The Intersection of Gender and Racial Equity: Why American Feminism Should Care

By Cherita Ellens, President & CEO of Women Employed; and Felicia Davis, President & CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women

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We are witnessing a shift in this country in how we discuss, address and take action against racism. Policies are being created that uphold the rights of citizens who have historically been neglected. Monuments symbolizing racism and the horrific history of slavery are coming down. Corporations are making bold stands aimed against racism and toward improving racial equity. And, very long overdue, raw and meaningful conversations are happening around where we go from here.

The women’s movement has a responsibility to move past conversation toward shaping consequential action and change. Why should those involved in the gender equity movement also lend their voices to fight for racial equity? The answer is very simple — achieving gender equality for women is not possible without addressing the hurdles created by systemic racism and sexism. Gender and racial equity are intertwined and inextricably linked, and this is the moment for us to center the needs and voices of women of color. Teresa Younger, the CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, stated in an interview with Quartz last year that “the biggest obstacle is that we keep trying to silo issues and that we’re not seeing them as interconnected.” In addition to race and gender, Younger referred to other connections, such as between healthcare and reproductive rights and pay equity and workplace equality.

In 2019, Heartland Alliance published “The Gender Disadvantage — Why Inequity Persists,” a report on Illinois poverty. In this report, they stated that women of color fare worse than white women in almost every domain: they’re paid less, have less wealth, are more likely to be low-wage workers, have poorer health outcomes, have higher incarceration rates, experience higher rates of domestic violence, and have worse economic outcomes. And, in Illinois, Black women have a poverty rate three times higher than their white counterparts.

Sojourner Truth, often considered the Black feminist foremother, always linked the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, understanding that for Black women, race and gender could never be separated. While women of color, particularly Black women, have always balanced the needs for racial justice and gender equality, American feminism has not.

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In this moment of awakening, the women’s movement must use its privilege in service to justice and equity for women of color. We must work to dismantle barriers and the systems of oppression holding women of color back in order to move us all forward. We must examine what it means to be anti-racist and how that shows up in our gender equity work. We must evolve conversations around pay equity by addressing occupational segregation and low wages, understand and advocate for health equity while fighting to maintain reproductive justice, further study racial equity in education and its impact on women of color, among others. There is a perfect quote by Lilla Watson that articulates the crossroads of where we are once again in American feminism, “If you come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” How will we decide to show up?

Pushing from within the women’s movement is one strategy, a critical one. To achieve equity, we must look to other movements as well. We must amplify the voices of women within the Racial Justice Movement to ensure that we are not erased and that we are centered in its agenda. Just as there can’t be gender equity without racial equity, there can’t be racial equity without gender equity.

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Black women killed by police violence, albeit at a lower rate than Black men, cannot be an afterthought. When we say the words Black Lives Matter, that should mean Black lives across gender. According to a report put out by PNAS in August 2019, Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over the life course than are white men. Black women are about 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than are white women, and at the same rate as Latino men.

But Black women aren’t just dying in greater numbers at the hands of police. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes than white women. In the more than 200 stories of African-American women collected by NPR and ProPublica, the perception of being dismissed, devalued, and disrespected by health care providers was a constant theme. The bias and discrimination Black women face when getting medical care compounds the harm of already existing inequality.

This is all the more alarming because, more than any other racial or ethnic group, Black women shoulder the weight of supporting their families. More than four in five Black mothers (84.4 percent) are breadwinners, with a majority of Black mothers (68.3 percent) bringing in the primary source of economic support for their families. We cannot afford to continue the systems of oppression that are resulting in the deaths of Black women, in higher rates of poverty, low wages, and an increased pay gap leaving families and entire communities to suffer.

But all talk of progress will be empty words unless our movement centers the voices of women of color, particularly Black and Latinx women. The liberation of all women must be bound to that of women of color. For the women’s movement to understand our needs, women of color must shape the conversation. We don’t need any more saviors. We need collaborators and co-conspirators.

This work is not easy. And our organizations have not always gotten it right. But we are committed to learning from our own history and striving to do better. We are determined to face those mistakes head on, to grow, and to include a diversity of women at all tables where decisions are made.

We need a truly inclusive movement where women of all backgrounds work together for change — for gender AND racial equity. Only then will we see sustained progress for women’s rights.

Cherita Ellens is the President and CEO of Women Employed, an organization that since 1973 has relentlessly worked to improve the economic status of women and remove the barriers to economic equity. With a set focus on increasing the economic stability and opportunities for women in low-wage jobs and women of color by effecting policy change, expanding access to educational opportunities, and advocating for fair and inclusive workplaces so that all women, families, and communities thrive.

Felicia Davis is the President and CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW), a leader in the movement to achieve basic rights and equal opportunities, investing in women and girls as catalysts, building strong communities for all. Since its inception in 1985, CFW continues to be the only organization in the Chicago region to apply a gender lens and take a comprehensive approach to understand and address the ever-evolving issues impacting Chicago area women and girls.

WE relentlessly pursue equity for women in the workforce by effecting policy change, expanding access to education, & advocating for fair, inclusive workplaces.

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