This post is part of a series on reading women 2019 hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s Narrative Designer, Dan Michael Fielding.
I don’t often get the chance to say this, but this is a book that every person should read.
Women, Race, and Class tells the history of liberation movements in the U.S.–from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to workers rebellions. Davis details the various ways these movements have been hampered by implicit and explicit racism, classism, and anti-woman sentiment.
Davis begins with slavery. At the time Davis was writing–and still, unfortunately, today–the role of white women in maintaining slavery and black women in experiencing it was not well understood. Davis provides a theoretical argument for why studying black women’s experiences of slavery is so important.
The domestic labor of black women during slavery takes on a special character, Davis argues. It becomes one of the only modes of expressing love and care for family. Under slavery the work/home split is quite different than the split that would later come to define second wave feminism. Davis argues that we can’t understand why black women don’t feel the push against domestic labor to speak to their interests. Instead, pushing against domestic labor defines the feminist movement as a white women’s movement.
In making this argument Davis traces the long history of feminist struggles butting heads with anti-racism work. Far from viewing the needs of blacks and women as intertwined, and their liberation dependent on struggling together, feminist movements have routinely focused only on the needs of while, affluent women.
Davis evenly offers an example of Susan B. Anthony critiquing working women for focusing on “bread” instead of the ballot. Their focus on immediate needs, Anthony thought, would only slow down the movement. As their needs continued to be unmet they gradually left the movement.
This example, one of many in Davis’s book, highlights the immense consequences of an anti-solidarity politics. There are frequent stories of white women promising to get to working on abolition after the “more important” issue of women’s suffrage was addressed.
White women’s suffrage was pitted in competition with the abolition of slavery rather than being seen as movements that could accomplish more together. Frequently, white women suffragists relied directly on racist rhetoric to explain why their, presumed moderate and good, vote would help outweigh the votes of black men, who were presumed to be uneducated.
This history still has major implications for the way we structure movements today. We feel the echoes of that early anti-black rhetoric each time the needs of white women are presumed to be the most vital focus of our movements.
Davis doesn’t only talk about feminist movements, however. She also discusses working class movements and their failure to understand the needs of black women and domestic workers. She details the misogyny often present in abolition movements.
Her discussions are in-depth and nuanced, yet the book itself is surprisingly short at just under 250 pages. I highly recommend checking it out to better understand the importance of solidarity projects.
The book is astonishing, and it deserves to be as widely read as it is (and more so!).
What did you read for the black civil rights and radicalism challenge? Let us know below! I’d love more books to add to my to-read list.