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Journal for the Study of Radicalism 1.1 (2007) 135-137

Reviewed by
Whitney Strub
University of California, Los Angeles
Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980, Kimberly Springer. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. 240 pp., ISBN 0-8223-3493-3, $21.95.

For many years, the absence of an historical examination of second-wave black feminism has been a glaring lacuna in the historiography of modern feminism. Kimberly Springer's Living for the Revolution rectifies that omission with insight and passion, and this brief but rich monograph instantly assumes a place of great importance in the historical scholarship of feminism. Drawing on oral history interviews and heretofore unexamined archival materials, Springer constructs a compelling argument that black feminism arose not simply as a reaction to black women's marginalization in the white women's liberation movement, but rather as a simultaneous and parallel movement that drew on separate resources, experiences, and analyses.

Key to those analyses was the idea of interstitial politics, which Springer sees in two lights: first and more literally, as politics enacted within the scheduling of everyday life, something shared with other social movements; second and more specific to black feminism, in the form of an intersectional analysis of oppression, which recognized the interlocking grids of racism and sexism that left black women in what Frances Beal famously called "Double Jeopardy." This intersectional analysis precluded unhesitating alliance with white feminists, [End Page 135] whose notion of universal sisterhood threatened to efface the persistence of racism in American society; at the same time, rising masculinism in the Civil Rights movement led black women to organize independently by the late 1960s, though not in separatist opposition to black men, whose struggle was still recognized as valid and necessary despite its sexist shortcomings. Springer rightly calls attention to the 1965 Moynihan Report's racist and sexist attack on the matriarchal black family as a "tangled web of pathology," though she does not place as much weight on it as does Benita Roth in the also-excellent recent Separate Roads to Feminism, which blames the Moynihan Report for putting black feminists in a defensive position that precluded their subscribing to white feminist attacks on the nuclear family.1

Springer's most valuable contribution is to track the emergence and dissolution of the five most significant black feminist organizations active between 1968 and 1980, depicting their similarities and differences in terms of agendas, analyses, and organizational structures. The Third World Women's Alliance (1968–79) began as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee offshoot that moved beyond a strict "black" identity when it allied with Puerto Rican women; the short-lived National Black Feminist Organization (1973–75) attempted to create a national umbrella group without the necessary infrastructure or resources, but managed to inspire several corollary groups before its demise; the National Alliance of Black Feminists (1976–80) was its Chicago branch before declaring autonomy; the Combahee River Collective (1975–80) was another branch, in Boston, that also splintered and paved the way for black lesbian awareness; and Black Women Organized for Action (1973–80) began in response to a 1973 San Francisco mayoral committee on women that included no input from black women.

Springer effectively shows how activist backgrounds contributed to organizational structures, as women from Civil Rights groups emphasized hierarchy, while those from the white-dominated women's movement de-emphasized it. As in the white women's movements, these questions of structure plagued black feminist organizations, as did class tensions and homophobia. None of the groups were trapped in a static approach to activism, though, and Springer shows how their intersectional "polyvocality" regarding race and gender brought a certain flexibility when it came to accommodating other axes of oppression. Funding, too, served as a major obstacle for groups drawing from an underprivileged demographic, and tensions arose over whether to accept financial support from white-identified sources.

By 1981, all five black feminist organizations were effectively defunct, for reasons mentioned above as well...


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