Friday, February 22, 2013

Malcolm X's View on Women

Malcolm would rarely visit his mother, and seldom spoke of her: he was deeply ashamed of her illness. The experience etched into him the conviction that all women were, by nature, weak and unreliable. He may have also believed that his mother’s love affair and subsequent out-of-wedlock pregnancy were, in some way, a betrayal of his father (36).
-from Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented

…immediately my attention was struck by the mannerisms and attire of Lebanese women. In the Holy Land, there had been the very modest, very feminine Arabian women –and there was this sudden contrast of the half-French, half-Arab Lebanese women who projected in their dress and street manners more liberty, more boldness…Wherever the spiritual values have been submerged, if not destroyed, by an emphasis upon the material things, invariably, the women reflect it (355)
-from Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X

If asked about black female leaders in the fight to attain rights, many of us in America can quickly proclaim Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but it usually stops there. This void of female voice and presence is also evident in Malcolm X’s attitude from Haley’s book, but also in his life, as reflected in the except from Marable’s book. It represents, to me, an overall phenomenon in the African-American struggle for rights and recognition in America during and before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. It reflects an underlying perception gender roles present in the black community during this time period as exemplified in Malcolm’s relationship with his mother, whom he regards as weak and unreliable. As shown from Haley’s excerpt, Malcolm carries this view of women later in his life and further more, uses women to exemplify good versus evil, Islam versus other religions, and Westernization versus other cultures.

Even though both his parents did not make sturdy wages and were both active members in Marcus Garvey’s organization, Malcolm revered his father more, partially because he saw a role model for his future and partially because his mother was much more stern and willing to punish him. After his father’s death, Malcolm felt a void in his life, neither one that could not be filled by his mother nor any other black male figure. I think, as a result, he scapegoated his mother as a defense mechanism.

When he visits Beirut for the first time, he pays close attention to the women’s attire not on the men’s attire, which I’m sure was similar at the time as well. His word choice and adjectives strikes me the most in his description. He describes Arab women as modest and very feminine, while Lebanese women are described as half-Arab, who project more boldness and liberty. Boldness and liberty are two poignant words, and ones that I would actually attribute to Malcolm himself. Many, especially in the black community, love Malcolm for his boldness and his fight for liberty for blacks to retain their rights and form a Pan-African movement. To describe the Lebanese women as bold and projecting liberty, he in turn views them as masculine, which I find ironic. The contrast of the 

Analyzing Malcolm's relationship and views on women makes me wonder if his attitude was unique to black leaders during this time period. Both Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr. rarely address women in their works. It certainly leaves me with questions and vexations. 


  1. Response from Matthew Gennari:

    Hi Maria,

    You make some very interesting observations here. One important woman
    you are leaving out though is Malcolm's half-sister Ella. In the
    autobiography Malcolm says ''She was the first really proud black
    woman I had ever seen in my life'', and says of her taking him into
    her home in Roxbury that ''No physical move in my life has been more
    pivotal or profound in its repercussions.'' He also later recruited
    her into the Nation of Islam, and when she left the NOI she apparently
    persuaded Malcolm to get away from Elijah Muhammad and broaden his
    perspective. The obituary from The New York Times is linked below, and
    claims that she gave him money for his pilgrimage. Some food for

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Matthew,
      Thank you for pointing out this very crucial fact to me. I focused too much on Malcolm's mother and didn't take enough time or space to write about Ella. She certainly deserves recognition.

  2. Maria,

    I really liked that you picked the subject of Malcolm X and women. The lack of recognition of women is something that plagues almost all forms of art. In particular, I think Malcolm X's relationship with his mother and his tendency to see her as "weak" is an interesting one. In contrast, he seems to view his half-sister as a strong, black woman. Although he clearly has a special relationship with Ella, I think that, in general, his rhetoric leaves out women and exemplifies masculinity in the civil rights movement.

  3. I think this is a really interesting debate.
    Regardless of whether his sister was mentioned in the original post I have noticed, throughout the course and what I have been taught about the Civil Rights Movement in my degree as a whole, the favouring of the masculined leader over the feminised.

    This is obviously a very general statement, most of history neglects to highlight the incremental roles women played in key events and movements.

    I feel like this era more than most is remembered by the average person as representative of the words and actions of great men. I mentioned this in my presentation when I discussed the exclusion of Mamie Clark's contribution to the Brown Decision in my education in England.

    I am grateful that as a student of American Studies I am able to learn about women such as Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Malcolm X's half-sister. It saddens me that these people are not more widely known. King and X need no introduction but even in a class about the movement itself the work of Baker and Hamer needs explaining.

    I think you make crucial points, Maria. Although he does speak highly of one woman, it does not mean that his ideology was geared towards them.

  4. Maria,
    I also like your choice of topic here. I think it is important for us, as we study our relatively recent history to pay attention to the important role of women. I am currently taking a class on the History or Rome, a history that is sadly almost completely void of any mention of the roles of women. Our text brought up this void (8 chapters in), and attempted to rationalize it by the fact that Roman historians were men who did not see women has influential to history and thus not worthy of note. As we examine our own histories, as I believe we are doing in this class, it is important that we leave no such voids for those who come after us.


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