Angela Davis

My second piece in this ongoing series is on Angela Davis. It would be impossible in a short article to focus on the whole life and works of such an influential and prolific human being, these pieces are really introductions which will hopefully generate new interest or rekindle fond memories. I’ve also begun to realise the Herculean task I’ve given myself in writing these pieces, which are taking me days to complete. I will therefore be focussing on discussing key aspects of her 1981 seminal book and putting it in context of 2020 political narratives. This will  hopefully be  a catalyst , akin to an online book club , please join in the conversation , add comments , the revolution starts here .

 “women, race and class

.I will also be exploring and analysing the 2018 interview with Davis for channel 4 news. The interview is important in that it both puts Davis’s ideas in a more contemporary context, but also reminds us of the power and legacy of the huge wave of political activism and events that took place in 1968.

Women, Race and Class

So much of the book is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1981, however the stand out chapter in terms of topical relevance, for me  is chapter 12 Racism, birth control and reproductive rights  It’s  contemporary relevance is multi- faceted , firstly there is the timeliness of the reiteration that reproductive rights are central to the emancipation, and ongoing freedom of women. Clearly, these reproductive rights are under attack from the Trump administration and his recent appointment of Amy Coney Barrett only cements his alliances to the Christian, anti-abortion, alt right.

The other key topical points of analysis are thus. Whilst the demand in America for pioneering 19th century feminists for “voluntary motherhood “is clearly laudable. It ignores the structural class and race context of women’s experience of motherhood. I have written previously about this in regard to the English  feminist heroine of reproductive rights Marie Stopes, Whilst her pioneering work as a Dr to mainstream access to contraception are praiseworthy , her motivations and many of her  eugenicist beliefs are both abhorrent and too often,  conveniently ignored . She not only wrote about enforced sterilisation but actively lobbied the PM to “ensure the sterility of the hopelessly rotten and racially diseased “.

Sadly in 2020 Britain the same eugenicist arguments are both politically and publicly rearing their ugly heads. Whilst many are content to subtlety push the message that the poor should not have children they cannot afford to feed. Others are less subtle. In 2018 as a Tory MP Ben Bradley explicitly stated that the unemployed should be urged to have vasectomies. The use of reproductive medicine as a form of eugenic social control, against the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, the racially undesirable is more than a stain on civilised societies. It still, understandably shapes both the conscious and unconscious attitudes of those groups to reproductive medicine.

Davis describes a notorious case, unbelievably in 1973, of two black sisters age 14 and 12 were forcibly and un beknown to them, sterilised by orders of the Montgomery Community Action Committee.

One of my own personal bug bears is that whilst neo liberal feminists are very willing to publicly  denounce  the patriarchal  heinous crimes of pariah states , such as Chinas forced abortions or denounce the lack of reproductive rights in demonised  countries , they are less than willing to look at the eugenic links to feminist heroes like Stopes, or to acknowledge the illusion of pro -choice within a system that so demonises poorer mothers , especially single parent ones, leaving poorer women with limited choices.  

Davis talks about the seeming paradox that whilst black and Puerto Rican women were more likely to be the victims of criminalized abortions, they were less likely to be involved in the feminist movement’s work to fight for legalised abortions. In the immediate years before abortion was decriminalised, 80 % of women who died at the hands of back street abortionists were black and Puerto Rican women.

So why were they so invisible in the public feminist fight for safe legal abortions? As Davis points out the experience of abortion is very clearly related to class and race. This cannot be overstated, pro- choice, must mean real choice, which many poorer women just don’t have, many of them choosing abortion because of their difficult material and life experiences, not because they didn’t want to be mothers.

Davis further talks about the horrendous reproductive reality of slave women, many of whom were raped and impregnated by their masters, or whose lives were so brutalised that they are self-aborted, rather than bring a child into those circumstances. Its no wonder then that this cruel legacy and abortion not as a personal choice dissuaded black women from wanting to be publicly associated with the pro- abortion movement. Davis is critical of the lack of inclusivity and attempts to understand all women’s experiences of abortion. Summing up the still prevalent simplistic narrative still coming from right wing “feminists” today that poorer women should simply stop having sex or use contraception to free themselves from poverty. even worse, cruelly judging poorer women for giving birth.

“As if having fewer children could create more jobs, higher wages, better schools etc. etc. This assumption reflected the tendency to blur the distinction between abortion rights and the general advocacy of abortions” P.185

One falsely claims the title of prochoice feminist, if you don’t explore the context of choice and the illusory nature of choice for poorer women. The UK Labour party has many woman MPs who proudly boast of their feminist pro choice credentials .And whilst it is  true that many like Stella Creasey have done brave, which they have been attacked for in gaining abortion rights  Northern  Ireland , what they are less conspicuous in is there public fight to protect poorer women from benefit cuts . In 2015 the feminist Labour leader Harriet Harman whipped Labour MPs not to vote against the Tory’s welfare bill. She publicly stated that the electorate have a right to be critical on where its money goes on benefits. The results of that legislation have been catastrophic to poorer women. This is a scandal, underlying the fundamental problem in the lack of intersectionality of neo liberal feminists who simply fail to acknowledge the illusory nature of poorer women’s reproductive choices 

Davis’s feminism views the world though not just the prism of gender but the reality of class and race, in every aspect of life, very much both personal and political. This is exemplified very well in relation to domestic labour and the clear benefits to white women of black women’s domestic labours for them.

