How Black Womanhood Has Evolved Throughout The Decades

Still we rise.

Human Interest

Black women are the core of this country and are the stern foundation of the Black race. They are often the least celebrated in history books and in our day-to-day lives because of intersectionality, being that they are Black and women. Black womanhood has evolved immensely over the decades, but unlike many other individuals, our change and opportunities have always developed slower because of the lack of support Black women often have. Either dealing with sexism, racism, or being gaslighted for their experiences.

Black womanhood is defined by unapologetic Black women that persevered through every storm regardless of the mishaps.

Here is a snapshot of Black womanhood and Black feminism in America throughout the decades. The good, the bad, and our bittersweet realities all in one.

​Black Womanhood During Slavery


Enslaved women lived very different experiences; if you were light skin, you were considered a house slave and assigned domestic tasks. Black enslaved women faced several harsh stereotypes like being the nurturing mammy, lustful jezebel, or aggressive sapphire. Light skin slaves were often favored because their skin tone was the closest to white, and they were often the main target to be raped by male slave owners.

Dark skin enslaved women were known as field slaves, and they were demanded to do more grueling tasks. Field slaves would work ridiculous hours ranging from sunrise to sunset, women worked the same amount of hours as men, and pregnant women worked until the child was born. Older Black women would be considered less valuable because of their limited strength, so they would take care of the children and younger women if needed. Slavery is the reason colorism is still a prime issue globally; it created a caste system that has evolved over the generations and across the globe, perceiving darker skin as problematic.

Black Womanhood During Abolitionism And The Underground Railroad

Black women were the leading force of the abolitionist writing, lecturing, and leaders of escaping slavery. One of the most prominent women during this time was Maria W. Stewart, who was the first Black woman to publicly address slavery and criticizing Black men for not standing up and being heard about the rights they deserve. Many abolitionists were also educators like Sarah Mapp Douglass, who ran a school for free Black children in Philadelphia, and she also taught kids and adults in New York.

Harriet Tubman wasn't a lecturer but she led hundreds of slaves to the north, an activist at heart, and collaborated with women's rights groups. At the time, the leader of Black feminists was Sojourner Truth. She lectured about women's rights and anti-slavery and joined a traveling anti-slavery circuit alongside Abby Kelly Foster.

Black Womanhood During The Civil War

Rosa Parks gives a speech at the Poor Peoples March in 1968 Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

During the Civil War, Black women didn't have the privilege of contributing to the Union supporting troops in the war—like their white counterparts. And they didn't have the option to fight in the Civil War like Black men. Black women's workload just increased at their plantation and household labor. Some women took this opportunity to flee slavery with their children but faced several difficulties along the way.

Black women faced "formidable obstacles to freedom: limited mobility, little knowledge of geography, and concern for loved ones, further complicated by the encumbrances of escaping with young children." Despite all of their challenges, some of them were able to stick together as a family in innovative and creative ways.

Black Womanhood During Harlem Renaissance

During the Harlem Renaissance, some Black women pursued being a librarian or a teacher, while others decided to be artists and writers, amplifying their truth.

Black women were the integral parts of the Harlem Renaissance. Taking roles as editors, organizers, decision-makers, and they helped publicize and shape the movement.

During that time, many Black women artists addressed race and gender issues and amplified their truths of what it was like to live in the world as a Black woman.

Black Womanhood During Jim Crow In The South

Washington Dc Girl GIF by Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture Giphy

Right after Emancipation, Black women tried to devote most of their time to their families by withdrawing from field labor, but they ended up having to work at least part-time because of white landowners. Formerly enslaved Black women were finally able to marry their Black male partners legally. Most Black women were restricted to just working domestic jobs, and they were finally able to get an education and build school establishments for every grade level.

America's race-based segregated economy took advantage of Black women domestic servants requiring them to work excessively long working hours, pay them tremendously low wages, and demanding them to complete an unreasonable workload.

Black Womanhood During The Civil Rights Movement

Black women were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement, though many dealt with gender and sexual harassment. They built the grassroots organizations in cities and small towns in the South and for national movements. Ella Baker is known to be one of the most influential women in the Civil Rights Movement, working in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), starting as a field secretary and later becoming the director of branches. There were countless unnamed Black women who contributed to the movement that seem to just be shadows in society's eyes compared to Black male activists.

As journalist and minister Barbara Reynolds mentioned:

"It was not just a few leaders—it was women ... who really put their mark on history."

Black Womanhood During The Black Power Movement Late 60s To 70s

Photo by Benedikt Geyer on Unsplash

Black women were the trailblazers of the Black Power Movement. Some Black women joined serving both rank-and-file, national organizations, and leadership roles. Some Black women chose to focus on community control and self-determination through welfare rights and local neighborhood rights. Though there were issues with marginalizing Black women within the movement—Black women didn't stop fighting for inclusive Black power, demanding organizations to combat sexism, capitalism, and racism.

Black women joined the Black Panther Movement in the 60s after a year of its founding. Some of the most prominent Black women leaders in that organization were Joan Tarika Lewis, Ericka Huggins, Elaine Brown, and Angela Davis. There were also other prestigious organizations fighting for Black power, like the Black Liberation Army, with Assata Shakur at the front of their organization and the several Black women demanding justice in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Black Womanhood During The New Jim Crow

Black women have accomplished a tremendous amount of work in the 21st century, though we still deal with oppression through systemic racism. Black women have continued to persevere through every obstacle course. According to the National Women's Law Center, "almost all social justice movements were and are carried on the backs of Black women." Their impactful and lasting contribution to literature, education, feminism, fashion, music, and much more—are evident.

"Out of the huts of history's shame, I rise. Up from a past that's rooted in pain, I rise." - Maya Angelou

Black women are the most educated group of individuals in America, and they are the leading group of entrepreneurs opening businesses in America. It's simple; Black women are the future, the group that was once seen as the most neglected is rising on top to show how rich they have always been in spirit.

Featured image via Unsplash

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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