders, slave women were not mothers at all; they were simply instruments guaranteeing the growth of the slave labor force. They were “breeders”—animals, whose monetary value could be precisely calculated in terms of their ability to multiply their numbers.

Since slave women were classified as “breeders” as opposed to “mothers,” their infant children could be sold away from them like calves from cows. One year after the importation of Africans was halted, a South Carolina court ruled that female slaves had no legal claims whatever on their children. Consequently, according to this ruling, children could be sold away from their mothers at any age because “the young of slaves … stand on the same footing as other animals.”13 

As females, slave women were inherently vulnerable to all forms of sexual coercion. If the most violent punishments of men consisted in floggings and mutilations, women were flogged and mutilated, as well as raped. Rape, in fact, was an uncamouflaged expression of the slaveholder’s economic mastery and the overseer’s control over Black women as workers.

The special abuses inflicted on women thus facilitated the ruthless economic exploitation of their labor. The demands of this exploitation caused slaveowners to cast aside their orthodox sexist attitudes except for purposes of repression. If Black women were hardly “women” in the accepted sense, the slave system also discouraged male supremacy in Black men. Because husbands and wives, fathers and daughters were equally subjected to the slavemasters’ absolute authority, the promotion of male supremacy among the slaves might have prompted a dangerous rupture in the chain of command. Moreover, since Black women as workers could not be treated as the “weaker sex” or the “housewife,” Black men could not be candidates for the figure of “family head” and certainly not for “family provider.” After all, men, women and children alike were all “providers” for the slaveholding class.

In the cotton, tobacco, corn and sugar-cane fields, women worked alongside their men. In the words of an ex-slave:


The bell rings at four o’clock in the morning and they have half an hour to get ready. Men and women start together, and the women must work as steadily as the men and perform the same tasks as the men.14 



Most slaveowners established systems of calculating their slaves’ yield in terms of the average rates of productivity they demanded. Children, thus, were frequently rated as quarter hands. Women, it was generally assumed, were full hands—unless they had been expressly assigned to be “breeders” or “sucklers,” in which case they sometimes ranked as less than full hands.15 

Slaveowners naturally sought to ensure that their “breeders” would bear children as often as biologically possible. But they never went so far as to exempt pregnant women and mothers with infant children from work in the fields. While many mothers were forced to leave their infants lying on the ground near the area where they worked, some refused to leave them unattended and tried to work at the normal pace with their babies on their backs. An ex-slave described such a case on the plantation where he lived:


One young woman did not, like the others, leave her child at the end of the row, but had contrived a sort of rude knapsack, made of a piece of coarse linen cloth, in which she fastened her child, which was very young, upon her back; and in this way carried it all day, and performed her task at the hoe with the other people.16 



On other plantations, the women left their infants in the care of small children or older slaves who were not able to perform hard labor in the fields. Unable to nurse their infants regularly, they endured the pain caused by their swollen breasts. In one of the most popular slave narratives of the period, Moses Grandy related the miserable predicament of slave mothers:


On the estate I am speaking of, those women who had sucking children suffered much from their breasts becoming full of milk, the infants being left at home. They therefore could not keep up with the other hands: I have seen the overseer beat them with raw hide, so that the blood and milk flew mingled from their breasts.17 



Pregnant women were not only compelled to do the normal agricultural work, they could also expect the floggings workers normally received if they failed to fulfill their day’s quota or if they “impudently” protested their treatment.


A woman who gives offense in the field, and is large in a family way, is compelled to lie down over a hole made to receive her corpulency, and is flogged with the whip or beat with a paddle, which has holes in it; at every stroke comes a blister. One of my sisters was so severely punished in this way, that labor was brought on, and the child was born in the field. This very overseer, Mr. Brooks, killed in this manner a girl named Mary. Her father and mother were in the field at that time.18 



On those plantations and farms where pregnant women were dealt with more leniently, it was seldom on humanitarian grounds. It was simply that slaveholders appreciated the value of a slave child born alive in the same way that they appreciated the value of a newborn calf or colt.

When timid attempts at industrialization were made in the pre-Civil War South, slave labor complemented—and frequently competed with—free labor. Slaveowning industrialists used men, women and children alike, and when planters and farmers hired out their slaves, they found women and children in as great demand as men.19 


Slave women and children comprised large proportions of the work forces in most slave-employing textile, hemp and tobacco factories.… Slave women and children sometimes worked at “heavy” industries such as sugar refining and rice milling.… Other heavy industries such as transportation and lumbering used slave women and children to a considerable extent.20 



Women were not too “feminine” to work in coal mines, in iron foundries or to be lumberjacks and ditchdiggers. When the Santee Canal was constructed in North Carolina, slave women were a full fifty percent of the labor force.21 Women also worked on the Louisiana levees, and many of the Southern railroads still in use today were constructed, in part, by female slave labor.22 

The use of slave women as substitutes for beasts of burden to pull trams in the Southern mines23 is reminiscent of the horrendous utilization of white female labor in England, as described in Karl Marx’s Capital:


In England women are still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling canal boats, because the labor required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population is below all calculation.24 



