I read “Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy The Life of a Black Feminist Radical” by Sherie M. Randolph as part of my forgotten women series. I like to call myself a feminist, but I had never heard of Flo Kennedy before coming across a BookRiot article about lesser-known women in history. The main reason I had never heard of Flo Kennedy is because of white feminism. Flo Kennedy was a “black feminist radical” during the height of white feminism, many of the white feminists did not listen to her message and tried to distance themselves from her. Flo tried to link the oppression of women and the oppression of minorities, saying that white women needed to work with minorities so that no group could have power over another; radical thoughts during that time.
Flo Kennedy was born in 1916. She spent most of her childhood in Kansas City before moving to New York City as an adult. Flo had learned from her father to not take “shit” from anyone and she made sure that she didn’t. When the white kids would chase and tease her and her sisters, the sisters decided to turn around and chase the white kids instead. When Columbia Law School denied her entry because she was a black woman, Flo threatened to take them to court. She became one of the only black female lawyers in NYC in the 1950’s. By 1954 she had opened her own private practice; some of the cases she took involved jazz musicians being swindled by their record company.
The summer of 1960 was a turning point for Flo, it was the summer she was arrested for being a black woman. While she was an activist before that summer, the arrest hit her hard. Her family described her as “more impatient with the coercive power of racism.” Flo was arrested for trying to cross a police barricade on her street. She had told the police she lived there, but since this was an expensive neighborhood of Manhattan the police may not have believed a black women would be living there. Flo watched as the police let all the white men pass, but when she tried to pass the police pushed her into a patrol car and took her to the precinct. There she was made to strip and squat- to check her for drugs and weapons. This was a humiliating experience based solely on the fact that she was black in an upper class neighborhood. After her arrest, Kennedy started to become a voice in the Black Power movement. She believed “racism shaped relationship of power and domination in the United States… [and] that racism affected every major social problem in the United States, especially the oppression of women.”
Flo was a part of the feminist Organization for Women, but she clashed with Betty Friedan and other white feminists over her outspoken support of Black Power. She wanted the white feminist to learn from the Black Power movement and to help in the fight against racism, but many older feminists wanted no part in that. She eventually would leave the Organization for Women as she became frustrated with the white feminists own racism. She did have a big impact on Ti-Grace Atkinson, as they both became disillusioned with the direction white feminism was going. Flo believed the white feminists, such as Betty Friedan, needed to look inside themselves and confront their own racism; this is the same thing white feminist are asked to do today.
Flo was a strong supporter of reproductive justice. As an attorney, she worked on the Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz case which tried to repeal New York’s restrictive abortion laws. It was the “first case to use women who suffered from illegal abortions instead of physicians as experts witnesses.” This strategy would come to be used in Roe v. Wade.
If you consider yourself a feminist, I strongly recommend this book!