For Black Women, Everything Is a Feminist Issue

Read more on the recent criticism of First Lady Michelle Obama here.

From the moment First Lady Michelle Obama stepped into the national spotlight, there have been articles decrying her “un-feminist” choices. One of the most recent,Leaning Out,” has already been excoriated by Melissa Harris-Perry. Yet, another piece much like it is already running in TIME. In these articles—which are commonly about women who are Black, affluent, and happy—there’s an assumption that being a good feminist involves making a specific set of pre-approved choices that may or may not be relevant to the individual making them. The response to Michelle Obama’s decision to be “mom-in-chief” seems to imply that she should be willing to sacrifice her role as an actively involved parent of two young daughters in favor of following an agenda that appeals to other people. Yet issues that affect children, like food and education, are important to many feminists. What these criticisms fail to acknowledge is that for women who are not single and childless/childfree, feminist choices often include a focus on their families and communities. This is particularly true of Black feminists.

Black women in America have to contend with a unique set of stereotypes, particularly around motherhood. Whether it is “Mammy” or the “welfare queen” being projected onto us, Black women are fighting for the right to parent their own children. Neither trope is accurate, but they are popular, and they do inform the way Black motherhood is perceived. Yes, the “welfare queen” trope tends to be the province of conservatives. It’s a popular narrative that depicts poor Black women as greedy mothers with lots of children who are not loved or truly wanted. But it’s only one side of a coin that dehumanizes Black mothers. The other side can be found in progressive rhetoric that demands Black women do what other people think is best.

One of the reasons pieces like “Leaning Out” are so offensive is that they tend to reflect the idea that Black women owe their care and concern to everyone but their family. Is this intentional? Probably not. But the intent has no bearing on the impact. Our bodies were property, our labor was not our own, and to have so-called allies demand we serve them and not ourselves will always be abhorrent. Mammy tropes center the idea of Black women working for others while their children are either nonexistent or completely absent. Malia and Sasha Obama are living life in a fishbowl, and what could be more feminist than making sure that they can grow up to be strong, successful Black women?

Feminism is supposed to be about equality and women being able to make their own choices. Yet, when famous Black women make choices that are best for their lives, there’s never any shortage of concern-trolling from people who don’t have to live with those choices. We talk a lot about patriarchy and paternalism, but we rarely speak of the way many feminists feel entitled to tell Black women what they should be doing. The maternalistic tone taken by many white feminists and even other feminists of color toward Black women is rarely seen as problematic. When we talk about solidarity inside the feminist movement, we have to talk about differences not just in oppression, but also in goals.

For Black women, our struggle is not necessarily about access to the workplace; Black women have always had to work in America. Our struggle is to be recognized as human beings. To have our choices be treated with the same respect offered to anyone else. Whether we’re talking about Michelle Obama, Beyonce, or just the average woman on the street, the reality is that some feminists have children, and their decisions aren’t any less feminist because they are done in the best interests of those children. In fact, as feminism has never mastered being all things to all people, the reality is that no one is in a position to decide for another woman what kind of work she should do, how she should engage with her family, or even which of her choices represent the “right” kind of feminism.

As terms like womanism, intersectionality, and women of color enter the mainstream, it is important to remember that they do not exist in a vacuum. They were created by Black women to address the ways in which we feel excluded from mainstream feminism. Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Loretta Ross, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks are more than names to pluck convenient quotes from when it suits you. They are Black feminists, and they are part of a long tradition that can be traced back to Ida B. Wells-Barnett and beyond. So when your idea of feminism in 2013 harkens back to the racist, sexist rhetoric thrown at Wells-Barnett by Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard, then what kind of movement are you trying to build? If your definition of feminism is rooted in Mammy myths, what can be built with you? Are you fighting for equality for all, or your right to be equal in oppressing Black women?

