History Is Incomplete Without Black Women

Black women have been marginalized or erased as major players in history. We need special efforts to level the playing field.

Demonstrators stand outside the Florida State Capitol on Feb. 15, 2023 in Tallahassee, Fla., to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to eliminate AP courses on African American studies in high schools. (Joshua Lott / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story also appears in the Summer 2023 issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. community today and you’ll get the Summer issue delivered straight to your mailbox.

Like many undergraduates who finished college and graduate school in the ’60s before the establishment of African American studies and women’s studies, I was not aware of the lives or legacies of too many important figures in U.S. history. The pervasiveness of Eurocentric and masculinist curricula throughout higher education resulted in silences, erasures and distortions surrounding histories of Black and other women of color, here and around the globe.

I didn’t know influential African American foremothers, including Maria Stewart, Frances E.W. Harper, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin or even Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Zora Neale Hurston. I had not read Anna Julia Cooper’s groundbreaking text, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South (1892) or William E.B. Bois’ moving account of the tragedy of Black womanhood and the legacy of slavery in his 1920 publication Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. I was unaware, as many academics still are, of the robust Black feminist tradition in the intellectual and literary history of African Americans.

The dearth of exposure to such important history was not only disappointing to me then—the reality of it persists today. Education is largely based on perspectives that do not reflect the fact that more than half the world’s population are people of color and female. While some progress toward a more inclusive approach has been made, the empowerment strategies for women in general do not address the particular experiences and needs of women of color. Special efforts, therefore, are needed to level the playing field.

Thankfully, the stories and voices of Black feminist organizers and theorists whose work changed the trajectory for the lives of millions can now be experienced up-close-and-personal in Washington, D.C.: A new exhibit curated by the National Women’s History Museum and housed, appropriately, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library features trailblazing Black feminist activists, including Anna Julia Cooper, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Loretta Ross and Nkenge Touré, among others. Showcasing their contributions to women’s history is necessary to reverse the deep sense of alienation that has plagued students whose own identities are different from what they’ve been led to believe is the norm by the texts they read and the Western-centric values they are encouraged to embrace.

A significant aspect of their stories is why—despite their involvement in major historical events, such as the contemporary women’s movement—Black women have been marginalized or erased as major players in its evolution, ideologies, theories and debates.

We must prepare students for a world in which women of color are the world’s majority.

One explanation is conceptual. Almost without exception, African Americans are perceived by whites to be an undifferentiated mass. Again and again, Black women are overlooked in matters related to “the woman question” because of the relative unimportance or even invisibility of their gender. In other words, Black women are seen as members of a racial group but are notably absent from the gender category.

Consider, for instance, the role of Etta Horn who, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, helped to lead the Citywide Welfare Alliance (CWA) and the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). And Anna Julia Cooper, born enslaved in North Carolina and educated at Oberlin College before coming to D.C. to teach at the M Street School; the nation’s first high school for African Americans. Cooper helped to organize the Colored Women’s League in D.C. and published A Voice From the South, an early Black feminist book. These are two trailblazers who are central to the women’s suffrage and equality movements that are largely unrecognized by history. It’s only when all students are able to recognize themselves in history that they can imagine a future in which they play an important role in the progress and achievement of the world.

Despite—or perhaps because of—our country’s move toward increasing multiculturalism, it remains highly intolerant. We must prepare students for a world in which women of color are the world’s majority and, therefore, face the enormously complex problem of reconstructing societal and educational systems where people with differences can live and learn together in peace and dignity.

While ambitious, I do believe it is possible for committed individuals and progressive institutions to effect profound social change resulting in discernible improvement in the lives of underrepresented individuals and marginalized groups.

This new exhibit in D.C. brings critical exposure to the significant and underrepresented experience of Black women specifically. It’s is a key step toward replacing the sacred cows of traditional Western scholarship that has dominated society for generations.

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Beverly Guy-Sheftall is founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center (since 1981) and Anna Julia Cooper professor of women’s studies at Spelman College. She is also an adjunct professor at Emory University’s Institute for Women’s Studies where she teaches graduate courses in their doctoral program. She is the former president of the National Women’s Studies Association and serves on the Ms. Committee of Scholars. Guy-Sheftall has published a number of texts within African American and women’s studies, including the first anthology on Black women’s literature, Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Guy-Sheftall is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, among them a national Kellogg fellowship; a Woodrow Wilson fellowship for dissertations in women’s studies; and Spelman’s presidential faculty award for outstanding scholarship.