African-American women are beginning to define their own feminism

May 27, 1992|By Janita Poe | Janita Poe,Chicago Tribune

Chicago Beryl Fitzpatrick, a Chicago rape counselor and civic activist, has always had a desire to find ways to improve the health, dignity and economic advancement of African-American women.

She has had it since her grandmother sat her down and told her a real tale of rape as a 13-year-old, and the resulting motherhood. She has had it since learning from her trade unionist parents that black women were paid less than others for their labor.

But Ms. Fitzpatrick, 38, has not always had a women's movement in which to work to bring about these changes.

"White women created the word feminist. It is for them," she said. "I think our goals are more expansive. Our struggle is inclusive of women across different classes."

Though Ms. Fitzpatrick and other black women in the Chicago area say black feminism or womanism has been around since before the likes of Harriett Tubman, they say that the movement is re-emerging as a significant force in the midst of Reagan and Bush-era conservatism.

And, propelled by sexual harassment charges involving black men such as Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson, they say more women of African descent are taking a close look at gender issues and are speaking out on problems that are unique to them.

"There's a new generation of black women who feel that they don't have to take a back seat," said Donna Franklin, a University of Chicago social service professor.

"What I see happening is women, young women . . . are saying our issues have to be addressed."

In the Chicago area, at least one group of black women, African-American Women In Defense of Ourselves, has come together as a result of the Thomas hearings.

Members of AAWIDOO were among 1,600 women from across the country who signed an advertisement supporting Anita Hill, which ran last fall in newspapers ranging from the Chicago Defender to the New York Times.

Those who advocate a separate black women's movement say that the problemsencountered by black women are severe and not being addressed by traditional civil rights organizations.

Local and national employment statistics appear to support their views. To start, black women are at the bottom of the nation's payroll.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, the median weekly earnings for black women in 1991 was $323, compared to $374 for black men. In contrast, white women averaged $374 and white men averaged $509.

More black women also head their households than other ethnic groups. According to the 1990 Census, 31.2 percent of black homes in the country are headed by women, while females head 18.8 percent of Hispanic households and 9.1 percent of white households.

Also, there are relatively more black women on welfare. In Cook County, Ill., there were 158,390 black women on public assistance, compared to 78,736 black men, and 79,800 white females receiving aid, compared to 52,500 white males, according to the Illinois Department of Public Aid.

Barbara Ransby, one of four women who head the loosely knit network of women who make up AAWIDOO, said a growing emphasis in the last five or six years on the plight of black men has obscured the problems of black women.

"I think the whole discussion has, in many ways, minimized the problems of black women," Ms. Ransby said. "Definitely, I think there needs to be more forums for progressive black women."

Ms. Ransby and others said because black men also have been victims of oppression, some black women have shied away from working in gender-oriented movements that attack men. Meanwhile, they said, white feminists have been mainly concerned with their agenda -- primarily moving from care-taking roles in white men's homes to competing in the workplace with them.

"White feminists tend to look at things from a white perspective," said Mary Becker, a white professor of law at the University of Chicago who is an expert on feminist legal analysis. "Sometimes they don't see things are different for people who are discriminated against by both race and sex."

Roderick Watts, an assistant professor of psychology at DePaul University, said he "applauds" the resurfacing black women's movement. He said black women should come together and find answers to the unique problems they face.

"In many ways, African-American men have gotten together and talked about the problems of African-American young men," Mr. Watts said. "I think there are a lot of issues of African-American women as well."

Mr. Watts also said he does not think the black women's movement is creating a rift between black men and women. It certainly does not have to, he said.

"I don't think there is an increased polarization," Mr. Watts said. "I think the overriding issue is that one-third of African-Americans are living in poverty. I think there is sort of a general feeling of being embattled."

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