Susan Brownmiller, Angela Davis, & the erasure of Black Feminist Activism

Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will is one of the most important texts in the history of women’s liberation. There is no debate on its impact on the so-called second wave* feminist movement and on women being able to speak their truth. All movements for social justice need to understand their history in order to create their future. This does not mean we need to see foundational texts like Against Our Will as perfect. Unfortunately, Rachel Cooke’s interview with Susan Brownmiller, published last month in The Guardian, falls into the trap of refusing to acknowledge that our ‘foundational’ texts are not only not perfect but also not written only by white women:

Against Our Will finally came out in 1975, five long years after the first of the key texts of women’s liberation: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Though it would later be attacked by, among others, the black activist Angela Davis for its attitudes to race (in his piece, Remnick writes that Brownmiller’s treatment of the Emmett Till case “reads today as morally oblivious”), its reception was mostly positive and it became a bestseller (much later, with pleasing neatness, it would be included in the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century).

Calling Angela Davis a Black activist rather than a Black Feminist Activist is deeply problematic. Davis was/ is a significant theorist and activist in the feminist movement. Her book Women, Race & Classfirst published in 1981, is as radical and essential text as Against Our Will, Sexual Politics, The Dialectic of Sex, and The Feminine Mystique. The erasure of the term ‘feminist’ here implies that Davis’ critique was rude and unnecessary; that the experience of women of colour should only be spoken of in terms of sexism, and not the racism (or classism, disabilism or lesbophobia) that women experience. Failing to include the term feminist here doesn’t just imply that Davis isn’t a ‘real’ feminist, it completely erases her from the feminist movement.

 

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