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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rape, Racism, and the White Women's Movement (1976/1979)

published by Sojourner Truth Organization
2nd printing
Never before has the media been so friendly to radical feminism.
But then again, never before has radical feminism been so eager to
place itself at the forefront of the "fight against crime,"
wholeheartedly supporting the basic premises and institutions of our
society that underlie all oppression, including that of women.
Groups like Santa Cruz Women Against Rape are complex. They
make good statements about racism in their publications. They reject
prison as a solution to fighting violence against women. They recognize
that rape will end only ". . . with the development of a new system that
provides a context for . . . changes in people's lives." One wonders,
then, how and why they are fighting rape.

rrwwm.pdf1.91 MB

text grabbed from the pdf, sorry about the formatting:

Rape, Racism,
and the
White Women's Movement
Alison Edwards

These articles are a contribution to Sojourner Truth Organization's discussions
on revolutionary strategy for women. After full debate the organization will adopt
theses which will be STO's official position.
2nd Printing 1979

Every little girl is taught to refuse candy from strangers. By the
time she reaches her teens she speeds up when a strange man walks
behind her on the street. No girl reaches womanhood without an
entrenched fear of rape.
In the last few years the women's movement has been channeling
those fears into action, making women and men recognize rape as a
political crime against women, a crime that is often ignored in this
Capitalizing on all these fears and on the current anti-rape
movement, Simon & Schuster published Susan Brownmiller's book,
Christmas, 1975. The book, modestly described as a "classic" by its
author, has been almost universally acclaimed by the press: frontpage
review in the NEW YORK TIMES book review section, a
selection of most major book clubs, serialized in four major
periodicals, and the subject of countless promotional forums for the
Never before has the media been so friendly to radical feminism.
But then again, never before has radical feminism been so eager to
place itself at the forefront of the "fight against crime,"
wholeheartedly supporting the basic premises and institutions of our
society that underlie all oppression, including that of women.
AGAINST OUR WILL, behind its strident feminist rhetoric, and
precisely because of it, is a dangerous book. It is a law-and-order
book that is picking up liberal support because in the case of rape, the
victims of crime are members of an oppressed group. Like all cries
for law and order these days, it is a book with strong racist overtones.
It is a book which, unless repudiated, will serve to fan the fires of
Susan Brownmiller would, of course, disagree. In her
defense, she would point to her dazzling denunciation of Fogel and
Engerman's outrageous book, TIME ON THE CROSS. (That book
states, among other things, that Black women weren't all that
exploited by slavery, which wasn't really that bad.) And she would
point to her own analysis of slavery, where she describes how "black
women's sexual integrity was deliberately crushed in order that
slavery might profitably endure." Her portrayal of racism in the
special case where Black women are the direct victims is admirable.
This understanding, however, is negated by her steadfast refusal
to recognize that Black women in U.S. society have at least as much
in common with Black men as with white women, and that in some
respects, notably relating to the legal system, racism has been
considerably more oppressive to Black men than to Black women.
Unfortunately, the ideas advanced in AGAINST OUR WILL are
not unique to Brownmiller. She is representative of a majority tendency
in the white women's movement, a narrow view of women's
consciousness which prevents the movement from developing programs
making possible alliances with other oppressed groups. Any
movement for women's liberation which limits itself to issues affecting
only women shuts itself off from dealing with all other forms of
oppression and thereby rules out alliances with some of the strongest
women throughout the world, on issues of the most decisive
This pamphlet is divided into two parts. The first part is a critique
of AGAINST OUR WILL and the tendency it represents. The second
part calls for a new form of women's movement with a program and
theory that will enable women to build a base powerful enough to
begin to change society in such a way as will some day end the
oppression of women, including the crime of rape.
According to Susan Brownmiller, rape is the source of women's
oppression. To put it another way, the ability to rape is the source of
man's domination of woman: to overcome oppression women must
first divest men of the power to rape.
. . . we cannot work around the fact that in terms of
human anatomy the possibility of forcible intercourse
incontrovertibly exists. This single factor may have been
sufficient to have caused the creation of the male ideology
of rape. When men discovered they could rape, they
proceeded to do it. (p. 14)
From this hypothesis, Brownmiller draws her theory of civilization.
. . . one of the earliest forms of male bonding must have
been the gang rape of one woman by a band of marauding
men. (p. 14)
Man's discovery that his genitalia could serve as a
weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most
important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the
use of fire and the first crude stone axe. (p. 14)
After a thunderbolt of recognition that this particular
incarnation of hairy two-legged hominid was not the Homo
Sapiens with whom she would like freely to join parts, it
might have been she, and not some man, who picked up the
first stone and hurled it. (p. 14)
Female fear of an open season of rape . . . was probably
the most important key to her historic dependence, her
domestication by protective mating, (p. 16)
From prehistoric times to the present, I believe rape has
played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a
conscious process of intimidation by which ALL MEN keep
ALL WOMEN in a state of fear. (p. 15)
Susan Brownmiller shares with other feminists the view that men
as a group are the primary enemy of women as a group. Most
feminists have concluded that women's oppression goes back to the
overthrow of matriarchal society. Brownmiller goes back even
further to the self-consciousness of the first male "hairy hominid."
What these views have in common is a strategy for women's liberation
isolated from the fight against all other forms of oppression.
This analysis overlooks the connection between the social
condition of women and their role in the process of production.
The basic division in this society is between one class that owns
and controls the means of production and another which does the
actual work. Ruling class power rests on the competition among the
workers. This competition is maintained by various kinds of
inequalities imposed by the ruling class on different sectors of the
population, or adapted by it from earlier social systems to serve
current needs. Such is the case with the oppression of women.
Non-white people and women are kept in a state of inferiority vis
a vis white people and men. When hard times come along, non-white
people and women are the hardest hit: cutbacks in jobs, in services,
etc. As times get better, everyone's position tends to improve. But
whites and men make gains from where they already are, namely,
better off than non-whites and women.
Women's oppression takes various forms. It is directly economic.
Women get less pay than men for the same work. They are
channelled away from the more financially (and intellectually)
rewarding jobs. Because the better-paying industrial jobs are also the
important ones to the functioning of the economy, women are thereby
excluded from key areas of production. When jobs are scarce, like
now, they get laid off before men. When needed by the ruling class,
as in wartime, women are trotted out to fill jobs temporarily vacant.
Being economically dependent on men, women are the stable element
in the family — the unseen worker, without whose maintenance and
upkeep many men could not work the long hours required of them by
their employers. Many wives are the unpaid employees of their
husband's boss. The drudgery of housewifery in turn molds the social
oppression of women — the dependent sex, the soft sex, the stupid,
uninteresting sex, and the readily available sex. It is these factors that
have shaped the politics of rape.
By viewing their status as a product of social relations rather than
biology, women can devise a strategy for liberation based on
alliances with other groups fighting oppression. From Susan
Brownmiller's analysis, that women's shared oppression by men
outweighs all potential for alliances along other lines, the decisive
alliance is among women. In this framework, Happy Rockefeller has
more in common with a Black woman in an auto plant than has a
male Black autoworker.
The hostility with which the white women's movement has
frequently viewed movements which it fears might intrude on such
an alliance is shared by Susan Brownmiller. Throughout her book
she tries to divide society into the male oppressors and the female
oppressed, with astonishing disregard for the shared oppression of
Black and third world men and women. A revealing example of this
viewpoint is her discussion of the campaign of terror waged by the
Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction period.
Gerda Lerner . . . in her documentary history, BLACK
WOMEN IN WHITE AMERICA, makes the point that 'there
are no records of rape and violation of white women whose
husbands or male relatives were associated with the
Republican cause. Such practices were confined to black
women.' Since she calls attention to an omission for the
purpose of making a case for the SPECIAL political abuse
of black women . . . I feel I must try to set the record
straight, (p. 131)
Brownmiller fails to come up with any examples of rape of white
women by the Klan during Reconstruction. Instead she cites one case
in 1925 where the Grand Dragon of the Klan was actually arrested,
tried and convicted of the rape and murder of E. white woman. She
also reports that, "Klansmen often whipped white women they
accused of adultery." From this paltry evidence, seemingly in
opposition to Gerda Lerner's point of view that Southern Black
women were special victims of Klan terror, Brownmiller draws the
following conclusion:
No one would want to deny that blacks were the special
target of the Klan, and that black women suffered special
abuse because they were women, but rather than try to
separate out white women and claim they got off scot-free, a
higher political understanding is gained by recognizing that
sexual intimidation knows no racial distinctions, and that
sexual oppression of white women and black women is
commonly shared, (p. 131)
The function of the Ku Klux Klan was to terrorize the freed
slaves who were the main force in the revolutionary Reconstruction
governments. The Klan, therefore, directed its attack at Black
political candidates, and Black and white people connected with the
Freedmen's Bureau and freedmen's schools. The point is that the
Klan, like any army, acted in a systematic manner with specific
goals in mind. Rape of Black women, if not a calculated part of
its plan of action, was at least a useful byproduct. Rape of
white women would have undermined its efforts.
In other words, sexual intimidation certainly did know racial
distinctions. It was precisely these distinctions that were used by the
Klan and others to smash Reconstruction. All but a handful of
progressive whites (both men and women) eventually succumbed to
the pressure and lined up with the reactionaries against the Blacks. As
Gerda Lerner writes:
. . . the Southern black community was, in fact, reduced to
subsistence at the lowest economic level in a system of
social oppression based on white racism. (BLACK WOMEN
White women were not blameworthy for not being raped, nor did they
do any raping themselves. By silent acquiescence, however, and by
eventually lining up on the wrong side, they were a part of the force that
pushed down the Southern Black community.
It is this kind of defensiveness on behalf of white women, seen over and
over in her book, that blinds Brownmiller to political reality and leads
her not to a "higher political understanding," as she claims, but to a
position of isolation, and appalling racism and anti-communism. The most
blatant examples of these tendencies are in the chapter devoted to . . . "A
Question of Race."
There is a serious error in isolating rape statistics from the rising
rate of crime in general. All crime is on the increase in the United
States. Unemployment is the highest in thirty years. What is more
important, the unemployment rate for non-whites is double that for
whites, and the rate for non-white youth is six times that of the most
favored group, white males over twenty. Public housing funds have
been cut, medical care has deteriorated. There is an increase in the
police and prison repression of third world communities. The U.S.
economic system, itself built on world-wide violence, is in crisis. As
people sit home, frustrated, unable to find work, often without the
most elementary necessities, they lash out at each other. And there
are plenty of violent models to choose from: movies, television,
police shootings, and the activities of the government itself.
In times like these, with the ruling class trying to shift the
burden of the crisis onto the backs of the Black and other third
world people, white supremacy becomes even more lethal than usual.
Today, one out of every ten Black youths will die a violent death
before age thirty. To focus on the increase in rape, particularly Black
on white rape, in isolation from the entire pattern and its causes, can
only contribute to the repression and terror against Black people. It is
in this context that racism, including the racist use of the rape charge,
must be examined.
An entire chapter in AGAINST OUR WILL deals with . . . "a
question of race." Here Brownmiller maintains, among other things,
that the left, by its strenuous efforts over the years on behalf of Black
men falsely accused of raping white women, has actually undermined
the fight against rape. With sanctimonious fervor usually displayed by
reformed alcoholics, she devotes several pages to baring her leftist
path. Rhetorically setting forth how she enrolled in a course taught by
Communist historian Herbert Aptheker during the 1950's — "when
most people could not say the word 'Communist' without trembling"
— she bolsters her anti-left arguments with the personal touch and
authority of one who has been there and who "knows." One can
appreciate the temptation to do this, but the fact remains that it is a
cheap trick and not an argument. A serious reader will not be fooled
by it.
In this chapter and elsewhere, Brownmiller lambastes the left,
specifically the Communist Party, for buttressing male supremacy
and for opportunism in its defense work on such cases as Scottsboro
and Willie McGee. She dilutes her comments with a few drops of
liberalism to make the whole thing seem "objective," but her point is
clear: where rape is the issue, the fight against racism has been a fight
against women.