Like their British counterparts, the Southern industrialists made no secret of the reasons motivating them to employ women in their enterprises. Female slaves were a great deal more profitable than either free workers or male slaves. They “cost less to capitalize and to maintain than prime males.”25 

Required by the masters’ demands to be as “masculine” in the performance of their work as their men, Black women must have been profoundly affected by their experiences during slavery. Some, no doubt, were broken and destroyed, yet the majority survived and, in the process, acquired qualities considered taboo by the nineteenth-century ideology of womanhood. A traveler during that period observed a slave crew in Mississippi returning home from the fields and described the group as including


 … forty of the largest and strongest women I ever saw together; they were all in a simple uniform dress of a bluish check stuff; their legs and feet were bare; they carried themselves loftily, each having a hoe over the shoulder, and walking with a free, powerful swing like chasseurs on the march.26 



While it is hardly likely that these women were expressing pride in the work they performed under the ever-present threat of the whip, they must have been aware nonetheless of their enormous power—their ability to produce and create. For, as Marx put it, “labor is the living, shaping fire; it represents the impermanence of things, their temporality.”27 It is possible, of course, that this traveler’s observations were tainted by racism of the paternalistic variety, but if not, then perhaps these women had learned to extract from the oppressive circumstances of their lives the strength they needed to resist the daily dehumanization of slavery. Their awareness of their endless capacity for hard work may have imparted to them a confidence in their ability to struggle for themselves, their families and their people.

When the tentative pre-Civil War forays into factory work gave way to an aggressive embrace of industrialization in the United States, it robbed many white women of the experience of performing productive labor. Their spinning wheels were rendered obsolete by the textile factories. Their candlemaking paraphernalia became museum pieces, like so many of the other tools which had previously assisted them to produce the articles required by their families for survival. As the ideology of femininity—a by-product of industrialization—was popularized and disseminated through the new ladies’ magazines and romantic novels, white women came to be seen as inhabitants of a sphere totally severed from the realm of productive work. The cleavage between the home and the public economy, brought on by industrial capitalism, established female inferiority more firmly than ever before. “Woman” became synonymous in the prevailing propaganda with “mother” and “housewife,” and both “mother” and “housewife” bore the fatal mark of inferiority. But among Black female slaves, this vocabulary was nowhere to be found. The economic arrangements of slavery contradicted the hierarchical sexual roles incorporated in the new ideology. Male-female relations within the slave community could not, therefore, conform to the dominant ideological pattern.

Much has been made of the slaveholders’ definition of the Black family as a matrilocal biological structure. Birth records on many plantations omitted the names of the fathers, listing only the children’s mothers. And throughout the South, state legislatures adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem—the child follows the condition of the mother. These were the dictates of the slaveowners, who fathered not a few slave children themselves. But were they also the norms according to which the slaves ordered their domestic relationships among themselves? Most historical and sociological examinations of the Black family during slavery have simply assumed that the masters’ refusal to acknowledge fatherhood among their slaves was directly translated into a matriarchal family arrangement of the slaves’ own making.

The notorious 1965 government study on the “Negro Family”—popularly known as the “Moynihan Report”—directly linked the contemporary social and economic problems of the Black community to a putatively matriarchal family structure. “In essence,” wrote Daniel Moynihan,


the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.28 



According to the report’s thesis, the source of oppression was deeper than the racial discrimination that produced unemployment, shoddy housing, inadequate education and substandard medical care. The root of oppression was described as a “tangle of pathology” created by the absence of male authority among Black people! The controversial finale of the Moynihan Report was a call to introduce male authority (meaning male supremacy of course!) into the Black family and the community at large.

One of Moynihan’s “liberal” supporters, the sociologist Lee Rainwater, took exception to the solutions recommended by the report.29 Rainwater proposed instead jobs, higher wages and other economic reforms. He even went so far as to encourage continued civil rights protests and demonstrations. But, like most white sociologists—and some Black ones as well—he reiterated the thesis that slavery had effectively destroyed the Black family. As a result, Black people were allegedly left with “the mother-centered family with its emphasis on the primacy of the mother-child relation and only tenuous ties to a man.”30 Today, he said,


Men often do not have real homes; they move about from one household where they have kinship or sexual ties to another. They live in flop houses and rooming houses; they spend their time in institutions. They are not household members in the only “homes” they have—the homes of their mothers and of their girlfriends.31 



Neither Moynihan nor Rainwater had invented the theory of the Black family’s internal deterioration under slavery. The pioneering work to support this thesis was done in the 1930s by the renowned Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. In his book The Negro Family,32 published in 1939, Frazier dramatically described the horrendous impact of slavery on Black people, but he underestimated their ability to resist its insinuations into the social life they forged for themselves. He also misinterpreted the spirit of independence and self-reliance Black women necessarily developed, and thus deplored the fact that “neither economic necessity nor tradition had instilled (in the Black woman) the spirit of subordination to masculine authority.”33 

Motivated by the controversy unleashed by the appearance of the Moynihan Report, as well as by his doubts concerning the validity of Frazier’s theory, Herbert Gutman initiated his research on the slave family. About ten years later—in 1976—he published his remarkable work The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.34 Gutman’s investigations uncovered fascinating evidence of a thriving and developing family during slavery. It was not the infamous matriarchal family he discovered, but rather one involving wife, husband, children and frequently other relatives, as well as adoptive kin.

