With intersectionality at the center of the ongoing development of feminist, LGBTQ, civil rights, and countless other social movements, it’s only right that the history of the original feminist movement be considered, understood, and studied for what it is: racist.
The usual heroic stories of the suffragettes and the reproductive justice advocates of the 1960s and 70s frame the history of American feminism and women’s rights movements as almost exclusively white, not to mention affluent, able-bodied, and a whole host of other privileged identities. To be crystal clear, the women credited for these great deeds (think Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinmen, so on and so forth) were agents of change, but they were not the only, and in many cases not even the first, women to blaze social, economic, and political trails — in fact, far from it. In reality, women of color, transwomen, disabled women, and women sex workers have been and are still on the front lines.
Now, we hear the term “white feminism” thrown around to describe what was packaged and sold as plain-old, supposedly all-encompassing feminism. But where did this term even come from? Some of the “original,” or most famous feminists, were not only inclined to focus more on white women to appeal to their own demographic in their activist efforts, but rather they actively excluded women of color that had started the movement from participating in or advancing it. In short: there’s a lot of learning to do to understand the true history of feminism, and the women leaders of color that had to fight at the intersection of both sexism and racism to make real change.
But simply understanding this history neither erases it nor prevents its repetition. White feminism, as the historically dominant and most imposed form of feminism in the United States has known, has manifested itself in almost all of our modern understandings of gender equality. The effects of this history of exclusion embolden white women to feel disproportionately equipped to not only act as the agents, but rather spokespeople, of the entire movement. This history positions white, cisgender, extraordinarily wealthy, white celeberties to be the center of a movement like #MeToo while the government cannot produce a record of missing or murdered Indigineous women. It positions white women to be the authority on all issues of gender equality, with no recognition for the specific and intricate factors which were designed to target communities of color.
At the end of the day (to borrow some advice from Megan Rapinoe), we all need to be better. No, not every single white woman is automatically a “white feminist’, but, yes, every white woman (feminist or not) has benefitted from the inherited predominance of feminism as a white, extremely privileged movement; a movement by and for certain women. All white women have the opportunity to understand, unpack, and leverage their position of privilege and power in the fight for gender equality. Everyone, regardless of gender, would be enriched to better themselves with the readings of amazing founders of the womanist movement, like Alice Walker, or modern activists and writers of color who can unpack the issue of white feminism much better than I ever could. White feminism has, sadly, dominated the history of the movement. Fortunately, we don’t have to accept the same thing about the past — and that responsibility falls on anyone who claims to be a feminist, especially if they are white, to understand, study, and take into account in their future actions, no matter how big or small.
Feature Image via Vanessa Granda