The left fought hard for its symbols of racial injustice,
making bewildered heroes out of a handful of pathetic,
semi-literate fellows caught in the jaws of Southern jurisprudence
who only wanted to beat the rap. . . . (p. 237)
For its part, the left, in its increasing paranoia (during
the McCarthy period) and raging impotence, vilified
and excoriated the hapless white woman whose original
charge had wreaked such total destruction upon the
hapless black. The standard defense strategy for puncturing
holes in a rape case was (and is) an attempt to destroy
the credibility of the complaining witness by smearing
her as mentally unbalanced, or as sexually frustrated, or
as an oversexed, promiscuous whore. In its mass protest
campaigns to save the lives of convicted black rapists, the left
employed all these tactics, and more, against white women
with a virulence that bordered on hate. (p. 232-8)
Interracial rape remains a huge political embarassment to
liberals. (p. 254)
Brownmiller points to the statistical rise in interracial (Black on
white) rape and in part blames the "radicals" and the "white
intellectual establishment" for making "heroes" of the convicted
rapists. In an attempt to prove her thesis, Brownmiller deals in detail
with three cases of Southern jurisprudence.
. . . Scottsboro remains an ugly blot on American history
and Southern jurisprudence, and damning proof to liberals
everywhere that Eve Incarnate and the concept of Original
Sin was a no-good promiscuous woman who rode a freight
train through Alabama, (p. 230)
Briefly, "Scottsboro" is the tale of nine Black youths and a
handful of whites, all male, who hopped a freight from Chattanooga
into Alabama in the Depression year of 1931. During the ride, the
whites tried to mess with the Blacks and a fight broke out. The
whites, after losing, complained to a depot man at one of the stops.
When he came on to investigate, he rounded up the youths, Black and
white, along with two white women in overalls riding the rails. By
the time they all got to Scottsboro, the nearest town, a raging mob
had gathered, and the nine Blacks were accused of raping the two
white women.
The Scottsboro case went through the courts for seventeen years.
Haywood Patterson, who escaped from jail in 1948 after he had been
tried and convicted four times, wrote a book about his ordeal,
SCOTTSBORO BOY. It should be required reading for everyone
who has read AGAINST OUR WILL.
Susan Brownmiller's analysis of the Scottsboro case is so outrageous
it shocks the conscience. It is utterly and irredeemably
obscene. She agrees that the nine youths were innocent. Nonetheless,
in her efforts to portray the "rape victims," Victoria Price and Ruby
Bates, as equally oppressed and innocent, she goes to extravagant
First, she states without documentation that they tried to "duck
away and vanish" in the confusion "when the black,and white youths
were taken off the train." Perhaps this is true. She also says that the
women were merely trying to "save their own skins" from vagrancy
charges. This, for sure, is true. Again in their defense, she claims that
"the singular opportunity afforded Price and Bates should be
appreciated by every woman."
Right-thinking women might agree. Price and Bates had an
opportunity to answer a question, "no," and save nine innocent men
from seventeen years in prison. But that's not the opportunity
Brownmiller is talking about.
From languishing in jail cells as the lowest of the low,
vagrant women who stole rides on freight cars, it was a
short step to the witness stand where dignity of a sort could
be reclaimed by charging that they had been pathetic,
innocent victims of rape. (p. 231)
This opportunity, wholly understandable to Brownmiller, she
claims is nothing more than the motive from which some of the
Scottsboro boys themselves were working.
Operating from precisely the same motivation — to save
their own skins — some of the black defendants tried to
exculpate themselves in court by swearing they had seen
others do the raping, (p. 231-2)
This is a remarkable comparison. The Scottsboro boys were
literally fighting for their own skins — and their necks: death by mob
lynching or judicial lynching. The two young women were not
fighting at all. The courtroom, while predominantly male (a fact
dwelt upon by Brownmiller), was exclusively white. Here is how
Haywood Patterson described the reading of the guilty verdicts:
The people in the court cheered and clapped after the
judge gave out with the date of the execution. I didn't like it,
people feeling good because I was going to die.
I looked around. That courtroom was one big smiling
white face. (p. 25)
The women, personally benefiting from the privilege of being
white in Southern society, had seized upon an opportunity to be
courtroom pets at the expense of nine lives. For them, the courtroom
was anything but a hostile place. While they were poor and they were
women, in that particular courtroom setting they were lionized. True,
they were tragic women, but the comparison of them with their
victims is disgusting.
Brownmiller draws comfort from the fact that the all-white jury
that convicted the nine youths was all-male.
. . . no one, no political grouping, no appellate lawyer, no
Scottsboro pamphlet ever raised the question of the
exclusion of women from the jury rolls of Alabama, although
many a pamphlet charged that Victoria Price was a
prostitute, (p. 232)
Women on juries is certainly an important demand. Twenty-five
years later people in large numbers were talking about demands like
that, to a considerable extent impelled by the example set by Blacks.
But raising this to explain why nine Black youths were convicted
based on false accusations of two white women misses the entire
point of Scottsboro and similar cases. The Scottsboro boys didn't
need a jury to convict them. They were convicted by white opinion
before they got to court. And they were convicted of being Black in a
society based on white supremacy.
Haywood Patterson describes the mob that gathered outside the
Scottsboro jail the first evening after they were arrested:
Round about dusk hundreds of people gathered about the
jailhouse. . . . We heard them yelling like crazy about how
they were coming in after us and what ought to be done with
MS. ... (SCOTTSBORO BOY, p. 17)
As evening came on the crowd got to be about five
hundred, most of them with guns. Mothers had kids in their
arms. Autos, bicycles, and wagons were parked around the
place. People in and about them. (SCOTTSBORO BOY, p.
A lynching was a carnival. Women were as much a part of
the public opinion bent on protecting their Southern womanhood
as men were. It would not have done the Scottsboro boys any good
to have been officially convicted by twelve women. Only a wholly
Black jury — men or women — could have fairly judged the
Scottsboro Boys.
The essence of Brownmiller's outrage at the left seems to be that
Victoria Price was portrayed in their defense campaigns as what
Brownmiller calls "a woman of murky virtue." When a woman has, in
fact, been raped, and she is accused of asking for it by virtue of her
reputation, this indeed is inexcusable. This has been the pattern when
Black women are rape victims, and such character assassination
certainly has been used to discredit the testimony of white rape
victims as well. In this area, the women's movement has made
commendable advances in several states, reforming evidence codes to
make a woman's past sexual history irrelevant. The Scottsboro case,
however, is an entirely different matter. Victoria Price had not been
raped at all. (Her companion, Ruby Bates, in 1933 repudiated her
testimony and admitted there had been no rape.) The fact remains that
the Scottsboro Boys were convicted four times on Victoria Price's
perjured testimony — testimony that was corroborated by semen
found in her vagina. The fact also remains that she had had
intercourse in a Chattanooga hobo jungle the night before, and in
Huntsville, Alabama, the night before that. These facts were not
gratuitous slander, but a crucial part of the evidence that the semen
was not put there by an accused Black rapist, let alone by nine of
them. These facts, of course, Victoria Price elected to lie about and
send nine men to death sentences, to "save her skin from a vagrancy
To prove the righteousness of her outrage at the treatment given
the complaining witness, Brownmiller quotes from the judicial
opinion which overturned Patterson's second conviction. Judge
Horton had ruled in a long, painstaking opinion that the jury's guilty
verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence.
'History, sacred and profane', he wrote, 'and the common
experience of mankind teaches that women of the character
shown in this case are prone for selfish reasons to make false
accusations both of rape and of insult upon the slightest
provocation, or even without provocation for ulterior
purposes. . . . The tendency on the part of the women shows
they are predisposed to make false accusations upon any
occasion whereby their selfish ends may be gained.' (p. 234)
Susan Brownmiller spent four years meticulously researching
this book. How odd that she should overlook the judge's middle
sentence (. . .), which reads as follows:
These women are shown, by the great weight of the
evidence, on this very day before leaving Chattanooga, to
have falsely accused two negroes of insulting them, and of
almost precipitating a fight between one of the white boys
they were in company with and these two negroes.
Why does Brownmiller work herself up into such a frenzy to protect
this woman's reputation?
According to Brownmiller, the left took on defense of Black men
framed on rape charges with selfish opportunism. The men, after all,
were only "pathetic, semi-literate fellows" and were therefore sitting
ducks for exploitation by an American Communist movement that
needed a rallying point to bring it out of the death throes of
In 1951 the last Scottsboro 'Boy', then a man of thirty-eight
had finally won his freedom, his name superseded in the
pantheon of obscure Southern black men suddenly elevated
to the position of international martyr by a succession of new
cases. ... (p. 235)
The early fifties were a bad time for the American left. ...
To Communists and those within their orbit who believed in
the political strategy of mass action built around an
emotional symbol, the Southern interracial rape case came
to epitomize everything that was rotten or unjust about the
American way of life. (p. 235)
As a natural outgrowth of its politik, the Communist Party
deliberately propagandized a series of interracial rape
cases as symbolic of the perfidy of the American system, (p.
Going still further, Brownmiller states, again with little documentation,
that not only white women, but also those Black men aided by
the left in the 1950's were actually hurt by those efforts.
. . . because of the national hysteria of the McCarthyite
years, any case the Communists took on and publicized
became for all practical purposes a Communist cause from
which others ran as if from the plague. . . . Many a case was
decided in the timid court of public opinion on the basis of
whether or not a modest compromise — a commutation of
the death sentence — would give aid and succor to the
Communist cause, (p. 237)
This is the old outside agitator theory. "If only the reformers
would shut up and go home, we could get on with the business of
reform." Here, however, the accusations are more serious. Although
the South was lynching Blacks long before the Communist Party of
the United States came to their defense, Brownmiller is actually
accusing the commies of sending Black men to the death chair by
their interference in Southern affairs.
Her prime example of Communist opportunism and symbolic
work derived from a position of "impotence" and "paranoia" is the
defense campaign on behalf of Willie McGee. McGee, a Black man,
was sentenced to die for rape of a white woman in Laurel,
Mississippi. His accuser was a woman whom people in Laurel, Black
and white, all knew had been having an affair with McGee for a long
time. The woman, Wilametta Hawkins, claimed she was raped by a
Black man she could not identify. Whether she was actually raped by
someone other than McGee, and McGee was merely arrested as a
likely victim, or whether she was not raped at all, but blew the
whistle when she figured out the whole town was talking, it was
obvious to the people of Laurel that Willie McGee was innocent.
Brownmiller herself, after casting doubt on McGee's innocence for
several pages, grudgingly acknowledges his innocence, based on the
account by Carl Rowan. Rowan, at the time a northern news reporter,
having interviewed many Laurel townsfolk who knew about the
affair between McGee and Hawkins, chose not to come forward with
the information, for fear of playing ball with the commies. Later,
after McGee had been executed, Rowan apparently got his courage
back. He then wrote his story, with what Brownmiller calls "great
sensitivity to its lasting ambiguities."
Brownmiller sees the McGee case as another example of vilification
of a white woman and an isolated gasp of the Communist
Party for recognition at her expense. The truth is something
different and something everyone should know. For all the dismal
errors the Communist Party of the United States has made, in its
defense of Black men framed on rape charges, it has had a distinguished
Laurel, Mississippi, was a one-industry town dominated by the
Masonite Corporation. Masonite employees had been organized into a
militant CIO union, where Black and white workers had the makings
of a unified workforce. During the middle 1940's, the CIO was
engaged in an organizing drive through the South. McGee was
arrested November 3, 1945, during the wave of strikes that swept the
country after World War II. His frame-up was instrumental in
disrupting the growing unity between white and Black workers. This
case was not an isolated incident. At the same time, in the same
county, there was a celebrated "miscegenation" trial.
It was a losing battle for McGee. The governor of Mississippi
publicly declared that if the State did not kill McGee, he'd do it
himself. A coalition of women from all over the country was put in
jail "in protective custody" when they went to appeal to the governor
shortly before McGee's execution.
In this context, the leftist explanation of the rape charge as one
method by which the state assists private enterprise for power and
profit is not the ferocious, ridiculous rhetoric Brownmiller claims. It
is an accurate description of a mechanism used, with others, to
further divide an already divided working class — a useful tool to pit
white against Black workers to prevent successful strikes and moves
for higher wages and better working conditions. In Laurel the ploy
succeeded. Fifteen hundred whites on the courthouse lawn cheered
McGee's execution the night he was finally electrocuted. There were
women in that crowd.
