Black British feminism then and now

Professor Heidi Mirza reflects upon her involvement in black feminism and the changes she has witnessed over the past 30 years. She is hopeful about new generations of activists and reminds us that “black women’s activism has been central in tackling problems within our local communities.”  

‘Thank you for organising this. I thought black feminism was dead!’ wrote a young woman in an email to me. 

heidicnmIn 2006, I had organised a national seminar ‘Black feminism and postcolonial paradigms’ it was received positively. I found myself asking the question, ‘Has black feminism as a collective movement now become obsolete?’  But, why then I wondered, are we also witnessing a new generation of women of colour coming to political voice in no uncertain terms, especially through their use of social media?

The black British feminism that I was a part of in the 1970s and 1980s, had its roots in the postcolonial activism and the struggles of women migrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, who had come to live in the UK during the postwar recruitment drive for cheap migrant labour in the 1940s and 50s. Such transnational migration created what Avtar Brah has called new ‘diaspora spaces’, in which ‘individual and collective memories and practices collide and reassemble’, producing new ‘hybrid’ identities that draw upon an array of cultural reference points and histories. 

We are fortunate that some of the memories of women’s activism during those times, has been kept alive by black women writers and archivists. This legacy has been documented by the Black Cultural Archives oral history projectHeart of the Raceand the British Library’s web resourceSisterhood and After’.  Through these resources you will be able to hear stories from the founding mothers of the movement, such as Una Marson who campaigned for the League of Coloured Peoples in the 1940s; the political activist Claudia Jones in the 1950s; the grassroots activist Olive Morris in the 1970s; and Jayaben Desai’s struggle on the picket lines at Grunwick.

Despite flashes oftoxic feminism, it feels to me that some of the connectivity that we lost as feminists of colour in the mid 2000’s, when we were immersed in struggles against New Labour’s cuts to black and minority ethnic women’s organisations, is being created anew. We seem to be finding spontaneous new ways to voice a more collective discontent, as well as expressing our different histories, experiences and concerns.


This ‘reawakening’ of black feminism has been marked by many events, but one in particular stands out for me. It was a gathering held at Girton College, Cambridge University, in October 2013 entitledA Vindication of the Rights of Black Women’ – a play on Mary Wollenstencraft’s feminist text from 1792. Pricilla Mensah, the young energetic organizer, explained ‘Why we still need black feminism now’. Here is an extract from her forceful opening speech,

 ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women is an event about identity, or rather, the pursuit of Black women to find their own, unbound by racist, sexist stereotypes. Black Feminist poet and writer Audre Lorde said so aptly “if you don’t define yourself for yourself, you will be crushed into other people’s fantasies and eaten alive.” It is this definition that has historically been robbed from black women, from the twentieth century Civil Rights Movement where black female activism was eclipsed by that of their male counterparts, to present day popular culture where the black female is so often dehumanised, crushed into an angry, ghetto-fabulous, twerking caricature. A Vindication of the Rights of Black Women asks why women of colour have for so long been relegated to the back benches in academia, in politics, in science, in medicine, in media, and explores how, in the midst of it all, they go on to accomplish great things.’  

The question of how black British feminism can foster group solidarities while recognising differences is a perennial one. 

Coalitions such as Southhall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, who have campaigned for African and Asian women’s rights over many years, are vibrant examples of women who have grappled with the difficulties that such questions necessarily produce. These organisations have demonstrated the value of the productive tensions of recognising rather than suppressing differences and conflict, which at their best have opened up debate and expanded democratic practices. Women in organizations such as IMKKAN, that work to prevent violence against women, are a contemporary example of how it is possible to create allegiances across religious, ethnic and cultural lines, including collaborations with white women. This latter point is especially important in the context of today’s feminist organizing.

I was recently interviewed by a young white student about my views on the twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen – a ‘call-out’ of exclusionary white feminism. Keen to address the prickly topic of racism, the student asked me ‘Why is feminism still largely seen as a movement for white women and why do some feminists remain unwilling to address issues of white privilege?’ I had to say that I don’t think that all white feminists are failing to address their privilege. I have been mentored and supported by many generous white women scholars over the years, to whom I owe much and it is important to recognise these solidarities.

Matters of working together have been, and continue to be, central to feminist of colour projects. Chitra Nagarajan, a feminist activist and writer has asserted the need for ‘…working towards a linked liberation, where the achievement of one ‘set of’ rights is conditioned and incomplete without the achievement of all others’. A very basic reality is that the forces of structural racism and sexism are always shifting, creating new forms of ‘othering’. Because of the aliveness of inequality and oppression, black women’s activism will be necessarily contingent. We will always need to forge and renew not only who we work with but how. As the PhD student Nidya Swaby explained at the Girton College conference, ‘Black feminism has also taught me how to be a better ally, because it insists that if I remain silent on issues that do not directly affect me, I become an accomplice to inequality and injustice.’

