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Roth explores ethnic roads to feminism in America

While an undergraduate student at Brandeis University, Benita Roth noticed that even though very few women of color belonged to the feminist organizations she had joined, their political beliefs were similar. However, they worked for them in different venues.

Curious about the reasons for the differences, the future associate professor of sociology researched the subject, which eventually became the topic of her doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“I began to wonder more about this question of what about feminism in other racial-ethnic communities” Roth said. “I knew it existed. Why, despite all these cries for unity, didn’t it seem to exist organizationally?” Through interviews and archival research, she learned that women of color are very much interested in feminism but their interests encompass racial and ethnic equality as well — a discovery that led to her recently published first book Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave.

Roth hopes that her book becomes a strong source of information for anyone who is interested in women’s studies, racial-ethnic issues and social protest movements, as well as this potent and unique time period in America’s history.

Separate Roads springs from many unique and interesting sources, including collections of underground publications from all three of the ethnic groups that Roth explores. Other scholars have studied the second wave of feminism but Roth’s book is the first to look at their movements comparatively. Roth paints an interesting picture of how black and chicana women have been connected in the fight for racial equality with the fight for gender equality. Throughout the book, Roth explains that although black and chicana women shared a common interest in feminism with white women during the 1960s and 1970s, they pursued it apart from white women because of their distinct histories and cultures.

Roth researched three groups of women who differed not only on a socioeconomic level, but also in the way they organized their movements and in the way they were inclined to link their cause for gender equality with demands for racial and ethnic parity.

Roth challenges the public perception that “second wave” feminism, a movement that took place during the 1960s and 1970s, was a vehicle only for the middle class and white women. Her book chronicles the development of black and chicana feminist movements during this time period and notes the individual causes that gave birth to these movements.

Roth said feminists had to choose between organizing their movements on the basis of race or gender with some trying to integrate a feminist perspective into their own ethnic movements, which was an additional burden that white women simply did not face.

Roth suggests it is impossible to discuss gender inequality as something that is separate from racial, ethnic or class inequality, or heterosexism. For example, a chicana woman cannot ask for gender equality without demanding ethnic equality as well. “All of these things reinforce each other and mutually construct each other,” she said.

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