Brownmiller ignorantly counterposes what she calls the "authentic,
black-originated southern civil rights movement" of the
1960's with the situation in Laurel in 1945.
. . . the new movement started not with symbolic cases, but
with pragmatic efforts at lunch counter desegregation and
voter registration, (p. 235)
She apparently knows as little about the rape charge and the civil
rights movement of the 1960's as she knows about the rape charge
of 1945. In 1961, at the height of the "authentic" lunch counter sitin
movement, Thomas Wansley, age sixteen, was arrested in
Lynchburg, Virginia, and convicted of rape. The hysteria that
pervaded the community not only convicted Wansley, it crippled
the civil rights movement. A protest movement got his death sentence
reversed and reduced to life, but in 1976 he is still in prison.
A white man found guilty of raping an eleven-year-old girl in
Lynchburg at that time got five years. In late 1959, during the
"authentic" voter registration drive, Mack Charles Parker, charged
with rape, was turned over to a Mississippi mob by jail guards and
lynched by seven men. The list goes on and on.
It is her account of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, however,
that reveals the extravagant lengths to which Brownmiller's onesidedness
leads her. She is aghast that Till, age fourteen, was tortured,
mutilated, shot with a .45 and dumped in the Tallahatchie
River. "Nothing in recent times can match it for sheer outrageousness,
for indefensible overkill with community support." Even with
all her disclaimers, the use of the term "overkill" to describe the
lynching of a child is a shock. What could this boy's crime possibly
have been — a crime so dreadful that lynching is merely an
overreaction to it? One figures this kid must have raped and tortured
a whole nursery school full of little girls.
He didn't. Fourteen-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till was vacationing
in Mississippi for the summer with his uncle. Egged on by a
few buddies, he whistled at a white, married woman named Carolyn
Bryant. Wearing what must be the largest pair of horse-blinders
anyone has ever seen, Brownmiller goes on to analyze the shared
guilt of the killers (the woman's husband and his half-brother) and
Rarely has one single case exposed so clearly as Till's the
underlying group-male antagonisms over access to women;
for what began in Bryant's store [where Till whistled] should
not be misconstrued as an innocent flirtation. … Emmett Till
was going to show his black buddies that he, and by
inference, they, could get a white woman. ...The accessibility
of all white women was on review, (p. 247)
We are rightly aghast that a whistle could be cause for
murder, but we must also accept that Emmett Till and J. W.
Milam shared something in common. They both understood
that the whistle was no small tweet. . . it was a deliberate
insult, just short of physical assault, a last reminder to
Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to
possess her. (p. 247)
This remarkable analysis unbelievably puts Till and his murderers
in one class — oppressor — and Mrs. Bryant (who had chased Till
with a gun for his melodious violation of her womanhood) in another
— oppressed. Brownmiller entirely misses the point that Mr. and
Mrs. Bryant, though not equals by any means, share a position in this
society wholly separate and unequal from Emmett Till. Black people,
including Black men, did not contribute to Carolyn Bryant's
oppression. She, on the other hand, not only chased Till with a pistol,
she sat in the courtroom as a reminder to the jury of their duty to
protect white womanhood, and stood approvingly by her husband's
side as he admitted the murder and bragged of the motive. They did
their duty and acquitted the killers.
Perhaps Brownmiller's analysis of the Till murder would not have
been so outrageous had it not been for the intervention of a curious
figure. In the aftermath of the Till holocaust, Eldridge Cleaver
became a rapist. He analyzes this conscious decision in Soul on Ice —
how he had a minor breakdown, when, upon seeing a picture of
Carolyn Bryant, he got turned on. His next step was to learn how to
defile white man's property. After practicing on Black women, he
learned the trade and reached journeyman's status: a certified rapist of
white women.
The point is not to defend Eldridge Cleaver. For all his selfanalysis
and introspection, he still finds it more comfortable to
manufacture exhibitionistic men's trousers called, of course,
"Cleavers," than to maintain the fight against racism or sexism. But
Cleaver did have some useful insights into rape that went beyond his
individual psyche: victims of white supremacy are apt to vent their
anger on women, who symbolize white man's property. In other
words, white supremacy is a contributing cause of male supremacy,
at least insofar as it affects relations between Black men and white
women. An interesting analysis could be made along these lines. At
the very least, Cleaver and others shocked the nation into looking at
racism more seriously, by connecting it to what is nearest and dearest
to white men: their female property. Brownmiller, however, misses
all this. To her, Cleaver is nothing but a rape peddler.
The spectacle of white radicals and intellectuals falling all
over each other in their rush to accept the Cleaver rationale
for rape was a sorry sight . . . when the Neanderthal slogan
'All black prisoners are political prisoners' was a rallying cry
of the New Left. (p. 252)
By equating Cleaver's thoughts about himself and his criminal past
with the Black movement's understanding of white supremacy as the
institution that fills up the jails with Black people, Brown-miller is
able to draw her racist, reactionary, and terribly dangerous conclusion
about the oppression of women.
History is never behind us, and we must not forget how the
white man has used the rape of 'his' women as an excuse to
act against black men. But today the incidence of actual
rape combined with the looming spectre of the rapist in the
mind's eye, and in particular the mythified spectre of the
black man as rapist to which the black man in the name of
his manhood now contributes, must be understood as a
control mechanism against the freedom, mobility, and
aspirations of all women, white and black. The crossroads
of racism and sexism had to be a violent meeting place.
There is no use pretending it doesn't exist, (p. 255)
Now her position is unmistakable. It is rape and the threat of rape, by
Black men in particular, which is responsible for the subjugation of
women. And she has the nerve to accuse the left of driving a "wedge
between two movements for human rights."
Yes, the "crossroads of racism and sexism had to be a violent
meeting place. There is no use pretending it doesn't exist." But others
might see that crossroads not as Brownmiller does, in rape of white
women by Black men, but in the fact that Black women have four
times as high a likelihood as white women of dying in childbirth, or
that thirty-three percent of Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age
have been sterilized. This absolute blindness to that relationship and
the failure to grasp what the real source of women's oppression is,
leads Brownmiller to her inevitable law-and-order conclusions on
how to stop rape.
Before examining Brownmiller's law-and-order solutions, the
historic record of United States rape laws should be examined.
Death was first made a penalty for the crime of rape as part of the
Southern slave codes before the Civil War. The Mississippi slave
code had a mandatory death penalty for a slave found guilty of
raping a white woman. Rape of a slave woman by a slave carried
no penalty. And rape of a slave woman by a white man was his
property right.
After the overthrow of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws were
passed, prohibiting Black and white associations of any kind. (Virginia's
miscegenation laws, giving a bounty to anyone who reported a Blackwhite
marriage, were not repealed until 1968.) Slave codes were reenacted
as civil codes, making rape punishable by death. Also during
this time, thousands of Blacks, mostly men, were lynched, often under
the pretext of avenging rape or protecting women from rape. The
Socialist Women's Caucus of Louisville summed it up like this:
The most effective tool for this division was the cry of rape.
An atmosphere was created in which every Black man was
pictured to the white community — poor and rich — as a
savage potential rapist, who must be kept under control.
Rich men raised the cry —and poor white men echoed it,
obsessed with the idea that they must protect their women,
their property from savage beasts. Rich white women were
put on pedestals and treated as dolls. Poor white women
lived in poverty and drudgery — in return for the 'privilege'
of being the symbol of pure white womanhood, the precious
piece of property, 'protected' by white men. (RAPE AND
In this context, although the rape laws did not specify "for Blacks
only," that is what they meant. Out of 455 executions for rape in the
last forty years, 405 have been of Black men. And there have been
countless prosecutions of Black men for "insulting glances" at white
women or such crimes as "assault with intent to ravish." No white
man has ever been executed for raping a Black woman.
With this kind of history, the use to which rape laws have been
put is clear. These laws do not protect women. Nor were they intended
to. When a woman successfully defends herself against rape,
the law calls her a murderer. It took a national effort of women and
Black people to free JoAnne Little. In the 1940's it took a ten-year
national effort to free Rosa Lee Ingram and her two sons, who shot a
white man who had attacked her.
Rape, like other crime, is on the increase. Obviously, the
criminal laws do not stop crime. And the rape laws are still being
used to keep Black people in a state of oppression. Random
prosecutions of Black men for raping white women, and false
accusations still happen.
1. In Tarboro, North Carolina, a white woman hitchhiker flagged
down a car with three Black men. They let her out in a public area
where some curious white folks were watching. Several days later she
claimed they had raped her. A protest movement overturned their
convictions and death sentences.
2. In Louisville, Kentucky, a white woman said she was raped in
a laundromat and described her attacker. The police picked up a man
who did not match the description and witnesses say he was not the
man they saw leaving the laundromat. Willie Burnett was convicted
anyway and sentenced to life.
3. Also in Louisville, Kentucky, a fifteen-year-old girl said she
was raped by a Black man and gave a description. The police started
their hunt for the criminal, but the girl came clean: she had had
intercourse with a friend and was afraid she might be pregnant.
4. In Florida, Delbert Tibbs, a Black poet and theologian from
Chicago, was convicted of raping a white woman and murdering her
male companion. The woman originally described her assailant as a
very dark-skinned Black man with a pock-marked face. She also said
he had "wooly hair like they all have," and that he drove a green
truck. No truck was ever found, and Tibbs has light skin arid a clear
complexion. At trial, faced with the discrepancy, the woman said he
must have changed color. It had been suggested that the woman's
former boyfriend might have committed the crime. The police did not
even investigate that possibility. (RAPE AND THE RACIST USE OF
It is in this light that the law-and-order solutions of the sort posed
by Brownmiller must be viewed.
Brownmiller, first of all, does not examine the general increase in
crime. Nor does she care what causes crime: rape or otherwise.
Finally, she is not in the least concerned with the functioning of the
legal system or with whether prison actually does anything to stop
Whether or not a term in jail is truly 'rehabilitative' matters
less . . . than whether or not a guilty offender is given the
penalty his crime deserves. It is important to be concerned
with the treatment offenders receive in prison, but a greater
priority ... is to ensure offenders actually go to prison, (p.
Given the realities of prison, and its utter failure as a deterrent as well
as a rehabilitative measure, one can ask whether Brownmiller is
really interested in ending rape. It is obvious that she is interested in
selling books. Her approach ignores the reality of U.S. prisons, which
are breeding grounds for crime, particularly for rape, as homosexual
rape seems to be universal in men's prisons. A prisoner who comes
out of jail is angrier, more economically deprived, and less able to
deal with the world than when he went in. Her approach also fails to
deal with the realities of the criminal justice system. The legal system
in this country is an automatic railroad for Black defendants. A
solution to rape that calls for more prosecution is a solution that is
designed to put more Black men in jail, whether or not they have
committed any crimes.
Brownmiller's solutions are consistent with this approach: fifty
percent women on the police forces, vigorous prosecutions, reduce
the penalty for rape so juries won't be so reluctant to convict, outlaw
pornography and clean up prostitution, and karate lessons for women.
I am convinced that the battle to achieve parity with men in
the critical area of law enforcement will be the ultimate
testing ground on which full equality for women will be won
or lost. (p. 388)
A fine solution. Brownmiller calls it a "revolutionary goal of utmost
importance to women's rights." It is The Fifty Percent Solution.
Brownmiller suggests an equal demand in the army and national
guard, state troopers, sheriffs, and among the ranks of prosecuting
attorneys. Why stop there? How about a movement for women's
revolutionary right to drop 50% of U.S.-made napalm from 50% of
all U.S. b6mbers, or to spy on 50% of citizens the president
characterizes as his enemies (women might be especially good spying
on other women), or maybe to plot 50% of the assassinations of
leaders of third world countries engaged in struggles for national
liberation? Susan Brownmiller probably just didn't think of those
A just society would not have prostitution and would not
have pornography. There is no question that pornography is group
libel of women. Brownmiller is correct to compare it to the ridicule
of Frito Bandido or Little Black Sambo in its maintenance of the
ideology of oppression. However, a reform movement of the type she
proposes would not stop pornography. If successful, it would merely
give pornography a protective tariff, making it more expensive to run
porno houses underground and to pay off the cops (men and women)
not to prosecute and the judges not to convict. Furthermore, it would
give extra money to those hustlers enterprising enough to run the
risks. In other words, it would be very much like dope peddling —
and prostitution.
