Privilege in Feminism, Part 3-Centering Marginalized Women

The last two posts, I’ve looked at both biblical examples and American historical examples of how patriarchy grants certain women privileges over other women in order to preserve male-dominated order. I had planned to write an intense, equally-long final installment to discuss how we can move forward from this place of competition to a position where the voices of marginalized women take center stage and privileged women and men stand in solidarity with them against oppressive forces. I had planned to say a lot of things, but given the topic at hand, I decided to just frame up this post, and create a space where you all could hear from some of the women that are teaching me these days.

I may be just a humble substitute teacher, but I can still give all y'all a quiz.

I may be just a humble substitute teacher, but I can still give all y’all a quiz.

Much of the feminist and anti-racist scholarship of today is focused on a concept named by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as “intersectionality.” Crenshaw coined the term to describe the intersection of oppression that black women face as both women and as black people. This concept can describe any number of levels of oppression against a person or group of people. You can read a sample of her academic work at the link above. Crenshaw, like many of her colleagues, argued that until there was an effort to address the intersections of oppression comprehensively and holistically, marginalization and discrimination would persist.

Author, poet, and activist Audre Lorde famously wrote:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference, those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
audreIn our current context, you see similar critiques of the myopic perspective espoused by prominent contemporary voices like Sheryl Sandberg, whose book Lean In, was touted as a call for American women to re-engage in feminism. Scholar and writer bell hooks panned Sandberg’s emphasis on women pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in her critique for The Feminist Wire:

Although Sandberg revised her perspective on feminism, she did not turn towards primary sources (the work of feminist theorists) to broaden her understanding. In her book, she offers a simplistic description of the feminist movement based on women gaining equal rights with men. This construction of simple categories (women and men) was long ago challenged by visionary feminist thinkers, particularly individual black women/women of color. These thinkers insisted that everyone acknowledge and understand the myriad ways race, class, sexuality, and many other aspects of identity and difference made explicit that there was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call “women” struggling to be equal with men. In fact, the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.

While works like Lean In bring feminism into the main stream of American culture, but rarely do they affect sweeping changes. This week, we saw similar skepticism emerge following a speech by Emma Watson at the U.N. (a speech for which she received immediate threats against her privacy and her person).

Is that spelled correctly?

Is that spelled correctly?

Watson was praised for her candor and her embrace of the term “feminism,” and while the moment was, for many, a needed introduction to feminism, it was not representative of the movement. As always, when we see these rallying points, we have to be circumspect about who is being left out of the conversation, and how we can keep moving forward, rather than setting up camp here in Women’s Studies 101. Consider these comments from Mia McKenzie on Watson’s speech as it centered men in the fight against misogyny (and really, read the whole post):

The underlying message here is that women deserve equity and equality because of our relationships to men. Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women’s equality because mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don’t already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings. It encourages men to think of women always and only in relation to themselves, as if our pseudo-humanity is only an after-thought of men’s real humanity. The truth is that women are whole, complete people, regardless of our status in the lives of men. This is what men should hear, over and over again. This is what everyone should hear, every day.

These critiques aren’t new. As long as someone is “discovering feminism” for the first time, there will be someone right behind them saying, “there’s still a lot you have yet to learn.”

This is a good thing.

If we are ever going to step out of oppressive paradigms and fully realize in a new Kingdom coming, one that is properly ordered around God and not a particular powerful segment of humanity, we need to commit to humility and to listening to the people who are pushed to the margin. That is, after all, who Jesus himself ran with on a daily basis.

With that in mind, here are a few additional readings for you to interact with and explore. You don’t necessarily have to agree with all of it, but you do have to listen. Consider them homework, if it helps. You do yours (don’t go asking your marginalized friends for answers, either). I’ll do mine. We can meet back and compare notes later.

Accomplices, Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally-Industrial Complex from Indigenous Action

Justice then Reconciliation by Austin Channing Brown

I, too, am racialized by Lydia Brown (includes discussion of disability!)

Killjoy Prophets: Troubling and Broadening our Liberation by Emily Rice (highlights current struggles within the “progressive” Christian community)

Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why It’s Future is Not Up to White Women by Brittney Cooper

I Can’t Believe by Micky Jones

Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy by Andrea Smith

White People, White Power, White Platform by Caris Adel

Extra credit (only because you can’t just click and read it, but get this anyway): More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership, and Faith. Authors: Asifa Dean, Christie Heller de Leon, Kathy Khang and Editors: Nikki A. Toyama, Tracey Gee, Jeanette Yep

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