Dissociating himself from the questionable econometric conclusions reached by Fogel and Engerman, who claim that slavery left most families intact, Gutman confirms that countless slave families were forcibly disrupted. The separation, through indiscriminate sales of husbands, wives and children, was a terrifying hallmark of the North American variety of slavery. But, as he points out, the bonds of love and affection, the cultural norms governing family relations, and the overpowering desire to remain together survived the devastating onslaught of slavery.35 

On the basis of letters and documents, such as birth records retrieved from plantations listing fathers as well as mothers, Gutman demonstrates not only that slaves adhered to strict norms regulating their familial arrangements, but that these norms differed from those governing the white family life around them. Marriage taboos, naming practices and sexual mores—which, incidentally, sanctioned premarital intercourse—set slaves apart from their masters.36 As they tried desperately and daily to maintain their family lives, enjoying as much autonomy as they could seize, slave men and women manifested irrepressible talent in humanizing an environment designed to convert them into a herd of subhuman labor units.


Everyday choices made by slave men and women—such as remaining with the same spouse for many years, naming or not naming the father of a child, taking as a wife a woman who had children by unnamed fathers, giving a newborn child the name of a father, an aunt or an uncle, or a grandparent, and dissolving an incompatible marriage—contradicted in behavior, not in rhetoric, the powerful ideology that viewed the slave as a perpetual “child” or a repressed “savage.” … Their domestic arrangements and kin networks together with the enlarged communities that flowed from these primordial ties made it clear to their children that the slaves were not “non-men” and “non-women.”37 



It is unfortunate that Gutman did not attempt to determine the actual position of women within the slave family. In demonstrating the existence of a complex family life encompassing husbands and wives alike, Gutman eliminated one of the main pillars on which the matriarchy argument has stood. However, he did not substantially challenge the complementary claim that where there were two-parent families, the woman dominated the man. Moreover, as Gutman’s own research confirms, social life in the slave quarters was largely an extension of family life. Thus, women’s role within the family must have defined, to a great extent, their social status within the slave community as a whole.

Most scholarly studies have interpreted slave family life as elevating the women and debasing the men, even when both mother and father were present. According to Stanley Elkins, for example, the mother’s role


 … loomed far larger for the slave child than did that of the father. She controlled those few activities—household care, preparation of food and rearing of children—that were left to the slave family.38 



The systematic designation of slave men as “boys” by the master was a reflection, according to Elkins, of their inability to execute their fatherly responsibilities. Kenneth Stampp pursues this line of reasoning even further than Elkins:


 … the typical slave family was matriarchal in form, for the mother’s role was far more important than the father’s. In so far as the family did have significance, it involved responsibilities which traditionally belonged to women, such as cleaning house, preparing food, making clothes, and raising children. The husband was at most his wife’s assistant, her companion and her sex partner. He was often thought of as her possession (Mary’s Tom), as was the cabin in which they lived.39 



It is true that domestic life took on an exaggerated importance in the social lives of slaves, for it did indeed provide them with the only space where they could truly experience themselves as human beings. Black women, for this reason—and also because they were workers just like their men—were not debased by their domestic functions in the way that white women came to be. Unlike their white counterparts, they could never be treated as mere “housewives.” But to go further and maintain that they consequently dominated their men is to fundamentally distort the reality of slave life.

In an essay I wrote in 197140—using the few resources allowed me in my jail cell—I characterized the significance of the slave woman’s domestic functions in the following way: “In the infinite anguish of ministering to the needs of the men and children around her …, she was performing the only labor of the slave community which could not be directly and immediately claimed by the oppressor. There was no compensation for work in the fields; it served no useful purpose for the slaves. Domestic labor was the only meaningful labor for the slave community as a whole.…

“Precisely through performing the drudgery which has long been a central expression of the socially conditioned inferiority of women, the Black woman in chains could help to lay the foundation for some degree of autonomy, both for herself and her men. Even as she was suffering under her unique oppression as female, she was thrust into the center of the slave community. She was, therefore, essential to the survival of the community.”

I have since realized that the special character of domestic labor during slavery, its centrality to men and women in bondage, involved work that was not exclusively female. Slave men executed important domestic responsibilities and were not, therefore—as Kenneth Stampp would have it—the mere helpmates of their women. For while women cooked and sewed, for example, men did the gardening and hunting. (Yams, corn and other vegetables, as well as wild animals such as rabbits and opossums, were always a delicious addition to the monotonous daily rations.) This sexual division of domestic labor does not appear to have been hierarchical: men’s tasks were certainly not superior to and were hardly inferior to the work performed by women. They were both equally necessary. Moreover, from all indications, the division of labor between the sexes was not always so rigorous, for men would sometimes work in the cabin and women might tend the garden and perhaps even join the hunt.41 

The salient theme emerging from domestic life in the slave quarters is one of sexual equality. The labor that slaves performed for their own sake and not for the aggrandizement of their masters was carried out on terms of equality. Within the confines of their family and community life, therefore, Black people managed to accomplish a magnificent feat. They transformed that negative equality which emanated from the equal oppression they suffered as slaves into a positive quality: the egalitarianism characterizing their social relations.

