The founding document of identity politics, in other words, reflects reality as many African American women would have found it in the 1970s—one in which they were the canaries in the coal mine of the sexual revolution. It’s a world in which men are ever less trusted, relations between the sexes are chronically estranged, and marriage is thin on the ground. African American women were—and still are—disproportionately affected by aspects of the sexual revolution like abortion, out-of-wedlock births, and fatherless homes. Isn’t it suggestive that the earliest collective articulation of identity politics came from the community that was first to suffer from the accelerated fraying of family ties, a harbinger of what came next for all?
Identity politics cannot be understood apart from the preceding and concomitant social fact of family implosion. The year before the Combahee document’s publication—1976—was a watershed of a sort. The out-of-wedlock birth rate for black Americans tipped over the 50-percent mark (the 1965 Moynihan Report worried over a rate half as high). This rate has kept climbing and exceeded 70 percent in 2016. At the same time, other measures indicating the splintering of the nuclear and extended family expanded too. By 2012, Millennial women—who were then under the age of 30—exhibited for the first time the out-of-wedlock birth rate of black women in 1976: i.e., more than 50 percent. Millennials, of course, are the demographic backbone of identity politics.
And the out-of-wedlock birth rate is just one measure of the unprecedented disruption of the family over the last half-century-plus. Consider, just in passing, the impact of abortion. In 2008, the Guttmacher Institute reported that 61 percent of women terminating pregnancies were already mothers of at least one child. Many children—and many grown children—have been deprived of potential siblings via pregnancy termination.
Abortion, like single motherhood, is only one engine of a phenomenon that has come to characterize more and more American lives during the past half-century: what might be called the “family, interrupted.”
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