Women, Race and Class, by Angela Davis


Five stars, read in March 2017.

I can’t believe how readable this book is, considering how dense it also is in historical detail. The research that went into it must be astounding, but it flows like a conversation with a (really well-informed) friend. Along with many subjects I am familiar with, I was absolutely fascinated by all the communist ideas I’ve never heard before. I’ve meant to learn more about Angela Davis for a long time, but this book really piqued my curiosity about her.

The thing that most frustrates me is how clearly tied together the issues of feminism, class, and race are—because you would never learn any of that in the American education system without taking advanced university-level courses. Even in most activist discourse, where the intersection of feminism and race is acknowledged, for some reason class and the influence of capitalism are rarely discussed. The reason we have made so little progress in these areas, and so agonizingly slowly, is specifically that we keep trying to address them separately, even mutually exclusively at times—because this division is an intentional tactic used by capitalist patriarchy to distract and impede us.

In this book, Angela Davis outlines the history of this happening in the United States. She begins with the Industrial Revolution, which is actually where our modern idea of the housewife developed. Before manufacturing moved into the factories, “woman’s place” was considered in the home—but since the entire economy was centered in the home, there was no sense of inferiority about their work.

While home-manufactured goods were valuable primarily because they fulfilled basic family needs, the importance of factory-produced commodities resided overwhelmingly in their exchange value—in their ability to fulfill employers’ demands for profit . . . Since housework does not generate profit, domestic labor was naturally defined as an inferior form of work as compared to capitalist wage labor.

Ladies’ magazines, novels, and all the usual propaganda began pushing this new definition of womanhood as mother and housewife. And as usual, this new “ideal” image of womanhood totally ignored reality—particularly that of all the women who weren’t white and well-off enough to have the “luxury” of becoming housewives.

Women compelled to work for wages came to be treated as alien visitors within the masculine world of the public economy. Having stepped outside their “natural” sphere, women were not to be treated as full-fledged wage workers . . . Their exploitation was even more intense than the exploitation suffered by their male counterparts. Needless to say, sexism emerged as a source of outrageous super-profits for the capitalists.

And that’s what it always comes down to. Capitalism is about profits, and in the United States, we are all about crushing every single person we can possibly take advantage of, systematically, to make profits bigger.

Throughout the book, I appreciated the way Davis consistently uses the phrase “white women”—not derogatorily, but for accuracy—because in the same way that using “man” as a “neutral” word erases women, when we’re talking about the women’s rights movement, using only the word “women” nearly always erases women of color.

This brings me to what was a fairly upsetting issue for me to address: the total failure of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (along with white feminists as a whole) to recognize their own racism. There were white suffragists who fought for intersectionality, like Lucy Stone, the Grimke sisters, and Julia Ward Howe—but of course, of all the most important leaders of the suffrage movement, Stanton and Anthony are the two we generally learn about.

In all fairness to such feminist leaders as Stanton and Anthony, it must be said that the former abolitionist men in the ERA [Equal Rights Association] were not always shining advocates of sexual equality. Indeed, some of the Association’s male leaders were intransigent in their defense of male supremacist positions. The Black leader George Downing was really asking for a fight when he claimed that it was God’s will, no less, that man should dominate woman. While Downing’s sexism was absolutely inexcusable, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racist response was no less unjustifiable:

“When Mr. Downing puts the question to me: are you willing to have the colored man enfranchised before the women, I say no; I would not trust him with my rights; degraded, oppressed himself, he would be more despotic with the governing power than ever our Saxon rulers are. If women are still to be represented by men, then I say let only the highest type of manhood stand at the helm of State.”

Oh no.

The thing is, I can understand their fear and frustration. They believed (somehow) that the abolition of slavery brought black men to a standing equal with white women—and an attempt to enfranchise black men, but not black or white women, was obviously sexist and unjust. American suffragists would have had little reason to trust that patience would pay off (I mean the founders of this country literally said they believed all men were created equal while personally owning human beings). So when the ERA decided to support the Fourteenth Amendment, which added the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time, “these white women felt fundamentally betrayed.”

