Gender, Political Activism and Mobilization
Comparing and contrasting Caribbean feminist strategies (past and present) to those employed by African American and black South African Women in their respective movements.
For the last two decades women have organized movements against violent institutions that oppress them. They created simple strategies and bonds that brought them together through their shared and lived experiences and have come to challenge political, cultural and historical policies that oppress women. With the rise of different feminist branches worldwide such as; Caribbean feminism, African American feminism and Black South African feminism, women began to rely on each other for support and strength to challenge the institutional notion of patriarchy that they were subjected to. Black feminism exploded in the 1960s in response to gendered issues and racism that stemmed from the civil rights movement. “Problematising race and exposing how racist practices complicate all other social relations of power is a central organising principle of black feminist theorising” (Barriteau, 2003). While these three branches of feminism developed in different time periods and differ in theory and objectives, the strategies used and implemented by women in these movements are quite similar.
The Caribbean, like other parts of the world has been cultured and shaped by racial constructs and ideologies, due to its history. ‘Race’ according to Professor Reddock may be defined as socially constructed groupings differentiated by phenotype, physical features and area of origin. “The Caribbean is often linked with the emergence of racism, which could be dated back to its encounter between Europe, Africa and the New World” (Reddock, 2007). Caribbean feminists have played a very important role in deconstructing the categories of race and expressing the relationship between gender and race. In the early twentieth century Caribbean feminist addressed “women who were conscious of their African and Indian heritage at a time of great European colonial power” (Reddock, 2007). Who then are Caribbean feminists and what is Caribbean feminism? Barriteau explains that, by describing herself as a Caribbean feminist she defines herself “as a black woman, a feminist and a political scientist, who reflects upon and negotiates, operates, theorises, and works within the trenches of gender relations in the Commonwealth Caribbean.” Like many other branches of feminism, Caribbean feminism aims to challenge patriarchal dominance in the Caribbean, increase the visibility of women and make for a more inclusive society regardless of race and gender.
Caribbean history is closely related to the history of racism itself, with “European conquest of the region, introduction of forced labour systems leading to the eventual decimation of the indigenous peoples” (Barriteau, 2003). This is an important point to note, as Caribbean feminism is built on a foundation of history, with the work of scholars such as Lucille Mathurin Mair, whose thesis has played an important part in Caribbean feminism. “The establishment of the modern slave trade and enslavement of Africans, the importation of bonded labour of Asian and other nationalities were all justified by a Eurocentric discourse of natural racial and cultural superiority.” (Reddock, 2007). Reddock also explained that “colonial processes and discourse therefore served to construct ‘race’ and ‘racism’ as central organising principles of Caribbean life, traditions and ideology, manifest in the economy, society, culture and social, sexual and gender relations. Through various strategies, Caribbean feminists have contributed significantly across the regions towards deconstructing the categories of ‘race.’ One strategy was the formation of different women led organizations around the Caribbean such as; Dawn in 1985, Pan- African Association (PAA) in the 1900s, the Committee of Women for Progress (CWP), The Committee for Development of Women in St.Vincent and the Grenadines (CDW) along with Concerned Women for Progress (CWP), The Democratic Women’s Association in Trinidad and Tobago and later Red Thread in Guyana. These organizations created a space for women to not only voice their issues, but work toward resolving them. Caribbean feminists also occupied positions in the United Nations and UNICEF, among others. Some of these women who identified as Caribbean feminists included; Amy Bailey, Gema Ramkeesoon, Amy Ashwood, Una Marson, Audre Lorde, Patricia Mohammed and Lucille Mathurin Mair. These women formed a bond of sisterhood, which allowed them to work more strategically in exposing the agency and urgency surrounding Caribbean women and their concerns.
Although it was indeed evident that central themes in Caribbean feminism included race and gender, there were several critiques of Caribbean feminist theorists. One such critique is from Hilary Beckles, as he charges that Caribbean feminist theorists have failed to look at why “institutional political projects such as independence took hegemonic precedence over women’s liberation.” Rawwida Baksh-Sodeen also critiqued Caribbean feminism as “afrocentric and argues that the women’s movement should reflect the experiences of women of other ethnic groups in the region.” However the neglecting of issues facing women of other ethnic groups were “possibly because the race and colour discrimination which Afro-Caribbean women faced overshadowed their relations with women of other ethnic groups which were not considered problematic at that time” (Reddock 2007). What is indeed clear is that issues of gender and race were central to the work and consciousness of the early feminist in the Caribbean.
On the other hand African American feminism can be dated back to the nineteenth century when African American feminists such as Maria Stewart and Anna Julia Cooper “challenged the conventions and tradition of their time to openly speak against slavery and in support of rights for black women. African American feminists have always been aware of the impact of race, and gender oppression upon their lives, which could once again be dated back to slavery, as African Americans, like other marginalized black feminists have struggled individually and in groups, to eradicate the multiple injustices they face within their communities. In the early 1800s, most black women were enslaved, however free black women participated in the abolitionist cause. Dedicated women such as Maria Stewart, Frances E.W. Harper, and Sojourner Truth among others, spoke out about Black women’s rights. Professor Taylor in his article, “African American Experience” explained that “Sojourner Truth was active in the women’s right movement, and her oft-quoted 1851 ‘Aint I a Woman’ speech” which highlighted the ways in which gender oppression had serious repercussions for Black women living in a racist environment.
By the end of the nineteenth century, African American feminists had strategized movements, which were similar to that of the Caribbean feminist movement. According to Professor Taylor, American African feminists had organized their own networking spaces. Some of the issues that were looked at in these spaces supported woman suffrage, but prioritized a range of social and political issues that affected Black communities, as well as black women specifically. Another strategy which African American feminists employed was the use of traditional media. This method was also employed in the Caribbean feminist movements. African American feminism was seen as one of the most radical form of feminism, because of their activism, strategies, involvement and their overall theories, in comparison to that of any other branch of black feminism. Black women’s involvement in the civil rights movements during the 1950s and 1960s was very beneficial and rather crucial to women’s movements at the time. It facilitated grounds for public discourse on the oppression of the black woman in both the private and public sphere, which Caribbean feminists played an active role in.