Let's Talk About White Feminism
Updated: 2 days ago
By Mana Ravenel
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“There is narcissism in [the] white feminist refusal of intersectionality, this privileging of gender over race, class and other categories of oppression.”
- Alison Phipps in Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism
In his book, The Second Treatise of Government, English philosopher John Locke writes that all humans had God-given inalienable rights. These were rights that could neither be taken nor given away and made people equal to each other. Amongst these rights were “life, liberty, and property.” Despite Locke specifically using “humans” in his ideologies, these rights did not extend to anyone other than the white man. Consequently, early feminists would campaign for women’s rights, arguing that humans included both men and women.
Feminism is a movement that advocates for the social, political, legal, and economic rights of women. French socialist Charles Fourier is credited for coining the term in 1837 when he used feminisme to describe women's liberation in a utopian future. In the early 1900s, the word soon became associated with women’s suffrage.
The first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Here, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott congregated over three hundred people. One of the thirty-two men who attended the convention was activist and abolitionist Frederick Douglas who strongly supported Stanton’s resolution for women’s suffrage. In a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, they demanded religious, political, social, and civil rights: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal." Following the convention, the women's suffrage movement was established with the demand to vote at the focal point of the movement.
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"There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before."
- Sojourner Truth
In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, granting black men the right to vote. It stated that no one could be denied the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Though this should have been seen as an important step to granting all citizens voting rights, white suffragists took great offense to it. Many prominent suffragists were appalled that black men were given the right to vote before they were. Susan B. Anthony expressed her outrage for the amendment saying, "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman." The president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Anna Howard Shaw, also commented on the 15th Amendment saying,
"You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!"
The suffragists failed to understand that they were not the only oppressed group in the nation. African Americans had been marginalized in ways they could have never been able to understand, and they made no attempts to do so. Frederick Douglas responded to their outrage towards black men for being given the vote before women by saying:
“When women, because they are women are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”
The suffragettes were White Supremacists as made evident in their incredibly anti-black rhetoric. Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first women to serve in the Senate, not only spoke against black men being able to vote, but she also encouraged lynchings, saying "if it needs lynching to protect woman's dearest possession from the ravening human beasts- then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary." It soon became clear that white suffragists were not fighting for anyone other than white women. They used and exploited black activists to aid in the progression of their movement until they no longer felt the need for them. Susan B. Anthony, despite her close relationship with Frederick Douglas, asked him to not speak at a march. She feared it would turn white people against their movement. Upon hearing of the 15th Amendment, Stanton further pushed the incredibly harmful narrative that all black men were rapists and a danger to society, despite having the continuous support and aid of one- Douglas- in her movement.
At a 1913 major suffragist parade in Washington, black participants were told to march in an all-black assembly at the back rather than alongside their state delegations. Suffragists also used the racism prevalent in Jim Crow states to excuse their mistreatment and discrimination of black suffragists. Black women's suffrage clubs that hoped to form official affiliations with the national movement were heavily discouraged from doing so as the national white suffrage movement felt that doing so would anger white Southerners.
The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, but it did not promise any woman the vote, especially not black women. Despite the 15th Amendment prohibiting states from denying the vote based on race, legislatures had created laws that would keep many Black men from casting their ballots. Such laws included poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Additionally, intimidation and the threat of lynching kept many black men from exercising their right to vote. When the 19th Amendment was ratified, this was all shared with the black women of the nation. Many Native and Asian women were also unable to vote as their citizenship was still being debated by lawmakers at this time.
The suffrage movement and how its white leaders behaved is a blaring example of white feminism. These women were labeled as "heroes" for securing women's right to vote even though they not only excluded black women from participating in the movement but also utilized white supremacist ideals to support their movement. White women argued for their right to vote by demonstrating their superiority over the black community.
Feminists presenting themselves as allies to black women and other women of marginalized groups only when they can benefit from doing so is not a thing of the past. White feminism essentially exploits other women and marginalized people to achieve their personal goals and equality for themselves. It aims to succeed within the systems that oppress women- patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism- rather than change them. Koa Beck, author of White Feminism: From the Suffrages to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind, describes the ideology of white feminism to be "fundamentally exclusionary, functioning to keep women of color from enjoying the benefits of any feminist gains or otherwise enlisting them in creating the illusion of equality for their white counterparts."
White feminism is an incredibly flawed approach to achieving gender equality. It fails to acknowledge that white women have a privilege that women of color and those of other marginalized genders simply do not have. Beck also writes that this feminism has "proved to be a successful strategy in abating systemic change, by encouraging women and other marginalized genders to become more individually focused on sustaining their families, their incomes, their education, and their economic safety rather than challenging and reassessing the institutionalized elements that collectively keep us in a locked hierarchy."
Mainstream feminism continues to focus on women who have already had their needs met- middle to upper-class white women. It ignores people of color, people of lower incomes, and people who cannot meet their basic needs including food, shelter, and health care.
“What looked like inclusiveness was to bring on women of color and have their stories be part of the staging of feminism, while the real work didn't necessarily address the concerns of those black women.”
- Sheri Parks, Professor of American Studies at University of Maryland, author of Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture
In 1982, author and activist Alice Walker coined the term 'womanist' within her publication, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. She defined a womanist to be "a black feminist or feminist of color ... a woman who loves other women, sexually and/ or nonsexually ... committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female." While the focus of feminism was strictly on gender discrimination, womanism looked at discrimination in the areas of race, class, and gender. In 1989, American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectional feminism,” which she described to Time to be "a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other." Intersectional feminism focuses on those who experience overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression, whereas white feminism will only center on the oppression one will face because of their gender. White feminism is harmful because it excludes those who aren’t white women from their activism. Additionally, it suppresses the voices of women from marginalized groups to fulfill their own goals.
White women have a habit of making themselves the center of attention. They hide behind white fragility, the feelings of discomfort a white person experiences when they witness conversations surrounding racial inequality and injustice. White feminism only recognizes and acknowledges women of color to achieve their own goals and appear inclusive. When the agendas and concerns of women of color don't align with that of white feminists, their voices are ignored and suppressed.
For the feminist movement to be progressive and intersectional, feminists must include women of color, trans women, and non-binary people in their activism. Too often has feminism only benefited white women, usually of the middle to upper-class despite feminism being a movement meant for all women. The first step to allyship comes with understanding this. Allies are people who use their privilege to fight alongside those who are marginalized. They help to uplift these voices rather than suppress them. White feminists have had a long history of doing the exact opposite of this.
Written by writer Mana Ravenel