Prostitution is already illegal. Yet it flourishes. Prostitution is a
profitable enterprise, built on the decadence of a society that sees
access to women's bodies as a man's financial right. China and other
socialist countries have drastically reduced the incidence of both
prostitution and rape, but capitalist countries everywhere seem unable
to cope with the problem. In the United States, the fact that
prostitution is a crime is irrelevant. It is enforced only insofar as the
prostitutes or their pimps fail to pay off the cops, in dollars or in
services, so the cops will look the other way.
There is no evidence that female police will be less corrupt than
males. The entire law enforcement systems at least of large cities are
based on corruption. The F.B.I, spreads deathly rumors about one
group of Black youths to another, to prevent unity among Black
people and keep them at each other's throats. The city police bring
heroin into Black and Latin communities for the same reason, giving
one faction the exclusive franchise to deal. A good lawyer is one who
knows who to pay off and how much: witnesses, police, prosecutors,
courtroom personnel, judges — all the positions Brownmiller wants
to fill up with women. Women certainly have the right to 50% of
capitalism's graft. But that is not a revolutionary demand.
A genuine movement against pornography would rely on mass
action, not legalistic maneuvers. It would mobilize large numbers of
women to stop, by direct action, the printing, showing, shipping, and
circulation of books, films, and other items which contribute to the
degradation and subjugation of women. (One example has recently
been reported from Britain, where in one town, the opponents of a
dirty movie house greet its patrons with cries of "shame," snap their
pictures, and publicize them. Reports are that business has fallen off
Brownmiller's solutions are the only ones a narrow feminist
can propose. They pose absolutely no challenge to the structure
of our society. In fact, they bolster its framework: make more
laws, put more criminals (Black people) in jail, beef up police
forces and make them half women, give guns to women to shoot
men, make our streets safe for women, and build more jails, even if
they don't do a thing to stop crime. This is why the press loves Susan
Brownmiller's book. And this is why any liberation movement,
including the movement for women's liberation, should hate it. Lawand-
order solutions won't liberate women. Law-and-order solutions
will just create a police state in which nobody will be free.
Most white women who join the women's movement start with at
least some of the premises set forth by Susan Brownmiller. While they
may not go so far as to call rape the origin of women's oppression, they
consider male domination to be the perpetuating force of women's
inequality. From here, the white women's movement concludes that all
women share a common oppression which forms a tie that binds women
more powerfully than any other.
By deliberately picking programs designed (at least theoretically)
to draw in women of all races and classes, the movement seeks to
unite women based upon this shared oppression. Thus, women's
centers all over the country have consciousness-raising sessions and
legal clinics that concentrate on divorce. They have rape crisis
centers, pregnancy testing services, abortion referral services, and
legalistically oriented employment discrimination task forces that
inevitably get bogged down in a few cases as they crawl upward
through the courts for years.
Every one of these problems does, in fact, exist for all women. But
the programs built around them fail to draw in large numbers of
women from any group except the white middle class. Other women
may revolve through the organizations for services or check out the
groups for a time, but they do not join the movement.
Many committed members of the women's movement, as well as
many of its sympathetic critics, have long voiced concern that,
"Women's Liberation is all white." These are women who do not want
the women's movement to retain its narrow focus and constituency, yet
the trend of bourgeois whiteness continues. Why is this happening?
One answer to this question is that the problems most immediate
to non-white women are not those that have been taken up
by the women's movement. While some women from all races
and classes get raped, need divorces, or do the same job as some
man for less money, these are not the salient problems for Black and
third world women. Let us take an example of a married, pregnant,
Black woman who already has two sons and two daughters.
(A) She has a four times greater chance of dying in childbirth
than a pregnant white woman (before World War II she had only a
two times greater chance, and in 1949 a three times greater chance);
(B) The chance that her baby will die at birth is twice that of a
white woman's baby;
(C) Each of her sons has a 10% chance of dying a violent death
before he is thirty years old. If the baby she is carrying turns out to be
a boy, there is a 33 1/3 % chance that one of her sons will die this way
before age thirty;
(D) She is more likely than a white woman to come out of the
hospital having been sterilized;
(E) Her nine-year-old daughter has been suspended from a 98%
Black public school for kicking a teacher who was pulling her hair;
(F) The economic crisis has resulted in her husband losing the job
he had held for eight years. Although the layoffs at his company have
left an all-white workforce, the union says they can't do anything for
him. Under the union seniority agreement, the last person hired is the
first person fired, and before the 1964 Civil Rights Act there were no
Black people hired;
(G) Her chances of getting a job are slim. Black women now have
the highest unemployment rate in the U.S., above Black men, whose
unemployment rate is far above white women. (White men over age
twenty are the most favored group.)
What does the women's movement have to offer this woman?
Historically, the most menial, unskilled, lowest-paying jobs
in this society have been reserved for Black women. For this reason,
they have often been able to find jobs when Black men could not (a
trend that now seems to be changing, perhaps as domestic and
unskilled production work has been further automated). Thus, Black
women have always accepted the need to work to survive?.
More fortunate Black women whose families could come up with
a little money tended to become teachers and nurses. Because of the
lack of comparable jobs for Black men, families would often send
their daughters rather than their sons to school. This is not to suggest
that there are not many Black men with steady jobs. Nor is it to
suggest that Black women have any power in the United States —
any more than Black men. But as between Black men and women, as
a group, there is a greater sense of equality and a greater sense of
independence on the part of Black women than there is in the
relationships between white men and women.
For these reasons, getting out of the kitchen and into a job is not a
liberating goal for Black women as a group. Nor is there much to
relate to in the various concepts of women's consciousness raised by
the women's liberation movement: rape as the source of women's
oppression, "femininity" as a control mechanism to keep women
weak and in constant competition with each other, sexist jokes as a
mechanism to keep women down by humiliation and ridicule, sexual
equality, shared housework, etc. To Black women over the years, the
fight has been for survival of their families and survival of Black
people generally. And Black women have almost unanimously agreed
that their liberation as women depends on improvement of life in
their communities and cannot be won apart from the liberation of
Black men. A movement that does not take this into account will not
win Black women. And a women's movement without Black women
will not free itself of bourgeois domination and become a
revolutionary movement. In fact, a white women's movement that
does not align itself with Black women's struggle for liberation
cannot be considered a women's movement at all.
It is time for white women to develop an alternative strategy to
the white Women's Liberation Movement. It is time to pose programs
that will build a mighty, unified movement — a force that can deal a
decisive blow to the network of capitalism, racism and sexism that
devours women. Such a movement must take up as its own and as its
priority the fight against white supremacy.
It is important to be clear what this means to women. It does
not mean that Black people as a group are more oppressed
than women. There is no "oppressometer" by which one group's
oppression can be measured against another's. In fact, if such a
gadget existed, it would probably register oppression of the elderly
highest, followed by children. Who is more oppressed is at best a
moral question and has little strategic significance to a movement for
proletarian liberation. Similarly, directing the main blow against
white supremacy does not mean that white supremacy is a more
important force dividing the working class than male supremacy. An
argument can be made, in fact, that it is male supremacy that has been
a greater prop to capitalism. After all, it is the family structure that
provides a husband who labors for an employer, and a wife,
economically dependent on her husband, who also works (free) for
his employer by providing for and maintaining the man and all the
future little workers. Finally, the struggle against male supremacy is
not less revolutionary than the struggle against white supremacy.
The importance of taking up the fight against white supremacy is
capitalism is more vulnerable to attack in the area of white supremacy
than of male supremacy for three reasons:
(A) Black women and men in this country are geographically and
socially segregated in ways that facilitate development of forms of
organization and culture that lead to a strong movement against their
oppression. The Southern "Black belt" and key Northern cities like
Detroit and Gary are such Black enclaves. (Eighty-one percent of the
U.S. Black population lives in urban areas, fifty-eight of those in the
inner city. By contrast, only thirty percent of the white population
lives in the inner city.) This pattern has had military significance in
the form of slave uprisings and will again have decisive importance as
Black people are able to take and run strategic areas as their own.
Women, on the other hand, live in such a way that they are hardly
ever apart from members of the oppressor group, men, who generally
partake of the most intimate relations of trust.
(B) Black people as a group are more highly proletarianized than
women as a group. This means that they are concentrated socially in
the most crucial areas of bourgeois production, areas from which
women are to a considerable extent excluded: mining, steel,
transportation, power, etc.
(C) The fight against white supremacy in the United States
is directly linked to the world-wide struggles for national liberation,
which are at present dealing the sharpest blows at the capitalist
system: China, Cuba, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, etc.
The white women's movement has from time to time rallied
around isolated struggles of Black women. This work is important and
has been commendable. The nationwide women's campaign to free
JoAnne Little is an example of the unity which can be built among
women if the cause is right. To successfully build a multinational
mass organization of women, however, the women's movement
cannot limit itself purely to issues of women's consciousness. It must
fight for all issues of concern to women, including areas where the
fight itself is on behalf of men. This is precisely what the white
women's movement has refused to do.
In 1975 several strongly feminist groups that had fought hard to
free JoAnne Little backed off when the time came to fight for Delbert
Tibbs. They felt as women they could not support a man accused of
rape. This is indicative of the parochial view of liberation which has
kept the Women's Liberation Movement from building a mass base.
A movement to defend a Black man unjustly accused of raping a
white woman is not a movement that justifies or condones rape. It is a
movement that fights injustice at precisely that strategic point
designed to deal the most decisive blow to the U.S. ruling class: white
supremacy. And it is a struggle in which white women have a
particularly significant contribution: the role of refusing to sit quietly
while a man is picked at random and accused of a crime because he is
Black, and the rape victim is white, so some Black flesh must be
sacrificed. A women's movement that will not take up such a fight
because "women's issues come first" has lost sight of the fact that
Black women are part of the women's movement. Our movement
must take up the struggles of all issues which affect women, whether
or not they affect only women: education, health care, repression, etc.
And each of these issues should be viewed creatively, analyzing both
how each affects women, and how each can best be utilized to direct
an attack against white supremacy.
During the height of the anti-busing movement in Boston, Dr.
Kenneth Edelin, a Black physician, was convicted of manslaughter
for performing an abortion on a Black woman at Boston City
Hospital. Dr. Edelin's indictment was the first major attack on
women's right to abortion since the favorable 1973 Supreme Court
decision. The location and timing of this "test case" was
no coincidence, a fact which the anti-busing leaders knew. These
facts are impressively analyzed in a pamphlet called IT'S NOT
THE BUS, published by the Proletarian Unity League of Boston.
The anti-busing movement supported the indictment of Dr.
Edelin and exploited the trial for "right to life" publicity among their
white constituency in Boston. Thus, while the anti-busing movement
was attacking the rights of Blacks to equality in education by stoning
buses filled with Black children, its leaders were at the same time
attacking the rights of women by "protecting" unborn "children." The
attack on women, not surprisingly, came in the form of an attack on a
Black doctor who had performed an abortion on a Black woman.
As part of their "right to life" campaign in the white communities,
leaders of the anti-busing movement attacked Dr. Edelin with grizzly
stories about experimentation on fetuses. The pattern is not a new
one. The connection between the anti-busing movement and the
Edelin trial reminds us of the connection between the CIO organizing
drive in Laurel, Mississippi, and the rape frame-up of Willie McGee. It
reminds us of the connection between the sit-in movement in
Lynchburg, Virginia, and the rape frameup of Thomas Wansley. The
setting is different, but the theme is the same: a Black struggle
against white supremacy that is picking up some white support,
interrupted by a lurid trial of a Black man, all in the name of
protection of women and children — and now of unborn fetuses.
