“Check yourself woman”: 1970s American Feminism and the Power of Primary Sources

Steinam and Dorothy Pitman Hughes
White feminist Gloria Steinem on the left, African American feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes on the right, each holding a clench fist in air, evoking the Black Panthers. Portrait taken in 1971 by Dan Wynn.

There is nothing like reading primary sources to really immerse oneself in a moment in time. My current project has me reading about the women’s liberation movement in the United States, particularly the different ways white and African American feminists experienced and theorized their subordination. In this post  I try to sum up what I’ve learned and share two sources that deepened my grasp of the disconnect between African American and white feminists.

Try to imagine what is was like to live at a time when the best-known theory of women’s subordination was based on biology. As their bodies make plain, women’s purpose is reproductive, and from this flowed everything else: their marginal legal status, their ghettoization in the labour market, their sexual objectification for men’s pleasure. Women knew that this was horse shit, and some of the earliest efforts to get out of the stables were made by those active in the Black Freedom struggle. They saw women’s oppression as linked to other oppressions they were fighting, namely economic oppression (racism was seen as the ‘bastard child’ of capitalism, not a stand-alone phenomenon) and imperialism. Virtually all of the early texts advancing theories of women’s oppression did so from an intersectional framework.

As ideas turned into a mass movement, some white women decided that addressing anything beyond sexism was just too complicated (white men on the progressive left – in Students for a Democratic Society, the anti-war movement, and so on, were similarly divided over whether or not to include the “race issue”). Consequently a number of white feminists retreated from analyses that addressed Black women’s experiences and developed an understanding of women’s oppression based on their own experiences, experiences that were shaped by unacknowledged, but very real, race and class privileges. Thus, it was not apparent to many of these women that their experience was racialized, and therefore when they were talking about sexism, they were talking about race.

How this led to wildly divergent struggles is evident in the reproductive rights movement, which dominated feminist politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Black women and men exposed ongoing practices of the involuntary sterilization of Black women, an issue that galvanized the Black Power movement and led it to denounce the state as genocidal. When Francis Beal wrote “Double Jeopardy” in 1969, her section subtitled Bedroom Politics addressed this, and only this, issue.

For white women, however, bedroom politics concerned the pursuit of sexual pleasure (sexual danger would come later). Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” exposed a truth nestled between most women’s leg: the clitoris, not the vagina, was the principle source of women’s pleasure, and it had nothing to do with reproduction. If biology was the answer, the question was: why did women have an organ dedicated only to pleasure? White women’s pursuit of sexual pleasure became a political act that challenged their supposed reproductive destiny, and was part of a larger effort by women to assert control over their own bodies. Full control also meant gaining access to safe abortion services as a fundamental right. Whereas for Black women, bedroom politics was fighting the state and medical experts for the right to have children; for white women it was about being able to choose not to.

Such divergences are evident in two primary documents I read this morning. The first is a news report on a panel discussion about the state of marriage in America sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW). All but one of the panelists was white. Some favored traditional marriage, some more flexible models that promoted equality and tolerated divorce. Sydney Abbott and Barbara Love, a white lesbian couple who co-authored Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, advocated non-monogamy even though they themselves preferred monogamy (non-monogamy was de rigueur among white radicals since monogamous marriage = capitalist patriarchal ownership of women).

“Miss Washington,” the one Black woman on the panel, had nine children “by six different fathers,” an image that would have evoked different things to whites (whore) than it did to African Americans (mother). Washington said that she had always thought of marriage as a “capitalist trick to keep women still and quiet in the kitchen,” a point of view white women were only just coming to. But, now almost 40 years old, she decided that she was “tired of playing with children,” and told her “old man I am still [going to raise hell] and will see him when I can.” It was this very kind of ‘independent attitude’ among Black women that was seen by many as the cause of Black male alienation from masculinity, and thus the cause of poverty among African Americans. It was also an attitude many heterosexual white feminists aspired to achieve.

When panelists took up the question: should stay-at-home wives be legally mandated to receive a salary?, Washington noted that this would be impossible in the Black community since black men were so poorly paid for their labour, reminding whites of yet another difference in American marriage: the male-breadwinner/female homemaker model could only be achieved on a white man’s salary. In the typical Black family, mothers worked.

