#WhenBlackWomenLead: Invisible No More

These women represent only a tiny fraction of the endless list of Black women “'barrier breakers'”

by Marcela Howell, February 19, 2018


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Black women have always been at the forefront of the most progressive movements in this country’s history, whether we are taking leadership in pushing for workers’ rights, women’s rights, scientific discovery or civil rights. Our blood, sweat and often our tears move issues of equality forward. Yet, too frequently, Black women’s leadership gets shoved aside—not even making it into history books.

How many people have heard of the Rev. Dr. Paulie Murray, Geraldine Roberts or Mary Talbert?

If not for the hit movie Hidden Figures, we would still be operating under the illusion that only White men forged the battle into space. Few people would know the extraordinary expertise of and important roles played by Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.

We also have led every social justice movement. Our activism was the foundation of the civil rights movement—Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black women, such as Clara Day and Dorothy Bolden, defined the beginning of the modern workers’ rights movement, founding and heading organizations dedicated to organizing workers. We championed women’s equality.

Sojourner Truth was an early suffragist and played a critical role in the movement to win women’s right to vote. Flo Kennedy founded the Feminist Party, a political party founded during the second wave of feminism.

These women represent only a tiny fraction of the endless list of Black women “barrier breakers”—those who have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to advance our country. How many of these names do you recognize without a Google search? Odds are, only a few.

To change this, we must rewrite history accurately and share our own narratives. Throughout Women’s History Month, In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda is launching #WhenBlackWomenLead — a social media campaign to educate young activists about the leadership role of Black women in progressive movements. In addition to promoting the individual achievements of Black women who have changed history, we will lift up the women who lead movements and foster change today. We will shine a light on the invisible women behind history and today’s most notable stories. While textbooks may leave us out, we to ensure that Black women are seen and honored in our social media feeds.

We will not stop there. In addition to educating, we are sparking action.

Last September, Black women gathered for our third annual Strategic Communications Summit.  The summit, themed “Writing Our Own Narrative: When Black Women Lead,” included more than 80 leaders and activists from eight Black women’s reproductive justice organizations, including Black Women for Wellness, Black Women’s Health Initiative, New Voices for Reproductive Justice, SisterLove, Inc., SisterReach, SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW!, The Afiya Center and Women With A Vision. We spent five days in skills-building workshops and strategic planning and advocacy sessions.

This year, Black women leaders and politicians will meet to develop a strategic agenda to move the country forward at Power Rising 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Through these movement-building efforts, we continue to train a cohort of Black women to drive change on the issues our communities face. We are ready to build upon our past to advance our rights in the future.

Look back at our history and you will see our unwavering, historically consistent commitment to justice. You will see all of the amazing things that Black women have achieved for ourselves and the entire country. You will see Black women’s legacy of principled leadership.

Now, look at the integral role we are playing today to combat oppression. This is the time to recognize our leadership. As politicians in power — from the White House to Congress—are attempting to turn back the clock on our most basic human rights, we are driving the resistance against their racist and sexist agenda. This is the decade of Black women’s leadership, a decade of societal change and liberation.

Recognize our leadership—and join us in pursuing equality.

Marcela Howell is the founder and executive director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda.

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