Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Freedom for WomenForging the Women's Liberation Movement, 1953-1970$

Carol Giardina

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780813034560

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813034560.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM FLORIDA SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.florida.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University Press of Florida, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in FLASO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 30 June 2022

“Something had to be there already”

“Something had to be there already”

(p.56) 3 “Something had to be there already”
Freedom for Women

Carol Giardina

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

The feminism of women activists working with women's liberation movements has been framed by powerful forces. All these feminist activists shared common life experiences. This chapter aims to give insight on these common features prevalent in the lives of women activists. The common feature was the presence of an Old Left family background for these feminists. The chapter provides an account of the presence of radical feminism in the lives of major activists. The activists talked about in the chapter include Judith Brown, Pam Allen, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Ella Baker, and Patricia Robinson. These women activists had an idea about the woman question much before they became Women's Liberation pioneers. This can be attributed to their radical feminist families.

Keywords:   feminism, women's liberation movements, feminist activists, Old Left family backgrounds, radical feminism, Women's Liberation pioneers

POWERFUL FORCES FRAMED the feminism of the women who first raised its banners in the Black Freedom Movement and the New Left. Their feminism, as Judith Brown observed, was fueled by “common movement and life experiences.”1 What were the common life experiences of the women to which Brown referred?

As has been said, most Women's Liberation pioneers had a head start. They were feminists well before they encountered sexism in the Black Freedom Movement and the Left. Their families and mentors taught them that there was a power imbalance in the world that favored men. Thus they could identify female oppression as a political problem rather than a personal one. Having come upon feminist political ideas before most other women helped the founders to go first in organizing the movement.

From the “SNCC Position Paper” in Mississippi to Poor Black Women in Mount Vernon and New Rochelle, New York, from “the Florida Paper” out of Gainesville to New York Radical Women and points in between, the roots of Women's Liberation drew upon feminist ideas that the movement's organizers learned early on.

(p.57) Feminism in the Family

Judith Brown

Judith Brown's first mentor in the southern Civil Rights Movement, Bettie Wright, knew that Brown's commitment to fighting injustice was sown in well-prepared soil. Wright said, “Something had to be there already, for her to even be there with me.”2

Julian Brown knew this too. Julian, a civil rights and antiwar activist, and Judith were married in 1966. Reflecting on how they came to be in the movement that brought them together, Brownie, as he was known, recalled with shameless male chauvinist adoration: “she was a queen, with truly royal bearing—tall, straight, blond, aloof. She also had the finest legs I'd ever seen on a woman. I loved walking behind her on a picket line.”3 But, he said, the combination of physical presence and acute awareness of “anything that was unfair” intimidated men.4

Of his wife's perception of unfairness Brownie said, “She would see this in men. And see the specifics in perspective, in the bigger picture.” According to Brownie, Judith learned the “bigger picture” from her family. “It's in my genes,” Judith exclaimed, retelling an incident from her teenage years.5 Her mother, Ernestine Benninger, ironing clothes while watching the McCarthy hearings on television, had hurled her iron at the set. Not long after Judith witnessed her mother's reaction to McCarthyism, her family was subjected to its southern variety. Her father, Lawrence Benninger, a professor at the then segregated University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, was fired for supporting the admission of Autherine Lucy, the first black student to enroll. “My father,” Judith remembered, “got up in the faculty senate and suggested that her admission be based on her qualifications which seemed rather good.”6

Lucy was admitted to the University of Alabama in 1956 under a court order resulting from an NAACP lawsuit. During her brief attendance she faced hostile white mobs who threatened her life and assaulted her.7 Mrs. Benninger took Judith, then fifteen, and her younger brother Christopher to see the brave young woman make her way onto the campus. As they watched tensely from the sidelines, Judith's mother told them this was “like fascism.”8

Despite his support for Autherine Lucy, Professor Benninger feared that his daughter's career would be jeopardized as his had been, and he opposed Judith's participation in the Civil Rights Movement. On her mother's side (p.58) of the family, however, she was encouraged by her aunts, Roxane and Jane Eberlein, whom she had known since childhood as opponents of white supremacy and male supremacy. Indeed, her aunt Jane was a contemporary in the Civil Rights Movement. She blocked streets around the 1964 Democratic National Convention hall to protest the failure to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Neither Roxane nor Jane had children of her own, and Judith and her brother were the only children in the extended family. Roxane, who took a particular interest in her niece, wrote, “How I would like to have her where I could…submit her to the most rigorous training.”9 As a child, Roxane herself had been trained by some of the leading activists of her day. She would pass on her activism and feminism to her niece.

