The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. By Winifred Breines (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). 280 pp. Cloth, $29.95, ISBN 0-19-517904-8.

Reviewed by Françoise N. Hamlin, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


   Winifred Breines set her goals high--to explain why a racially integrated women's liberation movement did not develop in the United States. Her introduction acknowledges the controversy this history represents and perpetuates--she knows that she steps on volatile ground. So she narrows her discussion to what she terms socialist feminists, "female social movement activists" (4) who sought to work through issues of race, and therefore, she claims, beat a path for present-day feminists to engage with each other across racial lines.

   For feminist scholars and those studying the civil rights movement, the 1960s, or the women's movement, this book reflects the deep anxieties felt by many white feminists then and now around issues of race and oppression. Given the work's autobiographical character, Breines might have served her goals best had she written the book explicitly as a memoir. It is a book of intentions, and she set herself up by showing her limitations, which reflect the feminist movement in this period and the failure of liberalism. By focusing on socialist feminists, Breines narrows her field to a more manageable size, but has difficulty answering the huge questions she raises. Had Breines framed her work as a memoir, the reader could appreciate the text more for its intentions and the process of discovery, rather than closing the book unsatisfied.

   Breines places herself in the center of the discussion with autobiographical information. She was "a former activist from this period," and she writes because she seeks to quiet the voices of black women who blame white feminists' racism for the dashed hopes of universal sisterhood. Their claims, she asserts, are unfair because she knew that most white feminist women wholly committed themselves to building an interracial movement, albeit blinded at times by a postwar idealism that rendered racial differences invisible (8). She writes from a place of nostalgia, a position from which she could have used the history of the period to complicate her own uncomfortable memories.

   Breines launches into a chapter that pivots around the 1964 Position Paper on women's roles in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, authored by Mary King and Casey Hayden. She pulls together different published reactions to the paper, often used as propaganda against the feminist movement. She follows with a chapter that attempts to paint a portrait of the Black Power movement, considering black women's experiences and reaction to the sexism that spanned from the Black Panther Party to the Black Arts Movement. The chapter concludes with Breines's declaration that black women realized that racial bonding also negated their own needs and they "gradually realized they were on their own, facing dilemmas peculiar to their sex and race" (78). In both chapters, Breines generalizes both black and white women's experiences during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, relying on primary and secondary sources, all in an attempt to provide a history of the racial split that widened as the women's movement solidified in the late 60s and early 70s. In fact, the root appeared in the historical struggles between abolitionists and women in the suffrage movement a century earlier. Breines does not hint at the vast historical dimensions of distrust and discord between black and white women. The strength is that she tries to bridge the divide in the first place, uniting material from distinct movements in one book.

   Chapters three and four focus on two socialist feminist organizations in Boston, Bread and Roses and the Combahee River Collective. Bread and Roses, a white group committed to anti-racism and community activism, recognized race but never had to confront it daily. With chagrin evident in her words, Breines acknowledges that "their theory was more interracial and racially sensitive than was their practice" (108). In fact, rather than trying to relate to black people with whom they came in little contact, activists forgot SNCC mandates to transform the thoughts, attitudes and actions in their own communities and constituencies. Instead they demonstrated their anti-racism at rallies for imprisoned Black Panthers, working with mostly male Panther leaders.

   Ironically, in the same city, the Combahee River Collective gathered black lesbian women to organize on the principles of a distinct black feminist ideology. Breines depicts the development of black feminism as timid and unsure, as activists navigated between the troubled waters of Black Power and white feminism, thus eliminating their own critical edge, anger and drive in the process. By including only socialist feminists, Breines does not fully acknowledge the scholarship of those who sought to grapple with race, Gerder Lerner, Paula Giddings, Patricia Hill Collins, Deborah Gray White, to name a few. Discussion of the Combahee River Collective relies mostly on the work and writing of Barbara Smith, one of the founding members, and much of the chapter describes the group's activities in Boston. The crux of Breines's argument about why the collective never engaged in interracial feminist work boils down to the members' anger against white feminists. She stresses that black feminists rejected white feminists, while acknowledging that in their protest and anger black women transformed feminist thinking.

   Her final chapter draws her narrative to the 1980s where she notes successful issue-driven campaigns bringing black and white women together, such as the Coalition for Women's Safety in 1979 following the murders of women in Boston. The "progressive resegregation" of activism, she states, based on difference and identity politics enabled women to unite for causes common to both while co-existing separately. In light of her discussions it is never clear who constitutes the presumed "us" in her title. The analysis of "womanism" never materialized--a term explicitly created to describe woman-centered activism by/for black women. This term is mentioned once in a footnote. Many scholars have discussed how black women refused to adopt feminism as a term or concept due to the historical legacies of racism and exploitation, despite the fact that their actions and activities could be labeled feminist. Rather than placing this scholarly analysis in the footnotes, it belongs in the text and deserves full attention. In the last chapter, Breines talks briefly about black women's practical applications of feminism without the labels (155), but it is too little too late.

   Given the ideological difficulties inherent in her project, some analysis of her methodology would have been useful. This process is part of the uneasy history. An analysis of the scarcity of her primary sources would strengthen her arguments. Black women remain muted; most quotes come from previously published work, particularly Kimberly Springer's book on black feminist organizations. That she does not include conversations with women like Barbara Smith tells readers that perhaps her explanations might be at odds with those about whom she theorizes. Despite this limitation, however, her writing is a journey of discovery, an uneasy first step in the analysis of this history, and she should be commended for her bravery in tackling this highly charged issue.

    Francoise Hamlin is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She received her Ph.D. from Yale in 2004. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled "The Story Isn't Finished: Continuing Histories of the Civil Rights Movement."

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