A feminist is defined by Merriam Webster as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. While most people have heard of a few big name feminists, ranging from Susan B. Anthony to Emma Watson, when asked to name a black feminist, they falter. Black feminists span history from tribal systems of ancient Africa to modern film directors.
Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth escaped slavery when a promise of freedom was broken. Soon after, her emancipation was made legal when New York state abolished slavery on July 4, 1827. When Sojourner Truth’s son, Peter, was illegally sold in the slave trade, she sued the man who sold him, and won. This case was one of the first in which a black woman successfully challenged a white man in a United States court. She delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in May of 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron. the speech illustrates how gender oppression has unique repercussions for Black women living under a racist, economically exploitative system.
Maria W. Stewart, a free black woman living in Boston, Massachusetts, published works on morals, religion, abolition, and education from 1831 to 1879 in William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator. She is considered America’s first black woman political writer.
Soon after, the National Association of Colored Women was established in 1896 to unite more than one hundred Black women's clubs. Co-founded by Frances E. W. Harper, Ida Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman and several others, the goals of the Association were, and remain vast. The Association was heavily involved with the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century, and the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Now called the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the NACWC named by Ebony Magazine as one of the top 10 non-profit organization in the country in 2010.
Doctor Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, best friend to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, campaigned for her right to a collegiate education in an all-white North Carolina university. She graduated from Howard University in 1944, but was later rejected from Harvard because of her gender. She nonetheless continued her education and in 1951 she published her master’s thesis in States’ Laws on Race and Color, which became building material for many later civil rights activists. Murray’s continuous activism, including her refusal to move to the back of a bus nearly fifteen years before Rosa Parks, greatly inspired Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Murray served on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission of the Status of Women and co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966. With over half a million members, NOW is currently the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States. Dr. Murray was ordained as an Episcopalian priest, and is now considered an Episcopalian saint.
Barbara and Beverly Smith, twins from Cleveland, Ohio, began working against classism, racism, and other boundaries at age eight. Barbara began the Combahee River Collective in 1974 and co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first American publication for black women, in 1980. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, and continues to work towards equality for women of all race and status.
News commentator and political analyst Zerlina Maxwell speaks out on behalf of women and girls. She uses her commentary on ESSENCE Magazine, Mic.com, CNN and BET to broadcast her feminist viewpoints on how women should be treated domestically and abroad.
Perhaps more well-known is Jessica Williams, The Daily Show's youngest correspondent to date. An actress, comedian, and news analyst, Williams uses satire to talk about issues such as classism and racism, and the social constructs of beauty and femininity.
Many modern women set powerful positive examples for girls. Beyoncé Knowles, uses her widely popular music to promote body positivity and self-love in spite of societal standards. Similarly, Janelle Monae promotes a new future for women in which they can embrace both femininity and masculinity in her album Electric Lady.
A self-proclaimed feminist and womanist, Ava DuVernay is director of Selma (2014) and Middle of Nowhere (2012), for which she won best director at Sundance, becoming the first black woman director to do so.
These are just a few of the many remarkable heroes in feminist history. These women and their organizations helped shape the world we live in today and still continue to take strides toward ending sex inequality.