photo by Alex Lear
“Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” was first presented at an international Human Rights Conference that was held during November 1978 at Xavier University in New Orleans; later, it was published in BLACK SCHOLAR (Vol.10, Nos. 6,7).
This essay is contained in the book: Our Women Keep Our Skies From Falling
Cover Drawing by Douglass Redd
copyright July 1980 By Kalamu ya Salaam
Women’s Rights Are Human Rights
My position, succinctly stated, is simply this: any discussion of the issue of human rights should include a discussion of women’s rights.
The reason for my statement, while complex in its subtleties, is simple in its substance. Simply said, women are human beings.
Our struggle for human rights must be grounded in a rejection of the oppression of any identifiable segment or stratum of human societies, regardless of the criterion of differentiation or discrimination, e.g. race, class or sex.
Based on my study and analysis of my own experiences and environment, as well as study and analysis of the experiences and environments of other peoples, in other places and other periods of time, I draw the conclusion that the issue of women’s rights has and continues to be a central concern of millions of women who daily suffer the degradations and deprivations of sexual chauvinism in its institutionalized and individual forms. The suffering of women in general, third world women in particular, and especially the suffering of the Afrikan-american woman, hurts me in ways too numerous to delineate. Yet beyond the personal pain, there is a social reality which must be recognized, namely, that sexism is a means, used by our enemies, to help maintain our subjugation as a people.
Perhaps some are wondering why should an Afrikan-american man be concerned with an issue like women’s rights, an issue which is often erroneously identified with “bored, middle class white women” who are tired of staying home. My response to that question is a query of my own: is there any reason why I shouldn’t be concerned with women’s rights, after all am I not born of woman, aren’t we all born of woman?
I am concerned about the issue of women’s rights because I understand that women’s rights is a political issue and I am a political person. I understand that the oppression and exploitation of women is an integral aspect of every reactionary social system which ever existed and I am struggling to be a progressive. I understand that women, like land, are primary to life, and I am a living being.
I am concerned about the issue of women’s rights because I am striving to be a revolutionary, and without the eradication of sexism there will be no true and thorough going revolution.
At this moment in history, asserting a position which I feel is my revolutionary responsibility to put forward, I hear the echoes of our heritage urging me to be firm. I hear Frederick Douglas, who also spoke out strongly in support of women’s rights. Douglas was vilified and shunned by former friends who could not understand his concern for the rights of women. I hear Douglas being called an “hermaphrodite” and other terms which questioned his sexuality because of his stand on sexism. But in the spirit of Frederick Douglas, I do declare that I too should rather be called “hermaphrodite” and other names because of my support for women’s rights, than have women continually referred to as “bitch,” and “broad” in everyday ameican speech.
There are those who argue that raising the issue of women’s liberation is divisive of Black unity. They argue that, in reality, the women’s movement drives a “wedge” between Black women and Black men in our social relationships. They argue that the promotion of women in the work force cuts down on the employment opportunities for men and effectively throws Black men out of work. They argue that Black women don’t want to be lesbians and live with other women but rather that they want to be united with Black men in peace and harmony. Some even argue that women should not work outside of the home is one of the most important tasks of nation-building or socialization. These are some of the arguments sincerely and seriously raised against our full and active involvement in the struggle for women’s rights.
But the profound truth of the matter is that all of these arguments deny women the option to exercise their rights, to control their lives in whatever manner they see fit. Full rights for women does not ipso facto mean that women will all have to conform to some mythical “liberated norm.” It means, instead, that women will decide for themselves their social lifestyles and social relationships.
Women’s liberation has not driven a wedge between women and men. Firstly, women do not control this society. This society is controlled by a ruthless, racist, sexist, and capitalist patriarchy. if we would look past the propaganda pushed in the establishment press, we should clearly recognize whose hand is on the hammer attempting to beat us into submission, we would see who actually wields the wedge of division . To divide and conquer has always been a tactic of a minority who are oppressing and exploiting a majority.
Secondly, issues such as “women’s lib is denying or stopping Black men from getting jobs” is not true. We must understand that women do not do most of the hiring and firing in America. Women do not run the major or minor corporations. With very few exceptions, it is a man or some group of men, and usually white, who make those kinds of decisions.
