Which women’s histories? Feminism, race, and Women’s History Month

—Alison Piepmeier

To tell you the truth, I’m a bit skeptical of Women’s History Month. I’m skeptical of all the themed months. In part, I’m skeptical because they encourage us to see things in terms of stereotypes. During Black History Month, folks are often focused on the standard heroic figures—many of whom are black men and the women who gain prominence because of their connection with them. And during Women’s History Month, we’re often focused on white women, with the occasional woman of color thrown in to mix things up.

This kind of segmented thinking affects our understanding of history more broadly. White feminists often say that women started speaking out about and against rape in the 1970s—but have a look at the writings of nineteenth-century journalist (and African American woman) Ida B. Wells. Wells documented rapes like that of a white man raping an eight-year-old black girl: “The outrage upon helpless childhood needed no avenging in this case; she was black,” and in another case, “a white man…inflicted such injuries upon another Afro-American child that she died. He was not punished.” As Wells’ work demonstrates, black women had been speaking out against rape for over a hundred years before white feminist activism took on this issue.

As Danielle McGuire points out in her excellent book At the Dark End of the Street, the familiar understanding of the Civil Rights movement is that Martin Luther King, Jr., was the person who initiated it—but in fact, ass-kicking investigator and activist Rosa Parks was initiating resistance while King was still in high school. She wasn’t an elderly woman who happened to sit on the bus: she was a radical activist who saw what needed to be done, and then kept her mouth shut so that she could become a strategic symbol.

We need the same kinds of sensitivity as McGuire when we’re examining more recent history. In my book Girl Zines, I discuss the ways women of color use zines to offer scathing critiques of their erasure from discussions of feminism, as when Chandra Ray writes in the zine Evolution of a Race Riot,

Many white girls talk about sisterhood.  They really mean:  you’re my sister as long as you don’t confront me on my bigotry.  You’re my sister as long as you know your place.  (Which usually means underneath or behind you, hidden from view or maybe as a token to show how diverse your movement is.)  I don’t give a shit about how many meetings you’ve been to or how many unlearning racism workshops you’ve undergone….Until you stop expecting women of color to conform to the white-girl ideal of feminism, I don’t want anything to do with you.

If we’re going to celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s celebrate a truly diverse, intersectional, complex history, full of identities that don’t fit into the neat narratives we’ve been told.

Alison Piepmeier is the author of Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism (NYU Press, 2009).

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