This Author Is Redefining Feminism in the Civil Rights MovementApril 02, 2014
Culture was a crucial battleground in the civil rights movement. Just ask author, historian, and 1993–94 AAUW American Fellow Ruth Feldstein. In her recent book, How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement, Feldstein documents the influence of women entertainers like Lena Horne, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson on the civil rights and feminist movements in the 20th century.
“I wanted to tell the stories of women whose voices have not been heard,” Feldstein told us. “When we bring black women entertainers center stage, we see that in fact they were trailblazers.”
But mainstream history texts don’t always recognize the role black women played in social justice movements.
“The nostalgia that many Americans have for a certain story about civil rights has kept many women’s voices out of the story,” she said.
Concerned that students aren’t getting the full view of history, Feldstein is committed to giving black women’s stories a platform. As an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Feldstein hears from her students that history, just as it seemed when she was growing up, “tends to revolve around male leaders.”
Her approach works to develop the common (and too-narrow) definition of what it looked like to be a civil rights activist or a feminist in that era. “We need to expand the parameters in which we see people acting politically. Plenty of people never marched or boycotted or worked on behalf of any particular candidate.”
But there are other ways of influencing politics and culture. “The women I write about did not necessarily call themselves feminists,” Feldstein said. “But gender was critical to their vision of black freedom. They offered critiques and made demands that became central tenets of feminism generally and of black feminism specifically.”
Feldstein holds up Nina Simone, famed singer and songwriter, as a prime example. “When Simone rejected the impulse to ‘talk like a lady’ [in her song “Mississippi Goddam”] … she was saying that women should not have to behave a certain way to be recognized as deserving,” Feldstein said.
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“Here and in other songs, Simone staged an assault — simultaneously on racism and on expectations of female propriety. For her, black power was about black female power.”
There is a crucial, ongoing need for this kind of work: reevaluating history and promoting those important voices that get lost or marginalized along the way. That’s why we’re proud to be an investor in Feldstein’s career, and we’re excited to see where she’ll go next. A powerful writer and academic, Feldstein has already seen praise for her book in the New York Times. Here’s to hoping that her text will soon be the norm in teaching — not the exception.
Ruth Feldstein’s American Fellowship was sponsored by the Dr. Alice M. Waddington Endowment.
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