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Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, by Frances Beal, Part 1
Episode 311st June 2021 • Breaking Down Patriarchy • Amy McPhie Allebest
00:00:00 01:32:20

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Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today’s text is an essay written by Black Civil Rights activist Frances Beal in 1969. It’s called “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” and I must say, it kind of took my breath away. It answered some questions that I have had for a long time, and it introduced new questions that I didn’t know I needed to ask, and it gave me a lot to think about. Also, this essay lends itself to discussion of what it feels like to be black and female in America, and so because I want to give my reading partner Rayna Clay Mackay time to share some personal stories, as well as to discuss the text, we’re going to divide this essay into two episodes. And I’m soooo excited to welcome back a fan favorite on Breaking Down Patriarchy podcast, Rayna Clay Mackay. Hi, Rayna!

Rayna: Hi, Amy! 

Amy: Listeners will remember Rayna from our episode on Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, which Frances Beal mentions here in “Double Jeopardy,” which is a really cool connection. Rayna, I know you said you had read “Double Jeopardy” before, but it was new to me, so I’m really eager to hear your thoughts. But first, could you just tell listeners a little bit about yourself? Specifically I’m wondering if you can tell us a bit more about your family. I remember reading a New York Times article about a member of your family that you posted on Facebook - would you be willing to share a bit about that, and about how your family contributed to make you who you are today?

Rayna: So the article I posted last year was my grandfather’s obituary in the NYT. Rhody McCoy was my mother’s father, and he was a major player in the civil right’s movement. We can talk about him anytime! He raised 6 girls and 1 son (my uncle is the youngest and everyone jokes that if he had been born first, none of the girls would exist!) during the 50s and 60s. He was almost militant in his focus on education as a survival skill for Black people as well as women. He had the same expectation of my mom and her sisters (and subsequently me and my female cousins) that he did of the boys. Which was truly revolutionary at that time and not well known in “popular” culture in regards to Black people. The media and “majority” culture has done a fab job of portraying Black people as lazy, angry, and uneducated etc. That was the antithesis of what I knew in my family and our Black friends.

But to circle back to my parents, my father was a Texan and nuclear mathematician who worked on the atom bomb in the 60s. He had a crisis of conscience (or a mid-life crisis!) and then became a playwright. He and my mom met in NYC off-broadway, and eventually when she moved to SF they reconnected and the rest is history...for a very brief time. He was killed by a drunk driver when I was 9 months old. My mom subsequently lost her mother a little over a year later, and understandably had a very difficult few years. She’s a seeker and was looking for a religious community, and when I was 4, she joined the Church. It was around this time that her talking points deviated slightly from our family in terms of race relations. Growing up, she always told me I could be and do whatever I wanted to be and do. She believed in me 100% and I always felt like my gender was not an issue when it came to accomplishment. But, (and I think this was to help me not feel othered in a majority White church) she really promoted that we are “all alike unto God” and that there is “no color.”  This was super hard for me to reconcile as I clearly looked different than almost every person I interacted with (my mom is super light, most un-enlightened people thought she was Hispanic). She chose to immerse me in “church” culture rather than “Black” culture, so it was an interesting dichotomy.

Amy: Thanks so much, Rayna. [I will probably have some follow-up questions here!]

Just to introduce the text a little bit more… this author and this subject has become significant to me personally.

I first encountered Frances Beal in my class on the Civil Rights Movement last year in grad school. I wrote my final paper on women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and I featured Frances Beal extensively. I found this topic so interesting, so moving, and so relevant that I decided to write my master’s thesis on it! So I approached her essay thinking “oh, I know Frances Beal!” But wow, it was really, really different from what I expected.

In my class we read a giant volume of the works of Dr. King, and then we read about the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was run by Bob Moses, who was (according to those who knew him) the most gentle, loving, peaceful man. And these SNCC workers were trained in unconditional non-violence and the Christian values of “turning the other cheek,” as they integrated lunch counters and did the freedom rides of 1964 integrating interstate buses, and then they worked in rural Mississippi, starting schools and registering African Americans to vote, many of whom had been so suppressed and oppressed that they didn’t even know that Black people had the right to vote. This was incredibly dangerous work, and I bawled my eyes out as I read about Fannie Lou Hamer and Anelle Ponder getting beaten savagely in jail, and SNCC workers being murdered, and young men and women confronting attack dogs and backcountry mobs who used shotguns and bombs. And these young men and women stood tall and proud, strong, but I pictured them with the gentle spirit of Bob Moses and Diane Nash. They called themselves “the beloved community,” and they cultivated what they called “the beloved community” of harmony and equality among them. ALTHOUGH I did just learn that the founder of SNCC, Ella Baker, did support self-defense, and questioned the effectiveness of nonviolence in the face of the extreme, rabid violence of Mississippi segregationists. (She was right to do so!)

