Privilege in feminism, Part 2: Lessons from America’s racist history

We pick up our discussion of relative privilege and feminism today with a look at some slices of American history. I recently read an interview with scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom, following her presentation to a group of white feminists during which she said:

A lot of corporate capitalist feminism begins with the idea that feminism is always starting on the day the person discovered feminism,[But] my feminism can’t start when you discover it, I need mine to start 300 years ago. [She went on to tell the interviewer,] feminism wants to start today. Always. Even the historian in there said, Well feminism started in 1970—and I almost fell out the chair. Like, really? I’ve got black feminists organizing in 1889. But even when we’re talking historical terms we’re not dealing with history. And I think that an affirmative feminism would be precisely that.

Oh, how I wish our history was chock full of M&Ms instead of oppression!

Oh, how I wish our history was chock full of M&Ms instead of oppression!

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at our own history. For those unfamiliar with women’s history in the United States, the fight for women’s suffrage that began before our nation was founded, began to gain momentum just before the Civil War. During that time, suffragists and abolitionists Lucretia Mott (shout out to Quakers!) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled to London to attend an anti-slavery convention with their husbands. At the assembly, the women were asked to sit behind a curtain where the male-only speakers and attendees would not be distracted by their presence. Infuriated by this, the women traveled back to the States with a plan that they would hold their own convention, this time on the rights of women as well as abolition. And thus the idea for the Seneca Falls Convention was born.

Love me some Lucretia Mott.

Love me some Lucretia Mott.

This is significant because here we see how intertwined feminism and anti-racism were at the beginning. Following the Civil War, however, the women’s suffrage movement became divided over the prospect of the Fourteenth amendment, which would grant voting rights to former slaves. Some suffragists wanted to pursue voting rights for black men before making suffrage universally applicable to all citizens (particularly women). Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who had worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on both abolition and women’s rights, was distanced from his former allies over their disagreement on the issue.
Ta Nehisi Coates offers a snapshot of the pervasiveness of the problem:

It got worse. By the dawn of of the 20th century, Anthony and Stanton were openly courting avowed white supremacists like Belle Kearney. 1903 found the old stalwart abolitionist, Anthony, in New Orleans at the National Association of Women’s Suffrage Association’s convention, enduring a rousing rendition of Dixie, and tolerating Kearney’s “semi-barbaric denunciations of blacks.”

By that point, some of the most ardent suffrage activists were outright racists like Rebecca Felton, who fervently supported lynching, and Kate Gordon who eventually abandoned the suffrage movement because a national amendment would threaten white supremacy. “State sovereignty and white supremacy are inextricably linked,” said Gordon. Kearney argued that “the enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy.”

Still, there were voices even then, advocating an integrated approach to both issues. Lucretia Mott, herself struggled to reconcile her own participation in both movements. But the most famous spokeswoman for both causes was Sojourner Truth. Speaking at the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio in 1851, Sojourner Truth said:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

This rift between women of color and white suffragists continued into the next generation of women’s activism. As the women’s suffrage movement began to splinter into different groups with different approaches to the issue, suffragists of color continued to work at the margins of the “mainstream” white suffragist efforts. Activist Ida B. Wells, whose work against lynching was predated the Civil Rights Act by half a century, was invited to participate in Alice Paul’s famous 1913 suffrage parade, but asked to stand with her colleagues in a segregated unit of the parade. Wells refused, and joined her state in the procession in defiance of the white suffragists’ request. Wells consistently called out white supremacy in her anti-lynching work and as a feminist. She did not hesitate to take white Christians to task, either:

It is the easiest way to get along in the South (and those portions in the North where lynchings take place) to ignore the question altogether; our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.

Burgeoning white feminism was cooperating with racism on a number of fronts. During this period, Native people faced some of the most intense, organized oppression they had ever suffered. Scholar Andrea Smith writes, in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, that efforts to fold Native people in to white society was not only culturally-oppressive, but heightened danger for Native women:

 The “assimilation” into white society, however, only increased Native women’s vulnerability to violence. For instance, when the Cherokee nation was forcibly relocated to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears in the nineteenth century, soldiers targeted for sexual violence Cherokee women who spoke English and had attended mission schools instead of those who had not taken part in these assimilation efforts. They were routinely gang-raped, causing one missionary to the Cherokee, Daniel Butrick, to regret that any Cherokee had ever been taught English…Cherokee women were promised that assimilation would provide them with the benefits of dominant society , [when] in fact assimilation efforts made them more easily subjugated by colonial rule.

In contrast to this, feminists like Anna Julia Cooper worked to bridge divides among women of color and identify ways to combat patriarchy in solidarity with one another.  Cooper argued that women of color should reject the competitive power dynamics white patriarchy imposed:

Quoted in "The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper" (link to Google Book through image)

Quoted in “The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper” (link to Google Book through quote image)

Cooper went on to say, to all women, in her famous work, “Woman Versus the Indian:”

It is not the intelligent woman vs. the ignorant woman; nor the white woman vs. the black, the brown, and the red,–it is not even the cause of woman vs. man. Nay, ’tis woman’s strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear HER VOICE. It would be subversive of every human interest that the cry of one-half the human family be stifled. Woman in stepping from the pedestal of statue-like inactivity in the domestic shrine, and daring to think and move and speak,–to undertake to help shape, mold, and direct the thought of her age, is merely completing the circle of the world’s vision. Hers is every interest that has lacked an interpreter and a defender. Her cause is linked with that of every agony that has been dumb–every wrong that needs a voice.