The anti-busing movement justified their stand on busing in the
name of quality education. They did not want funds diverted from
education to busing. Their stand on abortion they justified in the
name of quality health care. But of course they did not oppose the
already-huge budget cuts from Black Boston City Hospital. This
unusually clear connection between white and male supremacy was
not exposed or exploited by the women's movement in Boston. That
racist attacks by the right were a central focus of both situations is a
fact that should have been recognized by the women's movement, and
perhaps it would have been recognized had the movement already had
the kind of programs that could have drawn in Black women in
A word should be said about community groups, which invariably
are made up mainly of women. ROAR and other racist groups
in Boston and elsewhere are no different. The reactionary leaders
in the U.S. know what the decisive issues are and enlist
willing women as their troops. The forces of liberation must do
the same. In such struggles, progressive white women absolutely
must be in there, with Black women and men, joining their fight
for equality. What is more, as part of the struggle, white women have
a special responsibility to try to win over white women on the other
side. This is hard, but it is not impossible. The right-to-life marches
drew only small numbers of women in Boston, in spite of leadership
from the respected leaders of the anti-busing movement. This is an
important fact and a possible key to the vulnerability of the
reactionary movement. In this struggle, for example, the women's
movement should have tried to win white women to the following
(A) The attack on Dr. Edelin was an attack on all women;
(B) Dr. Edelin was singled out, of all the doctors performing
abortions, because he was Black;
(C) The anti-busing movement's leaders who oppose busing don't
give a damn about the rights of women. In fact, they are solidly
against them;
(D) Just as the racists are opposing women's rights under the cover
of quality health care and "protection," they are opposing Black
children's rights under the cover of quality education and "community
By recognizing these connections and others, and by a lot of hard
work, at least some white women can be won away from their
acquiescence in, and even their active support for white supremacy.
The women's movement has a strong history of this sort in the
struggles of Black people, following their leadership in the abolition
movement and in the movement against lynching. It is these
programs that today's movement for women's liberation should
A proletarian revolution is an absolute necessity for the
liberation of women. Conversely, an autonomous women's movement
is an absolute necessity as part of a strategy for proletarian
revolution. Without an independent women's movement, there
is no guarantee that the male supremacy now rampant in
bourgeois society or, for that matter, within the proletarian movement
or in any party, will be challenged. Thus, without a women's
movement there is no assurance that even under socialism the
ideological superstructure of male dominance and male superiority
will be undercut. Furthermore, without a revolutionary struggle
against male supremacy, the fight against capitalist domination will
not succeed.
The task of the women's movement is to win liberation for
women by aligning itself with the proletariat. Tactically, this means
developing programs which focus on issues of special concern to
women and which are, at the same time, able to mobilize women for
mass action. Within this category of programs, those of special
concern to non-white women must be taken up as a priority, and
those which in any way undermine the fight for equality by nonwhite
people must be rejected, whether or not they have organizing
potential for women. Projects which involve working alliances with
the police and prosecutors almost invariably fall into the latter
The second part of a successful women's movement must be to
educate those women active in its mass programs about the nature of
imperialism and capitalism, and their direct link to oppression of nonwhite
people and women in the United States and elsewhere. This
task is particularly significant in areas where support groups exist for
various movements for national liberation in third world countries.
A wide range of programmatic possibilities exists within this
framework. Some concern purely "women's issues," but many do not.
Health care, jobs, and children's education are areas of immediate
concern to women. Within each of these areas, there are issues which
mainly affect third world women; white women can begin to be
drawn to these issues. Occasionally, the issues are what have
traditionally been considered "women's issues" as well.
Involuntary sterilization of women is a "women's issue"
in its purest sense. It also is a crucial issue in the struggle for
national liberation of Puerto Rican people, and it is becoming an
increasingly serious issue for Black women in the United States. As
was pointed out earlier, a mind-boggling 33% of all women of childbearing
age in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico have been sterilized.
Black women, with some frequency, have for one reason or another
come 6ut of city maternity hospitals unable to have any more
children. And it is common knowledge that unnecessary
hysterectomies have long been performed on women of all races
and classes. Every thinking person in the U.S. understands the
dangers of this government deciding who has the right to have
children and who doesn't. The concept of a master race was purportedly
repudiated by this country and others in response to Hitler
and his army of Aryans in the 1940's.
The issue of sterilization is one issue where the relationship
between white supremacy and oppression of women needs no
explanation. A mass movement of women is needed to demand
information on how many caesarean deliveries, hysterectomies, tubal
ligations, and other related operations are performed on various
groups of women all over the country. There should be groups of
women in the obstetrical section of every city hospital acting as
patient advocates, so that every woman who signs a consent form for
sterilization has had ample time to make a reasoned decision, and so
that no consent is obtained by duress or by promises of financial
rewards. Radical associations of nurses, aides and midwives should
be organized to monitor the hospitals and doctors. Hospitals guilty of
these practices should be shut down by masses of angry women and
struck by hospital personnel. In individual cases, where the damage
has already been done, there should be lawsuits against the hospital,
publicizing the abuses of women by sterilization. Legislation should
be scrutinized for any suggestion that rights of women (like public
aid) should be tied to consent to sterilization.
While local work is going on opposing involuntary sterilization,
women must at the same time be exposing the violence against the
women of Puerto Rico. The practice of mass sterilization should be
attacked as dramatically as was the napalming of Vietnamese
villages. The role of imperialism is inextricably linked to this issue as
it affects third world women. Using sterilization as a starting point for
education on the nature of U.S. capitalism and imperialism should
«be a way to reach women who might otherwise think the broader
issues were too remote to merit attention. Other programs certainly
could be suggested.
Birth control is an area very much like sterilization in its oppression
of women, particularly non-white women. Hundreds of
thousands of women in the U.S. have been fitted with the U.S.-
manufactured "Dalkon Shield"; this is an intrauterine device which
was inadequately tested, promoted by inaccurate advertising of its
safety and effectiveness for women, and sold to women without a
word of warning by physicians and clinics who accepted the sales
pitches of the manufacturers without one iota of independent
The Dalkon Shield has received considerable publicity recently,
as hundreds of women in the U.S. have filed lawsuits against the
manufacturer, A. H. Robins Co. The device has caused infection,
septic miscarriages, uterine abscesses, perforations, sterility and even
death in large numbers of women.
Of course, nobody knows how many women in third world
countries have suffered from these injuries, nor is it likely the
manufacturer is liable for them, since the devices were sold directly
by the manufacturer to the United States, which in turn distributed
them through the Agency for International Development. Largely
through the efforts of the Rockefeller-funded World Population
Council, lUD's have been sold throughout the third world. Twelve
million women have them embedded in their bodies; only three
million of these women are in the United States. And nobody knows
how or why the device works.
Beyond birth control is the issue of birth. Since 1955, the
maternal death rate among Black mothers has been four times that of
white mothers. In North Carolina, a state with a large percentage of
Black population, there are seven times as many Black maternal
deaths. Many Black babies are born to malnourished mothers who
have had inadequate pre-natal care. The children themselves then
grow up poor and malnourished, and consequently suffer from school
failure, social deprivation, and early death. Malnutrition among
pregnant women contributes to mental retardation, as does lead
poisoning, still a form of violence against Black and poor white and
third world children. The list goes on into adulthood. Hypertension
kills fifteen times as many Black men as white men between the ages
of fifteen and forty. Hypertension kills seven times as many Black
women as white women of any age group. All these statistics are
analyzed in the May, 1974 issue of BLACK SCHOLAR in an article
by J. N. Gayles, Jr. called "Health Brutality and the Black Life
Cycle." The conclusion is clearly that Black people are brutalized by
the U.S. health system, and Black women are particularly abused.
A similar analysis and set of suggestions could be made
in the area of education or jobs or police repression. TWENTY-FIVE
THOUSAND Chicago school children were summarily
suspended last year. A large proportion of them were Black.
Inequality in education between whites and non-whites is obvious
in many ways: cutbacks in bilingual education programs, poorer
facilities in Black neighborhoods, resistance to busing to achieve
better education for Black children — when Black children have
been being bused past white schools to achieve segregation for a long
time, and plenty of white kids are bused to parochial school without
an outcry. Girls and boys are both affected, but the issue is of most
concern to mothers.
Seventy percent of all killings by police in Chicago, the killer-cop
capital of the U.S., are of Black people, with an unknown number of
the remaining thirty percent being of other non-whites. Although most
of the immediate victims are not women, every male fatality is a
woman's husband, or brother, or son, or friend. Police repression is an
issue of concern to women. As the seniority system in the economic
system is laying off women and non-white people who were last hired,
gains made in the 1960's are being stolen away. A movement to set
aside the seniority system where it interferes with the employment
rights of non-white people and women should be taken up. Women
should be demanding daycare from industry and from their cities, rather
than taking the tempting but less militant route of setting up small, cooperative
daycare arrangements among their friends.
Movements around these issues and others must be slowly and
painstakingly built. Sometimes issues arise that can and should be
seized upon as immediately important for organizing women. Defense
of Jo Anne Little is an example. These must be picked up and
developed. But just as frequently, the crisis situation is one where
women will be likely to line up on the side of reaction: women-led
racist walkouts in schools and jobs are such examples. It is imperative
that a progressive women's movement exist, independent of these
crises, which will be organized, educated to the importance of
proletarian unity, and able to act when such events occur. For this, we
need a new form of women's movement.

This pamphlet was originally printed in January, 1976. Since then
a lot has happened. Congress has all but eliminated Medicare money
for abortions, making safe, legal abortions for poor (disproportionately
Black and Third World) women, very hard to obtain.
At the same time, the government now pays for 90 percent of
Medicaid sterilization procedures. The proportion of sterilized Puerto
Rican women of child-bearing age over age 20 has increased to 37
percent. The ruling class spent five million dollars for an ERA
organizing conference and the government extended the ERA
ratification deadline, but the amendment asserting women's equality
under the law still has not, passed. Cutbacks in tax/spending have
fallen heavily on health services: venereal disease is again on the rise,
after a 15.2 percent decrease in syphilis last year and a 1.1 percent
decline in gonorrhea. Reproductive hazards at the workplace and
elsewhere have just begun to be exposed: birth defects (and worse)
from lead compounds, uranium, and photocopying machines, to name
just a few.
The death penalty is back, in grizzly horror. Though a disproportionate
number of those on death row are Black men, those
coming up first for execution are not at all coincidentally white, so as
to undercut any constitutional arguments for unequal treatment under
the law. Media impact of the Spenkelink execution, the first in more
than 15 years of a person who did not want to die, was obscured by
the fact that a McDonnell-Douglas airplane fell apart on take-off the
same day, killing 275 people, a figure unprecedented in U.S. aviation
history. It will therefore be left to another execution to determine
whether the mass catharsis surrounding such an event will take a
predominantly law and order form or its opposite.
There are victories and concessions as well. Congress
passed legislation making disability benefits for pregnant women
mandatory to the extent that an employer pays any disability benefits
to workers. While affirmative action in education was dealt a harsh
blow by Bakke, the more important issue of affirmative action in jobs
can claim victory in Weber.
Away from the sheltered halls of government, there is more
visible unrest and organized protest than at any time since the late
1960's. The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor and the
coldly calculated risks taken by Edison and the government have
awakened even white people to the fact that their lives are nothing
more than dollars in the eyes of their rulers. Interminable gas lines
have already led to riots, and summer is just beginning. Rosalyn
Carter is stumping the country begging for "confidence in Jimmy,"
but she's not likely to have much success. Evening news reports now
tell of industrial accidents and workers' actions as much as of crime
and police action. Neighbors taking up a collection to pay for some
sick kid's doctor bills are sought after by every major network, just so
the news won't be all bad.
Organized protest takes contradictory forms: the Ku Klux Klan is
gaining strength, but Anita Bryant, once standard-bearer of the right,
was rendered irrelevant by mass mobilizations of protesting gay
people. Black united front organizations are gaining strength and
publicity. The anti-nuclear movement appears to be the largest mass
movement in the U.S. since the 1960's. It seems that cynicism, still
rampant among the people, is being supplemented and at least
potentially replaced by productive rage.
The women's movement is not isolated from the broader political
climate of the country (and world). A combination of increased
militancy generally and organized attack from the right-wing Right-
To-Lifers has given new vigor to the movement. A mass movement
of angry women is once again a possibility. If we are to learn from
our mistakes of the 1960's, we must now figure out how the
movement for women's equality, a movement which opposes all
forms of male supremacy, can rekindle women's imaginations,
encourage militant action by women, and at the same time link up
with other struggles, particularly those of other oppressed groups. All
these factors are necessary to build a movement likely to deal a
decisive blow to male supremacy. In this context it is worthwhile
looking at Susan Brownmiller's influence since publication of Against
Our Will and seeing where her theory of women's oppression has led
those sectors of the women's movement that agree with her.
