THE ELECTION of Kamala Harris to the second-highest office in the United States breaks a number of barriers. Not only is she the first African American and South Asian person elected vice president in our nation’s history, but Harris is the first female vice president. She represents countless women overlooked and underrepresented throughout American history, particularly women of color.
As Americans today combat the historic underrepresentation of women in American politics, we should acknowledge the unique challenges faced by African American women, especially within the history of the feminist and civil rights movements. Doing so fosters greater attention to the needs of women of diverse backgrounds in today’s continuing struggle for social justice as well as wider inclusion and unity.
Political movements in American history have too often neglected the needs of women of color. In the 1960s, men in the civil rights movement often slighted women (White and African American), while White female leaders in second-wave feminism failed to fully appreciate the challenges of Black women in daily life
As Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) urged women to explore the idea of personal fulfillment outside the role of a traditional housewife, there was a glaring lack of attention to the struggles of women of color in the second wave of women’s liberation that followed. Women of color shared the same domestic responsibilities as White suburban housewives, yet also often worked outside the home for financial necessity as domestic workers, nannies, and waitresses. Friedan’s message of dissatisfaction as a White, suburban housewife frequently felt exclusive and elitist to women of color, diminishing their role in the modern feminist movement.
As a result, many African American women, feeling excluded from the White, middle-class dominated women’s liberation movement, put energy into the civil rights movement. Yet even as members of the civil rights movement, male leaders did not actively enlist them as leaders or fully recognize their voices and experiences. Many African American men leading the civil rights movement subscribed to the same understanding of gender roles as White men: women were meant to be homemakers and caretakers, not activists.
Rosa Parks, seen today as the “Mother of Civil Rights” for her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was blatantly ignored by civil rights leaders in the years after the boycott. Instead of allowing her into a leadership role in the movement, she was forced into the background and subsequently the domestic sphere as a seamstress in a sewing factory. Her role was finished; she was sent back into the domestic workplace because that was where women supposedly belonged. By diminishing the role of women of color to one of monolithic domesticity, the civil rights movement was undermined. As racist attitudes in American life held back African Americans, an additional paternalistic, superiority complex by men of the same race further penalized women of color.
This exclusion remains important to understand because it laid the foundation for a divided civil rights and women’s movement, alienating millions of American women.
Even after young boys and girls watched Vice President Kamala Harris be sworn in, progress still needs to be made in the struggle for gender and racial equality. Women and men must create consensus attuned to women of color by engaging their particular needs and experiences.
The women’s liberation movement claimed to work to close the gap between men and women, but what about the gap among women?