When African Americans began to challenge white supremacy in the 1960s, a small group of women saw an opportunity to challenge male supremacy at the same time. As new ideas about gender equality spread, Carol Giardina, an active member of the black power movement, became involved in the nascent women's movement. Now she has written Freedom for Women: Forging the Women's Liberation Movement, 1953-1970 to set the record straight about the birth of the modern women's movement. Believing that the accepted historical narrative of what became the women's liberation movement omitted the vital role that black women and other radicals played, Giardina has challenged the histories of the women's movement written by Sara Evans, Alice Echols, Joe Freeman, and Ruth Rosen. Giradina argues that these black feminists had considerable influence on the white feminists rather than the reverse.
Histories of the women's movement have often focused on women as victims. Giardina argues that Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael's well-known comment about women were made in jest and should never have been taken seriously. In her opinion, the disproportionate amount of continued discussion of Carmichael's remarks, as evidence of sexism within the civil rights movement, has distorted and overshadowed the positive things that women found in the SNCC.
Although awareness of sexism was not new in the 1960s, the idea of challenging it was considered to be quite radical. "Freedom Summer," the summer of 1964, became a major turning point for women working to end discrimination in the South by attempting to register voters. The constant threat of violence led a small group of women to develop a strategy known as "Sisterhood is Powerful." These women came up with a conceptual framework for this new movement precisely because they were already familiar with these ideas from their civil rights work. They often already had a family history of activism, in some cases going back to the abolition movement or the early years of the Communist Party. As teenagers they had developed new awareness from reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949). While de Beauvoir's ideas provided them with a [End Page 306] guide for their personal lives, The Second Sex did not necessarily teach them how to put these ideas into practice. They learned activism in the civil rights movement.
The publication of the Moynihan Report which blamed black women for problems within African American families further mobilized black women. Consciousness-raising sessions among small groups of women, an early strategy of black feminists, further expanded the movement. It helped other women see what gender discrimination actually was and brought awareness to a broader spectrum of women. These sessions provided the basis for mass organizing and political action. The protest at the 1968 Miss American Pageant brought the movement into the national spotlight. Shirley Chisholm's election to Congress that year along with feminist opposition to the appointment of G. Harrold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court two years later demonstrated that an independent movement was underway. In Giardina's view, it was precisely at this point after the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by Congress that the movement made a turn from radical to moderate leadership. White, moderate, middle-class women assumed leadership positions in the women's liberation movement and then failed to listen to the recommendations by black women about how to get the ERA ratified. Giardina concludes that it was this failure of white women to work with black women that brought about the failure of the ERA.
Carol Giardina has made an important contribution to women's history. By recovering the role of black women in the women's movement, she has greatly expanded our understanding of the critical role that black feminists played. Giardina's interpretation of these events provides a provocative analysis of the relationship of the civil rights movement to the women's liberation movement. Her conclusions...