Women and Activism Through Time by Keely Shannon

Women have always been active in organizations and in activism within their communities and this can be seen in two of the readings we explored this week. Devra Anne Weber’s article ‘Mexican Women on Strike in 1933: The Structure of Memory’ discussed the Mexican women’s active involvement in protest is remembered.[1] While Franklin and Collier-Thomas’s piece ‘For the Race in General and Black Women in Particular’ discussed the history of institutions run by black women.[2] These articles highlight the key role women of colour played in activism and community involvement, and reveal that women contributed much to the social movements of the past, particularly those of minorities within America.

However, in recent years, black women have become more visible as leaders of movements. In the Twentieth Century it was black men who gained the most attention as leaders of movements, for example in the black Civil Rights Movement. Black men such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X dominate narratives of the time, while they were very significant figures, women often did not gain positions of such prominence. However, in recent years, black women have gained attention for their work in activism. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, founded the Black Lives Matter movement which has become significant in the fight against racism in America, and is known across the world. This female-led movement is different from the female-led movements of the past, and shows a shift in how activism is performed from the early and mid-Twentieth Century, to the modern day.

Unlike the movements of the past, Black Lives Matter is not an institution as such, it is more like a set of beliefs which can be adopted and promoted in protest action in relation to the rights of African-Americans. Furthermore, it does not have a centralised leadership, and though the women who founded it speak for the movement and give a set of beliefs for it, they do not direct the action that is taken under the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’.

Perhaps the movement gained attention more for the timing of its creation than for the voices of the creators specifically, since it was created in direct response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin. However, it is not insignificant that women are at the forefront of Black Lives Matter. The core beliefs of the movement are focused on intersectionality and fighting for the rights of all African-Americans no matter their sexuality, gender identity, or any physical disability they may have.[3] This black female activism shows far greater emphasis on an inclusive movement, and while society has changed in the last fifty years which gives a movement like this greater ability to succeed, black women have been able to gain this recognition and lead a movement with a more modern perspective. This demonstrates women can lead change as men of the past have done in gaining rights for the African-American community, and more opportunities are now available for black women in order for them to pursue this activism.

[1] Devra Anne Weber, ‘Mexican Women on Strike: Memory, History and Oral Narratives’, in Between Borders: Essays on Mexicana/Chicana History, ed. by Adelaida R. Del Castillo (Encino, CA: Floricanto Press, 1990), pp. 175-200.

[2] Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin, ‘For Race in General and Black Women in Particular: The Civil Rights Activities of African American Women’s Organizations, 1915-50’, in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, ed. by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2001), pp. 21-41.

[3] Black Lives Matter What We Believe [online]. Black Lives Matter [cited 15 March 2018]. Available from <https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/what-we-believe/>

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