As history marched on, once again, the advancement of people of color and women coincided during the Civil Rights era. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique shook the culture in 1963, and raised up a conversation about the plight of domestic, middle-class, educated white women with her discussion of “the problem that has no name.” Friedan wrote:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question “Is this all?”
Friedan’s tome quickly became the rallying cry for a second wave of feminists. It remains an important work today, yet the book is clearly written through a focused lens that normalizes the middle-class white woman’s experience and pushes the concerns of working women, women of color, single women, etc. to the margins.

The 1960’s saw the enactment of the Civil Rights Act after long state and local battles to end segregation and abridgment of voting rights. That same decade produced leaders like Dolores Huerta, who, working alongside Cesar Chavez, organized farm workers and pursued just living conditions for Latino agricultural workers. Huerta called for solidarity and ears to hear the marginalized voices of women of color at a time when white feminism was the talk of the day.

I'm here for Huerta.

I’m here for Huerta.

At the same time, Japanese activist and internment survivor Yuri Kochiyama was working with Malcolm X and the black, latino, and Asian-american communities to advance equality for all. Kochiyama was an outspoken advocate for solidarity at a time when movements were often compelled by the structures of white supremacy to compete for advancement and white acceptance. Before her death last year, Kochiyama charged younger generations:

And I think today part of the missions would be to fight against racism and polarization, learn from each others’ struggle, but also understand national liberation struggles — that ethnic groups need their own space and they need their own leaders. They need their own privacy. But there are enough issues that we could all work together on. And certainly support for political prisoners is one of them. We could all fight together and we must not forget our battle cry is that “They fought for us. Now we must fight for them!”

Lord, I love a woman with a bullhorn.

Lord, I love a woman with a bullhorn.

Alongside these actions, second wave feminism’s leaders began working to overcome some of the divisions of the past, and sought opportunities to reach beyond whiteness to work with feminists of color. Up-and-coming feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote in 1969 in New York Magazine:

Finally, women began to “rap” (talk, analyze, in radical-ese) about their essential second-classness, forming women’s caucuses inside the Movement in much the same way Black Power groups had done. And once together they made a lot of discoveries: that they shared more problems with women of different classes, for instance, than they did with men of their own; that they liked and respected each other (if women don’t want to work with women, as Negroes used to reject other Negroes, it’s usually because they believe the myth of their own inferiority), and that, as black militants kept explaining to white liberals, “You don’t get radicalized fighting other people’s battles.”

Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes

Unfortunately, these collegial meetings and cooperative efforts, though outshining their foremothers in inclusivity and solidarity, still consistently centered white feminism, and those privileged enough to be earning a “voice” at the table. In that same piece, Steinem wrote:

The middle-class, educated and disillusioned group gets larger with each college graduation. National Organization for Women (NOW)—founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan, among others, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men” — is a very effective voice of this group, concentrating on such reforms as getting irrelevant sex-designations out of Help Wanted ads and implementing Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

Women like Steinem were using their platform to raise some of the issues that women of color faced, but they were doing so from a position of relative privilege.

Feminists like Angela Davis became more prominent in the movement, and kept white feminists accountable with her critique of capitalism and activism for black liberation. Davis not only challenged patriarchy, but she questioned “mainstream” (aka: white) feminism’s ignorance of history in it’s struggles for political power, economic equality, and reproductive justice. At a time when abortion became the centerpiece of the white feminist agenda, Davis raised questions about the historical omission of reproductive crimes against women of color (including forced sterilization), and openly educated the movement about its eugenicist roots of the contraception/abortion. In her 1981 book, Women, Race, and Class, Davis wrote:

Over the last decade the struggle against sterilization abuse has been waged primarily by Puerto Rican, Black, Chicana, and Native American women. Their cause has not yet been embraced by the women’s movement as a whole. Within organizations representing the interests of middle-class white women, there has been a certain reluctance to support the demands of [these campaigns]…While women of color are urged, at every turn, to become permanently infertile, white women enjoying prosperous economic conditions are urged, by the same forces, to reproduce themselves.

Still, many young white feminists today are unaware of women of color’s contributions to the movement. Despite moments of solidarity, second wave feminism, like the generations of feminism before it, remained dominated by the agenda of white feminists.

Once again, whiteness was central to the move for increased women’s rights, so much so that author Alice Walker coined a new term, “Womanist” to create distance from “mainstream” feminism and advance a broader agenda that challenged capitalism, patriarchy. Walker wrote, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Womanist feminism incorporates the concept of intersectionality, and actively confronts the multifaceted barriers created by supremacy.

Next week we will look at a few contemporary examples of these challenges within feminism today and I hope to offer a suggestion or two about how we can get feminism past mere inclusivity (though that still needs to be a priority) and move forward through the leadership of women on the margins.


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