5 Women Reclaiming Black Feminism Over the Decades
It’s no secret that being a female in pop culture is no easy feat. From slut shaming and unequal pay, to a constant expectation to compete against female peers, women must overcome immense obstacles every day to get to where they are. Luckily, over the past few years we’ve seen more mainstream instances of women banding together and speaking out on issues that span the spectrums of gender, race, and class. When Beyoncé broke the Internet last weekend with her black power anthem “Formation” and a Black Panther-themed Super Bowl performance, she joined a long line of black female entertainers who have used their fame and talents to take a stand against the injustices they’ve faced over the decades. In honor of Black History Month, we’re celebrating the black women who have overcome immense struggles and, in doing so, have inspired entirely new generations of activists to embrace their identity and overcome discrimination within pop culture. Without further ado, here are our top five black feminist icons.
When you’re called the “most exciting woman on earth” by Orson Welles, it’s a pretty clear indicator that you are probably the most badass woman around. Throughout a life of fame, Eartha Kitt sang and danced, killed it as the first black Catwoman, and dispensed essential advice about the foolishness of love. Oh yeah, and she famously made Lady Bird Johnson cry at a White House luncheon after a tense argument about the Vietnam War.
Eartha’s story isn’t just remarkable for what she achieved, but also for what she overcame. Her half black heritage made for a traumatic childhood in the Deep South that coalesced with a rocky family life—the songstress only found out her date of birth at age 71 and died in 2008 with no knowledge of who her white father was. In her professional life, she survived being blacklisted after the Lady Bird Johnson incident, and went on to win a number of Emmy and Tony Awards. Her lifetime of advocacy and unflinching pride made Eartha Kitt a symbol of black female empowerment for decades and—eight years after her death—her legacy remains as strong as ever.
All hail the Queen. Over a decade before Beyoncé took the throne and started singing about black feminism and girl power, Queen Latifah was showing her skill as an MC on a mission to bring feminist ideals to the mainstream. The first two albums she released, Hail the Queen and Nature of a Sista, packed heavy punches with songs about power and respect that counteracted the overwhelming sexism in rap during the late ’80s and early ’90s. She was calling out misogyny in hip-hop during a time when women were just trying to break into the industry.
Through singles like “U.N.I.T.Y.” and “Ladies First,” she called out sexist MCs, derogatory language, sexual harassment, and cycles of violence within the black community. For her “U.N.I.T.Y.” jam, she became one of the first women to ever win the Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. Outside of music, she’s also starred in the cult classic remake of Hairspray and even won an Emmy last year for her role as a bisexual Depression-era blues singer in the biopic Bessie Smith. Without Queen Latifah’s fearless attack on hip-hop’s sexism, the landscape of music may have looked drastically different.
Continuing the trend of music royalty, the 76-year-old Tina Turner has spent decades establishing herself as the one true queen of rock ‘n’ roll. Tina’s prominence in the genre has garnered over 180 million album and single sales worldwide, as well as 11 Grammy Awards. She’s sold more concert tickets than any other solo act in history and has been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1991. It’s been an incredible journey made all the more remarkable because of what she’s overcome. Tina has become an icon for her strength and resilience in the face of an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with her husband and collaborator Ike Turner.
After divorcing Ike in the late ’70s, Tina released a groundbreaking comeback album called Private Dancer in 1984 that asserted her dominance as a black female vocalist—a reign that would last decades. From the declaration that she’s a “soul survivor” in the album’s first song, Private Dancer fought back against the era’s anti-pornography crusade with an unflinching embrace of female sexuality and empowerment. As if that weren’t enough, she showed her feminist badass side on film when she starred alongside Mel Gibson in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. From music to movies and everything in between, Tina has proven to be a symbol of strength within the black community.
When you’re called Bad Girl RiRi just as much as your actual stage name, it’s safe to say you’re probably a symbol of rebellious freedom for an entire generation of black women. Rihanna has become the epitome of the “no fucks given” attitude with everything from her love for marijuana to her lust for some absolutely wild sex. Like Tina Turner before her, Riri suffered through domestic abuse that culminated in a horrifying incident between her and then-boyfriend Chris Brown that mirrored the abuse she watched growing up when her dad used to beat her mom.
Since the incident back in 2009, Rihanna has become a symbol of independence and self-love through her music and forays into acting. Riri has also become known for the issues she tackles in her music videos. The clip for “Man Down” shows a woman’s struggle with the decision to kill her rapist while “BBHMM” is a visual anthem that shows a black woman taking power against rich white men. If people expected Rihanna to tone it down, her new album ANTI has proven that the Barbados-born singer is a feminist icon that doesn’t give a damn about respectable politics.
If you’ve turned on the news or googled “Beyoncé” this week, you’ve surely caught sight of more than one critique of the singer’s Super Bowl performance and divisive new single, “Formation.” Protests and counter-protests have been planned and think pieces have called Beyoncé’s new video everything from an “attack” on police officers to an “unapologetically black” anthem. We sided more with the latter, calling her halftime performance and video a call to arms for black empowerment. No matter how people are feeling about it, the fact is Queen Bey is here to reclaim her Bama blackness and she gives no shits what people think.
With a new initiative to raise money for the residents of Flint, MI suffering from the ongoing water crisis, to her historic embrace of feminism in her videos and performances, Beyoncé is proving to be one of the most powerful figures ever for black female feminists. Ladies, it’s time to line up in formation and remember all the women who have worked hard to become black feminist icons.
Original imagery by Kathryn Chadason.
Stay tuned to Milk for more of Queen Bey.