The second document resonates more deeply with the contemporary scene. Founded in 1966, NOW initially refused to acknowledge lesbians in its ranks or to include lesbian issues on the political agenda. This led lesbians to take increasingly radical stances to assert their place in the women’s movement. Some claimed that lesbians were better feminists because they did not “sleep with the enemy,” and because all of their energy went toward women, not the patriarchy. “Feminism is the theory,” Ti-Grace Atkinson famously declared, “lesbianism is the practice.”

Although NOW reversed its position in 1971, in 1973 tensions remained. A day-long “Lesbian/Feminist Dialogue” held at Columbia University was attended by some of the biggest names in movement politics at the time, including Jill Johnston, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Love, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Kate Millet. According to a report on the day’s proceedings published in Off Our Backs, a key feminist magazine, the entire day seems to have been given over the those who were bitter about residual hostility toward lesbians, and those who implored women to get along, and move on.

In the midst of the bickering and pleading, Black poet Jackie Earley used her time at the podium to read “About Your Momma,” a powerful piece that addressed white women’s role in acts of racial violence. Inspired by the shooting of two Black male students by a white police officer at Southern University, it including the following indictment:

Oh yeah look how you gobble the news of dead black students

then cross your lady-like knee and order dessert

Yes, maybe you womb-man is who dunnit

Maybe you womb-man is the thing I must change

Because you give birth to the two-legged mange

To every two-legged thing walking this earth

You gave birth

Check yourself woman

What are you worth?

Her poem was received warmly by at least some of the crowd who, in a recording of the days speeches that I later found, can be heard expressing agreement and praise, but it was totally out of step with the theme of the event. Was Earley simply not informed of the topic of discussion? My interpretation, based on my reading of the secondary source literature, is that Earley was making an intervention. While white feminists were caught up in a debate over whether or not lesbians are the true revolutionaries, black bodies were falling. And white women shared some of the responsibility. “Check yourself, woman,” she urged her audience.

Although I don’t want to belittle the significance of the debate over homophobia in the movement, Earley’s intervention, which was mentioned in a single paragraph in a full-page report on the event, jumped out at me. It drove home the point that so many scholars have made: we cannot organize as women and not talk about race. We simply cannot.

The two secondary source books that have really helped me are Carol Giardina’s Freedom for Women: Forging the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1953-1970 and Benita Roth’s Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave. Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought is also extremely valuable.

Jackie Earley

“About Your Momma,” read at the Lesbian-Feminist Dialogue, Columbia University, 1971, transcribed from the recording posted here: https://www.popuparchive.com/collections/925/items/6824

Earley begins speaking at 54:40; the poem begins at 56:18

Two warning shots in the air,

Two Southern University students fell to the earth

I know not where, or why,

But if I cared, I’d ask:

Who is the mother of the white man

who shot that young black student?

Who murdered that young black mind?

Who is the daughter and son who call daddy ‘Policeman’?

I’d ask, Who is the wife of the Policeman?

Whose lover holds the gun that kills teenage blacks?

With questions like that, some murderer would not longer have a woman around

to support his cause.

Cause I just wouldn’t feed meat to a would-be beast

I’d raise him a vegetarian, a peaceful man

at least, so he can not mistake my children at school as something to be killed and eaten

Oh yeah look how you gobble the news of dead black students

then cross your lady-like knee and order dessert

Yes, maybe you womb-man is who dunnit

Maybe you womb-man is the thing I must change

Because you give birth to the two-legged mange

To every two-legged thing walking this earth

You gave birth

Check yourself woman

What are you worth?

If you no longer determine the quality of birth and peace,

The hows, the whys, and the mating calls, Listen,

And you tell every brother, don’t worry about the proper and the im-prop-her

Prop her up and look at her,
At her eyes, not her thighs

At her mind, not her kind,

See if she has something hidden at home,

Something half-human

It drinks beer at night with the boys and at daybreak makes noise killing black boys

And girls there are no exceptions to this rule

You are the teachers of this earth school

What is it you have at home supporting you?

Did he get a raise when he shot those two?

A medal saying sharp shooter?

Did you buy him a gun when he was one?

Did you laugh when he said ‘Bang! You’re dead!’?

Did you rub that nigger into his head?

Is nigger his spook in the dark?

I am stark raving mad when I realize someone’s dad killed those two at Southern U.

And you, are you his momma?

Check and see what you got at home.

And girls, there are no exceptions to this rule.