by Beverly Lowy
Perhaps nothing is more awe-inspiring than the accomplishments of African American women, some famous and some unknown except to those whose lives they have touched. All are heroines who have struggled past the barriers of racism, classcism, sexism and often the most dire poverty, to leave a positive mark in the world. Some who are better known include activists such as Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Maxine Waters, Aileen Hernandez, Myrlie Evers, Rosa Parks, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm – the list can go on and on. We also have the writers, the actors, the singers, the entertainers who have succeeded against incredible odds – the worst being their color and their sex. Among those who won’t be recognized in the history books are the many anonymous Black women physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners who have dedicated their lives to bringing healthcare to those who would not otherwise have had it; the teachers who have worked under the most appalling conditions – frequently with only minimal supplies – to bring the light of education into the otherwise dark and hopeless lives of children living in the ghettos; the community activists who have fought the government and big business to keep hazardous waste dumps and other dangerous pollutants out of their neighborhoods; and the ordinary women, the mothers and grandmothers, who have done the extraordinary: Working to put bread on the table while they strive to protect their children from the crime infested, drug-ridden neighborhoods where circumstances force them to live. In special celebration of Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, we pause to honor these women and to applaud them all. But no commemoration could be complete without mentioning the ineffable Flo Kennedy.
|“NO MATTER HOW POWERFUL |
AND RICH AND ANYTHING ELSE
THAT BLACK PEOPLE ARE,
THEY RETURN TO A SENSE OF
POWERLESSNESS AND FEELING
VICTIMIZED WHEN THEY TALK
TO WHITE PEOPLE”
One of the first African-American women to graduate from Columbia University School of Law (in 1951), Kennedy has been instrumental in founding a number of organizations dedicated to fighting for women’s rights and civil rights, among them, the Coalition Against Racism and Sexism and, in 1971, the Feminist Party. The Feminist Party is a national but informal organization still in existence, that works for women’s equality and choice by instituting legislative action and political action on behalf of candidates. The first candidate to be supported by the party was Shirley Chisholm.
Kennedy was also one of the original founders of NOW, but abandoned it soon after when she decided it was geared too much to white, middle-class women. In 1969, she gave up her law practice to “kick more ass” by lecturing and writing. Her book, Abortion Rap (regrettably out-of-print), which she co-authored with Diane Schulder Abrams, was a comprehensive compilation of information on the abortion issue, including the testimonies of women who were forced to face illegal and unsafe abortions.
Kennedy still attends NOW conventions and continues to speak out in her inimitable, no-nonsense way that so delights the press. At the NOW convention in July, 1991, months before the Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas hearings, Kennedy admonished forcefully against Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court: “I find him an embarrassment…. [someone] who has climbed the ladder and pulled it up behind him.” Months later she referred to Anita Hill as having “revived and saved” the feminist movement.
Today, at 76, although she has been in pain and progressively bad health for years and is reliant on a wheelchair, Kennedy still writes, travels to give lectures and continues to fight injustice on issues ranging from prostitutes’ rights, racism and sexism to consumers’ rights, unethical business practices and Native-American land rights. Albeit she is frequently confined to her bed, she is never alone. Her phone rings constantly, as does her doorbell; people are in and out, talking, eating, just sitting around. Recently, documentary filmmakers Camille Errante and Carole Richards interviewed Kennedy for a new video, “We Won’t Go Back! The Story of the National Organization for Women.”
“We were there for hours,” says Errante, “and we managed to get a compelling half hour of film. People never stopped coming in and Flo would break off to chat with each one.”
That’s similar to the experience I had when I interviewed Flo in 1985, just before she joined On the Issues as a Contributing Editor. Following is a portion of that interview, which captures some of the flavor of the unique Flo Kennedy, however inadequately. Only in person can one fully appreciate the earthiness and zest of this straight-talking dynamo.
