Radicalizing Feminisms from “The Movement” Era

  • Joy James


The Movement” era largely existed from 1955 to 1975 and includes the black civil rights struggles, the American Indian Movement (MM), Chicano activism, and Puertorriqueho insurrections, and militant feminism. During the height of the black liberation and black power movements, veteran activist Ella Baker’s cogent assessment of the political contradictions of liberalism among black elites advocating civil rights distinguished between attempts to become “a part of the American scene” and “the more radical struggle” to transform society. According to Baker, “In … struggling to be accepted, there were certain goals, concepts, and values such as the drive for the ‘Talented Tenth.’ That, of course, was the concept that proposed that through the process of education black people would be accepted in the American culture and they would be accorded their rights in proportion to the degree to which they qualified as being persons of learning and culture….”1 For Baker, the common belief, that “those who were trained were not trained to be part of the community, but to be leaders of the community,” implied “another false assumption that being a leader meant that you were separate and apart from the masses, and to a large extent people were to look up to you, and that your responsibility to the people was to represent them.” This precluded people from acquiring their own sense of values; but the 1960s, according to Baker, would usher in another view: “the concept of the right of the people to participate in the decisions that affected their lives.”2


Black Woman Feminist Politics Black Reactionary Radical Feminist Black Panther Party 
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  1. 1.
    Ella Baker, “The Black Woman in the Civil Rights Struggle,” quoted in Joanne Grant, Ella Baker (New York: Jack Wiley and Sons, 1998), 230. Baker presented this speech in 1969 at the Institute for the Black World in Atlanta, Georgia.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ibid. Harvard historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham documents that white Christian philanthropists such as Henry Morehouse and other leaders within the American Baptist Home Missionary Society (ABHMS) in 1896 promoted the concept of the “Talented Tenth” as black elite race leaders. ABHMS funded the emergence of this elite to serve a population facing severe discrimination and persecution following the aborted Reconstruction. ABHMS explicitly created the Talented Tenth with a dual purpose: to function as a model showcase for whites (and blacks) as a living demonstration that black intellectual and moral inferiority were myths and to counter revolutionary and anarchistic tendencies among an increasingly disenfranchised black populace. See Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  3. In 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois popularized the term in The Souls of Black Folk with his essay “The Talented Tenth.” A century after white liberal missionaries coined the phrase, the idea of the Talented Tenth is being revitalized by Harvard’s black intellectual elites Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose The Future of the Race (New York: Knopf, 1996), coauthored with fellow Harvard professor Cornet West, and 1998 PBS/ Frontline documentary The Two Nations of Black America promote the formation of the Talented Tenth.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983), 273.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Earl Conrad, “I Bring You General Tubman,” The Black Scholar Vol. 1, No. 3–4 (January-February 1970), 4.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    For an example, see Patricia Hill Collins’s discussion of organizing in Black Feminist Thought (Cambridge, Mass: Unwin Hyman, 1990).Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    U.S. counterrevolutionary initiatives have been extensive and costly in terms of human rights abuses. See Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism (Boston: South End Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    Joan Roelofs, “The Third Sector as a Protective Layer for Capitalism,” Monthly Review, Vol. 47 (September 1995), 16–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 16.
    Teresa L. Ebert, Ludic Feminism (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996), 3.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Echols’s insightful text is somewhat limited by her failure to fully research and analyze the contributions of black feminist radicals such as Frances Beale, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Black Women’s Alliance, and Barbara Smith, a founder of The Combahee River Collective.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    Imprisoned since the mid-1980s (the United States has denied the Italian government’s request for extradition or leniency), Sylvia Baraldini has spoken out, from her jail cell in Danbury, Connecticut, on behalf of African American death-row inmate and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. An internationalist and student radical in the 1960s and 1970s, Baraldini protested the Vietnam war, demonstrated for women’s rights, and campaigned against apartheid and colonialism in Africa. Organizing to expose COINTELPRO, she was a member of the Committee to Free the Panther 21 (twenty-one defendants who were acquitted of all charges after years of harassment and incarceration in New York). Parole guidelines specify forty to fifty-two months incarceration for the crimes for which Baraldini was convicted; she has served over four times that. During the 1980s, Susan Rosenberg and Sylvia Baraldini were housed at the Women’s High Security Unit at Lexington, Kentucky. The unit was closed in 1988 because of an international human rights campaign that opposed its use of torture against female political prisoners. Both women were subjected to years of isolation in all-white subterranean cells, daily strip-searches, sleep deprivation, sexual