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Bridging the Gap Between Black and White Feminism

Flo Kennedy and Gloria Steinem.
Flo Kennedy and Gloria Steinem. Photo: Courtesy of New York Public Library

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the civil-rights movement and feminism didn’t always see eye to eye, but Gloria Steinem and the lawyer and black-power leader Flo Kennedy formed a powerful partnership. Last night at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Steinem spoke with Sherie M. Randolph, associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Michigan and author of Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical. To put together the book, Randolph read more than 20 years of Kennedy’s letters and artifacts. She and Steinem discussed intersectional feminism, politics, and Steinem’s own book, My Life on the Road. Some key quotes from their conversation below:

Flo’s introduction to double discrimination: 
Randolph: Flo first got into Columbia University during WWII when they started opening up the doors for women because men were off at war and taking jobs within the government. After the war, they wanted to get rid of the women, so she threatened to sue. When she asked why they weren’t letting her in because of her race, the dean of admissions told her, “No no, it’s not because you’re black — we can’t let you in because you’re a woman.” So she challenged them that if there was a white man who had lower scores than her, she wanted to be let in. All of the white men in the program had C- and D+ averages from Yale, and here she was, an A+ student, which led her to winning her case.

How Flo and Gloria worked together:
Steinem: Being on the road with Flo gave new meaning to the phrase “It’s a trip!” She was incredibly generous — my favorite story was when we were in some small university town in a general store. There was a young woman waiting on us who kept showing us things that she clearly wanted for herself. Somehow Flo persuaded that young woman to let Flo buy her the purple pantsuit as a gesture of faith in her future, without ever taking any dignity away from her.

In terms of speaking, there was no question I had to go first, because after Flo I would have been so much more anticlimactic! It was a great feeling — almost like a jazz improvisation. She was a little alarmed by me quoting facts and trying to prove myself. She took me aside and said, “Look, honey, if you are lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankle, you do not send somebody to the library to go and find out how much the truck weighs. You get it the fuck off!”

Their experiences working in both civil rights and feminist groups: 
Randolph: I like the notion of being an itinerant organizer, in that women work best in a lot of different organizations, and for Flo Kennedy that was the case. Her politics and ideology could not be met in just one group. It’s interesting that people write that predominantly white feminism groups had women of color as members — they didn’t. Flo was the only black woman at most of these meetings.

Steinem: Whenever there was a press conference, reporters would ask me about women’s rights and Flo about civil rights. [Flo] would let it go for a little while, and then she would let them have it because they shouldn’t have been dividing us — we were both there fighting for both issues. At small conferences, the idea that a white woman was traveling with a black woman, speaking together, was bizarre to some people. So occasionally a guy would come and sit at the back of one of our talks, and would say something like “Are you lesbians?” and Flo would say, “Are you my alternative?”

How Flo wanted to bridge the gap:
Randolph: Flo had a habit of bringing white feminists to black-power spaces, so at the black-power conferences in the ‘60s she brought Ti-Grace Atkinson and Peg Brennan along. Queen Mother Moore didn’t like it and said that the white women had to leave, and Flo said no, they’re here to learn and they’re staying. What’s really important about this story is that sometimes we imagine white women as so powerful that they’re going to take over our organization. And Flo didn’t see white women that way — she saw them as potential students and potential allies.

How Kennedy and Steinem worked together to destroy myths about feminism:
Randolph: The major myth Flo fought against was that black power was inherently sexist. So many black women came to feminism as black-power activists themselves — Denise Oliver-Velez for instance — and have said that it sharpened their knowledge of the revolution. The other myth was that black women weren’t involved in feminist organizations. Flo was not only there: She was a founder, and a theoretical impetus for many of the ideas we think of as predominantly white feminism. Much of the organizing, shock tactics, and slogans came from her. I’ve been to so many talks where people have the facts wrong and say Gloria Steinem influenced Flo Kennedy.

Steinem: Not at all! One proof of this is from Ms. magazine’s first poll of women’s issues. The result was that about 30 percent of white women and more than 60 percent of back women were involved. It was a national conscience. Overall, black women were experiencing discrimination in so many ways, and once you experience discrimination for one reason, you recognize when it comes at you for another reason. I disproportionately learned feminism from black women.

How the division between different feminist groups should be erased:
Steinem: It helps if we understand that sexism and racism function together and are intertwined. Traditionally white women would be on a pedestal, though as a black woman once said in the suffragist era, “a pedestal is just as much a prison as any other small space.” They are sexually deprived up on that pedestal to keep the race pure, and women of color are sexually exploited to produce more. At the other end of the spectrum, we have to make an effort to get to know each other. bell hooks has an absolutely great political rule, which is that if you can buy shoes together, you can do politics together.

The relationship between activists and politicians:
Steinem: The best people in politics came out of movements. People like Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm did not hold their finger to the wind — they became the wind. They understood that it’s not just about the office but changing those public opinions. Social-justice movements have more credibility than political parties and politicians combined. Activists need to talk about the issues and say what this vote is going to mean in our daily lives. For instance, if kids on campus are graduating in debt, explain it’s because of state legislatures. They’re taking money away from universities and using it to build unneeded prisons. Flo was amazing in recognizing that the one place on earth where the least powerful have as much power as the most powerful was the voting polls. Don’t just change the bodies in the office; change the very questions politicians are asking.

Randolph: I found a talk at Texas A&M where [Gloria] and Flo sent around a list that asked the audience who was going to run for all different positions in office. It encouraged women to run for mayor or city council. They were really successful in getting women to run for office in little towns all over the country that never would have thought to do that before.

On how to find value in your voice:
Steinem: That is the whole ball game. In my case, the reason that I started speaking with other women was because I was terrified! I devoted 30-something years of my life to never speaking in public. There’s only one thing worse than having to say what you don’t want to say, and that’s not finding your voice at all. You’ll always wonder: What if I had said something, would things be different? Don’t worry about what you should do, just do whatever you can because the littlest thing can turn out to have the most enormous influence.

Photo: Courtesy of New York Public Library

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph.

Photo: Courtesy of New York Public Library

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem.

Bridging the Gap Between Black & White Feminism