Where do the Roots take hold?

I couldn’t help after reading this weeks readings but think about where the roots of the modern-day feminist movement lie—with that of the White, middle-class as proposed by Sara Evans in Personal Politics or with the Black, working-class as suggested by Jacqueline Jones in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. For me, as a modern day, self-appointed feminist, part of me wishes that it didn’t matter who owned the rightful title for the cradle of feminism. Partly because I feel that feminism is a product of centuries of patriarchal rule, and, therefore, has many different avenues on which women and men shaped and formed what we now know as feminism. The other half of me is disappointed.

From both readings, Evans and Jones paint remarkably similar tales. First, both camps of feminism grew out of revolutionary, male-dominated organizations. For Black women, the promise of radical change and racial equality didn’t meet up to the gender inequality that most male Black Panthers showed their female counterparts. Pushed into menial jobs and suggested to be baby machines for a new Black nation, splinter feminist groups formed from the gender repression found within. Similarly, Evans points out that those women who were attracted to the promise of change within the New Left and civil rights movements found themselves relegated to “acceptable” female jobs and shunned from the inner circles of the organizations. Frustrated, they, too, splintered from their male counterparts into organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Secondly, both groups came to respond to the idea that the decline of the family and the state of American manhood (Black or White) was because of women—shrewish, nagging, threatening women.[1] Third, it should not be overlooked, that both groups shared common goals like healthcare, the welfare state, equal pay, etc.

However, with as much has they had in common, each group resolutely refused to join and see eye-to-eye. For the Black feminists, their organization was purer and more authentic since it “sprang not from abstract theoretical formulations, but from self-scrutiny and self-understanding.”[2] It also did not spring from the minds of bored suburbanites. There was also the added component of race and, for them, “race, rather than gender, was the primary source of their oppression.”[3]

While Evans doesn’t refute that white feminism came out of the middle-class, she does paint a more nuanced picture than that of a just a bored housewife. She points to the internal struggle of having to want and have it all—that society and the media perpetuated a myth of the happy, domestic housewife that, in reality, never really existed. Forced into menial and subservient jobs, these women became unhappy with both their home and work situations. Evans also argues that through their experiences both on the home, work, and reform front, white feminism was a product of “daring” to “respect themselves and to know their own strength,” much like Black feminism’s self-understanding.[4] Jacobsen in Roots Too even proposes that the advent of white feminism was of an ethnic feminism—that it was a byproduct of women looking into their religious and ethnic heritages (not solely on domestic unhappiness) that feminism took root. While I am less sold on this theory, Jacobsen’s passing point that in its “ethnic accents white feminism had been attuned to a principle of pluralist solidarity from the outset” is poignant.[5]

I guess my problem is that between the three readings, the feminist movement seemingly was being put into two camps, Black and White and that, theoretically, I was being asked to take a side over which one I thought was more authentic or true in its origins. For me, I find it impossible and uncomfortable to do so. Did anyone else feel this way? Who do you think has the right to claim the origins of modern feminism? Is the creation of one feminism more “pure” than the other (i.e. working class culture vs. middle-class culture)? Does the fact that white feminism sprang from middle-class culture demean it? Do we romanticize the fact that Black feminism began in the working class? If we really want to get radical, shouldn’t we include protofeminists (and if we consider that, isn’t feminism possibly considered the product of elite, European culture?).


[1] Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left (Vintage, 1980), 4; Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (Basic Books, 2009), 312-313.

[2] Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 315.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Evans, Personal Politics, 312.

[5] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Harvard University Press, 2008), 311.

2 thoughts on “Where do the Roots take hold?

  1. I think we need to realize that these were essentially different movements. Just because similar terminology is used doesn’t mean we necessarily have to lump them together or rank them. It’s all relative. When women like Friedan compare suburbia to a concentration camp, we know there is a legitimate feeling of oppression.

    On the other hand, if a working-class black feminist, who is confined to an even smaller segment of occupations, might not be able to hold back laughter if she were to examine suburbia with that label attached. This is why I like to look at the different movements as separate pieces of a bigger story.

  2. As you said at the beginning of your post, why does it matter which movement was more “authentic” or “true” or “pure” or any other number of adjectives? They were formed by different women with different political and personal goals (which Dan’s comment also points out). Rather than compare them, it would be more telling from a historical standpoint to try understanding how white feminism played off black feminism, and vice versa. Neither existed in a vacuum, and dialogue between them and their reactions to each other (and other social movements) would present a more nuanced and fuller understanding of that time period.

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