Yeah—that’s with good fucking reason. But I find it depressing and disappointing that they were dense enough to believe emancipation brought black men to the same footing as white women. It’s like people who believe that now, within the lifetime of people who were beaten by the police for attempting to vote, we are a post-racial society—but it is also worse, because this was immediately after the Civil War. Honestly—to believe that 250 years of slavery just vanished with a presidential proclamation. To believe that while lynching was happening, the urgency of the vote was exactly the same. I don’t mean to say that black men should have been given the vote first; it shouldn’t have been a question of one or the other, but as usual, shitty American politics made it so. But that’s not really the point; it’s not a question of whether or not they were wrong to fight the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s the fact that in their fight against it, we can see how racist they were.

(Stanton’s) indignation and that of Miss Anthony knew no bounds. The latter made the pledge that “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Mrs. Stanton made derogatory references to “Sambo,” and the enfranchisement of “Africans, Chinese, and all the ignorant foreigners the moment they touch our shores.”

Davis points out that

Susan B. Anthony should not, of course, be held personally responsible for the suffrage movement’s racist errors. But she was the movement’s most outstanding leader at the turn of the century—and her presumably “neutral” public posture toward the fight for Black equality did indeed bolster the influence of racism within the NAWSA [National American Woman Suffrage Association]. Had Anthony seriously reflected on the findings of her friend Ida B. Wells, she might have realized that a noncommittal stand on racism implied that lynchings and mass murders by the thousands could be considered a neutral issue.

I suppose, with that in mind, it isn’t surprising that white people have such a difficult time grasping the Black Lives Matter movement. (No less confusing or frustrating—but not surprising.)

If there is a connection I was never expecting to exist, though, it’s one between lynching and all the myths about rape.

In the history of the United States, the fraudulent rape charge stands out as one of the most formidable artifices invented by racism. The myth of the Black rapist has been methodically conjured up whenever recurrent waves of violence and terror against the Black community have required convincing justifications . . .

As Frederick Douglass points out, Black men were not indiscriminately labeled as rapists during slavery. Throughout the entire Civil War, in fact, not a single Black man was publicly accused of raping a white woman. If Black men possessed an animalistic urge to rape, argued Douglass, this alleged rape instinct would certainly have been activated when white women were left unprotected by their men who were fighting in the Confederate Army.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the menacing specter of the Black rapist had not yet appeared on the historical scene. But lynchings, reserved during slavery for the white abolitionists, were proving to be a valuable political weapon. Before lynching could be consolidated as a popularly accepted institution, however, its savagery and its horrors had to be convincingly justified. These were the circumstances that spawned the myth of the Black rapist—for the rape charge turned out to be the most powerful of several attempts to justify the lynching of Black people. The institution of lynching, in turn, complemented by the continued rape of Black women, became an essential ingredient of the postwar strategy of racist terror.

So when women come forward about rape, the patriarchal establishment does not believe them pretty much unless they have video proof and can show that they were not wearing, drinking, or doing anything (i.e. existing) that would have “caused” someone to assault them—even though only two percent of rape charges turn out to be false, the same percentage as all other felonies. But actual fraudulent rape charges are made and perpetuated by the establishment itself, as a tool of racial oppression. It would be mind-blowingly ironic except that it is exactly what we should expect from a culture founded on genocide, slavery, and systematic oppression.

The colonization of the Southern economy by capitalists from the North gave lynching its most vigorous impulse. If Black people, by means of terror and violence, could remain the most brutally exploited group within the swelling ranks of the working class, the capitalists could enjoy a double advantage. Extra profits would result from the superexploitation of Black labor, and white workers’ hostilities toward their employers would be defused. White workers who assented to lynching necessarily assumed a posture of racial solidarity with the white men who were really their oppressors. This was a critical moment in the popularization of racist ideology.

And it’s another moment where we can see how inextricably capitalism is intertwined with every form of oppression in the United States.

