This Date in UCSF History: Angela Davis Speaks Out

This story was originally published in Synapse on March 15, 1984. The women’s movement in this country must be broadened to address issues relevant to black and working-class people, political activist Angela Davis told a Cole Hall audience last Wednesday.

“Those who control the government and the economy in this country probably care very little about issues surrounding working-class women,” charged Davis, who urged her listeners to help defeat President Ronald Reagan in this year’s election by supporting Democratic candidate Jesse Jackson.

Davis gained celebrity in 1969 when the UC Regents, headed by then governor Ronald Reagan, fired her as a UCLA philosophy professor because of her Communist Party membership.

Two years later, she was arrested after an attempt to free the “Soledad Brothers” ended with three deaths at a Marin County courthouse. Although political supporters across and outside the country feared she could never get a fair trial, Davis was acquitted on all counts.

Last week, Davis channeled her once strident political fervor into a thoughtful look at the history of the U.S. women’s movement and some recommendations for women voters today. Although women’s studies programs and centers are essential, Davis said, the very existence of International Women’s Week is a comment on the fact that women’s history is not normally taught in elementary schools.

“We ought to speak about and learn about women 365 days a year,” said Davis, who teaches women’s and ethnic studies at San Francisco State University.

Women are emerging for the first time as an independent political force because they are no longer following the voting patterns of their husbands and fathers, according to Davis.

At the same time, the women’s movement needs to widen its scope to address racism and economic issues, she said.

“If we are to build an effective women’s movement in this country, it must be a multiracial movement and a movement that focuses sharply on issues relevant to working-class women,” the political figure told a crowd of more than 200.

The biggest weakness of the women’s liberation movement is its tendency to focus on the problems of white middle-class women, assuming that these issues are universal, she noted.

But “women experience oppression in different ways, and one cannot just talk about women and expect everything to be homogeneous,” Davis explained.

Racism and sexism linked

The fight against racism gave rise to both the women’s suffrage movement and this generation’s women’s liberation movement, Davis said.

“White women became conscious of their oppression as women while working against slavery,” the activist noted.

But later, once the women’s movement of the late 1800s became autonomous, it forgot its roots as black and working class women were excluded.

It began to address issues only of relevance to middle-class women, Davis said.

For example, the latter-day women’s movement focused on marriage as an example of an oppressive institution.

“But what about those slave women who were not even allowed to get married?” Davis asked. “For them, marriage was not relevant.”

The leaders of the women’s suffrage movement chose to ignore issues concerning working-class women because they claimed that such causes would dissipate their energies, Davis said.

“They said, ‘Once we win the right to vote, then we’ll eradicate racism...but of course that didn’t happen,” she said.

Women who got the vote followed the political preferences of white men around them, and black people were still disenfranchised.

The development of the women’s liberation movement today, and the chasms which remain between women of different races and classes, parallel the women’s suffrage movement, Davis said.

Like the suffrage movement, white women who pioneered the current liberation movement acquired their skills as civil rights workers in the South, she claimed.

Davis was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the genesis of today’s movement.

She recalled that “As black women, we didn’t want anything to do with the women’s movement.”

As with the women’s suffrage movement decades ago, black women viewed the women’s movement as addressing issues primarily of interest to white middle-class women. For example, consciousness-raising sessions were designed to fight socially imposed docility among white women, Davis said.

But meanwhile, black women were being criticized as too aggressive: “As a result of our experiences, we had learned to stand up, speak out, and fight back,” Davis pointed out.

“Today, it is absolutely essential to build bridges across those (racial and economic) chasms if we are to defeat Ronald Reagan, move on and deal with pressing issues,” urged the speaker.

If women at the bottom of the economic pyramid make progress, all women will benefit, Davis said.

She added that some women, such as Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor, win personal victories but leave the rest of women unaffected, Davis said.

“What has she (O’Connor) done for women?” she asked, adding, “Reagan knows how to find the women he needs — he knows how to find blacks against affirmative action.”

Throughout her speech, Davis missed few chances to direct barbs at the president. Her battle cry, “Out the door in ‘84!” drew applause from the audience.

Reagan is “a man with an itchy trigger finger whose political experiences were nourished during the anti-Communist crusade,” Davis said, but urged her listeners to view him only as a symbol of the problems of racism, sexism, and monopolistic businesses.

Some of the most pressing issues women should address today, according to Davis, include police brutality against minorities, the “massive epidemic” of rape and the need for childcare for working women.

She added, “It is absolutely critical for women to play an aggressive role in the movement against nuclear war.”

The military industrial sector, which stands to reap the profits of war, discounts the social cutbacks necessitated by defense spending.

“All they care about is profits, and they’re willing to risk everything for that, even the future of the world,” Davis claimed. “And they know if Ronald Reagan is reelected, he can do anything he wants.”

To stop Reagan, women should become involved in the Jesse Jackson campaign, the activist urged. She said that Jackson has the potential to register blacks and Latinos who don’t consider themselves part of the electoral process.

In response to a question that Jackson could polarize the Democratic Party, she said,

“We must defeat Ronald Reagan, but we can’t talk about the movement to defeat Ronald Reagan if we forego dealing with the question of racism, forego taking a strong position on the importance of ending the nuclear arms race.

“If one says to Jesse Jackson, ‘Don’t take votes from the best person,’ that “best person” will be able to totally ignore those issues which relate to millions of people in this country,” she went on. “Whoever becomes the nominee will have to deal with the movement galvanized around Jesse Jackson.”

Davis herself is running for vice president on the Communist Party ticket with Gus Hall.

While she stumped for Jackson, she told voters who believe the two-party system is bankrupt to vote for her.

The educator ended her talk on a note reminiscent of more militant days, saying, “This is not a (women’s, black and anti-war) movement which will end with the primaries. This is a period in which we not only have to become politically active at the polls, but we have to march and demonstrate in the streets once more.”