Uncovering Black Feminist Writers 1963–90: An Evaluation of Their Coverage in Research Tools

Has the move toward online resources had an effect on source material for the study of black feminist theory? The last forty years have witnessed a critical mass of literary and theoretical writings on the black feminist movement. This article evaluates the coverage of writings by a select group of forty “second wave” (1963–75) and pre– “third wave” (1976–90) black feminists in twelve major electronic-literary and women’s-studies indexing and abstracting services. Most of the twelve resources studied provide materials on the black feminist movement; however, Gender Studies Database, Black Studies Center, and Periodical Index Online, respectively, were identified as offering the best overall coverage of black feminist writers. Each of the twelve databases studied are discussed in detail, offering some useful hints for black feminist studies researchers interested in finding the most comprehensive materials in the field. The survey investigates the breadth of coverage of writings authored by these black feminists and determines that there is a critical need to either update current thesauri or develop a new comprehensive tool for indexing and abstracting black feminist writings. Finally, the results of this study will assist libraries and librarians in making decisions about purchasing the most relevant resources for research on the writings of the feminist movement in general and black feminists in particular.

Since the mid-1990s, there has been an explosion of indexing and abstracting databases incorporating previously print-only resources with newer, more comprehensive, full-text services. Although there are a plethora of print indexes considered invaluable to researchers, the movement within the library field to replace print with electronic access to online databases has seen a marked increase. How has this move toward online resources affected access to source material for the study of black feminist theory? The last forty years have witnessed a critical mass of literary and theoretical writings on the black feminist movement. This article will evaluate the coverage of writings by a select group of “second wave” (1963–75) and pre–“third wave” (1976–90) black feminists in twelve indexing and abstracting services. Are the writings of these black feminists indexed in the major electronic literary and women’s studies database resources available for researchers? What services provide ease of use combined with multiple levels of search strategies that include searching by author, subject, title, and publication date simultaneously for retrieval of information? The survey will answer these questions and identify the availability of these writings as full text or abstracts. The survey investigates the breadth of coverage and determines that there is a critical need to develop a comprehensive tool for indexing and abstracting black feminist writings. The study will, more importantly, show what databases provide access to scholarly, peer-reviewed articles that legitimize a subject matter. Providing access to these resources encourages critical analysis of black feminist theory, thus furthering the diversity and scope of research. The results will assist researchers in choosing the most relevant resources for their research on the writings of the feminist movement in general and black feminists in particular. In this era of shrinking budgets, the data will provide guidance for librarians seeking to purchase electronic resources in the area of black women’s studies.

The black feminist writers chosen are consistently listed in major research about and writings on the feminist movement, including Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment; the voluminous Pioneer Feminists Project out of Harvard University and its first major publication, Feminists Who Changed America, edited by Barbara Love in 2006; Barbara Christian’s seminal 1985 work Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers; and the more recent two-volume set, Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page in 2007. Two comprehensive websites were also consulted during formation of the list of black feminist writers in this survey: Sherri L. Barnes’s Black American Feminisms: A Multidisciplinary Bibliography from the University of California– Santa Barbaraand the University of Minnesota’s Voices from the Gaps.1

In searching library literature using the terms women, women’s studies, and indexing in a variety of combinations, five articles were retrieved: “Table of Contents Services: Retrieving Women’s Studies Periodical Literature” by Loretta P. Koch and Barbara G. Preece (1995); “Women’s Studies Periodical Indexes: An In-depth Comparison” by Linda A. Krikos (1994);“An Evaluation of Indexing Services for Women’s Studies Periodical Literature” by Deborah Mesplay and Loretta Koch; “Indexing Adequacy and Interdisciplinary Journals: The Case of Women’s Studies” by K. H. Gerhard et al. (1993); and “Indexing of Feminist Periodicals” by May Alice Sanguinetti (1984).2 The Koch and Preece article surveyed table of contents services and not the coverage of individual writers. The articles by Mesplay and Koch and by J. A. Gerhard surveyed the general coverage of women’s studies journal literature but not the writings of individual black women writers that represent an important subset of feminist writers in the United States. Mesplay and Koch concluded that “of the indexing and abstracting services examined, ‘Women Studies Abstracts’ provides the overall best coverage.”3 Krikos’s article was a follow-up to the Mesplay and Koch article with the inclusion of the “Women’s Studies Index.”