On that note, in the last chapter, Davis advocates a fascinating idea of housework that I’ve never heard before. She asks, first, whether housework would become any less oppressive even if we were able to totally eliminate the idea that it’s “women’s work,” even if men were responsible for fully fifty percent of it—and her suggestion is that it would not be. Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure she’s right. But, as she explains:

Housework need no longer be considered necessarily and unalterably private in character. Teams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling, engineering technologically advanced cleaning machinery, could swiftly and efficiently accomplish what the present-day housewife does so arduously and primitively. Why the shroud of silence surrounding this potential of radically redefining the nature of domestic labor? Because the capitalist economy is structurally hostile to the industrialization of housework. Socialized housework implies large government subsidies in order to guarantee accessibility to the working-class families whose need for such services is most obvious. Since little in the way of profits would result, industrialized housework—like all unprofitable enterprises—is anathema to the capitalist economy.

This idea is so radical and so fascinating to me. For centuries now, we’ve been fighting oppression in different forms, and we’ve made a lot of important progress. But why have we never really questioned the social structure in which all this oppression exists? At this point I think it’s clear that the individual nature of housework is a significant obstacle to real feminist revolution. No matter how much we recognize the importance of “women’s work,” the fact is that it will never be valued appropriately as long as our society is structured to prioritize profits over equality. And in thinking about this, actually, I’m beginning to suspect that this is the true motivation behind conservative religion’s “focus on the family.” It’s pretty cynical of me, yes—and everything in my experience with religion makes me believe the institution capable of exactly such sinister motives.

I’ve thought before, idly, that it’s kind of silly the way we talk about The Family as a Social Institution. I mean, nearly every member of the animal kingdom has parents and siblings, because that’s how reproduction works in our species. And yes, human beings are social creatures; we need communities to survive and thrive. But does that mean this type of community is the only way for us to organize? And is it not actually very weird, when you think about it, for people to be “defending” and “advocating” something that’s the human equivalent of a litter of cats? Because, if one human has a toxic family and decides they want to find their community elsewhere, or if two humans who can’t or don’t want to reproduce do still want their own community, or if three humans who care about each other equally want to have their own community—what the fuck would any of it matter? Does it not start to sound as though there must be some other reason they’re constantly harping on about it, insisting that we allow only one specific shape?

The abolition of housework as the private responsibility of individual women is clearly a strategic goal of women’s liberation. But the socialization of housework . . . presupposes an end to the profit-motive’s reign over the economy . . .

As Frederick Engels argued in his classic work on the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, sexual inequality as we know it today did not exist before the advent of private property. During early eras of human history the sexual division of labor within the system of economic production was complementary as opposed to hierarchical.

I mean, if you think about it, what’s the best-case scenario for feminism in a capitalist society? Government regulation is what protects minorities, and it’s also the bane of the free market. The United States is not a purely capitalist society—in fact, most of American politics boils down to conservatives trying to pull us toward more capitalism (plus theocracy) and liberals trying to pull us toward socialism. Conservatives will never stop fighting to deregulate everything, which means we’ll never stop having to fight for those protections. The more I think about it, the more impossible it seems to have equality within capitalism.

For Black women today and for all their working-class sisters, the notion that the burden of housework and child care can be shifted from their shoulders to the society contains one of the radical secrets of women’s liberation. Child care should be socialized, meal preparation should be socialized, housework should be industrialized—and all these services should be readily accessible to working-class people.

Endless profit-making fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken bear witness to the fact that more women at work means fewer daily meals prepared at home. However unsavory and unnutritious the food, however exploitative of their workers, these fast-food operations call attention to the approaching obsolescence of the housewife. What is needed, of course, are new social institutions to assume a good portion of the housewife’s old duties.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most important history books I’ve ever read. Angela Davis explores issues and events that I’ve never seen addressed elsewhere. And her own story is just as compelling (this book made me seek out her autobiography, which I will be writing about now that I’ve finally finished this post). Very, very highly recommended.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    I love your rage in this post. I need to read this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gwen says:

      It’s so good. I need to buy a copy for myself now.

      Liked by 1 person

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