If There is a Feminist in the World, it’s the Black Woman

Ashley J. Finigan, a history doctoral candidate, discusses her research on the National Council of Negro Women.

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Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality" to explain "the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s... experiences."* Intersectionality is the central organizing theory for my dissertation in which I ask how black women activists contended with their multiple identities while working toward racial empowerment during the long struggle for civil rights. Black women are often relegated to second-class status in the Civil Rights Movement in favor of the men with whom they cooperated closely, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and John Lewis. Similarly, women of color are often marginalized when studying feminist history—their activism is understood in conjunction to their ethnic identities and not standing at the nexus of race, gender, and social class.

My dissertation, "'The National Council of Negro Women has been there even when our story has not been told': The NCNW and the Creation of an International Black Women's Movement, 1935–1975," addresses this gap. The dissertation is an organizational history of the council, a black women’s civic group founded by educational activist Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935. The NCNW occupied a distinct position as a group for black women committed to racial and societal uplift at home and abroad, providing entrée for their socially committed, working- and middle-class members onto the global stage.

In the summer of 2016 I visiting the Madam C. J. Walker Papers at the Indiana Historical Society, the Dorothy Height Papers at Smith College, and the Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune Papers at Princeton University; I also accessed some of my family papers on the council. In the autumn I visted the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture to access the Black Women's Oral History Project. Finally, I visited the National Archives for Black Women's History near Washington, DC, which holds the council's archives and is the richest archival source for my dissertation.

While I have often thought of the women of my study as feminists, I balked at labeling them as such without official documentation. As a historian it is not my job impose my own thoughts and ideas on the archives but rather to let them speak for themselves. Therefore I was thrilled to discover, while pouring over her papers at Smith College, that NCNW President Dorothy Height declared to the New York Daily Challenge in 1977: "If there is a feminist in the world it’s the black woman." That the president of a group dedicated to black women and their communities would call herself and the women of her race the epitome of feminism has rich implications for my work and casts a new light on my understanding of their lobbying efforts on behalf of better access to white-collar jobs, education, and health, particularly reproductive rights.

Editor's note: Ashley's research was made possible by generous donors, including to the Department of History's John Hope Franklin Fellowship, which supports graduate students in the areas that meant the most to Prof. Franklin. We invite you to join them.

* Kimberle Crenshaw, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color," Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1,244.