Combahee River Collective

Black Feminism in the 1970s

Harriet Tubman, American anti-slavery activist, c1900. Harriet Tubman (c1820-1913) was born into slavery in America. She escaped in 1849, became a leading Abolitionist and was active as a 'conductor' in the Underground Railroad, the network which helped escaped slaves to reach safety.
Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

with edits and updates by Jone Johnson Lewis.

The Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based organization active 1974 to 1980, was a collective of black feminists, including many lesbians, critical of white feminism.  Their statement has been a key influence on black feminism and on social theory about race.  They examined the interplay of sexism, racism, economics and heterosexism.

"As black feminists and lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggles before us."

History of the Combahee River Collective

The Combahee River Collective first met in 1974. During “second-wave” feminism, many black feminists felt that the Women’s Liberation Movement was defined by and paid exclusive attention to white, middle-class women. The Combahee River Collective was a group of black feminists who wanted to clarify their place in the politics of feminism, and to create a space apart from white women and black men.

The Combahee River Collective held meetings and retreats throughout the 1970s. They attempted to develop a black feminist ideology and explore the shortcomings of “mainstream” feminism’s focus on sex and gender oppression above all other types of discrimination, while also examining sexism in the black community.  They also looked at lesbian analysis, particularly that of black lesbians, and Marxist and other anti-capitalist economic analyses.  They were critical of "essentialist" ideas about race, class, sex and sexuality.

They used techniques of consciousness-raising as well as research and discussion, and the retreats were also meant to be spiritually refreshing.

Their approach looked at a "simultaneity of oppressions" rather than ranking and separating the oppressions at work, and in their work is rooted much of later work on intersectionality.

 The term "identity politics" came out of the Combahee River Collective's work.

Influences

The name of the Collective comes from the Combahee River Raid of June 1863, which was led by Harriet Tubman and freed hundreds of slaves. The 1970s black feminists commemorated a significant historical event and a black feminist leader by selecting this name.  Barbara Smith is credited with suggesting the name.

The Combahee River Collective has been compared to the philosophy of Frances E.W. Harper, a highly educated 19th-century feminist who insisted on defining herself as black first and a woman second.

The Combahee River Collective Statement

The Combahee River Collective Statement was issued in 1982. The statement is an important piece of feminist theory and description of black feminism.  A key emphasis was on black women's liberation: "Black women are inherently valuable...." The statement includes the following points:

  • The Combahee River Collective is committed to fighting race, sex, and class oppression, and also recognized oppression based on sexuality. 
  • These were analyzed not just as separate forces, but interacting forces. "The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives."
  • As black feminists, members struggle alongside black men to fight racism, but against black men to fight sexism.
  • If black women were free, everyone would be free, because that would mean all systems of oppression had been destroyed.
  • The Collective would continue to examine politics, including racism in white women’s feminism.  But eliminating racism in white feminism, they said, was the work and accountability of white women.
  • The members believe in the organization of work to benefit workers instead of bosses.

The statement recognized many forerunners, including Harriet Tubman, whose military raid on the Combahee River was the basis of the name of the collective, Sojourner Truth, Frances E. W. Harper, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett -- and many generations of unnamed and unknown women.

 The statement highlighted that much of their work was forgotten because of the racism and elitism of the white feminists who dominated the feminist movement through history to that point.

The statement recognized that, under the oppression of racism, the black community often valued traditional sex and economic roles as a stabilizing force, and expressed understanding of those black women who could only risk the struggle against racism.

Combahee River Background

The Comabahee river is a short river in South Carolina, named for the Combahee tribe of Native Americans who preceded the Europeans in the area. The Combahee River area was the site of battles between the Native Americans and Europeans in 1715 to 1717. During the Revolutionary War, American troops fought foraging British soldiers there, in one of the last battles of the war.

During the period before the Civil War, the river provided irrigation for rice fields of local plantations.  The Union Army occupied a nearby territory, and Harriet Tubman was asked to organize a raid to free slaves to strike at the local economy. She led the armed raid -- a guerilla action, in later terms -- which led to 750 escaping enslavement and becoming "contraband," freed by the Union Army.  It was, until recent times, the only military campaign in American history planned and headed by a woman.

Quote from the Statement

"The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.

The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face."