Pamphlets for Progress: Uplifting the Voices of Black Women

February is Black History Month, and coming up soon in March is Women’s History Month. In Maryland and Historical Collections (MDHC) here at SCUA, we’re approaching these important occasions as opportunities to uplift collection materials that represent the lived experiences, struggles, and accomplishments of Black women. First up in our review is the Women’s Studies pamphlet collection (0274-MDHC). This collection was first established by Susan Cardinale, UMD’s Associate Librarian for Special Collections, in the early 1970s, and has continued to grow. In total, the collection takes up 13.5 feet of shelf storage space in our stacks. Arranged alphabetically by subject, the pamphlets in this collection cover a variety of time periods and topics, including the experiences of Black women and women of color.

Black and White Image: Two women; one looking at the camera, one looking to the side. Text on top left side reads, 'Black Women’s Liberation' (the O in Liberation is a female sign [♀]). Text on bottom right reads, ‘by Maxine Williams and Pamela Newman’
Black Women’s Liberation (1971) by Maxine Williams and Pamela Newman

But what exactly is a pamphlet? In its most basic format, a pamphlet is a small, unbound (or loosely bound) book. Pamphlets are generally used to promote an organization’s mission or goals or to raise awareness for a campaign, social issue, or political movement. A well-known historical example is Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s 47-page pamphlet that circulated around the onset of the American Revolution and advocated for independence from Great Britain. Pamphlets can condense complex ideas or large movements into concise arguments that can be easily shared with others.

From the Women’s Studies pamphlet collection, we want to spotlight some pamphlets that are written by and for Black women. With titles like The Status of Women of Color in the Economy: The Legacy of Being Other, Black Women’s Liberation, and Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, these pamphlets discuss a range of social issues and are written for both readers with similar lived experiences as well as those seeking to be better allies. These pamphlets scrutinize obstacles, both historical and contemporary, that Black women have faced in the fight for justice, respect, and equal treatment and pay.

Each of these pamphlets reflects important issues and conversations of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the mid-twentieth century, while likewise acknowledging the unique experiences of Black women that were not always recognized or centered in this predominately white second-wave feminism movement. The Status of Women of Color in the Economy: The Legacy of Being Other, published in 1984 by Dr. Julianne Malveaux, explores the history of the roles of Black women in the labor force and that history’s implications in imagining a more liberated future. And Black Women’s Liberation, published in 1970 and again in 1971 by Maxine Williams and Pamela Newman, speaks bluntly about the obstacles to earning a living wage and the historic difficulties that enslaved women faced in the Antebellum South. Williams and Newman call the “issue of women’s liberation seem[ingly] irrelevant to Black women’s needs,” and address the white supremacy and class privilege that influenced many critical conversations at the time; they advocate for more holistic reforms to hiring and workplace practices, noting how many Black women who have jobs may still not earn enough to live comfortably or may have to work in unacceptable conditions.

Magazine Spread. On the left side a red and white image of two women at a protest. The right side is the first page of an article titled “A Natural Alliance the new role for black women” by Geraldine Rickman. Includes a column of text from the article and an image of a woman teaching in a classroom setting.
From Civil Rights Digest (Spring 1974)

Perhaps most poignantly, Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female by Frances Beal addresses the multiple layers of discrimination and exclusion Black women have historically had to navigate and resist. Beal writes, “Some groups come to the incorrect conclusion that their oppression is due simply to male chauvinism…Black people are engaged in a life or death struggle and the main emphasis of Black women must be to combat the capitalist, racist, exploitation of Black people.” These pamphlets capture a display of the diversity within movements for women’s rights that are often generalized and whitewashed when taught in the mainstream. These authors discuss, debate, and even take opposing sides from one another on a range of social issues, but most importantly they write in their own voices and from their own experiences. In MDHC, we celebrate this authenticity and will continue to uplift these women’s stories and other archives and publications of Black women and women of color.

Susannah Holliday is a graduate student in the Master of Library and Information Science program at UMD and a student assistant in Maryland & Historical Collections, Special Collections and University Archives.

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