(After the death of Cynthia Jarrett, died in 1985)
After the death of Cynthia Jarrett

The importance of this need to build allegiances across our differences and to challenge our complicity with our relative privileges was brought home to me by the granddaughter of Cynthia Jarrett, at another black feminist conference in London in 2011. Cynthia Jarrett had died of a heart attack during a police raid of her home in Tottenham in London in 1985, sparking the ‘Broadwater Farm riots’. Cynthia’s granddaughter still lived in Tottenham, the heart of the London ‘riots’ in 2011, which ignited in response to the police shooting of Mark Duggan. Cynthia’s granddaughter told us that she was in search of a black feminist ‘tool kit’ that drew on the ‘self realisation and culture of women to organise under the conditions of disconnected and disheartened communities.’ For decades now, black women’s activism has been central in tackling problems within our local communities. Black women activists have long drawn on their social, cultural and faith-based knowledge to cultivate spaces where new forms of what I have called ‘real citizenship’ have emerged.

My research on the educational activism of black African Caribbean mothers who set up black ‘supplementary schools’ to resist the racism their children met in mainstream state schools, constitutes one such space or ‘quiet riot’. These women-centred initiatives have helped to build resilience within communities, but are rarely recognized in a world that privileges the spectacle of aggressive, masculine forms of social resistance, acted out on the streets or in the public sphere. In their own versions of citizenship struggle, the women that I met, drew upon their resourcefulness and social networks to promote long-term social transformation through their children’s education. Today there are about 50 black supplementary schools in England. The first such school met in a church, showing something of the rich history of the relationships between race, gender and faith in some of the women’s lives, although control of the schools was never given over to religious leaders.

The significance of faith in women’s lives and activism has taken a new turn with the resurgence of Islam as a part of Muslim women’s contemporary struggles, especially post 9/11. But it is often the case that feminism and faith have been seen as incompatible, or worse still that Muslim women need to be empowered and rescued by Western feminism. It is a sentiment that was apparent in the recent media coverage of an educational resource aimed at schools and colleges ‘Islam and Feminism’ that was portrayed as ‘persuading’ more British Muslim women ‘to engage with issues of gender equality’.

In her 1988 essay Under Western Eyes’ Chandra Talpade Mohanty spoke of the way in which the ‘third world woman’ is represented in Western feminism as a passive and oppressed ‘other’, without any regard to the specificity of her circumstances or sensitivity to her agency and culture. ‘Rescuing’ Muslim women from patriarchical authority can all too easily recirculate this theme, becoming a meeting point between some Western feminist projects and those of the conservative right.


If one thing stands out from my involvement in Black British feminism over the past three decades it is that we need to avoid thinking about feminism was a single or simple story of women’s struggles and resistance. For me, black feminism is a stalwart tree with rich deep roots, lovingly nurtured by careful, critical gardeners. The wise embrace of its strong branches can reach out across time and space to provide shelter to a multitude of different voices. It is why after 30 years – it is still ‘the branch on which I sit’.

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Heidi Safia Mirza is Professor of Race, Faith and Culture at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. One of the first black women professors in Britain she is known for her pioneering research on race, gender and identity in education, multiculturalism, Islamophobia and gendered violence. She established the Runnymede Collection at the BCA (Black Cultural Archives) which documents the 20th Century civil rights struggle for Multicultural Britain. She is author of several best-selling books including Young Female and Black (Routledge1992);  Black British Feminism (Routledge 1997); Race Gender and Educational Desire: why black women succeed and fail (Routledge 2009); Black and Postcolonial Feminisms in New Times: Researching Educational Inequalities (Routledge 2010). Twitter @HeidiMirza 

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4 replies

  1. This is an interesting and necessary article. I couldn’t agree more on the importance of re-visiting the failures and successes of past social activism. We simply don’t do this enough, and our failure is arguably impeding all current movements for change.

    Consider the legacy of Olive Morris. As a community leader she was a household name in her time (at least in my household & community), yet she has become less well known than people today who lauded for merely writing about changing society.

    Olive Morris actually changed British society, and she did so as a local woman who organised with likeminded people in her community. So, in this black struggle that so many now identify with – its important to remind people that nobody is reinventing the wheel.

    We need to pay more respect to the past. Perhaps then, when we begin to recognise our proven forbearers in this struggle, we can stop covering – or skirting – old ground mapped out by those before us, and instead begin to move forward with real intention to better society.


  2. This was a wonderful article and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    I especially liked, “A very basic reality is that the forces of structural racism and sexism are always shifting, creating new forms of ‘othering’.”

    That’s not something I had thought of before, but it makes a lot of sense. Thank you for sharing your views and experiences. It’s appreciated!


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