Did Black Folks Gain From the Women’s Movement? - Higher Education

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Did Black Folks Gain From the Women’s Movement?

by Black Issues

Did Black Folks Gain From the Women’s Movement?

I have always been intrigued by the career of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The Stanford Law School graduate’s legal career was clearly affected by sex discrimination, yet O’Connor has tended to take mixed positions in cases of race discrimination. Her opinion in the Croson case was, at best, disappointing. She suggested that African American businesses would have to “prove” past discrimination, and suggested an arithmetic formula to show underrepresentation in business activity. The problem with the formula is that it took history as given, ignoring the fact that the universe of Black firms competing for opportunities had been shaped by exclusionary laws, discrimination in business lending and other factors. “Except in cases of sexual discrimination, she has generally resisted judicial activism,” says the Encyclopedia.com entry about Justice O’Connor.
Yet many of us link the civil rights movement with the women’s rights movement, and would like to think that the two movements share goals.The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Nearly two generations ago, we thought these laws would quickly move us toward equality. Now, the ink has dried, the laws have been tested, and we still have unfinished business. The pace of progress has been slow, and it has been uneven. I’m not sure we can adequately compare African Americans and women in terms of the pace of progress, but it does make sense to wonder, especially in Women’s History Month, if African Americans have benefited from the women’s movement.
How might we measure the benefit? Do African Americans do better in institutions, especially institutions of higher education that are headed by women? Do women such as  O’Connor, victims of gender discrimination, exhibit more sensitivity toward race discrimination? Someone with more time than I have might look at colleges and universities headed by women and compare them with those headed by men. Are African Americans more likely to be promoted, tenured or supported in leadership than their counterparts in other institutions? Does a leader’s inner circle include more African Americans? Do women leaders have such an enhanced commitment to diversity that they improve enrollment, graduation and placement so that it shows up in their institutions? Do women legislators and leaders have a better record than men of supporting civil rights legislation? These are all questions that can be empirically tested.
Casual empiricism raises questions. One of my most searing memories is the 1984 Democratic convention, the one where the Rev. Jesse Jackson electrified the nation with his “God ain’t finished with me yet” speech. At that convention, women were half of the elected delegates because of a rule change in the Democratic Party that pushed affirmative action for women. However, many of the very women who were seated because of that rule change opposed an affirmative action measure that would have provided proportional representation for people of color. O’Connor’s positions on race are cut from this cloth. Affirmative action for women is largely responsible for O’Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But the beneficiary of affirmative action does not consistently argue it for others.
Conservative women such as O’Connor, can’t necessarily be expected to be sensitive to issues affecting African Americans. But many more progressive women seem to stumble when it comes to flexing the muscles they gained through the women’s movement to improve the status of African Americans. I think, for example, of the slow response that women’s organizations had in the effort to oppose Proposition 209, the California anti-affirmative action initiative. To be sure, there were some efforts, but they were weak, uncoordinated and ultimately ineffective. Women’s uncanny ability to gain from affirmative action without pushing it for people of color has always astounded me.
Former Bennett College President Gloria R. Scott, an expert on women’s leadership issues, and past president of Girl Scouts USA, has another perspective. She says the women’s movement galvanized and energized Black women’s organizations, and that such electricity will have positive consequences for the African American community. She noted that not only the sororities but other Black women’s organizations have been working on a range of important social issues, partly empowered by the energy of the women’s movement. She says the agendas from the 1977 and 1997 National Women’s Conference remains relevant, and that Black women’s involvement in
those conferences suggests that the women’s movement has made a positive difference for Black people.
In Women’s History Month we are reminded that women have come a long way, baby. And on issues of fair representation, equal pay, educational access and economic justice, we’ve still got a long way to go. But do Black folks gain from the women’s movement? Do women leaders do a better job in tackling issues of racial economic justice? I’ve posed a set of empirical tests. Which women leaders pass? 

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