ON WHETHER WOMEN FEAR POWER
Women are not afraid of power , they’re afraid of the oppressor.’ Cause the oppressor is very ruthless with people in power from oppressed groups. Also, women tend to do things that are safe. And what’s safe does not put you in a position of power. Women are growing all the time, but they’re doing termite type stuff, which means you chew the porch until it falls down and then they step out on the porch and…But, we’re expanding our interests. Feminists called me to come out against apartheid and we went over and spoke out at the South African Consulate. In other words, women are pushing their way into areas that are not just “women’s issues”…in fact, so much so that Nairobi put out the word through the Heritage Foundation that [at the World Conference of the U.N. Decade for Women] it’s a “no no” to talk about women’s issues other than crotch issues. Women are not going to be encouraged to talk about South Africa, apartheid, Ethiopia, certainly not the Arab/Israeli scene and so there again, women are being silenced. The next move is the dollar power move and that’s got to be the feminists’.
ON THE MEDIA’S VIEW OF THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
See, what you must understand is there’s a lot happening, but you’ll never know it because as long as we allow the media, at our expense, to go their own merry way and ignore our kind of women, we wouldn’t know what was going on no matter how much was happening. One of the reasons we’re ignorant is because we’re treated like mushrooms…kept in the dark, piled over with shit and we grow fine. And we contribute because we continually buy the products that run the media – networks especially – with Procter & Gamble, General Foods and all that stuff.. .Why would they include us in the power structure when by leaving us out, they have one less crowd to worry about? Now, if they decide, because Jesse Helms is so anti-woman and anti-media, to recruit us to join them to fight the right wing, we might get some results…but, right now they treat us like enemies. Although we may soon be the only friends they have between one group and another, Ted Turner, Jesse Helms and all these other entrepreneurs and merger-makers, but it certainly won’t be because we were politically astute enough to press our point at this moment.
ON WHY SO FEW WOMEN OF COLOR HAVE BEEN ATTRACTED TO THE TRADITIONAL WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
Because you’re white. I think more because you’re white than because the issues don’t interest them. In other words, I think they’re more suspicious of racism in white people than they are of sexism in the community in general and I think it’s dumb because I think I’m smarter than most white people and I also think that’s because I’m a lawyer and I’m very self-assured. No matter how powerful and rich and anything else that Black people are, they return to a sense of powerlessness and feeling victimized when they talk to white people. Why should Blacks trust whites? After all, Black people went into the labor movement and wound up getting trashed by unions that won’t let ’em come in; and they are very accustomed to helping people when they’re trying to be powerful politically and then being left out and trashed. The women’s movement has been no different – no better – and in fact, worse, because women are very racist from the git go. Socialists that dominated the labor movement were a little smarter and were a little more understanding of racism in a philosophical way. But the women in the feminist community were only politicized as far as sexism went and not politicized as far as racism or classcism to the same extent….And, keep in mind, there are events that Black people have that you don’t get to, so that Black people don’t know what you’re up to and you don’t know what they’re up to.
|KENNEDY HAS BEEN INSTRUMENTAL |
IN FOUNDING A NUMBER OF
ORGANIZATIONS DEDICATED TO
FIGHTING FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS
AND CIVIL RIGHTS
Don’t forget you’re going against a very racist and scary and brutal society… .Black people are very much afraid of authority. Their bosses are probably white and everybody they’re scared of and mistrust are white people. The more they see that Black people are already on board, the more they are reassured. Another thing – Black women think you’re only concerned about your own issues. They want to see feminists come in where women are involved in the Black community, whether it’s about a feminist issue or not. See, that’s what they can understand and see getting together with. So, they have as much right to say, “Why aren’t you with us?” as you have to say, “Where are the Black women?” I’ve been hearing this from white women ever since I started in the ’60s. I still work with white women because I think they’re important and I understand the pathology – but there’s no reason for Black women to be with you guys because you’re not relevant to them and you don’t come to them when the issues are simple and simple numbers could make a difference. They’re more sophisticated and you need them worse than they need you. So, they don’t believe you’re interested in them, and you don’t believe they’re interested in you – and you’re both right.
Eight years have passed since that interview. Today, issues affecting women of color have been prioritized into the platforms of the women’s movement and far more concerted efforts have been made to attract these women to join. And this past November, women proved they’ve gone beyond “doing termite-type stuff and showed real political clout.
However, we still have a very long way to go. It is thanks to women like Flo Kennedy – as if there’s anyone else quite like Flo Kennedy! – that this has happened at all.
(We express appreciation to our Contributing Editor Irene Davall, Flo Kennedy’s longtime friend and comrade-in-arms in the civil rights and women’s rights movements, for her invaluable assistance in preparing this article.)