Throughout American history, women have struggled to achieve the same legal and social status as their male counterparts. One of the longest fights women have engaged in revolves around the issue of sexual rights. Recently, anti-abortion advocates have begun to exploit black history in order to gain support from African-American communities against the termination of pregnancies. In doing so, however, these anti-abortion groups have labeled many African-American women as murderers. Sadly, this is far from the first time black women have faced an assault on their sexual rights. They have a long history of fighting for the right to choose both their partners and what happens to their bodies. Since the early twentieth century, black feminists, including many blues singers of the 1920s, have proven themselves among the most effective leaders in the fight for gender-equality and sexual rights for African-American women.
Activists for black women’s sexual freedoms as we know them today might not have existed in the 1920s; however, some African American women, particularly blues singers such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, spoke about many of the issues that African-American women still face today in the songs they sang nearly a century ago. In her work on the blues and black feminism, professor and author Angela Davis argues that songs sung by these two black female blues singers in the 1920s represented an early, albeit different, form of black feminism. Many of their songs emphasize themes that opposed the mainstream, white male-dominated view of women’s roles and sexuality in society.
Before the turn of the twentieth century, western societies divided themselves into two realms; men dominated all things public, while women ensured order in the domestic sphere. Women found it very difficult to break free of their “proper place” in the home, and only through the help of a man would society find such a break acceptable. Race did produce some differences in respect to the experiences of black and white women. Unlike their white counterparts, black women often needed to work outside of the home in order to support their families. White women, however, typically lived a financially secure relationship with their husbands and therefore did not need to work in order to survive. While outside of the realm of social acceptability, black women by the early 1900s finally had a choice in whom they chose for a partner. Many African-American women found empowerment in this new, and exciting freedom of choice.
African-American women wanted the liberty of choosing their partners, even if they did not intend to marry them, a practice typically permitted only to men. The notion of marriage, too, became less of an end goal for some African-American women. Bessie Smith, for example, openly mocks marriage in some of her songs. Instead of preaching for the sanctity of marriage and moral virtues of monogamy, many of the songs written during this time glorified many subjects, including homosexuality, infidelity, and promiscuity, that white, patriarchal society feared. In one of her many songs about relationships, Rainey, too, challenges mainstream ideas of female African-American sexuality. In her 1924 song “Shave ‘Em Dry,” Rainey challenges the asexual “mammie” stereotype of black women. Instead, she sings of a sexually free woman who has an affair with a married man.
The notion of sexual freedom for black women becomes all the more significant when examining the history of racial and sexual violence directed towards black women throughout American history. During the era of slavery in the United States, slave masters forced female slaves to have sex with male slaves and procreate only for purposes of creating a new generation of slave workers. Many white masters also raped their slaves. As a result of a past filled with sexual slavery and violence, African-American women of the early twentieth century often times linked prospects of sexual freedom with political, social, and economic freedom. Knowing the horrifying history of the repression to sexual freedom black women have faced in the United States, it becomes easier to understand why black women, both now and during the blues era, placed such emphasis on songs that challenged mainstream attempts to place them in domestic, monogamous, and submissive relationships.
Though long gone, the themes Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith sang of during the blues era still remain relevant. Black women today are still struggling against a patriarchal system that has difficulty with accepting their right to the same sexual freedoms as men. Unlike the blues singers, however, modern-day black feminism has taken on a more active and direct approach to the issue of sexual freedom. Today, young black women are pushing for their sexual and civil rights across the world in various forms of media, in an attempt to tackle some of the very same issues that “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith sang about nearly a century ago.
 Daily Mail Reporter, “‘The Most Dangerous Place in the World for African-American Children is in the Womb’: Black Politicians Criticizes Anti-Abortion Billboard,” Daily Mail, published February 24, 2011, accessed February 21, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1360125/The-dangerous-place-African-American-womb-Black-politician-criticises-anti-abortion-billboard.html.
 Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 9-10.
 Davis, Blues Legacies, 12-16
 Davis, Blues Legacies, 10-11.
 Faith Couch, “Why Black Women Need Sexual Freedom,” Odyssey, published January 12, 2016, accessed February 22, 2016, http://theodysseyonline.com/maryland-institute-art/why-black-women-need-sexual-freedom/273326.
All images from this blog were found at: Joe McGasko, “The Mother and the Empress: Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith,” Biography, published May 15, 2015, accessed February 22, 2016, http://www.biography.com/news/bessie-smith-ma-rainey-biography.