Evelyn M. Simien’s new book, Black Feminist Voices in Politics, puts in the crosshairs two forms of discrimination faced by black women: racism and sexism.
Very few books have looked at both, especially from a political scientist’s viewpoint, she says.
Although it is a scholarly work and is showing up on course
syllabuses, it is also being well received by non-academics.
Her hometown newspaper in Lake Charles, La., devoted a front-page story to Simien, and Ms. magazine recently reviewed her book.
The Ms. reviewer, Kimberly Springer of King’s College, London, wrote, “For those who need a jumping-off point for research on black feminism and black political participation, this is the book for you.”
As the reviewer pointed out, Simien brings forth “wonderful histories still emerging” about black female leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Many of these women have been ignored by historians, even though they worked side by side with contemporaries such as
Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, Simien says.
Ida B. Wells, an ally of Douglass’, lectured against lynching
in the early 1900s.
“Clearly she is the iconic figure that is the most dynamic, courageous, and daring in her fight to bring an end to lynching,” she says.
As Simien writes in her book, Wells in 1884 was denied a train seat that she had paid for in the first-class ladies’ compartment. She sued under the 1875 Civil Rights bill, won $500 in damages, and then filed a legal challenge when the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned her victory.
A founding member of the NAACP along with DuBois and others, Wells was criticized by black leaders and female suffragettes for being too vocal
Her friend Susan B. Anthony wanted Wells to step into the background when the
suffragettes sought support
from Southern white women, Simien says.
Douglass was perhaps the most progressive man in supporting women’s suffrage, Simien says, but even he argued that black men were more disserving of the vote.
Most people do not realize, and even American history texts fail to point out, that the 15th amendment in 1869 granted voting rights only to black men, Simien says.
Wells and other black female political leaders faced the dual barriers of gender and sex discrimination that Simien examines in her book both in narratives
and data analysis of the current situation.
Just three years ago she sat on
a panel where survey takers used a familiar “homemaker item” in
a survey of women: “How often
do you think of yourself as a homemaker?”
Yet that item would never be an accurate measure of feminist consciousness for most African American women, Simien says, because they have always worked. Homemaking, for them, has been the exception, not the rule.
The common “feeling thermometer” survey question on the women’s movement also doesn’t gauge their level of feminist thought, she says.
| Evelyn Simien, an assistant professor of political science, recently published a book titled Black Feminist Politics.
|Photo by Jordan Bender
Asked how “warmly” they feel about the women’s movement on a scale of 0 to 100, African American women typically choose a low score because they have so often been excluded from the movement.
Simien, using information from the National Black Election Study (1984-88), the National Black Political Study (1993-94), and the National Black Feminist Study, which she conducted in 2004-05, has looked at whether gender
and race consciousness in black women have mutually reinforced or detracted from each other.
She has found that while they reinforce each other, they have different effects on black policy attitudes.
Feminism comes to the fore in their support of abortion rights, while race figures more strongly in their support of affirmative action, she notes.
She has also found that black males are sometimes more likely to support black feminist principles than females.
A greater percentage of black men than women support black churches’ appointing more female clergy.
Likewise, more black men believe that black feminist groups help the black community, she says.
Black men are growing more liberal in each data set that she has studied, from 1984 to 2005.
That may reflect social changes, as more males are raised by single black mothers, which might increase their sensitivity toward women’s issues, Simien theorizes.
But it doesn’t explain why African American girls are not developing more feminist viewpoints, she notes. Her guess is that women are socialized to prioritize their race over their gender and are more conscious of their racial identity.
Simien teaches undergraduate courses in black feminist politics, African American politics, and introductory political science courses.
She teaches a graduate seminar in black feminist theory that has drawn students from history, education, anthropology, sociology, English literature, and psychology, as well as political
A lot of students who want to study both race and gender seek her out, she says.
She would like to design a course that would focus on women in the civil rights movement.
Race and gender have been examined closely by well-known scholars in history and sociology, Simien notes.
“My ambitious goal has been to do a similar thing in political science.”