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Three Black women founded a movement in 2013: Black Lives Matter. Today, more young women of color are taking the reins of grassroots protests against both racism and police violence. Their emergence underscores how deeply many of America’s crises – from racism and sexism to health care access and economic exclusion – directly touch women of color, and how they’ve long been the backbones of social movements in the United States.
Take women’s suffrage. U.S. suffragists drew heavily from liberation movements abroad, inspired by events like the Mexican Revolution. Yet the U.S. movement “split because of race,” says Celeste Montoya Kirk, of the University of Colorado Boulder. “Some white women in the South didn’t want Black people to get the right to vote, and actively worked against that, even while fighting for women to vote.”
But “women of color didn’t have the luxury of dividing the different aspects of their identity,” to say they should fight for racial justice first and gender equality second, adds Dr. Montoya. “Liberation to them meant liberation on all fronts.”
When Daniela Charris went to her first protest in the New York borough of Queens following the killing of George Floyd, she immediately realized nobody was in charge.
“Everyone was just milling around. There wasn’t a route, there wasn’t a plan,” recalls Ms. Charris, a law student.
She stepped in to guide the hundreds of marchers in chants, and by the end of the day, she’d become one of eight founders of the Queens Liberation Project, which organizes against racism and inequality.
“‘Normal’ has been a thing that has oppressed so many bodies for so many years. This is a revolution and we can’t go back to normal,” says Ms. Charris, whose parents moved to New York from Colombia when she was 3 years old.
In particular, “women – specifically Black, Latinx, Indigenous women – have been silenced in a way that nobody really seems to notice,” she says, but she believes that’s changing.
Ms. Charris is part of a phenomenon sweeping the country in recent months, as young women of color take the reins of grassroots protests against racism and for an end to police violence. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by three Black women in 2013, and women of color have long played a central role in U.S. social movements, but their work is historically downplayed or overlooked, historians and activists say. The emergence of this new cohort underscores how deeply many of America’s crises – from racism and sexism to health care access and economic exclusion – directly touch women of color.
Whether it’s a 16-year-old bringing together thousands of protesters to pressure her high school’s board to hire more Black teachers and train staff in anti-racism, a 22-year-old successfully arguing for a change to the dictionary definition of racism, or teens too young to vote finding each other online and organizing large-scale marches in Nashville or San Francisco, young women of color have found new platforms for their voices in recent weeks – and say they won’t drop the mic anytime soon.
“Women have to be the ones saying, ‘This isn’t right, we have to do something,’” says Hadassah Zenor-Davis, a rising senior at Berkeley High School in California, who protested for weeks after Mr. Floyd’s killing.
By early June, she decided she wanted to organize something of her own, joining forces with two other young women from school. “It felt like the conversation around Black Lives Matter hadn’t reached here yet, and that was a problem,” she says. “Our voices carry weight.”
Women of color have long been backbones of social movements in the United States, but their legacies tend to be absent from history books, or even erased by those who gain the power that comes in movement victories.
Take women’s suffrage, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. U.S. suffragists drew heavily from liberation movements abroad, taking inspiration from events like the Mexican Revolution, and benefited from the support of women of color.
Yet the movement “split because of race,” says Celeste Montoya Kirk, associate professor of gender studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Some white women in the South didn’t want Black people to get the right to vote, and actively worked against that, even while fighting for women to vote.” And once the 19th Amendment was passed, few white activists went to bat to make sure their peers were guaranteed this right as well.
“The activism of women of color is so central to social movements, but it’s obscured,” says Dr. Montoya. “They played the invaluable role of creating coalitions across movements. ... Women of color didn’t have the luxury of dividing the different aspects of their identity,” to say they should fight for racial justice first and gender equality second, she says.“Liberation to them meant liberation on all fronts.”
Analysts say something new is taking shape right now, amid ongoing demonstrations against systemic racism.
“When I talk to my historian friends, we aren’t saying, ‘We’ve seen this before’” – which is historians’ default comment, says Victoria Wolcott, a professor of history at the University at Buffalo in New York. “This is distinctive.”
The combination of an economic crisis, a pandemic, the scale of the protests, and their persistence has created a unique landscape for anti-racism initiatives, and women’s role within them.
“There is more recognition and understanding that those voices have been sublimated in the past,” Dr. Wolcott says.
By the book
Kennedy Mitchum, a recent college graduate now quarantining with her family in a St. Louis suburb, says she protested in six marches in one month because she sees this moment as the perfect opportunity to educate about racism.
For years, she says, people have copied and pasted the dictionary definition of racism in online conversations with her, trying to downplay her experiences. In May, in a series of emails with an editor from Merriam-Webster, she argued its definition needed to be expanded.
“Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a persons skin, as it states in your dictionary,” she wrote. “It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power.”
After an initial response, she didn’t feel hopeful.
“I wasn’t going to reply. I hate feeling like I’m talking to a brick wall,” she says. “But then I thought: We’re in [a] global pandemic. I’m not really doing anything. I may as well keep trying.”
After a series of exchanges, Merriam-Webster agreed to adjust the language to more clearly include systemic racism.
“Our society, we have a lot of moving forward to do,” Ms. Mitchum says of the need to speak up and protest right now. “Women are treated in a way that sends a message our voices aren’t as worthy. But it’s impossible to ignore we can effect change.”
In recent years, more women of color have been running for and winning public office. In 2016, more than half the new women elected to Congress were women of color.
There is an urgency behind the protests, says Dr. Montoya, and “women of color experience that urgency in their day to day.”
The historically important role of youth in social movements is reflected, too.
Jay’dha Rackard, an 11-year-old in Boston, says she knows that some adults see her as a child, but she’s motivated to make them listen. On June 7 she spoke in front of hundreds at a Peaceful Children’s March against police violence. She says her next goal is to organize a worldwide Million Children’s March, to expand her fight for equal rights and an end to police brutality.
“Black women, young women in general, we don’t get treated as equal. And we don’t always get to talk,” she says. “That will change,” she adds, with a definitive nod.
The protests have stood out for their almost immediate impact: People are already talking about racism differently, Dr. Montoya says, and ideas that were previously considered radical, like defunding the police, are becoming more mainstream.
“Women are behind so much of this,” Ms. Charris says. “I think what we are living through now will show the world that these gender norms people have attributed to leadership and what it should look like are very far from reality.”