Following publication of Against Our Will, Brownmiller
became a movement celebrity. Legislative committees called her as
an expert witness on rape. Talk shows paired her with Eldridge
Cleaver as a media gimmick (though seldom with representatives of
opposing positions from the women's movement). University
women's programs paid her several thousand dollars a shot to speak
on their campuses. And women in droves turned out to hear her talk
about rape. I attended several of these speeches. The address was
always the same: the same summary of her book, with one exception.
If she expected organized opposition (which she claims happened
only twice — once in Kansas City and once at Northwestern
University in Chicago), she omitted the section about race.
Unopposed, Brownmiller is a witty, engaging speaker. A listener
who had read her book would have been bored by the presentation —
even the jokes were the same. For the uninitiated, however, the
speech was lively and entertaining. Young college women in the
audience were heard to remark more than once that she was a "great
role model" for women. When questioned about racism as regards
rape, however, even in a polite, serious, intelligent manner,
Brownmiller's demeanor changed dramatically. She launched into
ferocious, increasingly shrill attacks on (1) the woman asking the
question, (2) the "left," which she lumps into one large, womanhating
garbage heap, and (3) Black rapists in the abstract. I am told
she once asked a critical news reporter if she were Alison Edwards,
and I was present when she stated in public the fiction that the only
two women reviewers who didn't like her book were Angela Davis
and me. This kind of defensive-ness makes serious dialogue and
clarification of differences difficult. It is compelling testimony to the
depth of her personal rage that she responded as starkly as she did to
challengers. It was at Northwestern University, one of the most
expensive colleges in the country, where she was prepared in advance
for organized confrontation, that her remarks were the most startling,
even to those of us who had read and criticized her book.
Brownmiller was confronted during the question-and-answer
period by a Black antagonist who spoke of the racist use of the
rape charge. After some shouting back and forth about whether
"old leftists" are "all the same," Brownmiller shifted gears.
She indicated she understood why a Black person might be emotional
and overly sensitive, but that the woman just misunderstood the
issues. The challenger angrily retorted that Blacks who disagree
with whites have always been accused of being physically
and mentally defective: not hearing right, not seeing issues correctly,
and being too emotional or overly sensitive. Brownmiller interrupted
her to call for another question, but by then another disrupter was on
her feet. This one was white. Brownmiller seemed stunned. She
expressed amazement that anyone white could have such views, while
she reiterated her "understanding" that a Black person might react
emotionally, given the racism that "used to be a problem" in the
United States. The white woman shot back, "Can't white people be
against racism?" Brownmiller evaded the question. "You can't
intimidate me with charges of racism. I was right there in the civil
rights movement in the 1960's. . . ." The disrupters escalated their
attack. A couple more stood up. Brown-miller, hands on her hips,
strutted toward the front of the stage. The white antagonist began
moving down the aisle toward her. It looked like the sides were
squaring off, and I was feeling pretty nervous about the whole
business. We were outnumbered by about 100 to 1, and the audience
was none too friendly toward our point of view. "We came to hear
Susan, not you." "Go back where you came from." The podium
committee, all women, were anxious and upset. They were young,
ingenuous, and clearly unfamiliar with the tactics of the '60's. They
pleaded for peace. We took advantage of the easy out and sat down,
but Brownmiller had to have the last word. "I hope you don't get it on
the way home."
Two other remarks by Brownmiller at Northwestern University
were revealing. When asked (in a hostile manner) what she intended
to do to support Delbert Tibbs, picked at random in a Florida town
and charged with rape of a white woman and her white male
companion miles away, Brownmiller shot back with an answer worthy
of Perry Mason:
"Who did that rape?"
"Who did that murder?"
"If you're so concerned about Delbert Tibbs, why don't you go
find the rapist and murderer!"
Finally, when a Black woman in the audience made a passing but
clearly critical reference to the "white women's movement,"
Brownmiller interrupted her angrily. "I resent that characterization of
the women's movement as white. The women's movement is made up
of all races and classes." The audience applauded.
Several points are clear here. First, though Susan Brownmiller
produced only one treatise on rape and was not part of any
specific anti-rape program, she spoke for large numbers of
white women. Her audiences loved her: the stronger and more
militant her defense of her position on rape and racism, the louder the
applause. Those women in the audience sympathetic to the challengers
tended to be (1) Black, (2) press reporters, and (3) members
of organized left groups already predisposed to dislike her — not for
what she said about women or about race, but for her anticommunism.
In Kansas City some independent white women
approached us afterwards (none did at Northwestern), but not many.
Perhaps there were large numbers of white women in the antirape
movement who opposed Brownmiller's analysis of race and
rejected her law-and-order solutions. Several critics sympathetic to
the thrust of this pamphlet have suggested this, and a few have
published impressive anti-racist propaganda as well. If true to any
significant extent, however, neither these women nor their criticisms
were visible at her speeches. Their absence cannot be excused with
arguments about process and tactics, or by fears of alienating
otherwise reachable women if there were confrontations. Absence of
visible opposition to Brownmiller spoke extremely poorly for the
organized women's movement. When a white star like Brownmiller is
given such wide media coverage and opportunities to reach hundreds
of thousands of women, in large part because of her feminist attack
on crime, particularly and explicitly Black crime, it is imperative that
opposing voices from the women's movement be seen and heard. And
they must be seen and heard as widely and loudly as is (was)
Brownmiller's. Unless the women's movement is willing to take a
strong, vocal, and highly visible stand against racism, particularly
racism within its ranks, it will never bridge the gap between itself and
autonomous Black and Third World movements.
Trying to organize vocal opposition to Brownmiller was both
instructive and disheartening. Many women who should have known
better refused to leaflet or protest. Some were just opportunists from
the organized left, afraid of offending potential recruits (or so they
thought) from the organized women's movement. Others waffled on
the issues.
"What about when a Black man really does rape a white woman?"
"Rape is a serious problem. I'm not going to attack anyone
who is trying to deal with the problem."
"Susan Brownmiller is a sister, even if she is a little off the
mark on some points."
"She's not the enemy. Why should we confront her speech by
leafletting and protesting?"
Some of these remarks were made by women who were among
those doing dedicated organizing against U.S. racist imperialism in
South Africa and Puerto Rico. Sadly, their feminism blinded them to
racism in their own back yard. Others were veterans of the women's
movement. Their feminism stifled their politics by having them
subordinate the substance of their ideas on racism to the form of their
ideas of "sisterhood" and ''good process." None would have remotely
considered calling Anita Bryant a sister. When feminism is abstracted
and distorted to obscure otherwise obvious instances of racism, it
becomes a serious obstacle to any revolutionary movement, including
one for women's emancipation. Brownmiller's obsession with woman
as victim, a one-sided, passive, non-revolutionary conception of
woman's role in history, has distorted militant feminism precisely that
way. Women should not have let racist, reactionary, ultimately antiwoman
ideas pass for feminism. It is time to bury the myth that
movement sisterhood precludes confrontation of women by women,
and that disagreements among women in the movement must be
transcended by consensus rather than fought out openly. It is this
insidious, stultifying conception of the women's movement that has
allowed demagogic arguments about "getting it on the way home" to
pass for politics.
Though Brownmiller herself has pretty much faded away into
private life (she resurfaced with Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem for a
time to attack the Khomeini government for trampling on women's
rights achieved under the overthrown Shah of Iran), she has left a
powerful legacy in the women's movement. A large sector of the
movement has made its priority fighting violent acts by men against
women: rape, street crime, and domestic violence. The theory that
gives rise to this strategy for women's emancipation is that the
principal source of women's oppression is men, and the principal
reason for male supremacy is man's combination of big muscles and a
penis. By confronting and halting this physical domination, women
build a movement to halt male supremacy. In addition, a few Black
women have taken up the view put forth by Brownmiller that this
form of feminism transcends racial, if not class, lines. Black Macho
and the Myth of the Superwoman by Michele Wallace is the most
explicit and most widely publicized statement of this position. It
merits careful attention.
Michele Wallace, a well-educated, successful, and highly articulate
Black woman, has put forth the position that the Black
movement of the 1960's failed because its leaders were "macho men."
Urging Black women never to forget "how the black man has let us
down," she sums up the 1960's as follows:
Come 1966, the black man had two pressing tasks before
him: a white woman in every bed and a black woman under
every heel. Out of his sense of urgency came a struggle
called the Black Movement, which was nothing more nor
less than the black man's struggle to attain his presumably
lost "manhood."
The theme of manhood as the engine driving the movement appears
and reappears throughout the book:
It was not equality that was primarily being pursued but a
kind of superiority — black manhood, black macho —
which would combine the ghetto cunning, cool, and un
restrained sexuality of black survival with the unchecked
authority, control, and wealth of white power.
Although Wallace quotes Stokely Carmichael as saying Black Power
meant both Black majority control and minority representation, she
has a more elemental view of the popular meaning of Black Power —
the meaning she says she herself understood:
Here was a black man with an erect phallus, and he was
pushing it up in America's face.
. . . white men were perversely obsessed with the black
man's genitals but the obsession turned out to be a communicable
disease, <and in the sixties black men came
down with high fevers.
Qn the one level, the emotional, hysterical level and the
level on which most powerless white men react, white man
feared the black man's sexual dexterity, the black man's
sexual appeal, and the black man's attraction for the white
woman. But on another level, on the level at which actual
power changes hands, white men feared the black man's
penis as the starting point of black families, of the strength
of numbers, of the perpetuation of the race, and the
resourcefulness gained from centuries of oppression.
Wallace's interest in what she sees as sexual causality in Black
American history is its effect on contemporary Black women.
According to her analysis, white racism and sexual stereotypes
shaped the Black movement in such a way as to glorify Black men
and to deny Black women anything but a servile, subordinate role in
the movement.
Could you imagine Che Guevara with breasts? Mao with a
vagina . . . ? . . . Womanhood was not essential to the
revolution. Or so everyone thought by the end of the 1960's.
Wallace rejects the popular, bourgeois image of Black woman as
matriarch and the movement image of her as a pillar of strength in the
Black community (i.e., the "superwoman"). Like Brown-miller, her
perspective of history sees women principally as victims. She
describes the Black woman as the most "lamentable," "vulnerable"
figure in American history, viewing the Black woman's role in the
movement as follows:
She stopped straightening her hair. She stopped using
lightener and brighteners. She forced herself to be submissive
and passive. She preached to her children about the
glories of the Black man.
As an antidote to such degradation, Black Macho argues for a
Black feminist movement along the lines of the currently organized
(white) women's movement but uniquely sensitive to the conditions
and needs of Black women. She defines these conditions and needs
indirectly, but she seems to be arguing for women to organize
principally, if not exclusively, against their personal oppression
by Black men. She criticizes middle-class Black women for
their "mindless rejection of feminism" and for having babies outside
of marriage as a "means of self-affirmation" in the absence of
a women's consciousness and ideology with which to identify.
Angela Davis she laments as "a brilliant, middle-class woman with a
European education, a PhD in philosophy, and a university
appointment . . . willing to die for a poor, uneducated black male
inmate," and cites her favorable image in the movement as acceptable
for a woman because she "... did it for her man ... a woman in a
woman's place." She decries Black movement women "having babies
for the revolution." These points, plus Wallace's painfully
personal reflections, indicate fundamental agreement with the
kind of feminism put forth by Brownmiller, from whom she
quotes at length and with approval.
Wallace's theory of sexual causality is vulnerable to attack on a
variety of grounds: logical and historical, Marxist and feminist. She
lacks the complexity of the Freudians, who see historical events as
motivated by many intertwined factors played out within the
individual and collective subconscious, genital sex being one of those
factors but by no means decisive among them. Even contemporary
feminists sympathetic to Freud (and few are) try to reconcile Freud's
notion of the subconscious with an analysis of those less vague
aspects of women's oppression, such as isolation in the home and
super-exploitation in the labor force. It is hard to take seriously a
treatise on Black history which reduces 400 years of slavery and
oppression, on the one hand, and survival, resistance and revolution,
on the other, to the individual male's pursuit of individual male power
to be attained by virtue of a (supposedly) superior individual male
sexual organ. It is, in fact, capitulation to the worst aspect of both
white supremacist and male chauvinist sexual stereotypes. This
capitulation is not rendered less damaging given her criticisms of
Black leadership for defining itself in sexual rather than political and
economic terms.
