In this post, Alya Harding, Campaign Officer at the Send My Friend to School campaign, marks Black History Month, this year themed ‘Saluting our Sisters’ with a look back at Black Feminism in post-war Britain, and its relevance to social movements today.

Xabxlocdq613x6xmli70uixaykx3zghzehvkuf5jqvgluws8a2p3ytysjzj3y98jcdalywcyvqyl1mdne Wk2z20mme7shexuncr0qh8 Dqs8cq99g3oac50nka4ulombik9e7ev Bu Rigc Lawbse
‘FOWAAD’, Newsletter of the Organisation of Women of Asian & African Descent, February 1980. Feminist Library, Peckham.

Have you ever heard the phrase “the personal is political?”

The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) lived by this sentiment, highlighting the needs of women marginalised by monolithic ideas of what “British” identity means. While mainstream feminist organising in Britain from the 1960s to the 1980s had begun to advocate for working-class women, it failed to accommodate the intersections of race and gender, experiences of immigration, and police violence experienced by racialised communities, as distinct outcomes of colonial legacies.

Empire, migration and Black Feminism in Britain

“When we use the term ‘Black’, we use it as a political term. It does not describe skin colour, it defines our situation here in Britain. We’re here as a result of British imperialism…”

(Bryan, Dadzie, Scafe, 1985, p.170): Heart of the Race

Post-World War II, Britain introduced the British Nationality Act (1949), which allowed citizens of the Commonwealth the right to migrate to the UK. In what seemed like a benevolent act of the “mother country”, this migration effectively resulted in the extraction of cheap labour from the periphery of the Empire to the centre. Parallel to the beginning of large-scale migration from the British Empire was the period of decolonisation. In response to this loss of global power, the Commonwealth Acts in 1962, 1968 and 1971 narrowed migration legislation. Simultaneously, Commonwealth migrants faced challenges around access to employment, housing, healthcare and connecting with their families.

A “Political Black” identity emerged as a direct response to the myriad of inequalities produced by the state. It was an identity claimed and revitalised by community groups to challenge the control and power created by institutionalising identities (what we may understand by terms such as BME, BAME or People of Colour) and fuelling misconceptions around cultural differences. OWAAD adopted a Black Political identity to make space within the feminist agenda that transcended literal and metaphorical borders and saw a collective struggle as a collective.

Revitalised action 

The movement of people from throughout the British Empire to the UK led to the emergence of diaspora populations and cultures. These migratory flows simultaneously reflected the diverse populations across former colonies. OWAAD, founded in 1978 by Stella Dadzie, Olive Morris and Gail Lewis, worked to develop a political identity to embed the intersection of race, gender and class into a revitalised feminist agenda. “Political Blackness” aimed to unify the complex manifestations of oppression faced by black women in Britain at that time. 

In March 1979, the first OWAAD conference was held. It was regarded as the catalyst for nationwide organising under a Black Political identity in Britain, with over 300 hundred black women attending, speaking out and sharing their experiences. The conference addressed many issues affecting black women, including declining social welfare, state and gender-based violence. The event powerfully challenged colonial perceptions of the voiceless or helpless woman, and instead produced a mobilising power, celebrating stories of survival and agency, and identifying solutions to support themselves and their communities.

Existing otherwise 

The period of Thatcherism presented new challenges for racialised groups in Britain (imposed identities that hold misconceptions of who people are). The state began weaponising and fear-mongering around “multiculturalism”. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly described the nation’s fear of being ‘swamped’ by outsiders. OWAAD continued to galvanise black women for change, creating space for women marginalised by society. Political Blackness facilitated new ways of existing that opposed colonial legacies of divide and rule that maintained an oppressive power determining the rights accessible to different groups of people. As an umbrella organisation, OWAAD worked alongside many other collectives and groups such as Awaz, the first Asian Feminist Collective in the UK, which organised against “virginity testing”. Its nationwide bi-monthly newsletter ‘FOWAAD’ also mobilised action around issues of immigration, forced sterilisation, “Stop and Search” (SUS) laws, and trade union membership. Echoing the African proverb “Forward ever, backward never”, FOWAAD was a testament to the commitment these women shared as a sisterhood and a community offering validation to women whose experiences had been sidelined or ignored.   

Whatsapp Image 2023 10 05 At 09 16 31
FOWAAD, p.7, ‘Lessons’, December 1983, OWAAD. Feminist Library, Peckham

The right to protest and resist is under threat globally; governments are cracking down on physical and digital modes of resistance, further marginalising groups based on gender and sexuality, race, class, religion, disability and diminishing their human rights. Additionally, neo-liberal economic policies and declining social infrastructure globally impede community wellbeing and resistance. There have, however, been some powerful national and global campaigns in response to repressive state policies, such as #ProtectTheProtest and #KeepItOn.

So, what lessons can we learn from OWAAD’s use of Political Blackness, and how does this inform the way we join, build, support and amplify social movements around the world today? Political Blackness creates transformational opportunities for feminist organising and broader forms of allyship and collective organising, which are inclusive and anti-oppressive. It:

  • Celebrates women marginalised by society, by centering their voices and recognising their agency and knowledge
  • Acknowledges the links between local and global issues, past and present, while providing opportunities for learning and unlearning, with the aim of opposing the multi-dimensional ways in which oppression operates
  • Creates space for decolonising our thinking, as it requires the need to dismantle what is considered “expert” knowledge, and the hierarchical processes in which it is created
  • Challenges the way we think about race, or any socially constructed identities that may hinder unified activism to eliminate injustices.

Learn more about OWAAD’s legacy in the upcoming exhibition held in Tate Britain’s ‘Women in revolt! Art and activism in the UK 1970-1990’, featuring material from the Feminist Library archive.