Black women existed and contributed to the 1970’s feminist movement in massive ways. Many people don’t know this. This lack of knowledge is because Black women were the hidden, invisible, and unacknowledged group. The feminists who were not women of color took the reins. This meant women such as Shirley Chisholm, Flo Kennedy, Audrey Rowe Colom, and Margaret Sloan-Hunter were swept to the side.
In lieu of the injustice, racism, violence, and fear the Black community endures on a daily basis, I decided to honor the Black women of the feminist movement.
Do you know these women? Have you learned about them in history classes?
Congresswoman Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm
Before politics, Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was an educator at a nursery school. She then became a director of various daycare centers. She quickly joined chapters such as the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Urban League. This was because Shirley was aware of racial and gender inequality.
She was a powerful leader and trailblazer for Black women before she even entered politics.
A life in politics
Shirley Chisholm accomplished such large feats for Black women during the second wave of feminism. She was the first Black woman in the United States Congress. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Shirley represented New York’s 12th congressional district. Shirley held this position for seven terms (1969-1963).
Shirley founded the Congressional Women’s Caucus with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem. This placed her front and center with women’s issues.
1972 was an even bigger year for Shirley. This was when Shirley Chisholm sought the nomination for president of the United States. She was the first black candidate that gained a major party’s nomination. Shirley was also the first woman to run for the Democratic party. Lastly, she was the first woman to appear, and participate in, a United States presidential debate.
Many believe Hillary Clinton was the first woman, but it was really Shirley Chisholm.
Shirley encountered and battled discrimination during her run for president. She was blocked from participating in televised primary debates. After legal action, Shirley was only permitted to make one speech.
Although Shirley lost the election for president, with only 152 of the delegates’ votes (10% of the total), she still left her mark in history for Black women and the Black community.
Shirley showed others that with strength and determination, you can do anything you set your mind to.
You can watch Shirley’s renowned speech (presidential bid) here.
If you want to read more about Shirley Chisholm, you can do so here.
Lawyer, Feminist, Civil Rights Advocate, & Friend of Shirley Chisholm: Flo Kennedy
Shirley Chisholm wasn’t the only woman swept to the side or unacknowledged. The next Black woman of the feminist movement is Florynce Kennedy.
Before the activism
Florynce Kennedy, better known as Flo Kennedy was a lawyer, feminist, civil rights advocate, and activist. Before Flo entered the field of feminism and activism, she was already a young, hard worker. Flo worked in, and owned, a local hat shop. She also operated elevators as a means of income. Evidently, Flo Kennedy’s drive to succeed began at a young age.
After various jobs, Flo continued her education as she moved across the United States. She attended Columbia University School of General Studies in 1944. Flo Kennedy majored in pre-law and received her degree in 1949. This was a massive accomplishment for Flo and she was prepared to put her degree to use. Perhaps this is the moment when she became a civil rights advocate.
When Flo Kennedy applied to Columbia’s law school, she was refused admission. Kennedy discussed this moment in her autobiography. She stated, “the Associate Dean, Willis Reese, told me I had been rejected not because I was a Black but because I was a woman. So I wrote him a letter saying that whatever the reason was, it felt the same to me, and some of my more cynical friends thought I had been discriminated against because I was Black.”
Similarly to Shirley Chisholm, Flo battled discrimination head on.
So, it was not in Flo’s nature to bow her head in submission. She threatened to sue the school until she was admitted. She advocated for herself and was successful beyond words. Flo became the only black person among eight women in her class.
Activism and feminism
Flo Kennedy utilized intersectionality in her activism and her feminism! She created the message that society was “pathologically, institutionally racist, sexist, [and] classist.”Some would say, she was the blueprint to the activism and feminism we have today. Flo particularly focused on racism and discrimination. This was especially true after police officers arrested her. The officers refused to believe she lived in the neighborhood.
Flo was certainly a trailblazer who knew her beliefs, protests, and activism “ma[de] white people nervous.”
Flo organized many protests, including the protest against the Miss America pageant. She argued that the pageant exploited women. After her many protests, Flo began working alongside the likes of Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm in the National Organization for Women.
She became frustrated and dissatisfied with NOW and the ways in which this organization fought for change. Flo then founded The Feminist Party and The National Women’s Political Caucus. In her later activism, Flo founded the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) with Margaret Sloan-Hunter.
Much like Shirley Chisholm, Flo held steadfast to her beliefs and showed other Black women they were equal to White women.
Audrey Rowe Colom
A life brimming with politics: the beginning
It was as if Audrey Rowe Colom was drawn to politics and feminism since birth. She got her start in the political field by becoming a social activist. She was a street worker, who worked with young drop-outs in New York City. While helping and talking with young individuals, Audrey went on to coordinate the D.C. Child Advocacy Office for the Children’s Defense Fund.
Aside from working with young drop-outs, Audrey Rowe Colom also cared deeply about helping women. She developed the first high school equivalency program for women incarcerated at the D.C. Women’s Detention Center.
A career with the President
Audrey Rowe Colom is said to have been a Republican. She was appointed by President Ford and then reappointed by President Carter to the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. Audrey quickly became chair of this committee and focused more so on child development.
While Audrey was a civil activist for young individuals and women in prison, she certainly made her mark in feminism. She served as the Chairperson of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She was also a member of the National Women’s Education Fund and the Women’s Campaign Fund. Lastly, Audrey helped fund the National Hook-up of Black Women and the Black Women’s Agenda.
It is important to note that Audrey worked alongside Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Flo Kennedy, and others to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Audrey showed Black women that they can be leaders in various fields.
The youngest activist
Margaret Sloan-Hunter began her activism at the age of fourteen. She joined the Congress of Radical Equality. Within this organization, Margaret worked on topics such as poverty and urban issues. She gained a voice within the Black community in Chicago.
By the age of seventeen, Margaret was prepared to become her own leader. She founded the Junior Catholic Inter-Racial Council. The group talked about racial problems and also worked on these problems. Interestingly, she went on to work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the “Opening Housing Marches” as well as conferences.
Feminism and writing
While Margaret began her early career in civil activism, she was also a feminist, a writer, and an editor. She was one of the first editors of Ms. Magazine and worked closely with Gloria Steinem.
Margaret traveled to Canada and Europe to discuss sexism and racism. She expanded the discussion throughout the United States and paved the way for other Black feminists to use their voice. She was also one of the few open and out lesbians during the 1970s feminist movement.
Margaret Sloan-Hunter worked with Flo Kennedy to discuss how racism and sexism are interlocking oppression. They quickly made their mark while speaking at college campuses all across the United States. This led Margaret and Flo to found the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO).
The NBFO was necessary and essential during the 1970s feminist movement and is still necessary presently. Margaret, Flo, and other women talked about, and educated others on the oppression Black women face in their daily lives.
Lastly, Margaret started the Women’s Foundation, the Berkeley Women’s Center and the Feminist School for Girls.
Margaret taught Black women about intersectionality, activism, feminism, and lesbian issues.
If you’re interested in reading Margaret’s work, she wrote a book of poetry titled, Black & Lavender.