The Eberlein sisters grew up in Free Acres, a Single Tax colony in New Jersey based on principles of racial and sexual equality. Years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, women had full voting rights in colony affairs.10 Established in 1910 by Bolton Hall, attorney for radical feminist and anarchist Emma Goldman, Free Acres attracted radicals and artists such as legendary black freedom fighter Paul Robeson. Hall, a friend of the Eberlein family, had been arrested for distributing birth control leaflets with Margaret Sanger. Roxane and Jane maintained the family home well into Judith's adulthood. Immersed in her family's political history, Judith was a frequent guest at Free Acres and honeymooned there.

Judith's maternal grandparents, Ernest and Undena Eberlein, were lifelong activists. Ernest was membership chair of the Socialist Party branch to which Undena also belonged. The couple held Party meetings in their home. As children, the Eberlein sisters learned feminism from their mother Undena, an ardent reader of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and an active suffragist. The sisters were jailed with Undena when she tried to vote. Their father, Ernest, also a suffrage supporter, came to get the family out of jail.

Free Acres administrator Ami Mali Hicks was a member of the Women's Political Union, a militant suffrage group modeled on the tactics of the British movement and organized in the United States by Harriet Stanton Blatch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter.11 Hicks was influential with Judith's aunt Roxane, who in turn helped to “train” Judith. As suffrage agitation peaked in 1920, Roxane, then only ten, lived in New York City with Hicks. Theirs was a lifelong friendship. When Hicks became elderly and could no longer work, Roxane gave financial support.

Judith's brother Christopher said Roxane had imbued in niece and nephew (p.59) alike the idea that they “could change the future.”12 Thus Judith's activist family was the “something” that, as Bettie Wright noted, was “there already” when Judith went to work with her in the Civil Rights Movement. Brown's experience was not exceptional among Women's Liberation pioneers.

Pam Allen

Pam Allen, cofounder of New York Radical Women (NYRW), was raised in Pennsylvania in a deeply religious Episcopal family. As a child she learned about the Women's Rights Movement from her suffragist great-grandmother. Allen's family claimed as a relative Lucretia Mott, the militant feminist and abolitionist Quaker. As a youngster, Allen was given books about the feminist and abolitionist work in which her family members had participated.

These feminist predecessors were honored in Allen's family. In 1963 when Allen became a civil rights activist, her grandfather and his brothers remarked that she was “just like mother.”13 Allen took on women's rights that same year. In 1966 Allen left the Episcopal Church because it would not ordain women.

Allen's family was Republican, and engaged in social reform through association with a liberal tradition in the Episcopal Church. Allen understood and was proud of family traditions of Christian pacifism and feminism before she went to work in the Civil Rights Movement.

Pauli Murray

Black feminist Pauli Murray was also influenced by First Wave feminism. Murray, in addition to other feminist activity, worked for inclusion of black female civil rights leaders on the program of the 1963 March on Washington (MOW), helped to pass Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination against women in employment, mentored black feminist Eleanor Holmes Norton, and was a key force in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW). She was a sharp, early critic of the myth of the black matriarchy and urged black women to “assert a leadership role in the growing feminist movement…to help to keep it allied to the objectives of black liberation.”14 Murray's cutting-edge feminist influence was felt broadly, in law, national legislation, and religion—where she effectively challenged barriers to women's ordination.

In 1928, at age eighteen, Murray joined a circle of black female activists at the Harlem YWCA that she said “foreshadowed the revival of the feminist movement of the 1960s.”15 At the YWCA she engaged in lively analytical discussions (p.60) of politics with future feminists including Ella Baker, Anna Arnold Hedgeman (the only official female organizer for the MOW), and Dorothy Height (future president of the National Council of Negro Women). These women would, as Murray said, engage in “concerted efforts to rise above the limitations of race and sex and to help younger women to do the same.”16

Murray worked for the New Deal Workers' Education Project teaching black and white union members, and organized for the Workers Defense League on behalf of sharecroppers. She said that her union work made her aware of class oppression.

I had never thought of white people as victims of oppression, but now I heard echoes of the black experience when I listened to white workers tell their personal stories of being evicted, starved out, beaten, and jailed when they tried to organize a union…. The study of economic oppression led me to realize that Negroes were not alone but were part of an unending struggle for human dignity the world over.17

Murray dated her feminist consciousness to her years at Howard Law School, which she entered on a scholarship in 1941. Murray began to understand male supremacy there, because at a historically black university “the race factor was removed…and the factor of gender was fully exposed.”18 She was excluded from the legal fraternity. Often the only female in her classes, she found herself passed over in class by male professors.

What Murray later called “an incipient feminism” would become full-fledged feminist consciousness through discussions with National Woman's Party veteran Betsy Graves Reyneau who, Murray said, “nourished my budding feminism.”19 Reyneau, who was white, was an internationally acclaimed portrait painter. She saw racism as an American version of fascism and fought it with her art, painting striking portraits of leading African Americans, particularly those in the fight for civil rights. Her political art brought her to Howard, where Murray met her.

