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The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. By Winifred Breines. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. viii, 269. $29.95.


A review by Jo Freeman published in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 105, No. 2, Spring 2007, pp. 373-374.

In The Trouble Between Us Winifred Breines bravely tackles the touchy subject of race relations among feminists. While not advertised as a case study, her focus is on her own city of Boston, primarily with the white socialist women’s liberation group that called itself Bread and Roses and the black socialist Combahee River Collective. This concentration on groups with which she is personally familiar allows her to provide a detailed description and analysis that a broader survey would not.

The perceptions of white and black women in (and out of) the feminist movement are a classic Rashomon phenomena: even in the same movement what each experienced and how each interpreted that experience is quite different. Until Breines, it was mostly the voices of black women who were heard and most of them denounced white feminists as racists. White women -- that is white feminist women -- were silenced by their own reluctance to disagree with black women, coupled with the fact that they did not believe that they were racists.

Starting with the fact that black and white women did work together during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Breines asks why a racially integrated women’s movement didn’t develop during the 1960s and 1970s. While she accepts some of the claims of black women that white feminists were unconsciously racist, and all too often acted racially even if they didn’t believe they were racists, she also identifies many ways in which the black community encouraged separation and punished those black women who worked with white women for consorting with the enemy.

Part of the explanation was in timing. The Black Power movement emerged a little before feminism did in the Sixties. This movement declared that the road to self-sufficiency meant keeping whites at a distance and working in one’s own community. This was a particularly popular attitude among the young and the radical, who were also the most receptive to feminist questioning of accepted gender roles. By branding feminism as white, Black Power kept most young black women from accepting feminist interpretations until they eventually developed their own (which they called womanism to distinguish it from the white variety).

Another reason was class. Most white feminists were the middle class children of middle class parents. Many of their mothers had stayed home as they had been told to do. Young black women activists were generally not children of middle-class parents though by virtue of going to college they had middle-class aspirations. Staying at home to raise children seemed to be a luxury, not a prison. Class created different experiences that were seen as racial as well as different attitudes towards money and work.

Because black and white women never really talked with each other the experiences behind different attitudes did not come out. They were like the blind feeling an elephant, each of whom generalizes the whole from a small part. In this they replicated the segregated world of the larger society. Instead of communicating enough to put together a composite picture, they just grated on each other’s nerves.

Despite decades of rocky relationships (or lack of relationships) Breines ends on a hopeful note, pointing out that in some conferences black and white women let down their guards and tried to convey their real concerns, and in some communities they found projects on which they could work together. If black and white women could not share a sense of community, perhaps at least they could share a sense of understanding.