The Hard Work of Organizing

Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005, 228 pages, $21.95, paperback

Reviewed by Tricia Rose

For several years now, I've focused in my classes on black feminist thought and practice on conveying the nature and significance of the work of black feminism, in particular, on the ways that black feminists forced a complex reconsideration of supposedly discrete forms of racial and gender discrimination. Analyzing how being both black and female confounds these two seemingly disparate categories, black feminists have forever altered the way we think about both. Notions such as Kimberle Crenshaw's "intersectionality"; Evelyn Brooks-Higgenbotham's "metalanguage of race"; Joy James' "shadowboxing"; and Hortense Spillers' "interstices" have been vital analytical and conceptual tools for defining black feminism(s) and for redefining black and feminist social movements. Since very little -- nothing, really -- has been written on what exactly black feminist organizations did, why they did it, and what happened to them, my classes became increasingly theoretical and artistic in orientation. My ability to convey the depth and complexity of black feminism in organized action was stymied by this vacuum in the scholarship.

Kimberly Springer's wonderful and so-very-overdue book fills this gaping void. She challenges the operative concepts in three intersecting fields and social movements: civil rights/black power, "second wave" feminism, and social movement theory. Springer challenges the idea that black feminism emerged out of second wave (white) feminism, instead arguing that it emerged directly from the civil rights movement. Organizationally, it coincided with the transition from civil rights to black power. Thus, she revises the idea that black feminism emerged in response to the patriarchal visions of black power, suggesting instead that the early black feminists were empowered by both civil rights and black power. Although Springer concedes that black feminist organizations emerged after white ones, she argues that ideologically, black and white feminisms developed simultaneously. Furthermore, she questions the idea of "waves" of feminism, which excludes from consideration as feminist certain women and forms of resistance during slavery, and within the abolitionist and anti-lynching movements -- all of which preceded the so-called first wave of feminism.

Springer documents and analyzes the founding, development, and decline of five black feminist organizations between 1968-1980: the Third World Women's Alliance, (founded in 1969) the National Black Feminist Organization (1973); the Combahee River Collective (1974); the National Alliance of Black Feminists (1976); and Black Women Organized For Action (1973). Springer asks why and how black women developed a collective identity as feminists, and how this identity influenced the structures of their organizations. She examines their struggles with race, gender, sexuality, and class, both in their activism and among the members of their groups.

Springer's research reveals a level of complexity and diversity of membership, vision, and action that shouldn't be surprising -- this is always the case in social movement -- but is. In part, this is because of the previous lack of information about black women's feminist activism -- a void that was filled with simplistic generalizations. But also, Springer warns, narratives about liberation movements often repress doubt, differences, and conflicts in the interest of promoting the larger goals of freedom and justice.

While all the groups Springer examines emphasized race and gender discrimination and injustice, some also placed great emphasis on class, while others focused on sexual orientation. Some were structured collectively and others hierarchically. Some emerged through media recognition and quickly developed regional and urban chapters, while others began locally and added chapters slowly.

Springer focuses on five central concerns: 1) the conditions that prompted each group's formation; 2) its access to resources, leadership styles, and political vision; 3) the types of action and ways it defined black feminist issues; 4) how it negotiated black women's class, sexual, and other kinds of heterogeneity; and 5) what happened to the organization, specifically what caused its demise.

Springer confirms what many black feminists "know": creating and sustaining a progressive, black, feminist consciousness is hard work. Although black women may share many similarities of structural position -- race, class, gender, sexuality -- they don't necessarily recognize their similarities or take unified action. Black feminists faced several layers of conflict, misinterpretation, and rejection from mainstream political cultures, black social movement organizations, some feminist organizations, and, sadly, from some black women themselves.

To maintain a black feminist perspective, the activists required antiracist, antisexist re-education and support. As someone who is trying to figure out how to foster recognition of and outrage against current deeply exploitative representations of black women in commercial hip hop and black popular culture in general, I was eager to lean about these educational efforts. It turns out that then, as now, such work required undermining constantly reinforced ideas about black women's sexuality and the myth of fully autonomous choice. Then, as now, black feminists ran up against anticollective strategies of self-protection, such as stigmatizing other black women while imagining oneself to be immune to destructive images.

