Mama Likes her Outside Men: Gertude Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Black Women’s Sexual Rights

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.[1] 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.

Ma and band
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and her band. Image courtesy of

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.[2] 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.

Bessie Smith New Final
Bessie Smith. Image courtesy of

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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]


[1] 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,

[2]  Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 9-10.

[3] Davis, Blues Legacies, 12-16

[4] Davis, Blues Legacies, 10-11.

[5]  Faith Couch, “Why Black Women Need Sexual Freedom,” Odyssey, published January 12, 2016, accessed February 22, 2016,

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,



14 thoughts on “Mama Likes her Outside Men: Gertude Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Black Women’s Sexual Rights

  1. Learning all we have lately, a lot of my prior education seems pretty inadequate. Some of these women were among the first intersectional feminists to appear in mass media, and I hadn’t even heard about their political side until just this semester.

  2. Thank you for sharing the link to that article about the anti-abortion billboard–I hadn’t heard of this issue before. It’s fascinating to see different groups using the same history and issues to support completely oppositional arguments. There have been several discussions in the news about the significance of Black History Month when launching various initiatives and making political/social statements. It’s good to see that people are taking it seriously.

    1. Based on the readings from this week, it is clear that the rights that black women were fighting for in the 1920’s are still being fought for today. The use of music as a representation of freedom and a forum for discussing sexual rights is still relevant. I wonder if museum’s can use the music from the 1920’s to speak to the issues women are fighting for today regarding abortion and sexual rights? Or is this too much of a hot topic to even bring into a museum space?

      1. I do think it’s a hot topic, but one that I think is worth exploring. I’d be powerful to see a history of how black women’s sexuality has been portrayed and exploited by the public. However, any museum that put on a show such as this would have to develop a plan to deal with the inevitable controversy. With some topics, even remaining neutral is taking a stand.

  3. The feminist movement is all about insuring equality between men and women, but what this article points out is that black feminists have had to fight for equality between men and women, but sometimes even between black and white women. Because of the horrible oppression black women faced under slavery, they are still fighting some of those stereotypes they were given (such as being hyper-sexualized and the “Jezebel”). It was great reading about how black women were fighting against stereotypes in the 1920s, with Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and today with the work of Angela Davis.

    1. Hillary, I like how you mention how black feminists fight against oppression from both men and white women. Intersectionality is key to black feminism, and it’s interesting to see how Davis interweaves notions of intersectionality and multiple, convergent identities into her book.

  4. Like John said, I cannot believe that it has taken me this long to learn/ realize that Rainey and Smith were such prolific feminist figures and has such a political side to their music. This serves as a reminder to not always blindly consume entertainment and pop culture, because many times there is deeper meaning there. Although in contemporary society, sometimes things become overly politicized. Your post also reminds me to not take my life and my choices for granted. It’s really a privledge to be able to choose your partner in life as well as the decision to procreate. Never take this for granted, especially when not everyone today has the opportunity to make these choices.

  5. This article brings to light some really interesting points and reminds me that song lyrics (much like other art forms) are not only forms of self expression, but political/social commentary. Your post and the readings this week really helped me to contextualize these lyrics, and in so doing, revealed a deeper meaning. It is so important to understand these lyrics within the historical and social context in which they were performed to really see the impact that they had for the African-American feminist movement.

  6. This week’s readings were particularly interesting and enlightening and I’m so glad you hit on so many of those points. Like Kate, I also was not aware of the billboard and was honestly horrified when I saw it. We are still fighting so many of these issues today, which is scary. It’s also scary how history can be warped by whoever is speaking. One event in history can be construed and misused so easily to further someone’s agenda. This is why it is so important to be as informed as possible and why museums need to help their communities be aware of contemporary and historical issues.

  7. It concerns me that although I have been aware that there are differences between white feminism and black feminism, and that feminism in general needs to be inter-sectional, I have been largely unaware of the actual specific challenges that black women and other women of color face on top of the challenges that I face as a white woman. The readings for this week have begun to open my eyes to these issues, and I hope that I can continue to educate myself and keep these things in mind when discussing feminism in the future. There is such a deep historical basis for black feminism, and it clearly manifests itself in all sorts of cultural spheres, such as music, that it myself or anyone else looking to become more educated about these issues can view many things through a new lens. I think that museums can definitely take advantage of that lens, whether creating exhibits through it, or creating exhibits to expose more people to it.

  8. I love the idea of these early blues singers as subtle advocates for woman’s rights through their music, and to have this level of relative outspokenness and challenging ideas during a period as conservative and reactionary as the 1920s was. It really speaks to the significance of something that, while culturally popular in the African-American community, was something of an underground movement. Moreover, I am fascinated by the idea of these women evoking sexual freedom as a far greater platform to speak out against inequality in many areas. It is something that public audiences would be wise to take a more nuanced and progressive view of, rather than the reactionary shaming that accompanies so many of these discussions.

  9. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith’s music addressed head-on the issues faced by women of color during the early 20th century. Their music was a powerful opposition to the oppression they been confronting their whole lives. Although they certainly were not alone in this battle, it must have taken extreme bravery to challenge taboos the way that they did. It’s sad and amazing that many of the issues they faced nearly 100 years ago are still a struggle today.

  10. Luke, I think you did a great job at pulling out some of the key issues related not only to women’s right but also to sexuality and the right to express your sexuality, whether through marriage, or through a rejection of marriage. All of these issues point to one central, huge question about who controls our individual bodies.

  11. Luke, your post does an excellent job at connecting the past and the present, and although most of these issues are still occurring today, you’ve done a great job at showing the evolution of these issues. I also like that you’ve chosen to tackle the difficult topic of sexual abuse for African American women and how these songs become the only way to make their abuse known to others.

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