In spite of its theoretical weakness, however, Black Macho has a
side to it which has to be taken seriously. Wallace is Black, female,
capable, and angry. The issue she raises — relations between Black
women and Black men, both individually and collectively as part of a
movement — is a critical one which will have to be fought out within
the Black community and in the Black movement. Whether the
specific area of concern is rape in the Black community, the wisdom
and feasibility of having healthy babies outside of marriage, the role
of Black women in the movement, or the condition of the Black
family, the experience of Black people — men and women — has
been so acutely and forcibly shaped by white racism and theories of
white supremacy in this country that only the Black community, on
its own terms and in its own way, can deal adequately with conscious
resistance and change. Some of us may disagree factually with
Wallace's claim that the Black movement of the 1960's failed
principally because ". . . black men did not realize they could not
wage struggle without the full involvement of women," noting
instead the conscious, calculated, and admitted program of the U.S.
government (COINTELPRO) to destroy the movement by any
means, up to and including burglary, arson, and assassination. Some
of us may disagree that the movement, in its totality, was a failure
at all. Nonetheless, if substantial numbers of Black women agree
even in part with Wallace, the issue is on the agenda. At the very
least, the system of male supremacy and its symptoms in the form of
male chauvinism have likely not escaped either Black men raised in
this country or the Black movement — a fact Black movement
women have struggled with for years.
What is disturbing about Black Macho is not so much its analysis
of male supremacy in the Black movement, but the use to which
portions of the white feminist movement will (and have) put such an
analysis. It is one thing to speak of unity in the women's movement
and toward that end to emphasize solidarity with Black women. It is
quite another for whites, even if asked, to join a Black woman in an
all-out attack on Black men, on the Black movement, and on Black
women who have rejected the Women's Movement. The task of white
revolutionaries, whether they are in the feminist movement or in
other sections of the movement, must be to support Black liberation,
not to look for ways in which Black women can be split off from
Black men in order to swell the ranks of the women's movement. The
latter is the job of the K.K.K. — or the U.S. government.
If one recognizes the right-wing potential of dividing the Black
movement, particularly at a time when it is just beginning to recover
ground lost by the savage repression of the '60's, one will not look
with favor upon white feminists jumping on the Black Macho
bandwagon and using it to build up the women's movement. Three of
four promotional statements on Black Macho's dust jacket, however,
not surprisingly including one by Susan Brownmiller, do just that:
What Sexual Politics was to the seventies, Michele Wallace's
book could be to the eighties. She crosses the sex/race
barrier to make every reader understand the political and
intimate truths of growing up black and female in America.
— Gloria Steinem
Something wonderful has happened. A fresh, clear voice has
been added to the existential dialogue between black and
white, woman and man. This is the most original discussion
I've read in years. Sing in praise of Michele Wallace, for she
may save us all.
— Susan Brownmiller
Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman is a brilliant
new work of extraordinary importance to all feminists, black
and white — indeed to all people. Michele Wallace dares to
think and say and write what has not been hazarded before,
ever. Not aloud. This book will change the women's
movement — and it could change history.
— Robin Morgan
In spite of Robin Morgan's extravagant praise, this book is not
likely to change the women's movement. It does nothing to challenge
any of the assumptions or practices of the movement that so far have
made it less than attractive to most Black and Third World women.
Rather, its challenge is to Black men and to Black women for
rejecting it. It is an embarrassment that the illusions of a prominent
white feminist that Black women will read this book and recognize
their errors appears on the back cover. At most, Black Macho will
make the same movement, with the same limited orientation toward
fighting male supremacy, somewhat more multi-racial. And it
probably won't do that.
A central orientation of much of the women's movement has
recently been fighting crime in those cases where women are its
victims. The anti-rape movement, proliferation of shelters for
battered women, and mass women's mobilizations to "take back the
night" have drawn numerous feminists to their ranks. Broadly
defined, this movement attacks "violence against women." By
orienting toward the crudest and most salient aspect of male
supremacy, the "anti-violence against women" movement seeks to
challenge sexism at its most explicit and vulnerable point:
exploitation and degradation of sexuality.
The anti-violence movement has had substantial impact on
people's consciousness about the nature of crime against women. It
has made it general knowledge that rape is not a crime of passion, but
a crime of power; that domestic violence is not a private matter of
female neurosis, but a widespread social problem based on malesupremacist
reaction to alienation; that pornography is not a matter of
individual taste but group libel of women. At the same time,
however, the principal thrust of this movement (though not the
exclusive emphasis) has been on developing alternative services for
women. There are problems inherent in
building any movement through service, as any youth organizer who
tried to "serve the people" in the 1960's knows. People
overwhelmingly come for the free or almost-free service (whether
legal assistance, medical care, breakfast, or shelter), not for politics.
Add to this limitation the racist pitfalls of fighting "crime," whether
at home or in the street, plus the fact that men's violent crime against
women, like women's violent crime against children, is an individual
manifestation of extreme frustration and alienation at the same time it
is a crime of power and dominance, and you have a movement that is
(a) not likely to do much to stop male supremacist violence, and (b)
likely to add weight and legitimacy to racist, law-and-order demands
to stop crime. Although it goes against one's instinct to criticize a
movement which unrelentingly fights abuse of women, the violence
issue, however popular at the moment, is not one which should be
taken up as an organizing point by white revolutionaries or radicals
— feminist, Marxist, or both. This next section examines why.
"Violence against women" refers both to specific acts of
physical abuse and domination (such as rape and battering) and to
male supremacist attitudes that degrade women's sexuality (such as
sexual harrassment or pornography). The former aspect of violence,
probably because of its compelling immediacy, is the one which has
drawn the largest numbers of women into organizing against it. Some
anti-rape groups and women's shelters shun traditional channels for
dealing with crimes against women — the police, the prosecutors, and
the courts. Most don't. Since prosecution is sometimes what the
individual victim wants, many programs follow her wishes regardless of
their own political preference. Revenge certainly is a legitimate want
after an attack, particularly after a rape, and for this reason many
programs make it a point of principle to assist the woman in any action
she wishes to take.
Programs which work with the criminal justice system need little
analysis beyond what has been said in the previous article in this
pamphlet. Although it may be understandable and quite legitimate for
an individual victim to seek such assistance (especially in cities that have
monetary assistance to victims of crime), to build a movement around this
kind of revenge is another matter entirely. Santa Cruz Women Against
Rape, a socialist-feminist organization which boycotts those services, says
it this way:
It is crucial that anti-rape groups fight the racist myths,
stereotypes, and institutions that are associated with rape.
The first step in this process is to stop supporting the
criminal justice system, because no matter what our
intentions are, the system is racist through and through.
Prisons are used to keep all Third World people down. We
cannot turn our backs to the racism of the system when a
Black man is being prosecuted, and expect that same racism
not to be used against Joan Little, Yvonne Wanrow, Inez
Garcia, etc. As we've said before, we must not support a
racist process for any end. We must fight racism and sexism
together. ("Dealing With Rape," a letter to Through the
Looking Glass: a Women's and Children's Prison Newsletter,
April 1979, page 7.)
Groups like Santa Cruz Women Against Rape are complex. They
make good statements about racism in their publications. They reject
prison as a solution to fighting violence against women. They recognize
that rape will end only ". . . with the development of a new system that
provides a context for . . . changes in people's lives." One wonders,
then, how and why they are fighting rape.
Santa Cruz WAR seeks community-based alternatives for dealing
with the problem of rape, tentatively offering some suggestions:
1. We encourage people to get together to discuss ways to
watch out for each other. This includes block watching to
make neighborhoods safe, organizing at work places to get
support to deal with hassles from bosses and fellow workers,
and organizing at schools to get self-defense classes, etc.
2. We try to create the consciousness in people that they
should respond to a scream or a call for help, and that they
should go to a woman's aid if it looks like she's being hassled.
3. We print the descriptions of men who rape, hassle, and
assault women so that rape will become a public issue, so
that these men will lose their anonymity, and so women can
be warned of some particular men.
4. Confrontations of rapists, etc. by women (or women
and men). The message we want to present to men is that we
know who they are and what they did, that they are
responsible for their actions, and that they have the responsibility
to change. We try to offer follow up re-education
by anti-sexist men. Although we think that each
individual confrontation is important, we hope that each
one will have the more widespread effect of encouraging
people to force men to stop violent and sexist behavior. This
means that people have to deal with the men close to them
— their family, friends, etc., as well as with strangers who
hassle women.
There is a superficial appeal to anti-violence programs which emphasize
community action. Ultimately, it is the sense of belonging to
a community (in more than the "neighborhood" sense), with its
requisite solidarity, responsibility, and pride, that will both make
people want to live with dignity and a respect for the collectivity and
force those who err to conform to a minimum level of community
standards. Development of this sense of community in terms of
eventual solidarity of the working class internationally is what the
movement is all about.
Unfortunately, there is very little evidence that, at least among
white people, this kind of communal responsibility can to any
significant degree be attained in one community (i.e., geographical
area) in the absence of massive social change generally. On the
contrary, where white people have developed community solidarity in
those areas where Black and Third World people live anywhere near
the whites (like in the same city), this solidarity has overwhelmingly
meant exclusion of Black and Third World people and defense of
what privileges and benefits the whites have from being white.
Community Control as a slogan for white people has the effect
(sometimes conscious, sometimes not) of perpetuating racial divisions
in society.
This society has evolved into one manifest by alienation at the
increasingly large and impersonal workplace and isolation in the
increasingly small and excrutiatingly personal home. It is hard to
fight effectively on a small scale. In fact, it is impossible. And it will
take major upheaval to fight it on a mass scale. A real sense of
community, even in a narrow sense, requires substantial control over
one's environment: labor oriented toward the welfare of the
community, intersection of living and working in one area,
continuity of people's lives, ability to make the welfare of children a
community responsibility, and a resulting sense of belonging that
makes the individual want to subordinate private gain to collective
The trend today is away from collective control and individual
responsibility. Anonymity and acquiescense to factors beyond one's
immediate physical control are the general rule. Certainly this trend
can change. In periods of revolutionary upsurge, solidarity with the
aims of the movement brings out the best, most militant, and most
generous side of people. Revolutionaries of all stripes frame their
estimates of massive social change on the projection that under the
right circumstances people will change (though they differ
dramatically on what constitutes those circumstances). The questions
for those who organize to fight violence against women are (1)
whether the sense of community required to stop rape, or even to halt
its dramatic increase, can be demonstrated on a small scale in one
place, in the absence of more fundamental change, and (2) if in rare
cases it can, whether building a movement directly attacking this
specific kind of abuse is the most effective way to stop abuse of
women generally.
The history of racism in this country has seen to it that Black and
Third World people by and large live in segregated neighborhoods.
There, the fight against crime, including the fight against abuse of
women, is a fight for community solidarity. Similarly, the fight
against abuse of women taken up by the Black movement is a fight to
strengthen the movement. Calls for increased city services in
oppressed neighborhoods, such as demands for Black cops, are
attempts to deal with problems on a community basis. Third World
police are demanded in the often-futile hope that their street
knowledge in general and their specific familiarity with people in the
neighborhood can cool out situations where white cops would just
bust in and shoot. In this context, programs emphasizing block
watching, publicity about accused rapists, and confrontations have
some legitimacy. The solidarity made possible by necessity, while
generally absent, under proper circumstances can give to people in
the community the moral authority productively to confront men who
abuse women.
Although the women's movement speaks of a "women’s
community," this term has meaning in spirit only. Solidarity
among women has been a decisive component of the movement, and
in that sense these may indeed be a "community" in the hearts and
minds of its members. There is no such community, however, in the
sense of a territory to build and defend. However hard women
have tried — and the lesbian movement has come closer to making
the term "community" have concrete meaning than other sectors —
men are everywhere. And if men are everywhere, so is male
supremacy. In this context, alternative services calling for "community
responsibility" toward women are not likely to succeed.
