For the past month we have honored, as we do every year, the cornerstones of Black history who have brought us to where we are today. But this year, if the month is to be anything but an elementary school exercise, it’s time we answer some old questions in new ways.
Despite the possibility of two women vying for the president’s office, and summits being held across the nation about women’s economic security and the role of women in the economy and our democracy, the silence around the needs and dreams of Black women is still deafening.
In a challenge to white suffragettes at the Ohio Women’s Convention in 1851, Sojourner Truth, a pioneering opponent of structural racism and patriarchy, gave a famous speech in which she asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” Was self-determination and economic security a right for all women or just some women? A hundred and sixty-four years later, Black women are leading the struggles for equality along lines of race, class, gender and sexuality, but the question remains.
Some officials may have embraced the statement that “Black Lives Matter,” but will their 2016 platforms support white middle-class women who long to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and who tell women to “lean in” to balancing work and family life, or will their platforms feature the economic and social issues that reflect the reality of Black women in this country? Will their advocacy for women in the workplace extend to the Black women, both immigrant and US-born, for whom someone else’s home is a workplace?
During her talk, Truth recalled how most of her thirteen children were sold into bondage, how she worked harder than any man because she was forced to, and how, yet, there was no conversation during the suffragette convention focused on women’s rights (including the right to vote) about the inclusion of the rights of Black women.
Indeed, no one knew better than her what it was like to live as a woman without rights in the United States. As a Black woman who was enslaved, Truth had no rights to anything—not to raise a family, to make decisions that affected her life, or to make decisions over her own body. During that time in America, Black women who were enslaved had their children sold to become laborers for white families—and yet were still responsible for nursing white women’s children.
After slavery, the exclusion of Black women continued as Black female labor, especially domestic work, was undervalued even though it formed the backbone of the economy. During the creation of the New Deal, domestic workers and agricultural workers were excluded from many of the basic protections guaranteed in the Fair Labor Standards Act. In negotiating for those protections, Democrats used Black women’s labor as a bargaining chip to appease white-dominated labor unions and Southern lawmakers.