Many of these stereotypes continue to plague black women today.“Embracing femininity is the way to resist those stereotypes,” Fannin says.
In a society that has deemed black women incapable of being vulnerable, warm, beautiful, and graceful, it can be a powerful to choice identify as feminine, says Adia Harvey Wingfield, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, citing examples such as the natural hair movement. “That idea of black women embracing aspects of their natural beauty very much is still a radical act,” she says.
Of course, embracing femininity is not necessarily a distraction from feminist organizing—historically it has complimented it. Fannin points to the black women’s club movement, which began in the 1890s as an offshoot from the white women’s club movement. While the latter focused primarily on social and educational gatherings for middle-class white women, members of the black women’s club movement were also civil rights activists.
Fannin says these women, who were largely a part of the black middle class, were “devoted to their femininity and their family.” Their attire and sense of self very much challenged the perceptions of black women at the time. They were also “very politically and socially active,” Fannin says. The black women’s club movement fought for the right to vote, organized anti-lynching campaigns, and worked on getting better access to education for their community.
In contrast, “white women have historically been the default when it comes to mainstream, cultural ideas of what femininity is and what it looks like,” Wingfield says, adding that white women don’t have to assert it, or even think a lot about being defined or seen as feminine. While black women embrace femininity to overcome a dehumanization that can be traced back to slavery in the US, white women’s disavowal of femininity is rooted in second-wave feminism, which sprang up in the early 1960s and focused on challenging gender roles in the family and workplace, as well as reproductive rights.
As a result, “the way we understand femininity between black and white women is similar,” Fannin says, but “the way we respond to it and embrace is different.” Fannin said she is critical of “the idea of white women halfway rejecting their privilege, while still benefiting from it.” It’s one thing for a white woman to not identify with femininity, but it’s another to try “to deconstruct in a way that all women of color can benefit,” Fannin adds.
And while the black feminist struggle hasn’t excluded femininity, “it can only do so much,” Dosekun adds. Femininity, and the notions of beauty it entails, is important for black women’s sense of self and sense of value. But black women still need to continue to fight to broaden the movement to ensure it is inclusive and welcoming of those who are not interested in defining themselves as feminine. “You have to balance those two things,” Dosekun says.