Although Eugene Genovese’s major argument in Roll, Jordan, Roll is, at best, problematic (i.e., that Black people accepted the paternalism associated with slavery), he does present an insightful, though abbreviated, picture of the slaves’ home life.


The story of the slave women as wives requires indirect examination. To deduce it from an assumption that the man was a guest in the house will not do. A review of the actual position of the men as husbands and fathers suggests that the position of the women was much more complex than usually credited. The women’s attitude toward housework, especially cooking, and toward their own femininity by itself belies the conventional wisdom according to which the women unwittingly helped ruin their men by asserting themselves in the home, protecting their children, and assuming other normally masculine responsibilities.42 



While there is a touch of male supremacy in his analysis, implying, as he does, that masculinity and femininity are immutable concepts, he clearly recognizes that


What has usually been viewed as a debilitating female supremacy was in fact a closer approximation to a healthy sexual equality than was possible for whites and perhaps even for postbellum blacks.43 



The most fascinating point Genovese raises here—although he does not develop it—is that women often defended their men from the slave system’s attempts to demean them. Most women, perhaps a substantial majority, he says, understood that whenever their men were degraded, so too were they. Furthermore,


[t]hey wanted their boys to grow up to be men and knew perfectly well that, to do so, they needed the example of a strong black man in front of them.44 



Their boys needed strong male models to the very same extent that their girls needed strong female models.

If Black women bore the terrible burden of equality in oppression, if they enjoyed equality with their men in their domestic environment, then they also asserted their equality aggressively in challenging the inhuman institution of slavery. They resisted the sexual assaults of white men, defended their families and participated in work stoppages and revolts. As Herbert Aptheker points out in his pioneering work American Negro Slave Revolts,45 they poisoned their masters, committed other acts of sabotage and, like their men, joined maroon communities and frequently fled northward to freedom. From the numerous accounts of the violent repression overseers inflicted on women, it must be inferred that she who passively accepted her lot as a slave was the exception rather than the rule.

When Frederick Douglass reflected on his childhood introduction to the merciless violence of slavery,46 he recalled the floggings and torture of many rebellious women. His cousin, for example, was horribly beaten as she unsuccessfully resisted an overseer’s sexual attack.47 A woman called Aunt Esther was viciously flogged for defying her master, who insisted that she break off relations with a man she loved.48 One of Frederick Douglass’ most vivid descriptions of the ruthless punishments reserved for slaves involved a young woman named Nellie, who was whipped for the offense of “impudence”:


There were times when she seemed likely to get the better of the brute, but he finally overpowered her and succeeded in getting her arms tied to the tree towards which he had been dragging her. The victim was now at the mercy of his merciless lash.… The cries of the now helpless woman, while undergoing the terrible infliction, were mingled with the hoarse curses of the overseer and the wild cries of her distracted children. When the poor woman was untied, her back was covered with blood. She was whipped, terribly whipped, but she was not subdued and continued to denounce the overseer and to pour upon him every vile epithet of which she could think.49 



Douglass adds that he doubts whether this overseer ever attempted to whip Nellie again.

Like Harriet Tubman, numerous women fled slavery for the North. Many were successful, though many more were captured. One of the most dramatic escape attempts involved a young woman—possibly a teenager—named Ann Wood, who directed a wagonload of armed boys and girls as they ran for their freedom. After setting out on Christmas Eve, 1855, they engaged in a shoot-out with slavecatchers. Two of them were killed, but the rest, according to all indications, made their way to the North.50 The abolitionist Sarah Grimke described the case of a woman whose resistance was not so successful as Ann Wood’s. This woman’s repeated efforts to escape from the domination of her South Carolina master earned her so many floggings that “a finger could not be laid between the cuts.”51 Because she seized every available opportunity to break free from the plantation, she was eventually held prisoner in a heavy iron collar—and in case she managed to break the collar, a front tooth was pulled as an identification mark. Although her owners, said Grimke, were known as a charitable and Christian family,


 … this suffering slave, who was the seamstress of the family was continually in (their) presence, sitting in (the) chamber to sew, or engaging in … other household work with her lacerated and bleeding back, her mutilated mouth and heavy iron collar without, so far as appeared, exciting any feelings of compassion.52 



Women resisted and advocated challenges to slavery at every turn. Given the unceasing repression of women, “no wonder,” said Herbert Aptheker, “the Negro woman so often urged haste in slave plottings.”53 


Virginia, 1812: “she said they could not rise too soon for her as she had rather be in hell than where she was.” Mississippi, 1835: “she wished to God it was all over and done with; that she was tired of waiting on white folks …”

One may better understand now a Margaret Garner, fugitive slave, who, when trapped near Cincinnati, killed her own daughter and tried to kill herself. She rejoiced that the girl was dead—“now she would never know what a woman suffers as a slave.”—and pleaded to be tried for murder. “I will go singing to the gallows rather than be returned to slavery.”54 