Murray learned of Reyneau's suffrage militancy—that she had been jailed in the infamous Occoquan Workhouse with the 1917 Woman's Party White House pickets and subjected to force-feeding and rough treatment. Murray found that they shared a family history of abolitionism as Reyneau recounted her grandmother's work operating a station of the Underground Railroad and her friendship with the abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth. Murray's grandfather had also housed an Underground Railroad station, and Murray now saw his stories of sharing a platform with Susan B. Anthony in (p.61) a new way. “My discovery of links between the struggles for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women gave me a new perspective that helped me balance the tensions created by the double burden of race and sex.”20

Murray called Reyneau “a living link with an earlier phase of a struggle that had faded into obscurity by the time I grew up.”21 When Reyneau died, she left Murray her silver pin replica of a prison door, sixteen of which had been made by the Woman's Party when, after a sixty-day stay, the first sixteen pickets were released from prison.

From then on, Murray took up the struggle of the “double burden of race and sex” consciously and often simultaneously. She led sit-ins at segregated eating places in the District of Columbia in 1943–44, picketing with placards such as “Are You for Hitler's Way (Race Supremacy) or the AMERICAN WAY (Equality)? Make Up Your Mind!”22 At the same time, she waged a high-profile losing campaign to sexually integrate Harvard Law School.23

Murray eventually went on to serve on the Committee on Civil and Political Rights of the President's Commission on the Status of Women, which had been initiated in 1961.24 She called the commission “an intensive consciousness-raising process leading directly to my involvement in the new women's movement that surfaced a few years later.”25

Eleanor Holmes Norton

Like Murray, her mentor at Yale Law School, Eleanor Holmes Norton was influenced by feminism's First Wave. She was just thirteen when she witnessed black First Wave leader Mary Church Terrell, then eighty-seven, leading a militant sit-in campaign near Norton's junior high school in Washington, D.C. This encounter was a lifelong inspiration for Norton. It would also draw her to Murray, of whom she said, “Her feminism seemed way out to us then…. I believed I had to catch up with her.”26

At Yale, Norton learned of Murray's own 1943–44 sit-in campaign and wrote her major paper “World War II and the Beginning of Non-Violent Action in Civil Rights” on it. Murray's sit-in campaign had been revived six years later in 1950 by Mary Church Terrell, Norton's “most admired” woman. Terrell led the campaign to victory in 1953, defending herself on the basis of Reconstruction era laws that Murray had researched and publicized.27 Norton said she was “thrilled to have a real-live original source” of this key civil rights strategy.28

In 1963 Norton was working in Mississippi in SNCC with Fannie Lou Hamer and soon came under the influence of Ella Baker, who appointed her (p.62) to direct the lobbying for the Mississippi Freedom delegation at the Democratic National Convention.

In 1966 Norton worked with feminist attorney and future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whom she called “the Thurgood Marshall of the women's movement.”29 Norton was legal advisor to the SNCC Women's Liberation Committee and part of the influential black Women's Liberation group, the Third World Women's Alliance. Like Murray's, her influence was not as an organizer of Women's Liberation groups but rather as a national voice for Women's Liberation.

Influences from the Left

Ella Baker

Ella Baker became conscious of the woman question in Depression-era Harlem in the Left, black nationalist, and Pan-Africanist circles to which she attributed her political development. She was part of the hotbed of female activism at the Harlem YWCA, where she met Pauli Murray, later a lifelong friend.

“The Bronx Slave Market,” which Baker coauthored with black Communist Marvel Cooke in 1935, highlighted the ways in which race, sex, and class combined to exponentially oppress and exploit the black women who sold their “human labor” and “human love” for a “slave wage” to white buyers on the Simpson Avenue block in Harlem. The article, published in the NAACP's Crisis, opposed the “triple jeopardy” of African American women.

From 1930 through the mid-1930s Baker and George Schuyler organized the Young Negro Cooperative League (YNCL), an alliance of cooperative consumer groups. They saw the YNCL as a step into a socialist future that included equality for women. The YNCL's founding statement explicitly provided for women's participation as full members of the organization, a position that was considerably ahead of most other groups during that time.30

In 1969 Baker gave a speech titled “The Black Woman in the Civil Rights Struggle” in Atlanta at the Institute for the Black World. She recounted that in 1946 she and Pauli Murray had been excluded from the first Freedom Ride to oppose Jim Crow in interstate travel, organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, because “the decision was made that only the men could go.”31 This was particularly unjust in that Murray, Baker said, had been “one of the young persons who was part of the first efforts” to contest segregated travel.32

(p.63) Indeed, Murray and another female student, Adeline McBean, had been jailed in 1940 in Petersburg, Virginia, in one of the earliest test cases. They were represented by NAACP lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall. Eleanor Roosevelt telephoned the governor of Virginia about their jailing. Their case was widely publicized in the black and white press. The Carolina Times wrote: “Perhaps Miss Murray and Miss McBean are the beginning of a new type of leadership—a leadership that will not cringe and crawl on its belly merely because it happens to be faced with prison bars in its fight for the right.”33