These aren’t questions with simple answers. It’s easy to get so invested in this idea of sisterhood and solidarity that you ignore the harm done by unexamined anti-Black biases. Black feminism has always gone beyond the boundaries of narratives that center on the self and into discussions of what should be done so that not only are Black women safe from harm, so are our children and spouses—even the underpinnings of what allows us to survive in a hostile environment. Michelle Obama is indeed the First Lady, but she is also a Black woman born and raised on the south side of Chicago. The Obama girls aren’t likely to wind up exposed to gang violence, but as someone who was not as fortunate as her own daughters, Michelle is well aware that they need special protections, that with a father who is both revered and loathed they have to pull together as a family simply to survive the history they have made.

As we speak of what harms feminism, of what nightmares invade the feminist subconscious, we must remember that we are not all fighting the same forms of sexism. We are not all reaching for a place where we can escape a gender-based pedestal. We are not all seen to have virtue, much less be in need of protection. For some of us, the goals we set center on survival; they include community problems that affect us because of race, not just gender. Living at the intersection of racism and misogyny means more than dueling with identity politics—it also means setting examples for our children and our communities that may mean nothing to outsiders, but everything to those of us who are also living at that intersection.

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  • Jennie

    Such a great article. Thank you so much!

  • lioness

    Nice article. I have no time for “feminists” who do not recognize the importance of good mothering. I am a feminist who is working to not shortchange the next generation of feminist women and men.

    • Arekushieru

      Minor quibble: I am a feminist who recognizes the importance of good parenting, whether you are a mother a father. However, the reason I have a problem with ‘recognizing the importance of good mothering’, is because the direct association between importance and mothering seems to imply that women’s roles as mothers is the only important thing, after all. It doesn’t seem, however, to address the disparities observed between those who take on the PRIMARY responsibility of care-giving (women) and those who don’t (men).

      • lioness

        I would never imply that all women should be mothers. Not every woman has what it takes to be a good mother, just as not every woman has what it takes to be a good Supreme Court Justice (not that the two positions are incompatible, but I had to throw something up there to end the sentence). I have nothing but respect for those women who know they would not be good mothers and choose to go against the social norm and remain child-free. The damage inflicted on children by bad mothers cripples them for a lifetime.

        • Arekushieru

          Or has the will to invest in being a mother whether or not she knows she would be good at it, no? ;)

          • lioness

            I have nothing but respect for the women who get the majority of their shit together before having children instead of after. Timing really does matter.

        • Euphony618

          Women may have many reasons for choosing not to have children, regardless of whether they think they would be good mothers. I know I’d probably be a great mother, but I’m not so sure I want to have children.

      • lioness

        I grew up believing that all good caregivers were equal. I dearly wish that had turned out to be the case; it would make life so much easier. However, the overwhelming majority of the evidence shows that newborn babies have a distinct preference for the owner of the womb that they gestated in to be their primary caregiver for the first three years. Those who are denied that caregiver, even when they have competent, loving replacements, suffer from trust issues and related problems for the rest of their lives. Our social, cultural, and legal policies don’t reflect that fact; and our society as a whole suffers because of that lack.

        • Arekushieru

          I am not discussing the differences between the preferences of newborns but the responsibility of primary caregiver that falls on women’s shoulders, *regardless* of that fact.

          • lioness

            But the preferences of newborns are only preferences that matter when dealing with newborns. On the other hand social constructions carried out by grownups can be altered by grownups, and many already have. Every couple composed of rational people divides their duties individually depending on who is best able to function in each particular circumstance, i.e. which one is able to wake up quicker when the baby cries at 3am. As for the broader social issues that need to be worked at, yes underneath a false “family-friendly” piety America is notoriously hostile to children, their needs, their caregivers, and the needs of those caregivers that will remain in place as long as America talks about the “importance” of childrearing as some mystical thing that comes along with a double-X chromosome and has nothing to do with implementing genuinely child-friendly policies. But to do that we’d have to stop talking about false associations and start talking about associations that really do matter.