Maroon communities, composed of fugitive slaves and their descendants, could be found throughout the South as early as 1642 and as late as 1864. These communities were “havens for fugitives, served as bases for marauding expeditions against nearby plantations and at times supplied leadership to planned uprisings.”55 In 1816 a large and flourishing community was discovered: three hundred escaped slaves—men, women and children—had occupied a fort in Florida. When they refused to surrender themselves, the army launched a battle which lasted for ten days and claimed the lives of more than two hundred fifty of the inhabitants. The women fought back on equal terms with the men.56 During the course of another confrontation in Mobile, Alabama, in 1827, men and women alike were unrelenting, fighting, according to local newspapers, “like Spartans.”57 

Resistance was often more subtle than revolts, escapes and sabotage. It involved, for example, the clandestine acquisition of reading and writing skills and the imparting of this knowledge to others. In Natchez, Louisiana, a slave woman ran a “midnight school,” teaching her people between the hours of eleven and two until she had “graduated” hundreds.58 Undoubtedly many of them wrote their own passes and headed in the direction of freedom. In Alex Haley’s Roots59—his fictionalized narrative of his ancestors’ lives—Kunta Kinte’s wife, Belle, painfully taught herself to read and write. By secretly reading her master’s newspapers, she stayed abreast of current political events and communicated this knowledge to her sister and brother slaves.

No discussion of the part played by women in resisting slavery would be complete without paying tribute to Harriet Tubman for the extraordinary feats she performed as the conductor for over three hundred people on the Underground Railroad.60 Her early life unfolded in a manner typical of most slave women’s lives. A field hand in Maryland, she learned through work that her potential as a woman was the same as any man’s. Her father taught her to chop wood and split rails, and as they worked side by side, he gave her lessons which would later prove indispensable during the nineteen trips she made back and forth to the South. He taught her how to walk soundlessly through the woods and how to find food and medicine among the plants, roots and herbs. The fact that she never once suffered defeat is no doubt attributable to her father’s instructions. Throughout the Civil War, Harriet Tubman continued her relentless opposition to slavery, and even today she still holds the distinction of being the only woman in the United States ever to have led troops into battle.

Whatever the standards used to judge her—Black or white, male or female—Harriet Tubman was indeed an exceptional individual. But from another vantage point, what she did was simply to express in her own way the spirit of strength and perseverance which so many other women of her race had acquired. This bears repeating: Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s. This was one of the greatest ironies of the slave system, for in subjecting women to the most ruthless exploitation conceivable, exploitation which knew no sex distinctions, the groundwork was created not only for Black women to assert their equality through their social relations, but also to express it through their acts of resistance. This must have been a terrifying revelation for the slaveowners, for it seems that they were trying to break this chain of equality through the especially brutal repression they reserved for the women. Again, it is important to remember that the punishment inflicted on women exceeded in intensity the punishment suffered by their men, for women were not only whipped and mutilated, they were also raped.

It would be a mistake to regard the institutionalized pattern of rape during slavery as an expression of white men’s sexual urges, otherwise stifled by the specter of white womanhood’s chastity. That would be far too simplistic an explanation. Rape was a weapon of domination, a weapon of repression, whose covert goal was to extinguish slave women’s will to resist, and in the process, to demoralize their men. These observations on the role of rape during the Vietnam War could also apply to slavery: “In Vietnam, the U.S. Military Command made rape ‘socially acceptable’; in fact, it was unwritten, but clear, policy.”61 When GIs were encouraged to rape Vietnamese women and girls (and they were sometimes advised to “search” women “with their penises”62 ) a weapon of mass political terrorism was forged. Since the Vietnamese women were distinguished by their heroic contributions to their people’s liberation struggle, the military retaliation specifically suited for them was rape. While women were hardly immune to the violence inflicted on men, they were especially singled out as victims of terrorism by a sexist military force governed by the principle that war was exclusively a man’s affair. “I saw one case where a woman was shot by a sniper, one of our snipers,” a GI said.


When we got up to her she was asking for water. And the lieutenant said to kill her. So he ripped off her clothes, they stabbed her in both breasts, they spread her eagle and shoved an E tool (entrenching) up her vagina. And then they took that out and used a tree limb and then she was shot.63 



In the same way that rape was an institutionalized ingredient of the aggression carried out against the Vietnamese people, designed to intimidate and terrorize the women, slaveowners encouraged the terroristic use of rape in order to put Black women in their place. If Black women had achieved a sense of their own strength and a strong urge to resist, then violent sexual assaults—so the slaveholders might have reasoned—would remind the women of their essential and inalterable femaleness. In the male supremacist vision of the period, this meant passivity, acquiescence and weakness.

Virtually all the slave narratives of the nineteenth century contain accounts of slave women’s sexual victimization at the hands of masters and overseers.