The Third World Women's Alliance modeled its liberation schools in New York after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) Freedom Schools, which were highly influenced by SNCC mentor Ella Baker's teaching style and vision. Open to all people of color, the alliance used interactive theater and discussion groups to explore the intersections of racism, imperialism, and sexism. Springer reports that the National Association of Black Feminists (NABF) took the schools a step further, creating freestanding alternative schools. These were not segregated feminist training camps, since the group eschewed "separatist models". [The schools] offered classes and workshops for members and nonmembers of the NABF, for women and men of all races; [T]hey were based on a desire to figure out how black feminism applied to daily realities. At the same time, the alternative school activities were decidedly heterosexist:
Dialogue on homosexuality remain[ed] sorely missing from the black community's discourse on gender, so it was a missed opportunity for the NABF to expand on black feminism's impact on the entire black community. In the face of lesbian baiting, it is understandable, if not pardonable, that the NABF did not take advantage of this opportunity.
The usual pressures on social movements -- limited funding, infiltration by state and federal organizations, image manipulation, activist burnout -- were exacerbated by the very intersectionalities black feminist organizations were theorizing about and working to address on the ground. In other words, they were hampered organizationally in ways specifically related to their simultaneous work on racism and sexism. Black feminist organizations did not receive the kind of funding and support from black community groups, churches, and other institutions that the civil rights and black power groups received. Instead, they were left to rely almost exclusively on bake sales(!), dues, and other fully independent means of support. They wrestled with accepting funds from white feminist sources such as Ms. magazine and, in one case, the Eastman Foundation, fearing that this might raise questions in black communities about the degree of influence that white feminists and corporate sponsors had over black feminism -- even though the Black Panthers never seemed to worry that white liberal financial support would compromise their self-determination. Social justice groups always have difficulty maintaining their financial self-sufficiency, but it was especially hard for black women's groups whose members' ability to pay dues and commit time was constrained by their low incomes and heavy workloads -- results, of course, of racial and gender discrimination and expectations. Furthermore, although scholars have failed to examine it, the groups faced infiltration by government spies. This infiltration has not produced much comment let alone indignation among the scholars and current black activists who rightly express outrage about the brutal attacks on and extensive infiltration of the Black Panther Party. Examining these infiltration strategies against the Panthers and against several black feminist groups reveals the depths of the repression against black social justice organizations across the left-liberal political spectrum.

For many observers, the death of the organizations Springer examines and others, along with continued inequities based on race, class, gender, and sexuality, mean that the black feminist movement failed. But, Springer argues, this approach looks only at outcome and ignores the power, value, and legacies of the movement's vision. Using such logic, you'd conclude that because of current assaults on civil rights and continuing racial inequality, the civil rights movement also failed.

However, although I appreciate the complexity and prophetic significance of black feminist activism, I also think it is important to face squarely the reality that we have "no formal black feminist organization today". Although this doesn't mean that black feminists were wrong, it does signal, as Springer demonstrates, how daunting a struggle it is to develop and sustain a black feminist vision, both in black communities and in the larger society.

I wish that this extremely important book had included an analysis of how racialized ideologies and black social justice movements -- such as the civil rights movement, the Nation of Islam, the black power movement, the response to the Moynihan Report, and Afrocentrismâ€"have somehow made black freedom and justice contingent on the "restoration" of black patriarchal manhood. Since white patriarchal masculinity is the foundation of white supremacy, attacks on black manhood have been brutal and sustained throughout African American history. However in that case, how, when, why, and under what black cultural and political conditions does black feminism emerge? Unraveling this paradox might explain why black feminism remains a marginal political voice in black social justice projects. This historical context reveals even more poignantly black feminists' amazing courage and the importance of their collective vision.

By focusing rather thinly in the conclusion on the ways that black women writers, scholars, and others are building on the legacy of these now defunct organizations, Springer, probably unintentionally, seems too comfortable with their demise. She de-emphasizes the politics of their destruction. I see this as a kind of romantic belief that the seeds planted by these diverse, courageous, and visionary women will sprout roots and leaves regardless of the terrain. Springer's discussion of the activities of the next generation, however indirect, helps keep hope alive and the political fires burning. But the difficulties facing formal black feminist organizing needs close scrutiny if new organizations are ever to spring up and thrive. We must understand the whys and hows of their predecessors' demise as well as of their growth and legacy. This book makes an exhilarating contribution to this process.

Tricia Rose is professor of American Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She is the author of Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy. You can reach her at
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