It’s Time to Center Black Women in the Fight for an Equitable Democracy and Economy

Activists gather on International Women’s Day, 2022, in in Los Angeles to oppose the growing assault on abortion rights ahead of a Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

In 1945, more than 900 cigar factory workers—a majority of them Gullah Geechee women—walked off the job at American Tobacco in Charleston, S.C. They were fighting for back pay, a 25-cent pay increase, non-discrimination hiring clauses and medical benefits. The striking workers sang, “We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday“—a line from the civil rights song “We Shall Overcome.”  They did this while they picketed, marking the first time the song was used in the labor movement. 

A South Carolina organizer, Zilphia Horton, brought the song to farm workers in Montana, where it eventually got the attention of folk singer Pete Seeger and became the anthem of the labor movement across the country. “We Shall Overcome” was sung by activists at the March on Washington, quoted by President Lyndon Johnson in the fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, referenced by Martin Luther King, Jr., and has been used in labor movements and civil rights struggles across the globe, from Northern Ireland to South Africa. 

Black women have stood at the vanguard across social movements and efforts to create a just and inclusive democracy and economy. Since this country’s founding, Black and brown women have been America’s safety net. Both at home and abroad, our underpaid and unpaid labor are the building blocks that allow America to thrive. We are the engines of the movements that drive change, doing the unglamorous and often overlooked organizing work that is necessary to drive real change. We do this work out of necessity, driven by survival.

Despite our critical role in social, political and cultural movements, Black women are ignored, overlooked and disrespected. It’s time to put our work front and center in the fight for an equitable and inclusive democracy and economy. 

When the most marginalized among us are centered, we all benefit. Dēmos is working with organizations across the country who are already doing the work on the ground at the state and local levels to build an inclusive economy and democracy that prioritizes the decentralization and redistribution of power from the billionaire financier and monopolist class to the multi-racial, multi-ethnic majority. Leaders like Mothering Justice’s executive director Danielle Atkinson and Missouri Jobs with Justice’s deputy director Ashli Bolden are developing the blueprint for a national reimagining of our economy that finally centers gender justice.  

Yet, Washington seems unable, or unwilling, to act on issues that impact women.

They are failing us, yet we continue to deliver. Economist Janelle Jones introduced the Black Women Best framework as a way to center Black women in our economy who are among the most marginalized in our economy. With the necessary and targeted solutions focused on Black women, everyone in our economy will benefit. Women are the activists and organizers powering the movements that drive change in this country. Women working in unsafe factory conditions a century ago advocated for higher wages, better working conditions and public investments in childcare and housing. Women created the idea of a care economy, providing childcare, eldercare, education and domestic services, often without fair pay or working conditions. The climate victories in the landmark Inflation Reduction Act were due to decades of environmental justice organizing work, often led by Black and other women of color, in communities that have historically been left behind. 

At Dēmos we know that the fight for an equitable democracy must be fought on multiple fronts. In Washington and at the state and local levels, we are working alongside movement leaders on the policies and issues that are central to women’s lives. Dēmos’ partners played key roles in passing historic legislation passing funding for childhood education and restoring voting rights for New Mexico residents, pioneering new models of co-governance in Texas, and are currently fighting for a public bank that invests in infrastructure and addresses the harm inflicted on our communities by traditional banks in New York. These victories pave the way for bold, transformative policy at the national level and take a key step toward building an inclusive economy and democracy.

It’s past time to recognize our contributions to historic civil rights wins and our ongoing role in the fight to build an inclusive democracy. We must put Black women at the center of public policy. When we center the people closest to the pain, we all thrive. As the women of Charleston sang in 1945, “We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.”

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Taifa Smith Butler is the president of Demos. Prior to joining Demos, Smith Butler worked at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, where, from 2015 to 2021, she led the GBPI team as its president and CEO. She is an established leader known as a problem solver and tireless champion for equity.