Different Approaches to Liberating Minds and Bodies: Gender Activism in the 1970s

Endorsed by the Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Gender; Gender and Sexuality; Politics; Popular Culture; Print Culture; Women's History

Papers Presented

"Should I Be Concerned?": Gender, Class and Pornography Advice Columns in the 1970s

The sexual revolution of the 1970s created new opportunities for popular pornography-based magazines to launch. While Playboy had been in circulation since 1953, Hustler and Playgirl began publishing during the early 1970s. While attention is most often placed on the images, the advice columns in these magazines offered a much-needed public forum to discuss matters often kept private.

Examining the advice columns across publications during this era helps shed light on matters of deep concern to readers. In Playgirl, female-identifying readers used the space between centerfolds to discuss matters of domestic violence, workplace discrimination, equality, gender roles, sexual health, abortion, religion, politics and empowerment. In contrast, in an era before the Internet, advice seekers in Playboy asked for clarification of the names of high-end cars, where the greatest gold reserves were, and how to navigate social relationships in upper class settings. Hustler provided a place for both men and women to write in, often about sexual health concerns. Those who were experimenting with BSDM, thought they might be bisexual, or were interested in other non-traditional male and female sexual relations also wrote to Hustler and were typically warmly greeted.

This presentation will contextualize the different eras and intended audiences for each of the magazines. It will showcase the different styles, needs and responses that writers received to their questions posed to pornography-based magazines. These columns shed a unique light on the deep inequalities within U.S. society, most obviously based on gender and sexuality, but also of class, and occasionally race. It finds that some advice columns were often a comforting, rather than a wholly standardizing space, while others offered a very rigid, stifling portrait of gender and class roles, particularly around definitions of masculinity.

Presented By
Rahima Schwenkbeck, George Washington University

This Is How We Do It

To varying degrees, second wave feminism addressed a variety of aspects of women’s lives, including workplace harassment, violence against women, family planning and bodily autonomy, and political power. The women who participated in the modern women’s movement often carried into it their own assumptions about race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and religion, and they often failed to interrogate how their own social identities affected their views of women’s liberation.

Black women’s political organizing during this wave reflects their own unique concerns about women’s issues as well as how they could be addressed in the most meaningful and effective ways. Some organizations that black women started during the mid- to late-1970s reflect their attempt to engage in critical analysis of their problems, as well as proposing solutions to them. Among the most well known of these are the National Black Feminist Organization, the Third World Women’s Alliance, and the Combahee River Collective.

My paper will show how these organizations were a part of a trend in black American activism beginning in the 1960s in which women expanded the liberation agenda beyond race and gender issues to include those based on class, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity. Additionally, some of these organizations, particularly the Combahee River Collective, operated as a cutting-edge social change organization that served as an example to activists in other women’s rights organizations of how they could engage in intersectional analysis of their problems, and work in coalition with activists who did not necessarily share the same identities, or have the same problems. Furthermore, I will connect the legacy of the Combahee River Collective to today’s Movement for Black Lives.

Presented By
Joseph R. Fitzgerald, Cabrini University

"It is our duty to defend all oppressed peoples”: Armed Resistance as a Feminist Strategy for Liberation

This presentation centers on the Black Women’s Liberation Committee (BWLC), a SNCC caucus established in 1968 which evolved into the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA). I trace and analyze how the TWWA organized, trained, and developed Third World women to fight capitalism and the ways in which their efforts enhanced the national liberation struggle by attracting women who were not interested in joining gender-mixed organizations or who were turned off by the machismo in other groups like the Black Panther Party (BPP).

TWWA directly challenged the discourse of masculinity that permeated much of the Black Power movement. While some groups designated men as warriors for the revolution and formed all-male cadres, TWWA members believed that women had a significant role to play in armed struggle. They identified Black and Third World women as one of the most revolutionary forces confronting the U.S. ruling class. Although other revolutionary Black Nationalist organizations claimed to be the “vanguard,” I argue that the TWWA was unique in its assertion that Black women were well positioned to draw the masses into revolutionary politics because of their potential to be the most class-, race-, and gender-conscious and politically advanced group.

I contend that the TWWA approach differed from other revolutionary organizations and the Black feminists who were active within them. Although women in the BPP rejected the masculinist rhetoric of armed self-defense and were trained in karate and the use of firearms, they had to struggle with Panther men to be considered revolutionary fighters. The TWWA assumed that women were capable and valuable members of the Black liberation struggle—and central to the fight for freedom. Drawing on Triple Jeopardy, the TWWA newspaper, archival materials and oral histories I discuss the group’s revolutionary feminist vision.

Presented By
Jasmin A. Young, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Amira Rose Davis, Penn State University
Amira Rose Davis is an Assistant Professor of History and Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University. She received her doctorate in History from Johns Hopkins University in 2016. Davis specializes in 20th Century American History with an emphasis on race, gender, sports and politics. Her research traces the long history of Black women’s athletic labor and symbolic representation in the United States. She is currently working on her forthcoming book manuscript, “Can’t Eat a Medal”: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. She has recently appeared on NPR’s Code Switch and in Yes! Magazine talking protest, politics and sports. Davis is also the co-host of the Feminist sports podcast, Burn it All Down

Presenter: Joseph R. Fitzgerald, Cabrini University
Dr. Joseph R. Fitzgerald is an assistant professor of history and political science at Cabrini University, where he also coordinates its Black Studies program. He earned a BA, MA, and PhD in Black Studies, and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies. Fitzgerald specializes in critical race feminism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Waves of the modern Black Liberation Movement. His biography of Gloria Richardson, "The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation," was published in December 2018. He is working on a biography of Barbara Smith, a co-founder of the Combahee River Collective.

Presenter: Rahima Schwenkbeck, George Washington University
Rahima Schwenkbeck is an adjunct professor at George Washington University, and founder of Time Machine Historical Consulting. She is a modern American business historian who studies communes, environmental disasters, economics, Juggalos, tourism, utopias and dystopias.

Presenter: Jasmin A. Young, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Jasmin A. Young is a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African American Studies. She is currently developing her manuscript, Black Women with Guns: Armed Resistance in the Black Freedom Struggle. The project explores the extensive practice and advocacy of armed resistance by Black women. Dr. Young’s research interests center broadly on the intellectual history of Black women, state violence and resistance, and radical Black feminism. These interests are woven into her scholarship, professional service, and passion projects.