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Feminism
10 Famous Black Feminists
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AnnaMarie Houlis,
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Journalist & travel blogger
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Doubly oppressed, black women don't have the privilege of fighting for themselves solely on the behalf of their gender. Black women have helmed intersectional feminism, making willful strides into the collective consciousness surrounding equality, for as long as time. But despite their forays into the feminist dialogue, their efforts and contributions are often sidelined in the mainstream narrative.

For more than two centuries, black women have been fighting for their rights both as women and as women of color. Look back to 1909, for example, when black journalist Ida B. Wells implored white suffragist Frances Willard — blinded by her own racial and class privileges — to acknowledge the inhumanity in lynching black men.

"What is the cause of this awful slaughter?" she asked. "This question is answered almost daily — always the same shameless falsehood that 'negroes are lynched to protect womanhood.'"

Today, white feminists still preach for the protection of womanhood, but too often stay silent surrounding issues pertaining to women of color. The failure to observe all women's issues, inclusively, negates the feminist agenda in its entirety. Modern examples including fighting for maternal healthcare, disregarding the discriminatory healthcare practices to which women of color, in particular, are subjected, and fighting for equal opportunities in the workplace, acknowledging the gender pay gap but disregarding the racial pay gap.

If feminism isn't intersectional, it's not feminism. After all, black feminists have been combating inequality, risking even more than white women, since long before the first recognized wave of feminism.

In speaking before the Massachusetts Women’s Conference following the #MeToo movement, Gloria Steinmen — recognized as the face of the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s — argued that women of color, and especially black women, "have always been more likely to be feminist than white women."

Here are 10 black feminists you should know, revere and appreciate.

1. Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)

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Anna Julia Cooper, a black-liberation activist, is one of the most prominent black scholars in American history, as the fourth African American to earn a PhD when she graduated from the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1924 after a life of slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina. Cooper penned her first book, A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South, in 1892, which has been dubbed the first text boasting black feminist thought in the country. Likewise, her 1893 speech, “Women’s Cause Is One and Universal,” which she delivered before the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago was among the first public conversations delineating the differences that white and black women face in their fight for equality. 

2. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

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Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women's rights activist, was born into slavery but had escaped with her daughter, later going to court to obtain her son's freedom and becoming the first black woman to win a case of that nature. In 1851, she gave a speech at a women's convention in Akron, Ohio on gender inequality that went on to become a staple of feminist thought, "Ain't I a Woman."

"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere," she said. "Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! But ain’t a woman? Look at me. Look at my arm. I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?"

3. Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

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Ida B. Wells is a prominent journalist and suffragette who fought for civil and women's rights, forming the first suffrage organization for black women: The Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago. At the 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., she was told she could only march at the back of the demonstration with the black women, trailing the white women holding the banner. She refused — and she marched under the Illinois banner. 

Wells is also recognized for her anti-lynching activism, calling out white suffragist Frances Willard for attempting to justify the practice for the protection of womanhood.

4. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

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Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to be elected to U.S. Congress in the same year of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. She co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus, commissioned a bill ensuring that domestic workers received benefits, advocated for improved access to education and childcare, fought for immigrant rights, and expanded government-funded food stamp programs to every state.

She also became the first African-American major-party candidate for president, as well as the first woman to run for the Democratic party's presidential nomination. She famously said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

5. Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

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Mary Church Terrell was a civil rights activist and suffragist, as well as one of the first African American women to earn a college degree when she graduated from Oberlin College in 1884. She went on to become the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, as well as a founding member of the NAACP.

She's also a well-known feminist writer with powerful works such as "A Plea for the White South by a Colored Woman" and "A Colored Woman in a White World."

6. Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

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Audre Lorde is one of the most recognized feminist names, known for embodying intersectional feminism before we even had the discourse to describe it. Lorde is a self-described "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet" who has written extensively about dismantling racist, homophobic and sexist structures.

Her most famous work, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," from 1979 reads: "It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support... What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?”

7. Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

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Harriet Tubman, known as Moses to more than 300 slaves she helped free, is known for her help in transporting escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad, a network of antislavery activists and safe houses. Even after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required officials in free states to recapture escaped slaves, Tubman helped guide people into Canada. Overall, she made an estimated 13 missions to rescue slaves, family and friends.

The abolitionist and suffragist is one of the most famous faces behind feminism.

8. Maria W. Stewart (1803-1880)

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Maria Stewart, an abolitionist and women's rights activist, was the first African American woman on record to publicly lecture on women's rights. Her published pieces appear in The Liberator, a prominent newspaper of white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, though she also supported Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star.

9. Angela Davis (1944)

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Angela Davis is one of the major voices behind the Black Power Movement. Her influential book, Women, Race and Class, examines the history of black women in the United States through a Marxist perspective, highlighting reproductive rights among other issues pertaining to women of color.

In 2013, she also wrote: "Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism (I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple Feminisms, right). It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism and racism and colonialism and post colonialities and ability and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name."

10. Florynce Kennedy (1916-2000)

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Florynce Kennedy, a feminist and civil rights advocate, is recognized for her activism in the '60s and '70s, when she led a mass public urination at Harvard in response to the lack of female restrooms. She also filed tax-evasion charges against the Catholic Church because she believed that its campaign against reproductive rights violated the separation of church and state.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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