It’s hard to know where to start with Women, Race, & Class. The courtship of white supremacist ideology by the suffrage movement? The tangled history of birth control and eugenics? Angela Davis’s 1981 comparative study uncovers the crucial tensions and untold stories underlying the intersection of feminism, civil rights, and class struggle. She traces these themes from the brutality of chattel slavery to her contemporary moment, revealing the parallel threads of bigotry and resistance which run through the American story. She exposes how sexist, racist, and classist biases wormed their way into the foundations of even the most well-intended social movements, impacting their ideologies in ways which persist to this day.
Regardless of how much or how little prior knowledge you bring to the book, you’ll walk away with a far more nuanced understanding of the history of American activism and the vital importance of intersectional approaches in modern day movements.
In 1944, Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama in its “Dynamite Hill” neighborhood — so called for the frequent bombings meant to scare black residents into leaving. Davis went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy in East Berlin and became an assistant professor at UCLA in 1969, where she became involved in the all-black Che-Lumumba branch of the Communist Party and the Black Panthers.
In 1970, she was charged as an accomplice when the guns used in the Marin County Courthouse incident were found to belong to her. Davis was held in jail for two years before she was finally acquitted of all charges. In the book, If They Come in the Morning, Davis and her co-authors recount their experiences with the criminal justice system, criticizing the mass incarceration and abusive policing of black Americans.
Since, she’s continued her work on prison abolition and lent her support to other causes, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to immigration reform.
I’d highly recommend doing a deeper dive into Angela Davis’s life and work. A short paragraph doesn’t nearly do her justice. But it is important to at least appreciate the intersectionality of Davis’s activism before delving into her words. Women, Race, & Class is not just a work of counter-history — but a call to action.
Davis directs our attention to activists you probably didn’t learn about in high school. Names like Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave, who became the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court in the 1790’s or Lucy Parsons, a 19th century Socialist Organizer who spoke out against the unique oppression of working women, including sex workers.
By highlighting the advancements made by female, black, and working class activists, Davis demonstrates how traditional accounts of American history have been skewed toward the white, male, upper class experience.
But Davis doesn’t shy away from illuminating the shortcomings of early white feminists. Her analysis of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s complicity in advancing white supremacist ideology to rally support for their causes exposes the deeply rooted legacy of racism within feminist activism.
However, there are also stories of incredible solidarity between white and black women. Fearing that a pro-slavery mob might try to attack the black women in attendance at her abolitionist meeting, Maria Chapman Weston “insisted that each white woman leave the building with a black woman at her side.” In 1833, Prudence Crandall operated a school for black students in Canterbury, Connecticut until the white townspeople had her arrested.
Since the publication of Women, Race, & Class, the work of demanding inclusivity from social justice movements has continued to pick up speed. Seven years after the publication of the book, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionalism” in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” Like Davis, Crenshaw argues that black women have been doubly oppressed by race and sex, and doubly marginalized by the feminist and civil rights movements.
While many contemporary organizers have been proactive in bringing an intersectional approach to their activism, critiques of protests like The Women’s March reveal that there’s still work to be done, and it continues in the writing of contemporary activists. Angela Davis wrote the foreword for When They Call You a Terrorist, a memoir written by Black Lives Matter co-founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullors with asha bandele, a former editor at Essence. Additionally, a collection of essays edited by Roxane Gay titled Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture released May 1st.
So, whether you’re a seasoned social justice organizer or just starting to get involved, reading Women, Race, & Class will help give you the tools to recognize the oversights of previous movements, allowing you to be the best spokesperson, educator, or ally you can be.
Clara Malley is an Editorial and Community Intern for The Fullest based in NYC. Find her at @claramalley on Instagram or say hi at email@example.com.