Black women have contributed to women’s right’s movement

By Murphy Browne Wednesday March 04 2015 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

As we approach March 8, 2015, which has been recognized as International Women’s Day since 1975, when the United Nations declared that year International Women’s Year, it is time to reflect on the state of women’s rights. The World Conference of the International Women’s Year was held in Mexico City from June 19 to July 2, 1975. Describing the struggle for women’s rights, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) published an article about the “historical look at the origins of International Women’s Day in the USA and how it spread throughout the world”.


In that article, which can be read in its entirety at (, this information was published in March 1972: “On March 8, 1857, garment workers in New York City marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a ten-hour day, and equal rights for women. Their ranks were broken up by the police. Fifty-one years later, March 8, 1908, their sisters in the needle trades in New York marched again, honouring the 1857 march, demanding the vote, and an end to sweatshops and child labour. The police were present on this occasion too.”


This information about the organization is also included: “The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) grew out of the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the other social movements of the time.”


After reading the article, which is entitled “A History of International Women’s Day: ‘We Want Bread and Roses Too’”, it seems that the CWLU has traced the history of International Women’s Day. It is essentially the story of White female workers. There is no mention of the countless enslaved African women who laboured without compensation in New York and across the United States of America. No mention of the enslaved African women whose unpaid labour enriched White people in Canada, North, South, Central America, Europe and their struggles for freedom.


Attempting to explain this glaring omission, in her 1972 book Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, White historian, Gerda Hedwig Lerner, wrote: “The modern historian is dependent on the availability of sources. The kind of sources collected depends to a large extent on the interests, prejudices and values of the collectors, archivists and historians of an earlier day.”


For centuries, Africans have been aware of this school of thought as evidenced by the words of an ancient African proverb: “Until the lion has his historian the hunter will always be the hero.” The contributions of African women have been eliminated from the story of the women’s movement. In the 1978 book The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images, African-American historians, Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Pen, wrote: “Discrimination against Afro-American women reformers was the rule rather than the exception within the women’s rights movement from the 1830s to 1920.”


They also commented that: “Discrimination against Black women in abolitionist societies organized by White women appears ironic when one considers that White women complained of discrimination by men.”


Enslaved African women were not discriminated against along gender lines. In his 1861 book, Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, White American journalist, Frederick Law Olmsted, described a scene: “We stopped, for some time, on this plantation, near where some thirty men and women were at work, repairing the road. The women were in majority, and were engaged at exactly the same labor as the men; driving the carts, loading them with dirt, and dumping them upon the road; cutting down trees, and drawing wood by hand, to lay across the miry places; hoeing, and shoveling.”


White American historian, Jacqueline Jones, in her 1985 book, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, concurred that enslaved African women did the same work as their male counterparts when she wrote: “In the bayou region, women planted sugar cane cuttings, plowed and helped to harvest and gin the cane. During the winter, they performed a myriad of tasks necessary on a 19th century farm: repairing roads, pitching hay, burning brush and setting up post and rail fences.”


In spite of the back-breaking chores enslaved women were forced to perform they were also expected to bear children, in many cases rear the children of their owners at the expense of their own children and they were brutalized by the White men and women who enslaved them.


In 1857, the year that the CWLU documents as the “origins of International Women’s Day in the USA”, an enslaved African woman, Harriet Robinson Scott, after an 11-year battle to secure her freedom, was told by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney of the United States Supreme Court that she, her husband (Dred Scott) and their two daughters (Eliza and Lizzie) had no right to their freedom. The March 6, 1857 United States Supreme Court decision meant that Africans in America whose unpaid labour for generations had enriched White people and America had no rights as human beings, were not considered American citizens and had no legal recourse in any court.


Part of the stated/documented decision stated: “No one of that race had ever migrated to the United States voluntarily; all of them had been brought here as articles of merchandise. The number that had been emancipated at that time were but few in comparison with those held in slavery; and they were identified in the public mind with the race to which they belonged, and regarded as a part of the slave population rather than the free. It is obvious that they were not even in the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they were conferring special rights and privileges upon the citizens of a State in every other part of the Union. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the White race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the White man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery.”


On March 6, 1857, just two days before March 8, 1857, when a group of White “women garment workers in New York City marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a ten hour day, and equal rights for women”, an enslaved African woman heard the decision of the highest court in the land that she, her husband and two children had no rights even though they lived in the “free” state of Missouri. The Scott family (Dred, Harriet, Eliza and Lizzie) were enslaved by a White woman, Irene Emerson, who hired the family out to other White people as domestics and their wages were paid to their “owner”, Irene Emerson.


Slave holders who lived in cities frequently hired out the Africans they enslaved to other White people and any wages were paid to the owners/enslavers.


Although the name Dred Scott may be known because of the infamous March 6, 1857 United States Supreme Court decision, Harriet Robinson Scott was an equal partner in the legal challenge and the 11-year battle for the family’s freedom. The name Harriet Robinson Scott is not celebrated during International Women’s Day in the U.S.


The legal enslavement (chattel slavery) of Africans in America ended on January 31, 1865: “Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’”


After the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States, the work that was available to African-American women was reminiscent of the work they did during their enslavement. They worked as housekeepers, servants, laundresses, cooks, maids and washerwomen. In the Southern states, most African-American women were agricultural wage labourers. White American author, Elizabeth R. Rose, in A Mother’s Job: The History of Day Care, 1890-1960, published in 1998 addressed the work situation of African-American women who were not domestic workers: “When African-American women were employed in other industries, they were segregated into the dirtiest and most unpleasant part of the work: stripping tobacco leaves, scrubbing pans in bakeries, bundling soiled laundry, sewing cheap garments, pressing clothes or scrubbing railroad terminals, cars and waiting rooms.”


Since slavery was still legal in America on March 8, 1857, when garment workers in New York City marched and picketed, demanding improved working conditions, a 10-hour day, and equal rights for women, those women would have been marching for the rights of White women. On March 8, 1908, when “their sisters in the needle trades in New York marched again, honouring the 1857 march, demanding the vote, and an end to sweatshops and child labour”, they would again have been marching for the rights of White women and children.


African Canadian women suffered a similar fate, whether their ancestors had been brought here as enslaved people beginning in the 1600s, they fled slavery in the U.S. or immigrated to Canada.


Rosemary Brown, in her 1989 book, Being Brown: A Very Public Life, wrote: “I am Black and I am a woman – and to be Black and female in a society which is both racist and sexist is to be in the unique position of having nowhere to go but up.”


Brown (first African Canadian woman elected to a Canadian Provincial Legislature 1972 in British Columbia), who was born in Jamaica on June 17, 1930, came to Canada on August 10, 1950 to attend McGill University. In her autobiography she shares her experience of encountering racism: “Living in Montreal, even in the relative seclusion of Royal Victoria College, the women’s residence at McGill University brought me my first contact with racism, Canadian style.”


Brown wrote about the subtle racism on campus and that: “There was nothing subtle about the racism of the landlords and ladies of Montreal.”


On International Women’s Day it is important that we remember our sheroes, on whose shoulders we stand, on whose backs we crossed over. Many of their names never made it into the pages of history books but “because they were we are”.


African women may not be included in the written history of the beginning of International Women’s Day but we have contributed to the women’s movement and we must claim our space.

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