In today’s post, Tiana U. Wilson, managing editor of Black Perspectives, interviews Dr. Patricia Romney on her new book, We Were There: The Third World Women’s Alliance and the Second Wave, published by The Feminist Press. Dr. Romney received her Ph.D. from the City University of New York where she won the Bernard R. Ackerman Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Graduate Psychology. She completed her internship in Consultation and Education at the Yale University School of Medicine and did post-graduate study at The College of Executive Coaching. Her co-edited volume Understanding Power: An Imperative for Human Services was published in 2017 by NASW Press. Dr. Romney’s new book documents the history of pioneering Black and women of color revolutionaries who paved the way for feminists to come.
Tiana U. Wilson (TUW): Over fifty years ago, the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) was founded by Black women in New York City, and expanded to include Latina, Asian, and other women of color with chapters on the West Coast. TWWA members, including yourself, theorized women of color’s oppression through the analytical lens of imperialism, racism, sexism, and capitalism. Please share with us your journey to the Alliance.
Patricia Romney (PR): My first encounter with the Third World Women’s Alliance was at the August 26, 1970 Women’s March in New York City. I had been sent to participate in solidarity by Latin Action, a community organization I belonged to that did organizing in the South Bronx. Latin Action was the beginning of my political orientation, offering me a framework to understand the racism I had experienced all my life in predominantly white schools, as well as the racism and class oppression I witnessed in my first jobs after graduating from college.
My first job was working for the Welfare Department in New York City where I was assigned a caseload from the South Bronx. Soon I realized that rather than providing help and support, my task was to monitor. I was expected to be an agent of social control. I left that work pretty quickly.
I became a teacher. In the Bronx at Public School 50 and Junior High School 98, my students were mainly Puerto Rican, and largely low-income and welfare recipients. Seeing the poverty and discrimination they faced and witnessing the bias of my very predominantly white fellow-teachers raised my consciousness even more. So much so, that I militated against the many strikes in which the United Federation of Teachers closed the schools in protest of supposed anti-Semitism in the city’s schools. My first graders did not know their alphabet, and didn’t even know their colors! Bill Schwarz, Pete Bronson, and I defied the UFT’s 1968 strike and went to work every day to teach our students.
When I joined the Third World Women’s Alliance contingent on that August day, my connection was immediate and deep. I experienced a sense of unity and power. I was already committed to the struggle against racism and economic and class oppression. Having gone to all-girls schools most of my life, I understood the value of sisterhood. That very day, I decided to join the Alliance. I did not yet fully understand sexism, but Alliance would teach me about that.
TUW: Your book interweaves oral histories, scholarly and archival research, and first-person narrative to demonstrate the TWWA’s contribution to second-wave feminism. What factors shaped your decision to publish this book today?
PR: At Hampshire College between 1986 and 1996 my students told me they didn’t know women of color had been part of the women’s movement. Though she later wrote differently about this period, bell hooks wrote in her 1981 book, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism, that black women were “by and large silent” during this period. She wrote that there was a “profound silence engendered by resignation and acceptance of one’s lot.” 1
In the Alliance, I had been involved in the fight for women’s rights – reproductive rights, equal pay, the equal rights amendment. I looked for literature about the Third World Women’s Alliance to share with my students and there wasn’t any. I determined then to write my own history of our work.
Later my students at Mount Holyoke College (2000-2010) were inspired by the women I was writing about. Before the Me Too Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement, they were telling me that they did not have women of color who inspired them. This is why We Were There includes profiles of 25 women and the work they have been doing since their time in the Alliance.
In 2021 the rights of women of color are still under attack. Abortion rights are being challenged, Women are still being raped and sexually assaulted. Women of color still receive unequal pay. The US is the only major, industrialized country that does not have universal childcare. We have no paid family leave. I could go on and on. Women of color still have so much to fight for, for ourselves and our communities. We Were There is meant to provide inspiration for the work that lays before us.
TUW: One of the book’s many themes explores how women of color articulated their feminist consciousness during the 1970s. How did the TWWA define feminism, and how was it different than the mainstream Women’s Liberation Movement?
PR: We did not define ourselves as feminists, and we distinguished ourselves from the women’s liberation movement which we say was white. We called ourselves revolutionaries. Our platform was to join in “united action around” our “oppression as workers, as third world people, and as women of color.”
We wanted to:
- Create a sisterhood of women to develop solidarity among peoples of the Third World to eliminate oppression based on race, economic status or sex.
- Fight against an “imperialist sexist system that oppresses all minority peoples as well as exploits the majority.”
Defining the women of the Third World Women’s Alliance as feminists came after. In 1983 Alice Walker created the term womanist – black feminist or feminist of color. Later came the terms “third world feminism,” “global feminism,” and “transnational feminism” emerged. Scholars like Kimberly Springer and Becky Thompson defined us using those terms, and I believe they were right to do so. We were part of the movement that inspired the term.
- bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, 1981), 1. ↩