Why you need to know these 6 Black women who have fought for social justice causes: ‘I don’t have the privilege to sit back and do nothing’

Rachel Grumman Bender
·11-min read

Every March for Women’s History Month, we celebrate women’s myriad accomplishments and the paths they forged over the course of American history. But Black women in particular are often left out of the feminist narrative.

Saida Grundy, an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University, tells Yahoo Life that this is something that’s “deeply historical,” despite the fact that Black women — facing both sexism and racism — played an important role in the fight for women’s rights early on. In fact, Grundy points out that the history of the women’s suffrage movement was “born out of abolitionism.”

However, some leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, including “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony actively cut out Black women,” says Grundy, noting that Black women were often excluded from or left out of events, including the famous women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and had to march behind white activists in women suffrage parades. “We still have white feminist historians who tell a false narrative about this and who glorify Anthony and Stanton,” says Grundy. “You're not hearing that it wasn't for all women and that the 19th amendment didn’t solve the problem. This has continued through the present day.”

Celebrating Black women who are often left out of the feminist narrative. (Photo: Getty)
Celebrating Black women who are often left out of the feminist narrative. (Photo: Getty)

A 2020 study that looked at attitudes toward Black women compared to the other groups found that “Black women are often overlooked in people’s conversations about racism and sexism even though they face a unique combination of both of these forms of discrimination simultaneously,” lead researcher of the study, Stewart Coles, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan’s Department of Communication and Media, told CNN. “This ‘intersectional invisibility’ means that movements that are supposed to help Black women may be contributing to their marginalization.”

As part of Yahoo’s Allyship Pledge, we are recognizing and celebrating Black women in feminism and their dedication to social justice causes, including discrimination in the workplace and at school, sexual violence, police brutality and voting rights.

Nupol Kiazolu: speaking out against police brutality

Activist Nupol Kiazolu. (Photo: Getty)
Activist Nupol Kiazolu. (Photo: Getty)

Kiazolu first garnered national attention at 12 years old when she went to school wearing a hoodie with “Do I Look Suspicious?” written on the back to protest the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman. After Breonna Taylor’s murder in March of 2020, Kiazolu felt compelled to speak up again, telling Seventeen: “Black women are overlooked in this fight against police brutality.” In fact, among women and girls, Black women have the highest risk of being killed by police. They are about 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than white women. Black women are also about 17 percent more likely to be in a police-initiated traffic stop than white women, and 34 percent more likely to be stopped than LatinX women.

Kiazolu, now 20 years old and a police brutality activist and organizer, told Yahoo Life: “As a young Black woman in this country, I don’t have the privilege to sit back and do nothing. I could still be killed because of the color of my skin.”

California State Senator Holly Mitchell: protecting the rights of Black women at work

 Senator Holly Mitchell
Senator Holly Mitchell (Photo: Getty)

The California State Senator and social justice activist led the charge to stop racial discrimination “based on a person's hair texture or hairstyle if that style or texture is commonly associated with a particular race or national origin” by authoring the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act) in 2019. The act, which passed in California in July 2019, extends “statutory protection to hair texture and protected styles such as braids, locs, twists and knots in the workplace and public schools.” The act has caused a positive ripple effect, with other cities and states across the country adopting the law.

According to the CROWN Campaign, Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. They are also 80 percent more likely than white women to agree with the statement, “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.”

Before the senate vote on the bill in April 2019, Mitchell said: “Many Black employees, including your staff members, will tell you if given the chance, that the struggle to maintain what society has deemed a ‘professional image’ while protecting the health and integrity of their hair remains a defining and paradoxical struggle in their work experience, not usually shared by their non-Black peers.” She continued: “Members, it is 2019. Any law that sanctions a job description that immediately excludes me from a position, not because of my capabilities or experience but because of my hair, is long overdue for reform.”

Marsha P. Johnson: advocating for Black transgender women

A 1970 photo of Marsha P. Johnson handing out flyers in support of gay students at NYU. (Photo: Reuters)
A 1970 photo of Marsha P. Johnson handing out flyers in support of gay students at NYU. (Photo: Reuters)

Johnson was a key figure in the 1969 Stonewall uprising — a series of protests after police officers raided a gay bar in New York City, which “marked a major turning point in the modern gay civil rights movement,” according to PBS.

The activist and self-identified drag queen frequently organized and participated in gay rights protests with her friend Sylvia Rivera. Both Johnson and Rivera co-founded STAR in 1970, which helped organize and support homeless transgender youth (the organization folded in the mid-1970s). 

In 2019, The Marsha P. Johnson Institute was founded in response to the murders of Black trans women and other trans women of color, who are often excluded from social justice initiatives. The Institute organizes and advocates for Black transgender women in particular, who are killed at disproportionately higher rates within the trans community. Between 2013-2020, more than 700 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals were killed in the U.S. Trans women of color comprise approximately 4 in 5 of all anti-transgender homicides.

