by Kyla Guilfoil, Asst. News Editor
Manhattan College junior Caroline King presented her research regarding Black women and their role in early Marxist feminism during last week’s Women and Gender Studies (WAGS) Student Brown Bag event. King, a double major in history and international studies with a WAGS minor, titled her presentation “Where Credit is Due: How Black Women Changed the Course of Marxist Feminism.”
Nefertiti Takla, Ph.D., professor of history and coordinator of the WAGS minor, introduced King at the event, “[King] is passionate about amplifying the voices of the unheard and underrepresented women, to make feminism more inclusive.”
King’s work came from a research paper that she had completed in Takla’s global feminism course last spring. King explained that Takla had assigned a semester-long research paper that could be anything, as long as it was a global issue that also involved feminism. King had taken immediate interest in the topic of Marxist feminism, and her research evolved to show her who the real key players in the Marxist feminism movement were.
In her presentation, King explained that Marxist feminism had its roots in Russia and Germany during the 1920s, and was revived in the 1970s in the US during the Wages for Housework Movement. The white women of the 1970s are often credited with the radicalization of Marxist feminism, but King argues that it was Black women in the 1940s that did so first.
In the global feminism course, King learned about 1970s US feminists Kate Millet, who introduced the term “patriarchy,” and Silvia Federici, who argued that if housework was paid as other work is, it would no longer be the norm for the female gender to be responsible for all housework.
However, Black women had already posed radical Marxist feminist ideas in the 1940s, decades before the second wave feminism of the 1970s.
King took special attention to profile Claudia Jones: a feminist, activist, communist, Marxist and Black nationalist, who was originally from Trinidad and Tobago. Jones published “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman” in 1949, which King argued as the blueprint for the foundations of Marxist feminism.
The work highlighted the unique plight of Black women, which could be addressed through Marxism and Communism. Jones established the theory of “super-exploitation,” which was an early form of intersectionality that tied together three forms of oppression: worker, woman worker, Black woman worker.
King explained that Jones articulated that Black women’s oppression did not come from capitalism alone, but rather from multiple lenses of their identities. According to King, Jones specifically highlighted domestic Black women workers who were not protected by labor unions or minimum wage laws and were subject to rights violations and assault. Black women returned home from taking care of a white family to begin taking care of their own in “unwaged housework.”
King expanded her argument by profiling Frances Beal, who King called a Black feminist and political activist that was “ revolutionary in nature and expressed the importance of dismantling systems of oppression rather than upholding them.”
Beal pointed out that Black women never had the luxury of being stay at home mothers, and instead always had to go out and work as well as perform unwaged housework in their own homes because of the racial and class oppression of Black men. Beal called this idea “Double Jeopardy,” which King compared to Jones’ “super-exploitation.”
“[Jones and Beal’s] experience of race, class and gender exploitation as Black women led them to the understanding that capitalism is not the only societal oppressor,” King said during her presentation.
King explained that her presentation was intended to give credit to the Black women whose feminism is not recognized in the same way that white feminism is.
“A lot of times my research focused on crediting earlier Black women, because we often look at white, liberal feminism, and how white women are often given all this credit in feminism,” King told The Quadrangle. “Sometimes white women forget or neglect the intersectionality or inclusion of other marginalized women. They fail to remember that a lot of these women are not just oppressed by gender, but also through their skin color, through their class and through a lot of other marginalizing factors that often white women neglect and forget about.”
During the event’s question period, Ashley Cross, Ph.D., professor of English, asked King to reflect on her position as a white woman presenting about Black women who had historically been excluded from the conversation by white women.
“I am a white woman presenting about Black women, so it’s an interesting line to walk on,” King said. “How do I honor these women, without appropriation? I think that one way we can do this is by incorporating more of these Black women’s work into the classroom first. So, maybe when we talk about Marxist feminism, we talk about Claudia Jones before Silvia Federici, since in chronological, historical order, her work came first. I think that definitely takes a lot of reflection to kind of overcome our identity and implicit biases as historians.”
King continued to explain that when she first was introduced to Marxist feminism in Dr. Takla’s course, she was very impressed by Federici’s work. However, she realized that she needed to give more credit to the women that had already begun making claims about Marxist feminism before Federici.
“[I] realize[d] she doesn’t deserve all of this credit, you know, women came before her, who were experiencing things she never could have possibly imagined,” King said. “So, I think really reflecting on those implicit biases is the only way that we can really overcome these discrepancies and inequalities in liberal feminism.”
Jonathan Keller, Ph.D., professor of political science, asked King whether she thought it was truly encapsulating to call what Jones and Beal did as Marxism. King agreed that these women dissected Marxism and feminism to become something that they had not been before.
“Women like Claudia Jones take this idea of deconstructing capitalism as a way of ending sexism and gender oppression, but she’s adding in her own experience of racial oppression as well,” King said. “So, I guess we kind of have to recontexualize, or reorganize, how we see Marxism feminism through that lens…“Maybe it deserves a new name because they really take Marxism past where it originally began.”
King also shared with the audience that this was her first real attempt at a developed research paper. King attributed Takla for providing consistent guidance through the process.
Through her research and ability to question the traditional understanding of radicalized Marxist feminism, King used the WAGS Brown Bag event as a way to give Black women the recognition that she believes they deserve. This practice is something that King hopes to expand upon after her time at MC.
“I’d love to go to law school, and eventually I’d love to work as a judge. I’d love to work for the American Civil Liberties Union, and just kind of working to level the playing field for people, advocate for women’s rights, for Black women’s rights, etc.,” King told the Quadrangle.
“Caroline is a sharp, inquisitive and insightful student who is deeply committed to social and racial justice,” Takla told The Quadrangle. “For this reason, it was a pleasure to work with her in my Global Feminisms course last semester. The significance of Caroline’s work lies in its potential to bring the theoretical contributions of Black Marxist feminists to the center of historical narratives about Marxist feminism in general.”