Moreover, it is unlikely that the men who were chosen for the Freedom Ride had any more Jim Crow travel experience than Baker. Baker “had just finished a tour of duty with the NAACP and had ridden a lot of Jim Crow buses and wanted very much to go, but I guess it was decided that I was too frail to make such a journey.”34 Baker's “tour of duty” ran from 1940 to 1946, grueling Jim Crow travel on buses and trains, usually alone, through the Deep South, as director of branches for the NAACP. She suffered countless indignities and worse, including, in 1943 in Florida, being manhandled and bruised by military police who forcefully pulled her from her seat. “The travel was bum,” said Baker.35

Little wonder that there was rancor in Baker's speech in 1969, even though the experience of sexist exclusion she discussed had taken place more than twenty years ago. Nonetheless, Baker said in the same speech, “I have never been one to feel great needs in the direction of setting myself apart as a woman. I've always thought first and foremost of people as individuals.”36 Baker effectively promoted equality for women throughout her life, but there is no evidence that she thought an independent Women's Liberation Movement could help achieve it.

Patricia Robinson

Unlike Baker, Patricia Murphy Robinson, who organized the black Women's Liberation group Poor Black Women, was in favor of organizing women independently of men when it came to fighting for Women's Liberation. For Robinson the politics of Women's Liberation and in particular black Women's Liberation were, as she put it, “up front” as a political priority.37

Robinson was close to the black Left in and around the Communist Party (CP), nationally and internationally.38 She frequently spoke of “male chauvinism” and “male supremacy,” which were Communist terms from earlier traditions of naming sexism.39 Growing up, Robinson had an uncle in the CP; Paul Robeson was a family visitor, and W. E. B. DuBois a neighbor. (p.64) Robinson's family, the Murphys, founded, edited, and published the Afro-American, which serves the Baltimore-Washington area and is the longest-running family-owned African American newspaper in the United States. The Afro-American defended DuBois and Robeson when they were subjected to political repression during the McCarthy era. Robinson was in her mid-twenties when her family stood up to these anti-Communist attacks.

The paper had a tradition of challenging racism and sexism. It campaigned against Jim Crow railroad cars, collaborated with the NAACP on civil rights cases, and published articles in support of birth control. In the mid-1930s it employed women sportswriters, and in the 1940s had a woman war correspondent.

Robinson's family introduced her to the fight for reproductive freedom. Her father was on the national board of Planned Parenthood. He was also president of the Social Services Advisory Board of Maryland, where he blazed a trail of policies that stopped nighttime searches of welfare recipients' homes and ensured that they not be excluded from family planning because they were single. He called this work his “greatest accomplishment.”40 Poor Black Women got off the ground in 1960 when Robinson, a Planned Parenthood volunteer, undertook to lower the rising pregnancy rate among black teenagers by bringing birth control into the poor black neighborhoods of Mount Vernon, New York. She had not been planning to organize a Women's Liberation group, she was simply hoping to introduce a tool the women could use to gain a more self-determined life.41

Black women had a tradition of support for birth control nationally that was particularly evident in Baltimore when Robinson was growing up. She was twelve in 1938 when black organizations in Baltimore opened the Northwest Health Center, which continued to be black financed, sponsored, and staffed. At the Northwest Health Center the black community received birth control and maternal health services provided by black nurses, social workers, and physicians, without fear of sterilization.42

Robinson was no doubt well aware of all of this, given the Murphy family's advocacy for birth control and the views of neighbor DuBois. “The future woman must have a life work and future independence…. She must have knowledge…she must have the right of motherhood at her own discretion,” DuBois had written.43 His eloquent arguments that reproductive freedom was a cornerstone of women's freedom came with condemnations of sterilization, several of which were published while the Northwest Health Center was being organized.44 Robinson's Women's Liberation organizing developed (p.65) out of a strong foundation of reproductive freedom and Left politics. These influences would later distinguish the feminism of Poor Black Women.

Frances Beal

Frances Beal, cofounder of SNCC's Black Women's Liberation Committee and later the Third World Women's Alliance, had also been influenced by the Old Left. She was a “red diaper baby” (as the children of radicals were called), the daughter of a Jewish Communist mother, Charlotte Berman, and Ernest Yates, who was African American. Beal's maternal grandfather had been a Bolshevik in Russia. Berman and some of her siblings were in the U.S. Communist Party.

