The historical roots of Black feminism in the UK

As a recently graduated history student I have always been interested in stories of women’s activism and resistance against forms of oppression. However, as a white woman, I was often told and read stories of white feminism – this was and still is the dominant narrative. White feminists, both celebrities and otherwise, claim to serve the aims of all women yet historically that has been the case. It was through a final year module that I was finally given the chance to research and study Black feminism academically and it has allowed me to understand the reasoning behind the creation of Black feminist organisations away from the mainstream white movement. So, I thought I would share so of the basics with you guys in case, like me, you did not know the origins and prominence of Black feminism in the UK.

Firstly, what is Black feminism? Black feminism seeks to involve the idea of white supremacy with the common feminism idea of patriarchy, to demonstrate how both of these factors affect the lives of Black women. It is a movement away from that sexism is the sole oppressor of women, and accounts for greater intersectionality within feminism. Black feminism is dominated by scholars such as bell hooks and Angela Davis in the United States but does also have a strong historical background in the UK. Black British feminism seeks to challenge the national identity of what it means to be British, while seeking to highlight the dominance of whiteness in British society that is often overlooked.

We cannot talk about Black feminism in the UK without reference to the work of Black feminists in the United States. Black feminism in the US gained popularity alongside the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. This was because of the exclusion that Black women faced, from leadership positions in the Civil Rights movement because of their gender, and then from the mainstream feminism movement because of their race and class. This movement was built out of a necessity to give Black women a voice during a turbulent time in US politics, and also a safe space for ideas to be shared.

Black feminism in the UK was born out of a similar need for the experiences of Black women to be shared. It can be traced back to the Windrush Generation who came over to the UK from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent after World War Two to help rebuild the country’s economy and infrastructure. These women and their experiences would guide the later emergence of the Black women’s movement responding to the US Civil Rights movement and counterculture that resisted colonialism. Black women felt excluded and disvalued by the mainstream feminism movement in the United Kingdom. While in the 70s and 80s feminism was deemed to be for every woman it seems clear to Black women that this did not include them. White feminists refused to understand the experiences of Black women and created policies and events that were white centric. The refusal to understand the ‘double burden’ that Black women faced, that they were not only marginalised by sexism but also by racism, and this created a divide between the mainstream movement. The creation of the Reclaim the Night Marches in the 1970s were a key example of this. The movement ordered widespread police presence during the event to protect against male sexual violence and harassment on the street, however to Black women this was not an improvement, instead created fear and a sense of disunity because of the historic mistreatment of Black people by the police. Policies that were not designed to protect and support Black women and the Black experience led Black feminists to move away from the mainstream movement and instead create their own organisations. Scholar Hazel Carby published an article called ‘White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood’ in 1982 and this was epitomised the reaction of Black feminisms in the UK to the exclusion and dominance of white feminism.

Brixton Black Women’s Group was created in 1973 and signalled a movement away from the white feminist narrative to create a space for Black women in Brixton to discuss issues that were close to them. The group campaigned on a range of issues such as inequality in education and the racism in healthcare focusing on the contraceptive drug Depo Provera being prescribed to black women on a long-term basis. Depo Provera had various side-affects and was linked heavily with infertility. Groups such as Brixton Black Women’s Group and Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) aimed to highlight the discrimination around the prescription of this drug as an attempt of sterilisation of Black women. The main figures on Black feminism such as Gail Lewis, Olive Morris and Stella Dadzie would commonly interact with other groups and went on to found many other Black feminist groups in the UK.

These organisations include larger groups such as OWAAD created in 1978 by Olive Morris, Stella Dadzie and Gail Lewis. OWAAD focused on issues such as immigration, deportation, domestic violence, exclusion of children from school, policing and health and reproductive rights as explained by Stella Dadzie in an article with the British Library’s oral history project (I will put the link at the bottom of the article for you to watch if you’re interested). As shown above, OWAAD also campaigned against the Depo-Prevora drug being used on Black women in the UK. The drug was used disproportionately on Black women as a contraceptive and was injected every three months, but frequently had side-effects of infertility and led to miscarriages in later life that these women were not told about. OWAAD and many subsequent historians have argued that this was aimed to sterilise Black women. The drug was used as an attempt at population control towards people that society viewed as being irresponsible and unfit for motherhood, in this case it was aimed at working class and ethnic minority women. The work of Black women’s groups in the ‘Ban the Jab’ campaign against the drug brought this medial racism to the forefront of discussions on contraception and the state control of women’s bodies. A topic which is still relevant to the modern-day experience of the treatment Black women in the medical profession.

OWAAD is a particularly interesting group to study because it held an umbrella structure of leadership This meant that, unlike the mainstream white feminist movement and some of the smaller Black feminist organisations, OWAAD was ran without a hierarchical structure. This allowed for greater input and conversation over topics that were being discussed between the Asian and African women involved in the organisation. This would be both a positive and negative for the group and the resulting indecisiveness would later lead to its downfall. However, the revolutionary idea for a women’s group to hold such a structure is lauded by academics. OWAAD is one of the most well-known groups because of their annual conferences that were held between 1979 and 1982 in which Black women and ethnic minority women from across Britain would come to listen to lectures and share ideas.

Moving away from OWAAD there were also smaller, more localised groups such as the Southall Sisters, that created a network of Black women who were not only organising and resisting white dominance but also meeting up, making friendships and sharing their experiences. The focus of groups such as OWAAD and Southall Black Sisters was providing support to Black and Asian women living in the UK. The Southall Black Sisters focused on legal advice, information, counselling and campaigning. The range of guidance offered by these organisations lead to a greater community involvement for Black and ethnic minority women.

There was a centralised focus on London due to the proportion of Black women in London, but this is not to say that there were not Black feminism organisations throughout the UK at the time. Scotland had the prominent Edinburgh Black Women’s Group which would later go on to create smaller organisations such as Shakti Women’s Aid created in 1986. Shakti Women’s Aid offered support to Black and ethnic minority people fleeing or seeking advice about domestic abuse. The documented existence of these groups in Scotland, as well as the prominence of OWAAD demonstrate that Black feminism managed to create a space for shared experience and activism away from the mainstream white feminist movement to best serve their needs. Hopefully this shined a light on the history of Black feminism in the UK and can be a starting point for some research that you can do into different groups.

As I said this is just a brief overview of Black British feminism and the prominent groups but if there is anything you would like me to discuss in my next article or want to find out more about please do let me know. Thanks for reading!

For those interested my recommendations about work on this area by feminist historians and people who lived these experiences are:

Beverly Bryan, Stella Dadzie, Suzanne Scafe, ‘Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain’, (London, Verso, 2018)

Vron Ware, ‘Beyond The Pale: White Women, Racism and History’, (Verso, London, 2015)

Nathalie Thomlinson, ‘Race, Ethnicity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1963-1993’, (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Mirza Heida, ‘Black British Feminism: A Reader’, (London, Routledge, 1997)

OWWAD founder Stella Dadzie interview,,

Interview by Rowena Arshad about the use of Depo Provera on poor / Black women,

When it’s safe to do so the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton would be well worth a visit, not just for Black British feminism sources but also wider displays and events that they put on. It is the ‘only heritage centre dedicated to collecting, preserving and celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain’.