Henry Bibb’s master forced one slave girl to be his son’s concubine; M.F. Jamison’s overseer raped a pretty slave girl, and Solomon Northrup’s owner forced one slave, “Patsy,” to be his sexual partner.64 



Despite the testimony of slaves about the high incidence of rape and sexual coercion, the issue of sexual abuse has been all but glossed over in the traditional literature on slavery. It is sometimes even assumed that slave women welcomed and encouraged the sexual attentions of white men. What happened between them, therefore, was not sexual exploitation, but rather “miscegenation.” In the section of Roll, Jordan, Roll devoted to interracial sex, Genovese insists that the problem of rape pales in relation to the merciless taboos surrounding miscegenation. “Many white men,” the author says, “who began by taking a slave girl in an act of sexual exploitation ended by loving her and the children she bore.”65 “The tragedy of miscegenation lay,” as a consequence,


not in its collapse into lust and sexual exploitation, but in the terrible pressure to deny the delight, affection and love that often grew from tawdry beginnings.66 



Genovese’s overall approach hinges on the issue of paternalism. Slaves, he argues, more or less accepted the paternalistic posture of their masters, and masters were compelled by their paternalism to acknowledge slaves’ claims to humanity. But since, in the eyes of the masters, the slaves’ humanity was childlike at best, it is not surprising that Genovese believes he has discovered a kernel of that humanity in miscegenation. He fails to understand that there could hardly be a basis for “delight, affection and love” as long as white men, by virtue of their economic position, had unlimited access to Black women’s bodies. It was as oppressors—or, in the case of non-slaveowners, as agents of domination—that white men approached Black women’s bodies. Genovese would do well to read Gayl Jones’ Corregidora67, a recent novel by a young Black woman which chronicles the attempts of several generations of women to “preserve the evidence” of the sexual crimes committed during slavery.

E. Franklin Frazier thought he had discovered in miscegenation Black people’s most important cultural achievement during slavery:


The master in his mansion and his colored mistress in her special house nearby represented the final triumph of social ritual in the presence of the deepest feelings of human solidarity.68 



At the same time, however, he could not entirely dismiss the numerous women who did not submit without a fight:


That physical compulsion was necessary at times to secure submission on the part of black women … is supported by historical evidence and has been preserved in the tradition of Negro families.69 



He cites the story of a woman whose great-grandmother always described with enthusiasm the battles which had earned her the considerable scars on her body. But there was one scar she persistently refused to explain, saying, whenever she was asked about it, “White men are as low as dogs, child, stay away from them.” After her death, the mystery was finally solved:


She received that scar at the hands of her master’s youngest son, a boy of about eighteen years at the time she conceived their child, my grandmother Ellen.70 



White women who joined the abolitionist movement were especially outraged by the sexual assaults on Black women. Activists in the female anti-slavery societies often related stories of brutal rapes of slave women as they appealed to white women to defend their Black sisters. While these women made inestimable contributions to the anti-slavery campaign, they often failed to grasp the complexity of the slave woman’s condition. Black women were women indeed, but their experiences during slavery—hard work with their men, equality within the family, resistance, floggings and rape—had encouraged them to develop certain personality traits which set them apart from most white women.

One of the most popular pieces of abolitionist literature was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book which rallied vast numbers of people—and more women than ever before—to the anti-slavery cause. Abraham Lincoln once casually referred to Stowe as the woman who started the Civil War. Yet the enormous influence her book enjoyed cannot compensate for its utter distortion of slave life. The central female figure is a travesty of the Black woman, a naïve transposition of the mother-figure, praised by the cultural propaganda of the period, from white society to the slave community. Eliza is white motherhood incarnate, but in blackface—or rather, because she is a “quadroon,” in just-a-little-less-than-white-face.

It may have been Stowe’s hope that the white women readers of her novel would discover themselves in Eliza. They could admire her superior Christian morality, her unfaltering maternal instincts, her gentleness and fragility—for these were the very qualities white women were being taught to cultivate in themselves. Just as Eliza’s whiteness allows her to become the epitome of motherhood, her husband, George, whose ancestry is also predominantly white, comes closer than any other Black man in the book to being a “man” in the orthodox male supremacist sense. Unlike the domestic, acquiescent, childlike Uncle Tom, George is ambitious, intelligent, literate, and most important of all, he detests slavery with an unquenchable passion. When George decides, very early in the book, to flee to Canada, Eliza, the pure, sheltered houseservant, is terribly frightened by his overflowing hatred of slavery:


Eliza trembled, and was silent. She had never seen her husband in this mood before; and her gentle system of ethics seemed to bend like a reed in the surges of such passions.71 



Eliza is practically oblivious to the general injustices of slavery. Her feminine submissiveness has prompted her to surrender herself to her fate as a slave and to the will of her good, kind master and mistress. It is only when her maternal status is threatened that she finds the strength to stand up and fight. Like the mother who discovers she can lift an automobile if her child is trapped underneath, Eliza experiences a surge of maternal power when she learns that her son is going to be sold. Her “kind” master’s financial troubles compel him to sell Uncle Tom and Eliza’s son Harry—despite, of course, the compassionate and maternal pleas of his wife. Eliza grabs Harry and instinctively runs away, for “stronger than all was maternal love, wrought into a paroxysm of frenzy by the near approaches of a fearful danger.”72 Eliza’s mother-courage is spellbinding. When, in the course of her flight, she reaches an impassable river of melting ice, the slavecatcher hot on her heels, she spirits Harry across


 … nerved with strength such as God only gives to the desperate.… (S)he vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore and on to the raft of ice beyond.… With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake;—stumbling,—leaping,—slipping,—springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone,—her stockings cut from her feet,—while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.73 



The implausibility of Eliza’s melodramatic feat matters little to Stowe—because God imparts superhuman abilities to gentle Christian mothers. The point, however, is that because she accepted wholesale nineteenth-century mother worship, Stowe miserably fails to capture the reality and the truth of Black women’s resistance to slavery. Countless acts of heroism carried out by slave mothers have been documented. These women, unlike Eliza, were driven to defend their children by their passionate abhorrence of slavery. The source of their strength was not some mystical power attached to motherhood, but rather their concrete experiences as slaves. Some, like Margaret Garner, went so far as to kill their children rather than witness their growth to adulthood under the brutal circumstances of slavery. Eliza, on the other hand, is quite unconcerned about the overall inhumanity of the slave system. Had she not been threatened with the sale of her son, she would have probably lived happily ever after under the beneficent tutelage of her master and mistress.