Beal, born in 1940, was raised in Binghamton, New York, and recalled her embarrassment as a child when her mother was red-baited by name on the front page of the local newspaper. Beal attended radical summer camps Wo-chi-ca (the Workers' Children's Camp) and Camp Kinderland, where she experienced integrated play activities. This was quite different from childhood play in Binghamton, where as a self-proclaimed “tomboy” Beal “plowed into a white crowd” and fought “to defend the family honor” when a bigger white youngster called her older brother racial epithets. Beal said her father explained racism to her and held the view that “if someone called you that [nigger] they should be beaten up so bad.” Her mother counseled that if she encountered racist and anti-Semitic people she should “talk to them, educate them.” Her mother imparted to her the belief that “things weren't right in the world and you were supposed to do something about it.”45

Beal completed her undergraduate program at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she met black expatriates like Richard Wright and students from the anticolonial movements in Africa. She was influenced by the writings of Frantz Fanon and other intellectuals associated with Presence Africaine, a Pan-Africanist journal. Beal also embraced revolutionary ideas from the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), and other struggles for national liberation. She worked in the United States in SNCC for several summers and returned to the States with her family in 1966 to work with SNCC's International Affairs Commission in New York City. Beal's internationalism has remained a source of political education throughout her life. She was, she said, “influenced by revolutionary ideas” from national liberation struggles, “some of these views of women [that] were challenging the mores.”46

(p.66) Naomi Weisstein

White feminist Naomi Weisstein acknowledged an upbringing on the Left as the taproot of her feminism. Weisstein said, “I grew up in the church of socialism.” Speaking of the years from age ten to twenty, she reflected, “I was in the closet most of the time on two accounts…my socialism and my feminism.”47 Her maternal grandfather, an immigrant from Russia at the turn of the century, was an anarchist and a union organizer. The “legacy of resistance went from Grandpa, to Mary, to Naomi,” Weisstein said, referring to her mother, Mary Menk Weisstein, who treasured her life on the Left.48 “My mother talked about ‘male chauvinism’ quite a bit,” Naomi said, and Mary taught her daughter not to submit to it.49

Naomi Weisstein became active in CORE in 1963, and later joined SDS protests against the war in Vietnam. There, along with male chauvinism from movement coworkers, Weisstein encountered feminist-minded women like herself and came joyously out of the “closet” for Women's Liberation.

Kathie Sarachild

Kathie Sarachild often named The Second Sex as the source of her feminist views. However, Sarachild said, “It's funny…in a certain sense I was already a feminist…I was a ‘red diaper baby’ and as a result I knew there was discrimination against women, male chauvinism, a woman question.”50 In 1964 Sarachild joined other volunteers in Mississippi for the SNCC Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. At first Sarachild hesitated about going, thinking it meant “absolutely certain death.”51 But when, despite her begging him not to go, Claude Weaver, an African American friend at Harvard, survived civil rights work in Mississippi in 1963, Sarachild decided that while there was a risk of death, it was “not certain.”52

Sarachild's father by adoption, Ernest Amatniek, had been among the volunteers of his own generation who put their lives on the line to defend the Spanish Republic against the assault of Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini in 1936. One of some three thousand young men and women who joined the volunteer soldiers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Ernest too must have wondered if he would make it back alive. Kathie felt pride in her father's participation in this, but she was equally aware and proud of something else about him. He did a great share of family household chores. Their family commented when the men in other Left households didn't share housework with the women. In the culture of the families Sarachild grew up with, (p.67) “struggle on the woman question,” as longtime African American freedom fighter Esther Cooper Jackson said—fathers sharing child care and housework, women pursuing public political lives, sexism eliminated in both personal and political life—was seen as a hallmark of a good home.53

Thus Sarachild considered herself both a radical and a feminist long before she went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer in 1964. Her family had sent Sarachild on a scholarship to the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, a school that had become something of a refuge for progressive teachers and children of Left and Left-leaning parents persecuted by McCarthyism. There, girls wore blue jeans and took shop along with the boys. “A brand of feminist consciousness and reading had been an important part of my life—of my energy and enthusiasm—before the civil rights movement,” Sarachild said.54

The “red” in Little Red School House had originally referred to the red bricks with which it was built, not the politics of its students or their families. The school was a product of the First Wave of feminism and the progressive education movement of that period. Its founder, Elisabeth Irwin, after whom its high school was named, was, with her lifetime partner Katharine Anthony, a member of the renowned circle of New Women of the period that called itself Heterodoxy.55 Heterodoxy member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, then a labor organizer in the Industrial Workers of the World, called Heterodoxy “a glimpse of the women of the future.”56 Feminist historian Nancy Cott said it “epitomized the Feminism of the time.”57

Angela Davis

Black feminist Angela Davis also attended the Little Red School House. In her history classes there she learned about socialism, and “a whole new world opened up before my eyes,” Davis said.58 She also attended meetings of Advance, a Marxist-Leninist youth group that was close to the CP and participated in demonstrations for peace and in support of the sit-in movement that was sweeping the South.

