The Black Women's Movement

A look at the Black Women's movement and its role within British feminism

By Black Cultural Archives

Claudia Jones by Claudia Jones Memorial CommitteeBlack Cultural Archives

Black Feminism

The rise of Black feminism in the UK can be traced to Black women migrants from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, who came to Britain after World War II. The emergence of the Black Women's movement had its roots in post-colonial activism and the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. It sought to give voice to the specific issues that affected them including race, gender, class and sexuality, and how they intersect. This image is of Claudia Jones, an influential feminist active during the 1940s-1960s.

OWAAD pamphlet (1978)Black Cultural Archives

A major theme for Black feminists was exposing how white supremacy and patriarchy had a profound impact on the lives of Black people, and Black women in the UK, and the injustices this brought. Some of the issues included family, reproduction, and of course, racism.

This image is of the poster used to organise the first Black Women's conference in 1979.

Speak Out PamphletBlack Cultural Archives

Some women, like Olive Morris, were also involved in the British Black Panthers and the Black Liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. Participation in these male-dominated Civil Rights movements, and the sexism and marginalisation they often encountered, led British Black women to begin organising their own campaigns.

OWAAD conference (1979)Black Cultural Archives

Black
Women's Movement

At the height of the Women’s Movement during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Black women became involved in struggles for social reform, most notably in the area of education, health, and police brutality.  This meant engaging in sit-ins, strikes, demonstrations, awareness raising and the establishment of Black Studies and Supplementary Schools to counter the mis-education of Black children. 

Papers and Photographs from the National Black Womens ConferenceBlack Cultural Archives

Organising

In 1978 the OWAAD (Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent) was co-founded by Gerlin Bean, Stella Dadzie, Olive Morris and others to discuss and address Black and Asian women’s issues. The first OWAAD conference was held at The Abeng Centre in Gresham Road, Brixton with a panel of speakers on education, employment, immigration, the health service and more. Hundreds of women converged from different groups and backgrounds - ordinary women with their own lived experience of racism and sexism. This image is of Sylvia Erika delivering a speech at the first OWAAD conference.

The Heart of the Race: ‘Black Women and Work’ chapter draftsBlack Cultural Archives

Many Black women who attended the conference were inspired to set up their own local groups and organisations across the country. Following the example of community-based groups like the Brixton Black Women's Group and Southall Black Sisters, Black women’s groups were organised in communities across the country. OWAAD acted as an umbrella group, proving a network for Black women involved in organising, resisting, creating friendships, forging solidarity with like-minded groups, and ultimately finding their own voice.

The focus of OWAAD’s campaigns centred around health, education, employment, immigration policy and the police. Their newsletter, FOWAAD!, was used to communicate with larger numbers of Black women across the UK.

This image is of OWAAD's newsletter FOWAAD.

The Heart of The Race: Introduction Draft and ResearchBlack Cultural Archives

Local groups like Brixton Black Women's Group and Southall Black Sisters, were key inspirations. Through this loose network Black women were organising, resisting, creating friendships and solidarity, and finding a voice.

This image is of Brixton Black Women's Group's newsletter, Speak Out.

Mixed pamphlets relating to the Black Women's MovementBlack Cultural Archives

Health

The treatment of Black women within the British health service, as both workers and patients, was seen as a yardstick for their social and economic value to Britain, and the provision of appropriate health care and access to knowledge about their bodies was a key issue for Black women.  

Black women were also in the vanguard of the community's efforts to promote awareness of Sickle Cell Anaemia, which affected both Black women and men. Thanks to these efforts the condition gained greater medical recognition in Britain.

Another critical issue was the prescription of Depo Provera - a contraceptive pill, which can have lasting side effects, leading to the ‘Ban the Jab’ campaign against its unethical use.

The Heart of The Race: ResearchBlack Cultural Archives

Education

The education system, like the national health service, served to institutionalise racial prejudices and assumptions. Black children were more likely to fail and more likely to be excluded from school. Many Black women helped to organise Saturday and Supplementary schools; others became teachers to try to counter the racism within the school system. One example was the campaign against 'Sin bins’.. 

The Heart of the Race: Early work on chapter fourBlack Cultural Archives

The Heart of The Race: Introduction Draft and ResearchBlack Cultural Archives

Work

Black women, traditionally the primary child-carers, have always had to work as hard as the men.  The impact of class, race and gender, compounded by rising unemployment among Black men during the recession of the 1970s and ‘80s, left Black women doubly disadvantaged. Groups like Wages for Housework (UK) argued that housework should be seen as paid work.  Other groups focused on inequality and discrimination in the workplace, supporting strikes like Grunwick and demonstrating against discriminatory practices that disadvantaged Black women. 

Heart of the Race (1985)Black Cultural Archives

The Heart of the Race

Although OWAAD was relatively short-lived (1978-1983), it’s impact and importance continue to be felt to this day. The development and impact of the Black Women’s Movement were captured in , 'The Heart of the Race' by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe.  Originally published by Virago in 1985, the book was republished in 2018 (Verso) as a feminist classic. This image shows the first  edition of The Heart of The Race, Black Women’s Lives in Britain (Virago, 1985).

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Learn more about the Black Women's Movement at the BCA

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Exhibit text written by Stella Dadzie

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