The Elizas, if they indeed existed, were certainly oddities among the great majority of Black women. They did not, in any event, represent the accumulated experiences of all those women who toiled under the lash for their masters, worked for and protected their families, fought against slavery, and who were beaten and raped, but never subdued. It was those women who passed on to their nominally free female descendants a legacy of hard work, perseverance and self-reliance, a legacy of tenacity, resistance and insistence on sexual equality—in short, a legacy spelling out standards for a new womanhood.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR




ANGELA Y. DAVIS studied at Brandeis University and at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. She lives in California and teaches Black Philosophy and Aesthetics as well as courses in women’s studies.


12 [image: ] Racism, Birth Control
and Reproductive Rights



When nineteenth-century feminists raised the demand for “voluntary motherhood,” the campaign for birth control was born. Its proponents were called radicals and they were subjected to the same mockery as had befallen the initial advocates of woman suffrage. “Voluntary motherhood” was considered audacious, outrageous and outlandish by those who insisted that wives had no right to refuse to satisfy their husbands’ sexual urges. Eventually, of course, the right to birth control, like women’s right to vote, would be more or less taken for granted by U.S. public opinion. Yet in 1970, a full century later, the call for legal and easily accessible abortions was no less controversial than the issue of “voluntary motherhood” which had originally launched the birth control movement in the United States.

Birth control—individual choice, safe contraceptive methods, as well as abortions when necessary—is a fundamental prerequisite for the emancipation of women. Since the right of birth control is obviously advantageous to women of all classes and races, it would appear that even vastly dissimilar women’s groups would have attempted to unite around this issue. In reality, however, the birth control movement has seldom succeeded in uniting women of different social backgrounds, and rarely have the movement’s leaders popularized the genuine concerns of working-class women. Moreover, arguments advanced by birth control advocates have sometimes been based on blatantly racist premises. The progressive potential of birth control remains indisputable. But in actuality, the historical record of this movement leaves much to be desired in the realm of challenges to racism and class exploitation.

The most important victory of the contemporary birth control movement was won during the early 1970s when abortions were at last declared legal. Having emerged during the infancy of the new Women’s Liberation movement, the struggle to legalize abortions incorporated all the enthusiasm and the militancy of the young movement. By January, 1973, the abortion rights campaign had reached a triumphant culmination. In Roe v. Wade (410 U.S.) and Doe v. Bolton (410 U.S.), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to personal privacy implied her right to decide whether or not to have an abortion.

The ranks of the abortion rights campaign did not include substantial numbers of women of color. Given the racial composition of the larger Women’s Liberation movement, this was not at all surprising. When questions were raised about the absence of racially oppressed women in both the larger movement and in the abortion rights campaign, two explanations were commonly proposed in the discussions and literature of the period: women of color were overburdened by their people’s fight against racism; and/or they had not yet become conscious of the centrality of sexism. But the real meaning of the almost lily-white complexion of the abortion rights campaign was not to be found in an ostensibly myopic or underdeveloped consciousness among women of color. The truth lay buried in the ideological underpinnings of the birth control movement itself.

The failure of the abortion rights campaign to conduct a historical self-evaluation led to a dangerously superficial appraisal of Black people’s suspicious attitudes toward birth control in general. Granted, when some Black people unhesitatingly equated birth control with genocide, it did appear to be an exaggerated—even paranoiac—reaction. Yet white abortion rights activists missed a profound message, for underlying these cries of genocide were important clues about the history of the birth control movement. This movement, for example, had been known to advocate involuntary sterilization—a racist form of mass “birth control.” If ever women would enjoy the right to plan their pregnancies, legal and easily accessible birth control measures and abortions would have to be complemented by an end to sterilization abuse.

As for the abortion rights campaign itself, how could women of color fail to grasp its urgency? They were far more familiar than their white sisters with the murderously clumsy scalpels of inept abortionists seeking profit in illegality. In New York, for instance, during the several years preceding the decriminalization of abortions in that state, some 80 percent of the deaths caused by illegal abortions involved Black and Puerto Rican women.1 Immediately afterward, women of color received close to half of all the legal abortions. If the abortion rights campaign of the early 1970s needed to be reminded that women of color wanted desperately to escape the back-room quack abortionists, they should have also realized that these same women were not about to express pro-abortion sentiments. They were in favor of abortion rights, which did not mean that they were proponents of abortion. When Black and Latina women resort to abortions in such large numbers, the stories they tell are not so much about their desire to be free of their pregnancy, but rather about the miserable social conditions which dissuade them from bringing new lives into the world.