But these were not Davis's first exposures to radical ideas. Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, where her mother, Sallye Davis, was a leader in the local chapter of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. SNYC had been organized by African American Communists to fight white supremacy in the South. Although Sallye Davis had not joined the Party, she worked within the African American Communist circle of Esther and James Jackson and Dorothy and Louis Burnham, the people to whom Esther Jackson was (p.68) referring when she spoke of “struggle on the woman question” being a hallmark of a good Communist home. Dorothy Burnham, a black feminist scientist, said she had been a “Black feminist” since her student years in the 1930s.59 Angela Davis was playmates with the Burnham and Jackson children when she grew up in Birmingham. Like Patricia Robinson, Davis used phrases like “male chauvinism.”

Angela Davis was not a Women's Liberation founder, and not supportive of an independent movement for Women's Liberation. But she opposed the oppression of women and was critical of male chauvinism in the movement and in the larger society. Her article “Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves” brought attention to the woman question when it was published in the Black Scholar in 1971. At the time there was a high-profile worldwide Free Angela Davis movement engaging in ongoing public protest.60 Davis wrote the article in prison and was still there when it came out.61

Her capture and incarceration, after months on the FBI's most-wanted list, garnered international attention. When she critiqued the Moynihan Report, calling it “a dastardly ideological weapon designed to impair our capacity for resistance today by foisting upon us the ideal of male supremacy,” her words spread the concept of male supremacy widely to the general public.62 So did her feminist courtroom defense at her trial. The prosecutor, seeking to convince the jury that Davis had manipulated a crime from behind the scenes, invoked Moynihan's stereotype of the black matriarch. As scholar and activist Bettina Aptheker said, “the Moynihan doctrine became the cornerstone of the prosecution's trial strategy.”63 In response, Davis told the jury that the prosecutor “would like to take advantage of the fact that I am a woman, for in this society women are supposed to act only in accordance with the dictates of their emotions.…this is clearly a symptom of the male chauvinism that prevails in our society.”64 Jury foreperson Mary Timothy later told Aptheker that the eight female jurors weren't buying the “matriarchal mirage.”65

Florynce Kennedy

Black feminist Florynce Kennedy was an important leader of the predominantly white Women's Liberation Movement. Kennedy too was introduced to the concept of male supremacy through the Old Left.

In 1946, studying law at Columbia University, she took a sociology course with Bernhard Stern, who was a member of the Communist Party and the (p.69) editor of the pro-Communist scholarly journal Science and Society. She called his course “a real turning point” in her political development.66 Kennedy wrote a paper for the class, “A Comparative Study: Accentuating the Similarities of the Societal Position of Women and Negroes,” which held: “The majority of both groups are generally dependent economically upon the dominant group…. More than any other aspect of culture, the economic factor determines cultural development and direction…. The far-reaching effects of their economic incompetencies leave not the minutest detail of their lives unaffected.”67

Kennedy was active on all fronts. She was in NOW in 1966. That same year, she organized the Media Workshop to fight racism in media and advertising. Media Workshop picketed advertising agencies on Madison Avenue with signs such as “Jim Crow Lives on Madison Avenue” and demanded equal time on radio and TV networks when racist remarks were broadcast.68 Kennedy also organized against the war in Vietnam, attended all four national Black Power conferences, and had a prominent role in the protest of the Miss America beauty pageant in 1968. She was on the team of attorneys who, in 1969, brought the class action lawsuit Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, which helped make abortion legal in New York in 1970.

Carol Hanisch

Like Kennedy, founding white feminist Carol Hanisch did not encounter Left ideas until college. Hanisch had been born and raised in rural Iowa with no family history of exposure to the Left. Life wasn't easy for many small farmers in the early 1950s. In fact, Hanisch never lived in a house with an indoor toilet until she was a college student. This modest upbringing provided fertile ground for a gut-level understanding of class and a desire to work on eliminating poverty. When Carol read The Communist Manifesto in a college course titled “Democracy and Its Enemies,” taught by a faculty member who was a former employee of the CIA, she saw some of her family's economic struggles reflected in the language of the Manifesto.

At Drake University in the early 1960s, she heard Carl Braden speak about resisting the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and being jailed for contempt for refusing to name names. Far from being put off by the red-baiting, she wanted to learn more. However, she was unable to stay for the discussion that followed the speech because she had to keep the early dorm hours imposed upon female students. Like many of her contemporaries, (p.70) Hanisch was stung by this injustice. Men could stay out as long as necessary to discuss the issues of the day, but women were not allowed to do the same.

