WOMAN'S LEGACY: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History by Bettina Aptheker

WOMAN'S LEGACY: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History

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I have been a political activist all my adult life. I was born into a Communist family and I have inhabited this world for as long as I can remember."" For scholar/activist Aptheker (Women's Studies, U. of California, Santa Cruz), personal experience--and not just ideology--triggered each essay in this penetrating collection. Finding that she and other women active in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement were written out of the male histories, Aptheker dug back into abolitionism to see if women had been similarly neglected. She reveals the full extent of women's participation in Female Anti-Slavery Societies, the leadership role of black teachers, the female campaigns against racist marriage laws, and the boycott of cotton and other slave-labor goods. Then she pushes the usual linkages between abolitionism and feminism one important step further by viewing emancipation as a ""revolutionary event""--and by insisting that ""all social progress in the country, including the progress of organized labor, populist farmers, and women, was bound up with the outcome of Black Reconstruction."" And, as she demonstrates, the short-lived Reconstruction governments did pass laws on wages and property rights advancing the cause of women. In the second essay, on the crusade against lynching, Aptheker finds further support for this revolutionary potential. The personal trigger lay in her desire to ""resist the racist use of the rape charge against Black men, and at the same time counter the pervasive violence and rape that affects women of all races and classes."" A tall order--but she shows how Ida B. Wells and other black women in the antilynching campaign, by arguing against the myth of the black male as rapist, ""simultaneously affirmed the virtue of Black womanhood and the independence of white womanhood."" While white feminists did not always realize the black movement's revolutionary potential, black spokesmen such as W. E. B. DuBois recognized the necessity of women's emancipation. Writing on DuBois, Aptheker first recalls her childhood affection for the man with the ""delicious laugh,"" then expands on how DuBois lived out his belief that ""The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge. She must have the right to motherhood at her own discretion."" The final essay, ""The Matriarchal Mirage,"" developed out of Aptheker's involvement in the defense of Angela Davis and the trial attempt to apply the Moynihan thesis to Davis, painting her as ""the epitome of the Black Matriarch--criminal, scheming, without morality."" Aptheker ties the Moynihan thesis to the changing relationship of black women to the means of production (from isolated domestic service to mainstream jobs), and sees it ""timed to have an impact on the civil rights movement at its apex. . . by introducing a sexual battle that had hitherto not characterized the black experience."" In each of these cases--Reconstruction, the antilynching campaign, the attack on the black family--Aptheker perceives a ""heritage of resistance. . . that heralds the woman's cause in profound and compelling detail."" Through the personal and the political, a course keenly plotted--and arguments well worth considering.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Univ. of Massachusetts Press