Women at this point have neither the moral authority, on the one
hand, nor the physical power, on the other, to stop men from abusing
women. Unless one believes that men in this society can currently be
talked out of male supremacy (and if they can, why haven't they?),
one cannot reasonably expect well-meaning pressure to halt abuse of
women. The confrontation tactic, with its poignant corollary of "reeducation
by anti-sexist men," may work in the isolated case where
a man hits a woman and is overcome by remorse immediately
afterward, but in the more common event of male supremacist abuse
triggered by alcohol or drugs or job pressure or no-job pressure or
screaming kids, it is hard to imagine that intervention by an "antisexist
man" would be very helpful. (This is particularly true since
anti-sexist men are barely anti-sexist at all but exhibit instead a more
highly refined form of arrogance and male chauvinism, allowing
them to think they are better not just than women — who seek them
out with great expectations — but than other men as well. This is a
new form of competition among a certain class of men where the
self-proclaimed anti-sexists define themselves as having already won.)
Abuse of women tends to occur in private places. Rape rarely
happens in front of witnesses. Wife-beating generally occurs in the
home. (Its dramatic increase over the last couple of generations may
be the result of the increasingly private nuclear family, where
intervening adults are rarely present.) Women's block patrols may be
a militant statement of women's intention, but the patrols are simply
not likely to be effective. At best, the violent man will find another
more private place to vent his frustration and display his power.
Finally, vigilantism is fraught with what should be obvious dangers.
The Kitty Genovese Women's Project in Texas, a state with a long
history of racist lynchings, distributes names and pictures of accused
sex offenders. Local sheriffs used to do precisely that, very subtly
inviting interested citizens to spontaneous lynchings. The fact that the
court has replaced the rope and a women s movement has replaced the
sheriff does not change things sufficiently to justify this kind of
activity. The project was heralded as ground-breaking by many
A concrete example of the racist pitfalls of fighting crime in
a racist society are two well-publicized attacks on sexist
judges for dealing too leniently with convicted rapists. One atrocity
several years ago in Wisconsin involved a judge's scurrilous remarks
about how today's women invite sexual aggression by their lewd
manner of dress. In the case before him the woman, a high school
student, was reported as having been wearing pants and a turtle-neck
shirt. The judge then gave the convicted rapist probation, saying, in
effect, his conduct was improper but really no big thing. A campaign
to recall the judge was successful and a feminist was elected to fill
the vacancy. It was only by accident that some of us found out the
offender was Black, the victim white.
A second, more recent case involves a Utah judge who reversed a
jury verdict of rape, stating that it would be a "miscarriage of justice
to sentence a man to prison for an invited rape." There, the victim and
offender had been drinking together at a local bar, left the bar, and
drove together to a site where he raped her. The judge, reviewing the
evidence, made a statement about the woman wearing a "flimsy
dress" and "sitting in a bar with a Black man, . . . taking his affection,
eating his food, drinking his drinks . . . there is a whole lot to be said
here about mutual consent."
Women's groups attacking the Utah judge call his decision and
his remarks both racist and sexist, for presuming a white woman who
drinks in a bar with a Black man consents thereby to sexual
intercourse. If the judge is white (which he seems to be, given attacks
on him for racism), they are probably correct. Assuming the judge
correctly stated the facts, the woman involved still should have the
right to change her mind after getting into the car. Viewed from the
perspective of the Black community, however, this must be a case of
a Black man entrapped by a white woman and tried and convicted for
being Black. White men almost never get brought to trial in situations
like this and even less frequently get convicted. Even if it is true that
it is male supremacy rather than the fight against racism which led
these judges to deal leniently with Black defendants before them (a
safe bet with white judges), their actions in these cases had the effect
of equalizing an unequal, racist judicial system for two Black men.
The issue is difficult, but what to do (and not to do) is not. Attacking
a judge for such an action is inexcusable when pursued by white
people, even women.
Battered women's programs pose similar problems to those
presented by the anti-rape movement. A high proportion are
funded by government agencies and those closely related to the
government, particularly the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration
(LEAA), whose purpose it is to develop bigger, better,
and more technologically efficient methods to detect and stop crime.
As part of its crime prevention program, LEAA gives money to a
variety of so-called "social programs," among them, numerous
shelters for abused women and children.
Feminists working in shelters who apply for LEAA and other
governmental assistance argue that they are merely using LEAA,
which has to fund a limited number of socially useful projects to
maintain an image of impartiality and independence from the state.
"Why shouldn't we use their money to do what we want to do with
it?" A more appropriate question is who is doing the using and who is
being used?
The notion that it is legitimate for radicals and revolutionaries to
take blood money from an outfit like LEAA and do with it what they
want is itself rather dubious. LEAA provides resources both to state
and federal law enforcement efforts and concentrates substantial
efforts on "national security." Since "national security" within the
boundaries of the U.S. means nothing less than protection from
subversion by movements seeking fundamentally to change the
system, an organization that pours money into national security is
keeping the state safe from the movement. Furthermore,
COINTELPRO and other post-Watergate revelations have made it
clear that regardless of the strength or weakness of any particular
movement, it has been the Black movement, generally under the
guise of national security, which has received the greatest attention
and the most savage repression by law enforcement agencies. What
does it mean, then, for feminist groups to help legitimize LEAA,
whose function it is to contain and, if necessary, to smash social
movements? One thing it means is that the groups taking the money
are assisting in their own containment and control. Worse still, it
means that they are legitimizing an operation which assists
principally in smashing Black and Third World movements.
There is an additional and more subtle reason, however,
why taking money from LEAA is selling the movement's autonomy
and militancy for a puny grant. Projects funded by LEAA are
projects designed to direct revolutionary energy to passive,
reformist (at best) projects. Next to the women's movement, the
best example of this misdirection of movement energy through
tempting grants has been the prison reform movement. After a run of
prison rebellions exposed the brutality and inhumanity of
U.S. prisons, prison reform became a hot item. Government money
began appearing for prison projects, usually legal projects. Idealistic
movement people with bar cards could get jobs making $15,000 a
year (low by lawyers' standards, but a fortune by movement standards)
to assist prisoners with legal problems. Prison law libraries sprouted up
all over. Prisoners were given time to study law surrounding their
cases, and prison law blossomed as an area of legal study inside and
outside the institution. The fact that prisoners still rebel is eloquent
testimony that in the twentieth century, the U.S. working class cannot
be pacified so easily. But some of the best revolutionary brains inside
the prisons are stifled by obsessive legal study, concentrating, naturally
enough, on their own cases. Few win. Fewer still can use their
fragmentary legal skills upon leaving the institution. While prison legal
programs are progressive in the limited sense that good services should
be available to prisoners, containment and misdirection of militancy
are more salient than anything progressive about these programs. For
anyone naive enough to think that this sounds like a lot of far left
paranoia, one of the explicit goals of COINTELPRO was misdirection
of militant energy.
Governmental assistance to the women's movement is analogous to
the situation described above. If women are going to join the
movement anyway, it is preferable from the point of view of the state
to direct their energies away from potentially revolutionary programs
(such as the campaigns against sterilization abuse, which attack
population control of the Third World through abuse of Third World
women, and which have assisted the American Indian Movement in
exposing genocidal use of sterilization procedures on the reservations)
toward programs dealing with crime control.
Money for social workers, whether professionally trained or
community educated, housing relocation, and salaries for lawyers
connected with abused women's legal needs are important services
for individual women, just as food distribution is an important
service for poor or infirm people. There is nothing heinous about
movement women taking paid jobs in such services. What is wrong
is their making that work their movement activity and thinking
they are doing revolutionary or feminist work through these jobs.
At best, they are using their jobs as a political platform to try to
reach women using the services — a dubious use of a captive
audience and one not likely to work often, since people
experiencing a crisis tend overwhelmingly to be inner-directed
and anxious primarily to emerge from the crisis intact.
Issues like racism (for white women), heterosexism, and alternative life
styles, while in the last analysis relevant particularly for abused
women, at the moment of crisis are just too much to cope with.
What about those few projects which are not locked in by
government money? These retain confidentiality of women using the
service and have some measure of autonomy. They are therefore less
suspect than those fed by LEAA. Users are less likely to be pressured
to seek solutions like criminal prosecution and less likely to be
recruited as informants by local police agencies. The shelter is less
likely to be scrutinized by covert but nonetheless watchful state eyes
for bigger and better mechanisms by which militant, angry women
can be pacified (whether by writing grant proposals or by "helping"
women needing therapy). In spite of being somewhat less
encumbered by Big Brother (seen now as Big Sister — progress of
sorts), however, many independent shelters suffer from many of the
same problems as those funded by the state. The political gap
between "staff" and "clients" is still there, even if those words aren't
used. The orientation is still individual and still principally passive.
Often a cultural gap is there as well: differences in diet, child-raising, and
handling the woman's drunk and irate husband when he comes around.
What is more, without ample funding women work at starvation
wages — or none — making continued dedication dependent on
sainthood, on extreme social-worker mentality, or on misplaced
political convictions that they can, through kindness, hard work, and
a good line, recruit women using the service to the women's movement.
For user and worker alike, the sheltering movement, while
providing a useful service, channels energies not merely away from
militancy and revolutionary action, but even away from programs like
media campaigns and workplace anti-harassment organizing that can
have a mass impact on male-supremacist ideology.
In the home, in the street
Women getting raped, Women
getting beat!
Something should be said about mass mobilizations of women
against street violence. .
A lot of women are drawn to the anti-violence movement through
actions to "take back the night." Though the night, like everything
else, has never belonged to women, mobilizations to reclaim it pick
"unsafe neighborhoods," march through in numbers (flanked by
police escorts), and rally for demands to make life safer for women
"and all people." Tangible demands tend toward money for shelters
and rape crisis centers, free medical care for victims of sexual attack,
better laws on rape and self-defense, and increased police protection
for women. Propaganda includes attacks on sexually exploitative
media advertising and discussion of harassment at the workplace.
Although those who attend frequently report feelings of solidarity,
exuberance, and collective strength (they'd never walk there alone),
these good feelings must be weighed critically against what
campaigns like this are likely to achieve. These marches, regardless
of their composition and regardless of their militant feminist or even
anti-racist rhetoric, are nothing more than campaigns for safe streets.
Like sheltering and rape crisis intervention, these marches
challenge not violent action itself, which is not at present susceptible
to successful challenge, but methods of diverting, detecting, and
punishing violence. Like all campaigns to stop crime, the movement
is absolutely unable to deal with its causes. As a substitute, it is
forced to rely principally on coercion, which women are not in a
position to achieve on their own in a male-supremacist society. The
result is the movement to "Take Back the Night": an appeal for more
repressive services and ultimately a strengthened view of woman as
victim requiring such protection. The movement is quite safe for the
state and for men as well. No wonder politicians are eager to speak at
such gatherings (and in some cities have actually been invited). No
wonder the movement is now receiving unprecedented cooperation
from the state.
Women's campaigns against media exploitation and sexual
harassment at the workplace are in a wholly separate category
from those that challenge individual acts of violence (i.e., crime).
Public abuse can be challenged publicly. Abusive entertainment
can be shut down by women sitting on the stage or blocking
the entrance. "Adult" (infantile, male-supremacist) bookstores have
glass windows that can be smashed and inventory that can be
destroyed. Though women cannot stop harassment on the job,
collective action can make sexual come-ons from men a humiliating
event for the man, rather than for the woman. The exhilaration and
solidarity derived from this kind of action have their roots in power:
women collectively taking control of an aspect of their lives.
Marching to protest "crime" or individually seeking assistance after
humiliating instances of abuse are not productive self-activity of
women (except in the rare case of women who voluntarily become
enmeshed in abusive relationships and need individual therapy to
determine why). They are a substitute for it. The unfortunate fact is
that there simply are no reformist answers to violence in this society,
whether its victims are women or men. In China, the one country
which seems to have had some measure of success in eradicating rape
and eroding domestic violence as well, the revolutionary process
which for a time changed the class forces of society affected all
aspects of people's lives. In those revolutionary situations, being part
of a revolutionary process brings out the very best in people and
makes possible a successful campaign against all forms of male
supremacy, including male-supremacist violence. In the absence of
such an upsurge, the best women can do to protect themselves is to be
careful and to participate in building a movement likely to create the
conditions of upsurge where male supremacy can decisively be

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