After graduation, Hanisch became the only female UPI reporter at the wire service's bureau in Des Moines, Iowa, where she experienced sex discrimination in the type of news she was assigned to cover. Hanisch attributed “greater exposure to theory about class and sexism as well as race” to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, where she went to work in the spring of 1965.69

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm was influenced by her father's black nationalist politics and traced her feminist politics to one of her college professors. Chisholm called Marcus Garvey her father's “idol” upon whom he would “hold forth.”70 He took her to events in tribute to Garvey, where she first heard “black nationalist oratory—talk of race pride and the need for unity,” Chisholm recalled.71 At Hunter College, Chisholm was mentored by a blind, white political science professor, Louis Warsoff, with whom she had long talks. Warsoff was the first to suggest that she go into politics, and he encouraged her despite her initial reaction that she would never make it because “I'm black—and I'm a woman.”72 Warsoff and Chisholm discussed these barriers, and Chisholm threw herself into campus politics, where she campaigned for female office seekers and organized a black women's society, Ipothia, which meant “in pursuit of the highest of all.”73

In 1964 Chisholm won a seat in the New York State Assembly, the first African American there. As a freshman legislator she introduced bills (and got them passed) preserving the tenure rights of pregnant public school teachers, and establishing unemployment compensation for domestic workers. She later got legislation passed that supported day care centers. In 1968 she ran for Congress. Her Republican political opponent, black CORE leader James Farmer, attacked her with the Moynihan stereotype “running me down as a bossy female, a would-be matriarch,” said Chisholm. However, like Angela Davis with her jury, Chisholm was able to “turn the tables on him,” because female voters were registered in more than double the numbers of men. Many of these women were working single mothers who must have been as offended by the myth of the black matriarch as Chisholm. Chisholm was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress. She had run an unabashedly feminist and antiracist campaign.

(p.71) Conclusion

Sara Evans was the first to point out that many early women's liberation organizers had Old Left family backgrounds. “I did not seek out ‘red diaper babies,’” Evans said.74 But as she studied founding Women's Liberation organizers, she noted, “Again and again I was surprised to discover a radical family background.”75 As Evans put it, “the specific connections are very important.” But she had promised confidentiality and did not reveal their identities. “Many parents…[whose] daughters emerged as leading figures in the revival of the ‘woman question’” did not wish their association with radicalism to be revealed. Evans called the necessity for discretion a “tragedy of the McCarthy era.”76 Since then, a number of the women Evans interviewed have spoken openly of the radical roots of their feminist ideas.

“Red diaper babies” were a sizable minority on the cutting edge of Women's Liberation. But most did not support it, seeing it as divisive or a distraction from larger issues. Still, the prevalence of founders learning feminist ideas from family suggests that this phenomenon is attributable to continuity rather than coincidence. More significant than their numbers, Sara Evans pointed out, these women “provided much of the key leadership.”77

Indeed, Naomi Weisstein and Pam Allen helped to cofound, respectively, the nation's first and second Women's Liberation groups. The groups were important not only because they were the first but because they were the seedbed for most of the organizing, ideas, and actions that by 1968 had laid the base for a mass national movement. Frances Beal, Judith Brown, and Patricia Robinson also organized early Women's Liberation groups. The critical leadership Brown provided was her work on the Florida Paper. Kathie Sarachild was the lead developer of consciousness-raising, the movement's first program. Robinson's leadership in countering arguments that abortion was genocide and her brilliant analysis were beacons for the movement. Beal went first to organize women of color nationally for Women's Liberation.

Several historians have pointed out that a feminist conceptual framework among movement founders included the “words to name” sexist encounters.78 “Male chauvinism” and “male supremacy” were familiar terms to those with Left backgrounds. Naomi Weisstein put it this way: “it was vitally important that I knew how to say ‘male chauvinism’…otherwise, I would have thought—if I were just sexier, smarter, cooler,” meaning that she'd have blamed herself for sexist treatment.79

Unlike contemporaries who did not have radical or feminist family (p.72) backgrounds, these women also knew that fighting political injustice was something that people like them did. Pam Allen's mother told her daughter approvingly that she was following in the family tradition. Family support provided the security and power of continuity. Brown wrote to Sarachild, “My essential radicalism/feminism had their genesis in my childhood.”80

That so many Women's Liberation pioneers had an understanding of the woman question before they entered the other 1960s movements indicates that their feminist organizing was not simply a product of their encounters with male chauvinism in these movements. A deep and compelling continuity of organizing against injustice mediated the founders' experience in the Black Freedom Movement and the Left.


(1.) Brown, “Origins of Consciousness-Raising in the South,” 3.

(2.) Bettie Wright, interview by author, Salisbury, Md., 10 September 2000.

(3.) Julian Brown, Pierre, S.D., to author, Gainesville, 29 June 1991, JBE.

(5.) Julian Brown, interview by author, Gainesville, 29 January 2001.

(6.) Judith Brown, Gainesville, to Kathie Sarachild, New York, 13 July 1985, RWLAA.

(7.) The University of Alabama expelled Lucy because NAACP attorneys filed a contempt of court suit against the university on Lucy's behalf.

