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The Colour of Feminism: White Feminists and Race in the Women's Liberation Movement



White feminists active in the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s have often been accused of being blind to the needs of ethnic minority women and thus ‘racist’. While there is significant truth to these accusations, this article argues that such critiques have often been rather simplistic. In this article I explore the many ways in which white feminists of this era did engage with issues of ‘race’, however clumsily. Many white feminists in the early days of the WLM drew inspiration from the Black movement, and later on in the late 1970s and 1980s significant numbers of white feminists were involved in anti-racist activity in groups such as Women against Racism and Fascism and Women against Imperialism, and smaller anti-racist consciousness-raising groups. I explore the nature of these groups, whilst nevertheless maintaining a critical stance on the ways in which these groups could often – albeit inadvertently – reinscribe white power. I argue that rather than being simply racist, one of the interesting contradictions within the WLM lay in the gap between the awareness of many white feminists of the issue surrounding race, and their inability to translate this awareness into action. I end by suggesting the larger issues that a focus on race in the WLM raises for historians of feminism, both in terms of chronology – such a focus highlights the extent of feminist activity in the 1980s – and regarding the conceptual sensitivity needed when using the term ‘racism’, given the differing ways this term was used within the WLM.