Black women have been aborting themselves since the earliest days of slavery. Many slave women refused to bring children into a world of interminable forced labor, where chains and floggings and sexual abuse for women were the everyday conditions of life. A doctor practicing in Georgia around the middle of the last century noticed that abortions and miscarriages were far more common among his slave patients than among the white women he treated. According to the physician, either Black women worked too hard or


 … as the planters believe, the blacks are possessed of a secret by which they destroy the fetus at an early stage of gestation … All country practitioners are aware of the frequent complaints of planters (about the) … unnatural tendency in the African female to destroy her offspring.2 



Expressing shock that “… whole families of women fail to have any children,”3 this doctor never considered how “unnatural” it was to raise children under the slave system. The previously mentioned episode of Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave who killed her own daughter and attempted suicide herself when she was captured by slavecatchers, is a case in point.


She rejoiced that the girl was dead—“now she would never know what a woman suffers as a slave”—and pleaded to be tried for murder. “I will go singing to the gallows rather than be returned to slavery!”4 



Why were self-imposed abortions and reluctant acts of infanticide such common occurrences during slavery? Not because Black women had discovered solutions to their predicament, but rather because they were desperate. Abortions and infanticides were acts of desperation, motivated not by the biological birth process but by the oppressive conditions of slavery. Most of these women, no doubt, would have expressed their deepest resentment had someone hailed their abortions as a stepping stone toward freedom.

During the early abortion rights campaign it was too frequently assumed that legal abortions provided a viable alternative to the myriad problems posed by poverty. As if having fewer children could create more jobs, higher wages, better schools, etc., etc. This assumption reflected the tendency to blur the distinction between abortion rights and the general advocacy of abortions. The campaign often failed to provide a voice for women who wanted the right to legal abortions while deploring the social conditions that prohibited them from bearing more children.

The renewed offensive against abortion rights that erupted during the latter half of the 1970s has made it absolutely necessary to focus more sharply on the needs of poor and racially oppressed women. By 1977 the passage of the Hyde Amendment in Congress had mandated the withdrawal of federal funding for abortions, causing many state legislatures to follow suit. Black, Puerto Rican, Chicana and Native American Indian women, together with their impoverished white sisters, were thus effectively divested of the right to legal abortions. Since surgical sterilizations, funded by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, remained free on demand, more and more poor women have been forced to opt for permanent infertility. What is urgently required is a broad campaign to defend the reproductive rights of all women—and especially those women whose economic circumstances often compel them to relinquish the right to reproduction itself.

Women’s desire to control their reproductive system is probably as old as human history itself. As early as 1844 the United States Practical Receipt Book contained, among its many recipes for food, household chemicals and medicines, “receipts” for “birth preventive lotions.” To make “Hannay’s Preventive Lotion,” for example,


[t]ake pearlash, 1 part; water, 6 parts. Mix and filter. Keep it in closed bottles, and use it, with or without soap, immediately after connexion.5 



For “Abernethy’s Preventive Lotion,”


[t]ake bichloride of mercury, 25 parts; milk of almonds, 400 parts; alcohol, 100 parts; rosewater, 1000 parts. Immerse the glands in a little of the mixture.… Infallible, if used in proper time.6 



While women have probably always dreamed of infallible methods of birth control, it was not until the issue of women’s rights in general became the focus of an organized movement that reproductive rights could emerge as a legitimate demand. In an essay entitled “Marriage,” written during the 1850s, Sarah Grimke argued for a “… right on the part of woman to decide when she shall become a mother, how often and under what circumstances.”7 Alluding to one physician’s humorous observation, Grimke agreed that if wives and husbands alternatively gave birth to their children, “… no family would ever have more than three, the husband bearing one and the wife two.”8 But, as she insists, “… the right to decide this matter has been almost wholly denied to woman.”9 

Sarah Grimke advocated women’s right to sexual abstinence. Around the same time the well-known “emancipated marriage” of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell took place. These abolitionists and women’s rights activists were married in a ceremony that protested women’s traditional relinquishment of their rights to their persons, names and property. In agreeing that as husband, he had no right to the “custody of the wife’s person,”10 Henry Blackwell promised that he would not attempt to impose the dictates of his sexual desires upon his wife.

The notion that women could refuse to submit to their husbands’ sexual demands eventually became the central idea of the call for “voluntary motherhood.” By the 1870s, when the woman suffrage movement had reached its peak, feminists were publicly advocating voluntary motherhood. In a speech delivered in 1873, Victoria Woodhull claimed that


(t)he wife who submits to sexual intercourse against her wishes or desires, virtually commits suicide; while the husband who compels it, commits murder, and ought just as much to be punished for it, as though he strangled her to death for refusing him.11 



Woodhull, of course, was quite notorious as a proponent of “free love.” Her defense of a woman’s right to abstain from sexual intercourse within marriage as a means of controlling her pregnancies was associated with Woodhull’s overall attack on the institution of marriage.

It was not a coincidence that women’s consciousness of their reproductive rights was born within the organized movement for women’s political equality. Indeed, if women remained forever burdened by incessant childbirths and frequent miscarriages, they would hardly be able to exercise the political rights they might win. Moreover,