Women’s rights and freedoms have made a strong showing political world recently. Primarily, these debates have centered on issues of women’s health; should states be allowed to mandate trans-vaginal ultrasounds for abortions, should religious institutions be required to provide birth control for their employees. In addition, the issue of marriage for lesbian women has also come into the spotlight.
I am very lucky. I have complete freedom in who I chose to marry. Perhaps my mother would like me to marry someone who is tall enough that my children will be basketball players, and my friends from home certainly hope that I’ll marry someone who wants to move back to the Midwest, but in reality the choice is entirely my own. That is not the same for lesbian women, or gay men for that matter, in the states where they are not allowed to marry, and it was not the same for African-American women prior to the abolition of slavery.
Most of us are familiar with the stories of what women faced during slavery. Couples could be divided and sent away from each other with no hope of being reunited, parents were sold to different owners than their children, and women were bred like they were cattle. The scandal of Thomas Jefferson’s supposed relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, is more shocking because of the ease with which the other Jefferson men were named as potential fathers to her children.  Their story demonstrates the commonplace nature of relations between African American women and their owners. All of these together demonstrate just how little choice over their sexual identities African-American slaves had.
In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Y. Davis discusses the importance of music as a means of expressing the newfound sexual freedom that came with emancipation. This was an aspect of the end of slavery that I had never before considered. According to Davis, blues songs demonstrated “sexuality as a tangible expression of freedom.”  Separate from the religious spirituals and work songs that had previously defined African-American music, blues songs gave a voice to sexual freedom and new found independence for women.
Davis paints the women who sang these songs as secular ministers who “preached about sexual love” and gathered in listeners at “revival-like gatherings.”  Their message was one of independence, not only from slave owners but also from men and marriage. Female blues singers were independent women who had careers outside of the home, a practice that was uncommon even for middle-class white women. The songs they sang broke down the idea that women were confined to being wives and mothers, and instead spoke of sexual choice. This unique position, and the microphone these singers were given, allowed them to broadcast a message of identity that had not been seen before.
The blues were at their most popular during the 1920’s, but their message is one that is still extremely relevant. Women choose their own identity, and must be given the right to do so. Although those singers who first produced this message are no longer around today, there are others whose voice is just as strong and who strive to carry on the message of women’s independence today.
 “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account”, Monticello. http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account.
 Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Hoilday. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.