abuse, and a complete denial of privacy, including male guards watching them shower. Syliva Baraldini, Susan Rosenberg, and Marilyn Buck fall within the category of “political prisoner” as defined by Amnesty International, which documents over 100 political prisoners or prisoners of conscience within the United States. Amnesty International has also declared U.S. citizen Lori Berenson a Peruvian political prisoner. The reporter, a former MIT student, went to Peru in 1994 to write about the Peruvian poor and the government’s violations of their rights and welfare and was sentenced to life imprisonment by a hooded-military tribunal. Like Berenson, hundreds of Peruvians falsely convicted by Peru’s military secret tribunal were never given written notice of the charges or evidence, adequate access to a competent lawyer; or allowed to cross-examine witnesses testifying against them. See Rhoda Berenson’s Mother’s Day article about her daughter, “A Mother’s Story,” Vogue (May 1997), 310–313. The U.S. government has condemned Berenson’s incarceration. In August 1996 eighty-seven members of the House and twenty members of the Senate sent letters to President Alberto Fujimori noting Peru’s violations of international standards and urging its government to grant Berenson “a fair trial.” Clinton met with Fujimori in May 1997, formally requesting that Berenson be granted a civilian trial. Despite the rhetoric of diplomacy, U.S. military aid to Peru has continued. Currently there are no indications of a possible new trial for Berenson.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    See Judi Bari, Timber Wars (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1994). Notorious for its anti-Panther violence, today COINTELPRO largely focuses on white radical peace or environmental activists and members of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. Currently, the majority of U.S. political arrests stem from antinuclear weapons or anti—School of the Americas demonstrations, while grand juries are used to derail Puerto Rican Independence activism. For evaluations of the political use of grand juries and the policing of the environmental and Puerto Rican Independence movementsGoogle Scholar
  13. see Joy James, ed., States of Confinement: Policing, Detention 6 - Prisons (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    For more information, see Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker, eds. If They Come in the Morning (New Rochelle, NY: The Third Press, 1971)Google Scholar
  15. Angela Davis, Angela Davis: An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1974)Google Scholar
  16. Joy James, ed., The Angela Y Davis Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998).Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    Echols’s summary of this “incident” bears quoting at length: In 1967, Ramparts magazine revealed that the CIA had subsidized a number of domestic groups including the National Student Association (NSA) and the Independent Research Service (IRS), an organization which Steinern had helped found. The IRS had been established in 1959 to encourage American students to participate in the communist-dominated World Festivals of Youth and Students for Peace and Freedom. Steinem had been the director of the IRS from 1959 through 1960 and had continued to work for the organization through 1962. Redstockings alleged that the CIA established the IRS to organize an anti-communist delegation of Americans to disrupt the festival. They also claimed that Steinern and the IRS had been involved in gathering information on foreign nationals attending the festivals. However, Steinem’s own account of the IRS’s involvement in the festival differed dramatically from the Redstockings’ version. Shortly after the Ramparts article appeared, the New York Times published an interview with Steinem in which she admitted that she had known about the CIA funding, but claimed that she had never been asked to gather information on Americans or foreigners who participated in the festivals. According to Steinern, the IRS had encouraged Americans to attend the festivals in order to open up the lines of communication between the East and the West. In fact, Steinern maintained that the CIA’s involvement was benign, if not enlightened: “Far from being shocked by this involvement I was happy to find some liberals in government in those days who were far-sighted and cared enough to get Americans of all political views to the festival. Echols, Daring to be Bach 265–266. In 1975, based on the Ramparts article, women activists in Redstockings published an exposé, hoping to stay the erosion of radical feminist politics before the more financially endowed cultural or liberal feminist politics represented by Ms. and Steinem. Echols’s critique of the Redstockings ”exposé“ notes that throughout the 1950s and 1960s, ”liberalism and anti-communism were coterminous“ and that ”Redstockings presented no evidence to support their insinuation that Steinern and Ms. were currently in league with the CIA“ (268). Also see Barbara Leon, ”Gloria Steinern and the CIA,“ in Kathie Sarachild, ed., Redstockings: Feminist Revolution (New York: Redstockings, 1975); and ”C.I.A. Subsidized Festival Trips,“ New York Times February 21, 1967, L33.Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    The Communist Party USA had been heavily infiltrated by government agents and decimated by the McCarthy era of the 1950s. At the time of the trial, it could not be termed a “revolutionary” organization nor could the Black Panther Party, although it began as a revolutionary community-based effort to counter police brutality only to be later crippled by infiltration, police violence, and a murderous factionalism (partly instigated by the FBI’s COINTELPRO). See Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1990).Google Scholar

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© James Joy 1999

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  • Joy James

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