The History of White Feminism
Writer: Itumeleng Sibiya
Editor: Tonwaan Apiratikiat
Graphic Designer: Hannah Bugeja
A spreading wildfire of women identifying themselves as feminists has become both empowering and polarising. Not only do they identify with the term, but they embody it with every inch of their being, and have become a definite encapsulation of it. It is extremely liberating to know that feminism is a term not restricted to a specific race, ethnic group, or gender, rather uniting everyone in solidarity. According to statistics over half of the world's population identify themselves as feminists – with 80 percent of the population in India and 61 percent of women in the U.S.
Witnessing its growing popularity, one may wonder what feminism means. Feminism is the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. It is the belief in social, economic and political equality. It is not about "sameness" but the equality of both men and women. However, research has shown that some fail to welcome this term and its practices due to the controversies surrounding it. One popular belief is that it is a revolution to destroy or oppress men. Consequently, with those misconceptions, some choose to be on the opposing side of the spectrum and are generally attached to the term 'antifeminism'.
Given the definition and information above, it is safe to acknowledge this revolution of feminism as a transparent and harmless one. However, recently there has been growing concerns over the masses about the lack of adequate representation of all women in their given race and diversity on prominent media platforms or feminists' media. This realisation has led to a source of debate, which is called 'white feminism'. This is no catchphrase, and most definitely not a token of trend. You can probably come up with an interesting definition off the top of your head about white feminism because it appears to be self-explanatory, but there's more to this than meets the eye. White feminism by definition is a form of feminism that focuses on the struggles of white women while failing to address distinct forms of oppression faced by ethnic minority women and women lacking other privileges. Primarily, this infamous form of feminism is denounced or condemned because of the feminist doctrines that heavily rest on the experiences of white women only, and "fail to acknowledge and integrate the notion of intersectionality in the struggle of equality." This call for an equal representation of women has others feeling like an attack directed to white feminists, who in their view have done nothing but to liberate women.
Although this may seem like a freshly-brewed uproar, history indicates that this dates back to the very beginning of the feminist movement, especially in the United States. To uncover white feminism in much detail, we'll look at the four waves of feminism. The first wave of feminism that commenced in 1848 was aimed at achieving equality of political and economic rights. The main goal was to open avenues of opportunities for women, with an unflinching focus on suffrage. It was engineered and orchestrated by predominantly middle-class, educated white women and focused on the issues unique to them. Conversely, there is negligible evidence that cares to show that black, minority, migrant women took part in the British Suffragette effort. Furthermore, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton strived for white women to vote in the United States of America, ignoring to prioritize the rights of black women to vote too. The above-mentioned duo did not want to come across as creating an "aristocracy of sex", instead suggesting universal suffrage. Nonetheless, the history of woman suffrage is a vivid example of white feminism, because it puts white figures in the limelight of this struggle while disregarding the role of black women. This example is not only relevant to the United States or Western societies, but it serves as a model for what also occurred or is still occurring in other countries, because the rights of women, and equality it was and is still a struggle.
Swiftly moving to another wave that shows the restrictive and discriminating work brought by white feminism is the second wave of feminism, which lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s and focused on women in the work environment, reproductive rights, sexuality, domestic violence and rape. Like in the first wave, the second wave was defined and occupied by middle-class, educated white women and once more tended to the issues relevant to them and not other ethnic minority women. Feminists like Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir focused their attention on the struggles of being housewives and mothers, and ignored other forms of oppression like race and sexuality. Michele Wallace, Mary Ann Weathers, Bell Hooks, Alice Walker, and Bettina Aptheker are the Black women who confronted this injustice head on. This wave saw the rise of scholars from marginalised communities voicing out their frustration about how the feminist movements had essentialized the experiences of women. One figure worthy of noting is Bell Hooks, a feminist scholar who wrote about the struggles of black women and how that was clouded by the showcasing of white women. Hooks argued that “white women should recognise the fact that they, like ethnic minority men, occupied a position of being oppressed while also being oppressors."
The third wave of feminism took off in the 1990s, and aimed to address the issues encircling sexuality and pornography. This was to take back the power and control from men who used derogatory terms like 'whore' and 'slut' to shame women. This wave rested more on women's sexual liberation and expression of gender identity. Unlike the two previous waves, this one welcomed more women of colour and women from different classes – it had more intersectionality.
Lastly, the fourth wave of feminism or “The 21st Century Intersectional Feminism" took effect in 2012. This wave still raises the banner of intersectionality and argues that mass media still showcases or over-represents the struggles of straight, middle-class, white women. Authors like Kimberlé Crenshaw worked on the thesis of intersectionality, an opposition to white feminism. Her intersectionality thesis challenges society, "to a more complex analysis of systems of oppression using multiple and overlapping lenses such as race, gender, sexuality etc".
Regarding gender, trans-exclusionary radical feminism has been a well-sprung debate, as they do not view trans-women as women. They condemn trans-women changing their sex on legal documents, stating that “lesbian as an identity is disappearing”, that “trans men are not men”, and that “gay children need protection when they think they are transgender”. These viewpoints did not satisfy the LGBTQ+ population as they felt that privileged white women who make these arguments will make trans women, especially trans women of colour, more at risk to discrimination, and that they fail to consider many other issues that trans women have to deal with.
Koa Beck stated in her book White Feminism that "White feminism is enduring because it's so palatable. It doesn't challenge much about our structure, our life, the way we make money or the way we relate to other women." We are so threaded in white feminism and have become accustomed to it in our daily lives that we have grown cold calling it out or even noticing its effects. So, it's about time we become more sensitive and attentive to it than ever before. We need to become more knowledgeable about it in order to ultimately eradicate it in order to work towards a world of justice and intersectionality.