Davis’s earlier chapters clearly demonstrate the links between slavery and domestic drudgery, the mythologised Southern” beloved” house salve , the cliched  mammy character  The reality of the abolition of slavery was that for many ex slave women they merely replaced a life of domestic drudgery for one white family for a life domestic drudgery on a fragmented insecure basis to multiple families. According to the 1890 census 30.8% of black women worked in household domestic service. These women in Southern America, although being intrusted with the care of white children, were still subject to the humiliating Jim Crow race laws. A black servant’s words “As soon a s I did not present myself as a menial … by not having the white children with me , I would be fore with assigned to the “ “ seats or the coloured peoples coach “

Harlem domestic workers bravely organising and trying to unionise in face of racism not just from employers, the state, but unions.

In many ways little has changed. Although there was a shift away from paid domestic in private homes, it is evident that as more and more women entered the paid workforce. we have also seen the regrowth of paid home domestic labour. The growth of paid home cleaners, nannies, au pairs, nearly always migrant women, taking on the responsibility of domestic home labour of richer women. If ever there was a discussion opening   point on intersectionality, it’s here, the links between the progress of a small number of richer, privileged white women, their professional successes.  But who is cleaning their offices, their homes, taking care of their children? What price are these poorer, often migrant women paying in relation to their own fragmented family life? Many of whom have left their children behind in poorer countries, or their elderly parents.

The 2018 interview with Davis was in part to mark the 50th anniversary of 1968 a year described as “shattering America”.

One of the main reasons for starting this series is to look at history and perhaps forgotten messages to understand where we’re at now , so its well worth doing a bit of background work  looking at some  of the seismic and often violent  events that took place in ‘68

At the beginning of the 1968 Jeanette Rankin, an 87-year-old Congresswoman from Montana lead a march of over 5,000 women on a protest against the Vietnam war. Importantly these women collectively transcended boundaries of race, class, age and politics and gave the growing women’s movement a slogan “sisterhood is powerful “

During the year there were many acts of US sate brutality against black, civil rights protesters including the police shootings of student protesters against the segregation of Orangburg’s , south Carolina only bowling all. Three protesters were killed and 27 wounded. But of course, the most famous act of racist violence in that year was the April assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee. Also, in April, after a 90-minute shootout between police and black panthers in Oakland California, police shoot Bobby Hutton 17 as he tries to surrender.

In May Paris erupts with large scale student protests and sit ins, joined by workers and a general strike, revolution is in the air.

The legacy of Martin Luther King and his “poor people’s campaign “lives on.

In June 50,000 people join the solidarity rally for jobs, peace and freedom in Washington DC.

And finally, in September, perhaps epitomising the evolution of the feminist movement, feminists protest the Miss America pageant, in Atlanta New Jersey

The interview starts with Davis being asked what her reflection on the struggles of ’68. Two recurring themes throughout the interview are central to understanding both Davis’s central messages and her personality. Never once does she slip into negative pessimism, failure really is not an option. She is reflective, yes, but never regretful. Her reflection on ’68 focuses on the power of solidarity, both on a local level and Internationally. later in the interview she talks about her period in jail as a political activist and how if it weren’t for International solidarity and efforts to free her, she would have languished in jail a lot longer. She also acknowledges the true meaning of solidarity, that must come from inclusivity, recognising not just gender, but class and race.

Moving on to the now and stark reality of 50 years later Trump being in power, Davis again reiterates both her positivity and her underlying political messages. Trump does not represent the views of many Americans; she points out that he won in an election where only 50% of the electorate voted. Highlighting the similarities in the political scenes of both America and UK, she points out that the two-party system fails to represent many. She talks fondly of Corbyn and her desire that should become PM, when asked about the relevance of older politicians like Corbyn and Sanders she talks about political generationality, the importance of connecting what has gone before to now. Whilst she talks that her biggest hope is for younger people coming forward into political life , she stresses the importance of recognising the struggles and ideas of those that went before them and the reality that change can take decades to happen.

When asked what Obama’s political legacy is, her considered answer is that he always acknowledged that he was just one man, that his power to elicit change as one person was limited. Returning to this idea of the personalization of politics , when talking about yourself as an icon , again she stresses the point that its not about one person , its about a movement and its ideas, which very much reflects what must be viewed as Corrbyn’s legacy . Focus on the ideas that do not die, not one person. Her view Of Obama is that of apolitical  catalyst  , the hope that inspired in many ways may have been crushed , by his failure to illicit any meaningful changes to the lots of black and working class American lives, but he was arguably the catalyst that  provoked the grass roots BLM matters movement.

Davis has been through so much , her time in prison as a political prisoner, when asked about this , she reflects with a  smile , that it was the solidarity of supporters from all around the world that secured her freedom. She also talks about prison being the place where she learnt to do yoga.

Although Davis uses her vote and has stated that she will vote for Biden, her lack of faith in parliamentary democracy rather than being pessimistic is for me positive in this post Corbyn Starmer period. For Davis its movements and grounds up resistance, not politicians that effect change, which is a strong guide to where perhaps many of us who feel so politically alienated should be focussing our energies

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