Peak White Feminism: Marching For Women’s Rights In An Intersectional Age

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Words || Ilhan A

In 2015, actress Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for her role as a single mother in BOYHOOD. In her speech she said, “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” The statement was met with roars of approval and rapturous applause. Meryl Streep clapped, pointed at Arquette and whooped loudly along with Jennifer Lopez.

Later, during a backstage interview Arquette said, “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of colour that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” In both of these instances Arquette implied that racism and homophobia were over. She also inferred that these groups owe straight, cisgender white women for their heroism. White women in the U.S earn more than any other race of women, for the same job. So, what Arquette was asking for was the help of the people she earns disproportionately more money than, so that her, and other white women, can be equal to white men.

This is peak white feminism.

Discussions around white feminism have heightened this year since the Women’s March in Washington on January 21, and its accompanying marches in other states and cities around the world. Women of colour and trans women, in particular, have spoken out to say they felt the march didn’t speak to them, that they didn’t feel welcome, and were hesitant to or did not attend because the march would probably be populated with white feminists (it was).

White feminism, lesser known as liberal or bourgeois feminism, is an exclusive brand of feminism that only caters to middle class white women.The term is used to address feminism that isn’t inclusive or intersectional; a superficial brand of feminism that only accounts for the struggles of white women while refusing to recognize that sexism is a complex system of oppression and that there is no single solution. The white feminist’s goal is ‘to be equal to men’. But which men exactly? While white women are less privileged than white men, they still have privilege over all people of colour, and that includes men.

White feminism has its roots in the women’s suffrage movement in the turn of the twentieth century. While white women were fighting for their right to vote, they were doing so while distancing themselves from and degrading the predicament of women and men of colour, particularly black people. The women liberationists of Australia excluded Indigenous women from their efforts. Similarly, in the U.S, American suffragettes used racism and white supremacy to obtain their right to vote. The whole suffragette agenda was to gain rights for white women.

For example, in November last year American women stuck ‘I Voted’ stickers on suffragette Susan B Anthony’s grave after voting for Hillary Clinton, even though Anthony was known to have said, among other repugnant things: “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman”.

At the Women’s March, the sheer number of people who attended, compared to #NODAPL protests, Black Lives Matter, and even Aboriginal deaths in custody demonstrations here in Australia, made it clear what these women were really about. Their comparative silence on intersectional matters meant that many white women were really only marching for themselves. Several Native American women who attended the marches in their traditional clothing, were treated as spectacles, and when they tried to speak out about issues affecting Indigenous Americans or spoke about colonisation, they were scorned and rejected, all the while having photos taken of them, and their regalia touched without their permission.

When black women first voiced their doubts about the march’s inclusivity, they were met with offended white women telling them to put their issues aside to come together as women. But how? Racism is a women’s rights issues too, were they just supposed to stop being black, so white women wouldn’t have to face their own racism, for a day?

So how do we combat white feminism? Firstly, don’t decry the term. Being accused of a indiscretion you’re not guilty of can make you feel defensive, but if it doesn’t apply to you move on. If it does, educate yourself. If you feel uncomfortable it probably means your privilege is being challenged.

Secondly, being a good ally means that your input is not always wanted, or required.   Lena Dunham recently said she wished she’d had an abortion, because for some reason white feminists can’t support something if they’ve never experienced it.

YouTube has been overrun with Hijab experiments – because asking actual hijabis how it feels to be one is just too hard. Feminists in the public eye have a responsibility to use their platform to lift up the voices of marginalised women, rather than speaking for them, coopting or undermining their struggle.

When it comes to events like the Women’s March, it’s not enough to attend one demonstration, call yourself a feminist and head on back home. It’s vital that feminists show solidarity for other women by attending demonstrations about intersectional issues.

Intersectional feminism means understanding that different cultures have different approaches to gender equality. It means understanding that not all women are afforded the same privilege white women are.It means lifting up the voices of marginalized people, even if it does not concern you. Feminism is irrelevant if it’s not inclusive.