          • colleen2

            But the preferences of newborns are only preferences that matter when dealing with newborns.

            not true. The preferences and well, reality of the mother are equally important. If we’re going to mandate that women care for their infants exclusively for the first 3 years of life then we need to make certain that those women and their children are supported physically, emotionally and financially. WE do the precise opposite of that, particularly if those women are single mothers.

            Also I don’t believe your uncited claim. infants whose biological mothers die in childbirth, for instance, don’t appear to inevitably “suffer from trust issues and related problems for the rest of their lives” as you claim.

          • lioness

            “If we’re going to mandate that women care for their infants exclusively
            for the first 3 years of life then we need to make certain that those
            women and their children are supported physically, emotionally and
            financially” EXACTLY, thank you. But I said “primarily”, not “exclusively”.

          • lioness

            “infants whose biological mothers die in childbirth, for instance, don’t
            appear to inevitably “suffer from trust issues and related problems for
            the rest of their lives” as you claim.” And yet the data on the subsequent problems of orphans goes back to World War I.

        • Euphony618

          Guess adopted children and children who aren’t raised by their mothers (for a variety of reasons, including maternal death or incarceration) are SOL then? I don’t believe this claim without scientific evidence.

  • painkills2

    In researching the feminist movement, I was disappointed to see that ALL women were not included in the fight, and that some were marginalized. We can blame it on the times, but marginalizing women in the 21st century should not be accepted.
    For women who have the ability to be good mothers, and for those who have the choice, not working outside of the home should not be considered an anti-feminist stance. That’s just ridiculous.
    And why does the First Lady have to label herself as a feminist, or even choose that as her one and only cause? For stay-at-home moms, Mrs. Obama is a great role model, and just because I’ve never been able to be a stay-at-home mom, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate this role. After all, when a woman becomes president, her husband will fill the role of stay-at-home mom.
    And I don’t want to be a part of a movement that cannot see all sides, from the perspectives of ALL women, no matter their ethnicity, sexual preference, or gender role.

    • Arekushieru

      One glaring example of your first point: White suffragettes.

      I believe that feminism is about providing women with as much choice as possible. And, that, to varying extents, all women are still coerced by the patriarchy in some form or another, along race/class/sexual orientation/ability/looks/gender identity lines.

      And the fact that this would be considered revolutionary for men is part of the problem, unfortunately.

      • painkills2

        That was the point I was trying to make about a First Dad being revolutionary for men, when it really shouldn’t be. Just like it shouldn’t be considered odd when a feminist is a stay-at-home mom.

        Whenever the first woman is elected president, everyone will say it is the first step toward equality, just like they said President Obama’s election represented the removal of a barrier for race, but that turned out not to be true. It had the opposite effect, it seems, bringing out vitriol and hate like I’ve never seen before. I just can’t imagine what will happen when a woman becomes president. The First Dad better be one tough dude.

        • lioness

          Anytime a barrier falls, the energy that was holding it in place has to go somewhere. All that vitriol and hate is the dispersed rubble from that barrier falling.

  • Mikki Kendall

    Thank you all for reading & being willing to listen.

  • samazon13

    Thank you for this article – it shed some light on an area that is difficult for me to understand and navigate. When one has chosen to remain child-free, it is hard not to confuse the voices that are censuring and criticizing my choice, with the voices that are fighting for the ability to parent uncriticized and uncensured. Thank you for reminding me how very important this distinction is.

  • John H


  • Mandrake Park

    No type of feminist should hurt poor Black peoples, esepcially mommas and they babies. Michelle Obama have a long history of hurting poor black people in chicago, starting with her being Mayor Daleys assistant, the put the happy black face on lost of ethnic cleansing especially on the southside for him. The democ-rat-ic party just loves stuff like this to keep black folk on the plantation or keep the black bourgeoisie faithful in the garden, stables and big house,