We are all for the unity of our women with our men, but not if that unity is to be male superior / female inferior. The emotional crux of most of the arguments against women’s liberation is, when mouthed by men, actually a fear of independent women, a hatred of independent women, an ideological opposition to any women being independent of man’s control. When espoused by women, most of these arguments simply amount to the attempts by an insecure woman, whose sense of self is that of an inferior entity, to maintain the certainties of a slavery she “thinks’ she understands and to one degree or another has learned to cope with, rather than face a challenging liberation which she finds difficult to envision.
Cabral has noted that within the context of liberation struggle, the emancipation of women is a difficult issue. “. . . during the fight the important thing is the political role of women . . . It is all a part of the process of transformation, of change in the material conditions of the existence of our people, but also in the minds of the women, because sometimes the greatest difficulty is not only in the men but in the women too.” (1)
In all of the contemporary national liberation movements in the Third World, whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania or the Caribbean, great attention is always paid to the eradication of sexism and the development of women. Why is this the case?
Is sexism a universal constant? Is it true, as we have been taught, that beginning with Adam and Eve there has been a battle of the sexes going on, that one sex has , is and, in a all probability, will continue to try to dominate the other sex? Do we really believe these fairy tales, these rationalizations? Do we really believe that men and women are “naturally” antagonistic to each other?
Sexism is not a biological necessity, it is rather the reflection of reactionary ideas, particularly “bourgeois individualism.” In a bourgeois society, private ownership is the basic goal of most endeavors, whether it is to own land and material wealth, hence private property; or to own labor and industry, hence private enterprise in the form of capitalism; or to ultimately own other human beings, hence slavery and sexism. Couple this type of thinking with the belief that the individual is supreme, and what will result will be a society peopled by selfish and self-centered human beings who have no true concern for those around them or those who will follow them.
The roots of modern day sexism are to be found in “prehistoric” Europe and the trunk of sexism is a patriarchy watered by capitalism and imperialism. Understand that sexism is the systematic oppression and / or exploitation of a group of people based on the criterion of sex. In america today, and everywhere else where capitalism and imperialism have gone unchecked, unchallenged and unchanged, sexism is deeply entrenched into the social fabric. Indeed, in self-proclaimed socialist societies, also, remnants of sexism remain to be rooted out.
We do not have the time to analyze in detail my assertion that the roots of modern day sexism are found in prehistoric Europe. However, the statement, I am sure, is too provocative to most of us to be accepted simply at face value. So for purposes of brevity I cite a reference. The reference is The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, by Cheikh Anta Diop, published in America by Third World Press. (2)
Diop’s book traces and analyzes the development of patriarchy and matriarchy, the class characteristics and clashes of the two social systems, the merging of the two, and the domination of patriarchy over matriarchy. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, we summarize Diop’s findings to include the positing of a two cradle concept. These two cradles are Aryan and African, northern and southern, patriarchal and matriarchal. According to Diop’s analysis, which contests that of other social scientists, including Marx and Engles, matriarchy is not universal.. The history of human development in its progressive movement did not go from matriarchy to patriarchy, for in fact, there never was a matriarchy in Europe. “As far as we can go back into the Indo-European past, even so far back as the Eurasian steppes, there is only to be found the patrilineal genos with the system of consanguinity which at the present day still characterized their descendants.”
What is matriarchy? Is matriarchy the domination of women over men? Is matriarchy amazonism? Is matriarchy lesbianism? Is matriarchy strong women and weak men? No. Matriarchy is a social system within which blood relationships are traced through the maternal line and within which women enjoy equal political and economic rights.
Why should a wife and child assume the husband/father’s name? Traditionally this was done for the purposes of the protection of property rights, namely, the identification of property and the succession of property.
Today, we continue using this patriarchal form of naming allegedly in order to identify the parents of children and vice versa. How unscientific to trace parentage via the father, when there is no known conclusive proof of male parentage. How much more scientific and simple it is to trace parentage via the mother, because regardless of whether the actual father of the child is known or unknown, the mother of the child is identified conclusively by the fact of giving birth to that child.