Latham Thomas: fighting to end bias in healthcare for Black women

Latham Thomas, doula and advocate for Black people who give birth. (Photo: Getty)
Latham Thomas, doula and advocate for Black people who give birth. (Photo: Getty)

As a doula and maternal health advocate, Thomas is well aware of the “alarming” racial differences in maternal mortality in the U.S. Thomas, who founded the maternity lifestyle brand Mama Glow, which offers doula support to women, has called out how in the U.S. “maternal mortality and morbidity disproportionately affect Black women.” She added: “In the U.S. there is a complex history of racial and ethnic bias that renders women of color and Black women especially vulnerable during pregnancy, birth and the early postpartum period.”

Black women are 2 to 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and the disparities worsen with age. When it comes to pregnancy-related deaths, the rate for Black women between 30 to 34 years old is more than four times higher than the rate for white women, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report.

There are several factors that contribute to these racial disparities, including the lack of health coverage, which makes it harder for Black women to receive adequate prenatal and postpartum care. In addition, Black patients' reports of pain and symptoms are often underestimated or untreated by healthcare providers, compared to white patients. Black patients are also less likely to be administered pain medications by doctors and when they are given, they’re prescribed at lower quantities.

Fannie Lou Hamer: paving the way to protect Black votes

Fannie Lou Harmer, civil rights leader, in 1968. (Photo: Getty)
Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader, in 1968. (Photo: Getty)

Hamer, a passionate voting and women’s rights activist, co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 to counter efforts to deny Black people the right to vote. That same year, Hamer, the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, helped organize what was called the Freedom Summer to increase Black voter registration in the segregated South and was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation. 

Despite multiple obstacles in her path, including a near-fatal beating while in police custody, Hamer persisted and continued to inspire others with her speeches about voting rights, which “rivaled Martin Luther King Jr. in her command of audiences,” according to the Washington Post. Hamer’s moving speech at the Democractic National Convention in 1964 helped “set in motion a series of events that led to the 1965 passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act (VRA),” according to Smithsonian magazine.

Tarana Burke: empowering Black women to speak out about sexual violence

Activist Tarana Burke (Photo: Getty)
Activist Tarana Burke (Photo: Getty)

The Me Too movement went viral in 2017, in part thanks to a tweet by actress and activist Alyssa Milano. But the movement was started by activist and sexual violence survivor Tarana Burke, who founded the Me Too Movement in 2006 to spread awareness and unify victims of sexual violence, which disproportionately affect marginalized people — in particular, Black women and girls.

According to UNICEF, “nearly one in five girls is sexually abused at least once in her life” and in the U.S. 18 percent of girls report that “by age 17 they have been victims of a sexual assault or abuse at the hands of another adolescent.”

But Black women in particular have a disproportionately higher risk of sexual violence. One in four black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18, while one in five Black women are survivors of rape, according to National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community.

According to UNICEF, “the objectification and sexualization of girls in the media are linked to violence against women and girls worldwide.” A 2017 study found that, compared to their white peers, Black girls are seen as more adult-like and less innocent — starting as young as age 5 — by U.S. adults. Jamilia Blake, PhD, co-author of the study and an associate professor at Texas A&M University, told USA Today: “Black women have historically been seen as aggressive, loud, defiant and oversexualized. We have a societal stereotype that is pervasive. It goes across the media, and it’s embedded in our history and our interactions.” Added Blake: "When this stereotype is put on girls at a young age, it robs them of the naiveté of being a child.”

YAHOO ALLYSHIP PLEDGE: WHAT YOU CAN DO

Support efforts to end police brutality against Black women by:

  • Calling for more transparent and accountable policing in your community.

  • Demanding that police violence against Black women be recorded and analyzed with the same rigor as data for Black men.

  • Advocating for Black women who have been victims of police violence.

  • Sharing the stories of Black women impacted by police violence using the hashtag #SayHerName.

  • Honoring the voices and elevating the experiences of Black women facing this issue.

Follow organizations & leaders raising awareness of police brutality:

Support efforts to protect Black trans women by:

  • Demanding that elected officials reject harmful anti-transgender legislation at the local, state and federal levels.

  • Increasing the cultural visibility of Black transgender women and ensuring their full inclusion within all communities.

  • Supporting and elevating Black transgender voices in media.

  • Acting as an ally and using your privilege to fight systemic racism that marginalizes Black trans women.

  • Lending your support to the Equality Act, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that will explicitly establish permanent protections against discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Follow organizations & leaders on efforts to protect Black trans women:

Support efforts to decrease maternal mortality among Black women by:

  • Calling for systematic, policy-driven, and community-based changes to the current system of maternal care.

  • Advocating for Black women who are being ignored by healthcare providers.

  • Elevating the experiences of Black women facing this issue.

  • Pushing for legislative change through The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021.

Follow organizations & leaders working to decrease maternal mortality:

Support Black girls and women by:

  • Elevating and honoring the experiences of Black girls and women and keeping them front and center in the work to be done.

  • Creating content that respects and honors a Black child’s right to their childhood and challenging hypersexualized images of Black children in the media.

  • Demanding that individuals who work with Black children, including teachers and law enforcement officials, address and counteract this implicit bias against Black girls through training.

  • Encouraging Black girls and women to share their stories:

Follow organizations and leaders working to support women and girls:

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