Although Krikos’s article also reviewed indexes rather than the coverage of individual writers, it is an important resource because of its comparison of the three major resources at that time, “Women’s Studies Index,” “Studies on Women Abstracts,” and “Women Studies Abstracts.” The article is also important for its development of the following standards for comparing indexes: scope; depth of indexing; currency, time-lag, and cost; publisher and editor; format and arrangement; and vocabulary and subject headings.4 Two of these standards will be used in this study: scope, which Krikos describes as “the number and type of materials indexed (meaning articles, book chapters, books, dissertations, pamphlets) and overlaps and gaps in coverage,” and format, defined as “considering the usefulness of the overall arrangement of the service and the content of the citations.”5 Krikos concluded that “‘Women’s Studies Index’ actually indexes the most comprehensive combination and greatest number of women’s studies journals.”6 Krikos also concluded that “Women Studies Abstracts” “is essential to research collections.”7

Sanguenetti’s article surveyed the coverage of women’s studies and feminist journals in the leading paper indexing services available at that time and, again, “Women Studies Abstracts” was found to offer the best coverage, albeit in paper format. Some of the indexes surveyed by Sanguenetti are included in this survey: “Alternative Press Index,” “Essay and General Literature,” and “Women Studies Abstracts” (now a part of the much larger Gender Studies Database). Although the articles mentioned did not survey coverage of individual writers, they provided a set of criteria to assist in reviewing the databases. This study will also test some of the conclusions of these earlier articles and determine whether “Women Studies Abstracts,” which was found to have the best coverage of women’s and gender studies in earlier reviews, offers the best coverage of black feminists writers.

The study covers forty black feminist writers: fifteen Second Wave (SW) and twenty-five pre–Third Wave (pTW). The SW arguably dates either from 1963–75, according to Barbara Love and Harvard’s Pioneer Feminists Project, or from 1965–75, according to Darlene Clark Hine, African American historian and scholar. Love states, “we honor changemakers in the Second Wave movement beginning in 1963, when Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, was published and spurred countless women into action … some historians say the true Second Wave movement began in 1966 when the National Organization for Women was founded … 1963–1975 were the years of involvement by the greatest number of feminists.”8 All of the selected writers were known activists in the feminist movement. This SW period relates to the founding of the modern feminist movement that grew out of the larger civil rights era, a time when America was coming to grips with those people unwilling to be classified as “second class citizens.” The feminist movement saw the larger movement as not addressing issues of sexism, unequal pay, and the leadership role of women. Black women long involved in civil rights activism came to a similar conclusion, but the sensitive issue of women’s rights was often subsumed into the larger struggle of achieving equality as black people. With the achievement of some of the goals of the civil rights movement, such as the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, black women felt it was time to turn their attention to the rampant sexism and chauvinistic tendencies in many of the black civil rights movement leaders. The Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists that have met since 1974, state in their discussion of the genesis of contemporary black feminism that:

many of us were active in those movements (civil rights, Black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives were greatly affected and changed by their ideology, their goals, and the tactics used… . It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements … that led to the need to develop a politics that was antiracist, unlike those of white women, and antisexist, unlike those of Black and white men.9

Many within the black feminist movement viewed the early white feminist movement as focusing primarily on issues of gender equity while ignoring issues of racism and classism that were the everyday experience for women of color. Benita Roth, in Separate Roads to Feminism, sums up the feelings of many black feminists: “They were wary of joining white women’s liberation groups that paid insufficient attention to the links between gender, racial, and especially class oppression. Critical of the middle-class bias of liberation movements, Black and white, Black feminists therefore found themselves maneuvering in the interstices between the two.” 10

The writers in this study represent those who worked within and outside the women’s movement, and produced scholarship that reflected the issues and concerns of black women who faced discrimination that was both similar to and different from the discrimination faced by the women represented by the dominant white feminists’ movement. According to Joy James, the women chosen generated a wealth of materials to address these issues “not in an attempt to diminish feminist struggle but to enrich, to share in the work of making a liberatory ideology and liberatory movement.”11 The SW writers established an unprecedented body of scholarship, which is now being studied and analyzed by scholars the world over.

By Rebecca Hankins – Continues online at http://www.rusq.org/2009/05/29/uncovering-black-feminist-writers/

Or download a pdf version http://www.rusq.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/48n3/pdf/RUSQ48n3_hankins.pdf

See also:
* Can we please stop talking about feminism as if it is mothers and daughters fighting about clothes? Second wave: you’re going out in that? Third wave: just drink your herbal tea and leave me alone! Media commentators love to reduce everything about women to catfights about sex, so it’s not surprising that this belittling and historically inaccurate way of looking at the women’s movement–angry prudes versus drunken sluts–has recently taken on new life, including among feminists.
* Blame it on globalization but does a saucy tattoo on the arm of a young Indian woman mean she is standing up for her rights and those of the sisterhood? Yes, say India’s New Age feminists, who see the tattoo as proof of rebellion against a society that insists women be demure. But it is a superficial badge for a superficial ideological struggle, laments Anuradha Marwah, who has written three novels on gender equations.”This new movement of pop feminism feeds into liberalism but unfortunately, is, itself contained by it. Just because a group of women feel empowered through tokens of fashion and sex, the world isn’t going to change at large”.

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