In a patriarchal society, the concern is not with identifying parents but rather with identifying property, hence children born so-called “out of wedlock.” This is just one small example of the pervasiveness and perverseness of the patriarchal social system. However, let us return to our central concern. Regardless of the roots of sexism, it should be clear that sexism is a real and reactionary way of life that must be eradicated.
Today, women continue to get less pay for equal work, and lack equal access to both educational and employment opportunities. Today, women continue to be regarded as the sexual toys of powerful men, men whose social relationships with women are controlled more by the heads of their penises than the heads on their shoulders, men whose main modes of reasoning conditions them to think that they can either buy or take a woman’s body. Today, rape continues to be one of the most common and unreported crimes in America. Today, childcare continues to be virtually nonexistent and/or exorbitantly priced.
One sure sign of sexism is the objectification of women’s bodies, the turning of women into commodities to be bought, sold, bartered for or stolen. The gains in women’s rights, just as the gains in civil rights for African-Americans, are seemingly becoming little more than paper formalities and highly touted token adjustments.
African-American women are still the most exploited stratum of american society. In fact, throughout the world, the lower class woman of color is on the bottom of nearly every society within which she is found.
Virtually every indicator of social inequality proves this to be the case,, whether we are discusiing employment or illness, educational development or access to leadership and decison-making positions.
In conclusion, I urge that we open our eyes to the reality of sexism and fight it. I urge everyone, particularly men, to speak out against sexism and support the struggles of women to defend and develop themselves. I urge greater attention to be paid to the social and material conditions which lead to an reinforce sexism, a deeper and more accurate analysis needs to be done, and resolute and uncompromising action needs to be taken.
The denial of any human right is always based in the political repression of one group by another group. Sexism does not exist because women are “unclean during their monthly periods,” nor because women are weaker than men, nor because “god’ was unhappy with the behavior of women. Sexism exists because men have organized themselves to oppress and exploit women.
Sexism will be eradicated only through organized resistance and struggle. Women’s rights will be won only when we consciously overturn all vestiges of patriarchy and “bourgeois” right. No person has the right to either own, oppress, enslave, or exploit another person. Sexism is not a right–it is a wrong.
We must stand for what is right and fight against what is wrong.
My attempt has not been to analyze in detail the denial of human rights for women, rather I had a more modest goal in mid. I seek to place on the agenda of human rights the question of women’s rights as a top priority item.
I hope that this topic has shown “Pandora’s box” to be a myth created by men who want to keep “women, coloreds, and other inferiors” hidden in the dank caves of injustice and reaction as a top priority item.
I hope that I have broadened the view on what human rights is, and indeed, on who human beings are. It is so easy in america to forget that women are human beings, to forget that women have rights. Hopefully, this presentation will stir up opposition to sexism, will bring women and men out of their shells of self-denial and isolation, and into the light of truth and justice.
It will not be easy to win rights for women, just as it will not be easy to defeat South Africa, just as it will not be easy to stop nuclear power, to clean up the environment, to end economic exploitation, to plan and control the economy, or to win national liberation for African-Americans. But it can be done. Sexism can be smashed.
My hope is that from this day forward we will not hesitate to stand for women’s rights, to place it on any and every agenda of progressive social development. Know that when you stand for women’s rights you stand beside the most courageous and progressive people who have ever lived. You stand next to men and women who are not afraid of the future because they are willing to struggle in the present to correct historical wrongs.
A great woman by the name of Sojourner Truth once gave a brilliant speech which included the famous phrase “ain’t I a woman!” This is continuance of that woman’s work. In the spirit of Sojourner Truth, I urge you to join in the struggle for women’s rights, whether you are woman or man. If Sojourner were here today she would challenge you in the same way. Sojourner is not here, but her spirit is. Although I ain’t a woman, I say without hesitation that women’s rights are human rights. I am committed to and call for the smashing of sexism and the securing of women’s rights. I am committed to and call for the smashing of sexism and the securing women’s rights. I believe that we will win women’s rights.
1—Cabral, Amilcar. “Return to the Source.” Monthly Review, 1973, p. 85.
2—Diop, Cheikh A. The Cultural Unity of Africa. (Chicago: Third World Press, 1959), p. 45
—Kalamu ya Salaam