My thesis is specifically on how Black women and White women worked together in SNCC in the work of racial justice, but how a schism developed between the women by about 1965, and although most SNCC women participated in and sometimes led the  Women’s Rights movement, they did so mostly separately. I found it striking that women who had loved each other so dearly and worked in such an integrated way in the early 1960’s, separated quite distinctly, and after many of the White women moved  North, what we think of as “the second wave of feminism” began, led by Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem - and also Shirley Chisolm and Pauli Murray… but really it was white feminists in the North who were in the foreground of that movement. Some white women within the movement were better than others - Steinem was certainly more conscious of including all women than Friedan was - but still, “Women’s Lib” of the 1970’s was sometimes quite insular and ignorant, and in some ways it established what we now call “white feminism,” or as Rachel Cargle calls it, “white supremacy in heels.” 

In the meantime SNCC shifted toward Black Power… in fact the President of SNCC at the time, Stokely Carmichael, was the first person to raise his fist at a rally and start chanting “Black Power!” which was a new direction for SNCC. And this essay is really important in understanding how this group of Black civil rights workers were thinking and feeling at the time. So it’s incredibly valuable as a historical document, as well as something that we in the 21st Century can continue to learn from. So anyway, for me personally, I’m still doing research on that schism within the women of SNCC, and on the resulting paths that women took in their approach to women’s rights in the late 60’s. And I want to throw in here that many Black women at this time started using the term “Womanist” instead of “Feminist” because for them “Feminism” meant “white, heterosexual, upper-class”-yup! and felt exclusive. “Womanism” centers on Black women but is inclusive. 

Anyway… this chapter in history (the 1960’s and 70’s) is actually really similar to what happened in the 19th Century with White abolitionist women and their work on Slavery - remember how Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to that anti-slavery conference in London where women weren’t allowed to be seated with the men to listen to the conference, so through her work on racial justice Stanton realized her own oppression, and  left the cause of racial justice in order to fight the battle of gender injustice… but gender injustice toward White women.  So in the 19th century and in the 20th Century, many White women who started out as allies for Black women, ended up abandoning them. 

So Rayna, let’s talk a bit about Frances Beal specifically. 


Frances Beal was born on January 13, 1940, in Binghamton, New York. Her mother was a Russian-Jewish immigrant, and her father was African-American and Native-American. Her parents were political activists, and she describes her upbringing as difficult, but acknowledges its impact on shaping her political consciousness. Her mother taught her that she had a personal and political social responsibility to confront inequalities that she and others are subjected to. 

During college, Frances went abroad to France where she married James Beal and had two children. Frances attended the Sorbonne, and during her time there she became aware of the fight to end France’s colonial domination in Algeria. After six years in France, Frances and James returned to the states and got divorced. 

Beal joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the mid-1960’s, and during her time there, SNCC activities shifted away from its original egalitarianism toward a male-dominated Black Power movement. Beal and her female colleagues worked in and contributed enormously to the Civil Rights Movement, but were sometimes not given the leadership positions that their work warranted. In response, Beal co-founded the Black Women's Liberation Committee of SNCC in 1968, which evolved into the Third World Women's Alliance. Looking back, Beal aired her grievances in the film She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, stating,

“I was in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. You’re talking about liberation and freedom half the night on the racial side, and then all of a sudden men are going to turn around and start talking about putting you in your place. So in 1968 we founded the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee to take up some of these issues.”

During the late 1960’s Beal became aware of the practice of forced sterilization, and  was actively involved in CESA, the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse. This organization fought to help poor women of color who were being disproportionately targeted and coerced into involuntary sterilization.

She actively worked to empower Black women through her political involvement in organizations and positions held on committees. In 1968 Beal composed an essay that addressed the complex relations black women were facing in their collective black struggle, called "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female". This document became SNCC's official stance on women.

Through her organizing, Beal confronted a range of oppressive regimes that encompassed complex power relations that subordinated and disenfranchised Black women in particular. Her political organizing sought to address structural inequalities and to empower marginalized groups.


Amy: Ok, now let’s take a look at Beal’s essay, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” Rayna and I will each share a couple of points that we thought were really important.

First quote:

In attempting to analyze the situation of the black woman in America, one crashes abruptly into a solid wall of grave misconceptions, outright distortions of fact and defensive attitudes on the part of many. The System of capitalism (and its afterbirth...racism) under which we all live, has attempted by many devious ways and means to destroy the humanity of all people, and particularly the humanity of black people. This has meant an outrageous assault on every black man, woman, and child who resides in the United States.