(8.) Judith Brown, interview by author, Gainesville, 9 April 1990, videotape 1, JBE.

(9.) Eberlein, diary entry, 316.

(10.) Free Acres Association, Constitution, 4.

(11.) Bierbaum, “Free Acres.”

(12.) Christopher Benninger, interview by author, New York, 8 December 1999.

(13.) Pam Allen, interview by author, 2 January 2001.

(14.) Murray, “Liberation of Black Women,” 197.

(15.) Murray, Autobiography, 75.

(17.) Ibid., 107.

(p.256) (18.) Ibid., 183.

(19.) Ibid., 217.

(20.) Ibid., 214.

(21.) Ibid., 217.

(22.) Ibid., 224.

(23.) This included several rounds of public appeals and letter-writing campaigns—including a letter from President Franklin Roosevelt at the behest of Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Murray developed a strong friendship; see Murray, Autobiography, 244.

(24.) Kwame Nkrumah was then president of Ghana. Nkrumah was an influential Pan-Africanist and pursued a socialist agenda.

(25.) Murray, Autobiography, 347–48.

(26.) Lester with Norton, Fire in My Soul, 106.

(27.) Ibid., 45.

(28.) Ibid., 107.

(29.) Ibid., 146.

(30.) Black feminist scholar Barbara Ransby gives an extensive analysis of Baker's association with Schuyler in Ella Baker, 78–91 passim.

(31.) Baker, “The Black Woman in the Civil Rights Struggle,” in Grant, Ella Baker, 229.

(33.) Grant, Ella Baker, 147.

(34.) Baker, quoted in Grant, Ella Baker, 229.

(35.) Ibid., 65.

(36.) Ibid., 227.

(37.) Patricia Robinson, letter for Beauvoir Speak Out, RWLAA.

(38.) Polatnick, “Strategies,” 46.

(39.) Weigand, “Vanguards of Women's Liberation,” 276.

(40.) E. M. Moss, “Pat Murphy—Big Brother,” undated clipping, archives of the Afro-American Newspapers, Baltimore.

(41.) Robinson explains her dedication to Planned Parenthood and birth control in Polatnick, “Strategies,” 46.

(42.) Rodrique, “Birth Control Movement,” 338.

(44.) Ibid., 342, 343.

(45.) Beal, interview by author, 31 July 2007.

(46.) Beal, interview by author, 8 August 2007.

(47.) Weisstein, in DuPlessis and Snitow, The Feminist Memoir Project, 32.

(48.) Naomi Weisstein, eulogy for Mary Menk Weisstein (1905–1999), read by Jesse Lemisch, Riverside Memorial Chapel, New York, 7 February 1999, author's files.

(49.) Naomi Weisstein, letter to author, 22 October 2000.

(50.) Sarachild, statement at Beauvoir Speak Out, RWLAA.

(51.) Evans, Personal Politics, 63.

(p.257) (52.) Sarachild, lecture for a course, “Feminist Activism: Learning from History” (University of Florida, Gainesville, 31 January 1994), author's lecture notes.

(53.) Jackson, quoted in Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 207.

(54.) Sarachild, “Civil Rights Movement: Lessons,” 2, 3.

(55.) Schwarz, Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy.

(56.) Ibid., 1.

(57.) Cott, Grounding of Modern Feminism, 38.

(58.) A. Davis, Angela Davis, 108.

(59.) Dorothy Burnham, “Biology and Gender: False Theories About Women and Blacks,” in Jackson, Freedomways Reader, 252.

(60.) A. Davis, “Black Woman's Role,” passim.

(61.) Davis went underground when she was falsely charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in connection with her political advocacy on behalf of the Soledad Brothers: George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo, prisoners at Soledad Prison who did political education of other prisoners and had been accused of killing a guard.

(62.) Davis, in Guy-Sheftall, Words of Fire, 215.

(63.) Aptheker, Woman's Legacy, 130.

(64.) A. Davis, Angela Davis, 363.

(65.) Aptheker, Woman's Legacy, 130.

(66.) Kennedy, Color Me Flo, 40.

(67.) Kennedy, in Guy-Sheftall, Words of Fire, 102.

(68.) Kennedy, Color Me Flo, 53.

(69.) Hanisch, correspondence with author, 14 July 2007.

(70.) Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed, 27.

(72.) Ibid., 38

(74.) Evans, Personal Politics, 120n.

(76.) Ibid., 119–20.

(77.) Evans, Personal Politics, 124. See also Weigand, Red Feminism, and Rosen, The World Split Open, for their observations about the leadership of “red diaper babies” in the Women's Liberation Movement.

(78.) Weigand, “Vanguards of Women's Liberation,” 279. In 2000 Weigand published findings from her 1995 dissertation in Red Feminism.

(79.) Weisstein to author, 1 March 2001.

(80.) Brown to Sarachild, 15 December 1985.