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Women's Work: A Review of "Want to Start a Revolution?"

Rachel Herzing
Date Published: 
December 1, 2010


NYU Press, 2009

In the introduction to Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, the editors Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard suggest that, “Rethinking the historiography of the Black Revolt requires interrogating a narrative of black radicalism that casts these radical women in supporting roles.” This sentiment frames the entire anthology, in which the women featured all get to be stars rather than supporting players. This collection of essays unearths the contributions of women to US Black radical struggle. It does that excavating in a way that doesn’t merely lift up or try to radicalize “women’s work.” It examines these women as multi-dimensional actors at the center of movements for Black liberation.

From better-known figures such as Assata Shakur and Yuri Kochiyama, to lesser-known (but no less influential) women such as Florynce Kennedy, Lillie May Jackson, and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the collection covers a range of movements, tactics, and political approaches. The women profiled here range from being central figures in electoral politics and large-scale organizations to pioneering educators, internationalists, anti-imperialists, and artists.

The essays illustrate the many ways in which the organizations and movements of which these women were part were not as separated from each other as they have sometimes been portrayed. As a whole, the collection provides an excellent survey of the ways that civil rights, welfare rights, feminism, and Black Power movements, for instance, shared feet on the ground as well as ideological threads.  Theoharis’s recuperation of Rosa Parks—from clichéd depictions of her as the tired woman on the bus or the secretary for the NAACP as a stalwart radical until the very end of her life—is one such important intervention out of many.

I was happy to see Vicki Garvin (1915-2007) receive so much attention in the collection, as her tireless work in the labor movement sometimes gets overlooked. Here she is front and center and inspires the book’s title; someone says that she was the person to see if you wanted to start a revolution! Gore’s chapter on Garvin is consistent with the book’s intent of not limiting its subjects to a single sector or political ideology. Her political development is carefully examined, drawing out both the dynamism and complications of her communism as well as the variety of her political engagements from the National Negro Labor Council through her layered internationalist efforts. Garvin’s long, politically engaged life presents a riveting example of the importance of linking struggles for liberation at home with those happening throughout the rest of the world.

Prudence Cumberbatch’s dynamic, thought-provoking piece explores the mother-daughter team of Lillie May Jackson and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, and their undeniable impact on Baltimore through their work with the NAACP. Cumberbatch brings out fascinating details about the ways they incorporated their strong religious faith into their struggle for Black liberation. Margo Natalie Crawford’s analysis of the 1970 anthology The Black Woman is one of the less-successful pieces, offering little new to old debates and written in an awkward style. The collection, however, spans a wide enough range of content and style that each reader is sure to find essays that speak to them.

Social scenes

Many of the essays treat their subjects’ political development as seriously as their organizing successes, and explore the contexts in which these women’s approaches were forged. Similarly, while highlighting individuals’ contributions, the collection also avoids the pitfall that so many works focused on men stumble into by successfully anchoring each woman in a social context as well as a political one. We are exposed to family networks, organizational dynamics, and neighborhood settings as shaping each woman’s social and political environments.

This book is an important intervention in the historiography of US Black movements, strongly asserting the centrality of women in a broad range of Black liberation struggles. It is an equally important book for a generation of organizers and activists who may not have heard of these movement leaders or about their organizing efforts.

For those of us who want to start a revolution, the stories of the women included in this collection offer inspiration and instruction. We should all be so brave as to give as much passion and dedication to our movements as these women did.

—Rachel Herzing