In keeping with its goal of destroying the black race's will to resist its subjugation, capitalism found it necessary to create a situation where the black man found it impossible to find meaningful or productive employment. More often than not, he couldn't find work of any kind. And the black woman likewise was manipulated by the System, economically exploited and physically assaulted. She could often find work in the white man's kitchen, however, and sometimes became the sole breadwinner of the family. This predicament has led to many psychological problems on the part of both man and woman, and has contributed to the turmoil that we find in the black family structure. (166)

So my first thought is to ask you about your lived experience in this “double jeopardy” of being black and female in the United States.

Rayna: That’s a loaded question! The short and simple answer is - it’s complicated! The longer answer is that there is a lot of macro and micro racism/aggression that is a pretty consistent part of my current lived experience and a HUGE part of my history. As we talked about previously, I moved from the Bay Area to Utah County, where I attended high school. I went from a multicultural environment to White suburbia. My HS had 2500 students. I was the only Black student until my senior year when a new family moved in and had a daughter who was Black and a sophmore. So, I was forced to become used to being different. This was difficult, and I had physical illness (migraines and gastric ulcers) as well as disordered eating trying to be as skinny as my White friends, pretending I liked Indigo Girls rather than Missy Elliot, honestly trying to be as “white” as possible. Because I thought the only way to “survive” was to assimilate.



When I went to BYU, I was one of 300 Black students out of 30,000. Once again, a very similar experience of living amongst a sea of White people! In order to try to be accepted, I developed a sense of needing to be the “model minority.” So I perseverated on doing everything “right,” so that everything I could control assimilated into the greater whole, and hopefully counteract what I couldn’t change.

Having grown up in a family of powerful females though, I couldn’t ever quite mold myself into the “helpmeet” that is a cornerstone of our shared community. So there was always a push and pull. I wanted to have the normal college experiences of dating and hanging out and fun but I found that I was not what the boys wanted. I was either exotic or a friend. Nothing more. I was too smart, too ambitious, and too black. And that was dehumanizing.

Going into medicine was no better honestly. But I am grateful for my HS and college experiences as they helped prepare me to once again gird myself while simultaneously making myself “palatable” for the White majority. The macro-racism started day 1 of medical school when I was told (with such self-assurance!) during orientation by 3 of my new white male colleagues that I had “taken the place of one of their friends because, affirmative action. . .” That blatant racism continued - the counseling office (who helps steer us towards our residency specialties) suggested I go into primary care to “serve my people,” professors taught that minorities had higher pain tolerances and tougher skin, all my textbooks had White patients and pictures of medical conditions on White skin (the only pictures of Black people showed STDs - how wrong is that???). During all of this, being black and female back-fired, because whenever I reached out for help or called out the blatant racism, I was met with “you’re so strong, you’ve got this!” so the pervading attitude of the black woman with the strong backbone was used to basically gaslight me.

I could spend most of the day recounting all of the racist experiences I’ve had as a black female in medicine, but I can sum it up by saying I’m either the housekeeping staff [insert anecdote from last week] or the “sassy, outspoken Dr. Miranda Bailey” which I am neither! But I have learned how to be myself (friendly and upbeat but also super firm), and project in a way that is neither intimidating or subservient.


One of the main things I took away from this essay was a new understanding of the linkage between sexism, racism, and capitalism. Until now I hadn’t  read much Feminist academic writing from the 1970’s and afterward, and now that I am I am seeing that those three things are always linked. I understood sexism, I understood racism, and at first I didn’t even really understand how they were linked, but I for sure didn’t understand how capitalism interlocked with sexism and racism. I read Riane Eisler’s The Real Wealth of Nations, and that helped to give me a better idea about the economics angle, but I still didn’t get how those three things worked together. . 

So in this speech when I read that the afterbirth of Capitalism is Racism, and that Capitalism “...found it necessary to create a situation where the black man found it impossible to find meaningful or productive employment. More often than not, he couldn't find work of any kind. And the black woman likewise was manipulated by the System, economically exploited and physically assaulted,” it clicked for me. Same!!!

Capitalism relies on a person having “capital,” which is wealth or assets, which the person then “capitalizes” on, taking advantage of that capital by growing it as big as he can. Basically everyone gets what they can, and makes the most of it, and it’s kind of the survival of the fittest. So I thought about White European and American men from about the 1500’s-1800’s. Some of these men figured out they could get more capital by kidnapping and enslaving people from Africa, and selling them as slaves. These enslaved people, literally chained and raped and beaten and murdered and bought and sold, were used as free labor to increase profit for these White enslavers. They kept all the profits from their businesses without paying for labor. They built the economy of the...