Feminism, Whiteness, and the Women’s March

The Women’s March promises an inclusive feminist movement. Thank goodness.

ashton-tuckerGuest Contributor:  Ashton Tucker  (’18)

Suffragettes Frances E. Willard, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  21st century celebrities Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham.

What do these women have in common?

They’re all, inexplicably, feminist icons.  Maybe inexplicably is the wrong word.  Although each certainly has advanced or continues to advance womanhood in one way or another, their racism, either intentional or unintentional, often goes unnoticed.  They engage in white feminism – a form of feminism that operates as if the experience of white women is universal and that race and class are just added levels of oppression, as opposed to intermingling with gender.  The Women’s March on Washington has given me hope that women are embracing difference and inclusion in meaningful and powerful ways. 

The history of feminism is saturated with racism.  Long before Tumblr blogs, women of color have been critiquing white feminism (sometimes called mainstream feminism, or liberal feminism).  For example, the southern suffrage and temperance advocate Willard employed violent racist rhetoric to persuade her counterparts to work for the right to vote and against the drink.  NPR reported that in an 1890 interview, Willard said “dark-faced franceswillardmobs” demanding whiskey threatened “the safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home . . . in a thousand localities.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton used similar language, as Sara Kugler has written:

“[If] you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters, to be your rulers, judges, jurors – to dictate not only the civil, but moral codes by which you shall be governed, awake to the danger of your present position, and demand that woman, too, shall be represented in the government!”

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Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells, pioneering black female journalist (and one of my personal heroes), pushed back.  While in Great Britain to gain public support for her campaign against lynching, she skewered Willard and other white suffragettes for their silence in the face of the myriad atrocities confronting African Americans, much to horror and embarrassment of the women.

Over 100 years later, whiteness too often dominates in feminism and relegates women of color to the margins.

Which brings me to Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer.  Dunham is an actress, writer, producer, and most notably creator of “Girls,” the HBO show with 20-something white women, living in New York, who are financially independent and sexually adventurous – two themes that are concerns for contemporary feminists.  Despite the setting in New York, a cultural melting pot, there are no actors of color on the show. Comedian Schumer takes on such issues as equal pay, reproductive rights, and gender stereotypes in stand-up and her own program, “Inside Amy Schumer.” Both have been tone deaf to their single dimension version of feminism.

For example, interviewing Schumer about her recent book, Dunham recounted a chance encounter with Odell Beckham Jr., a black wide receiver for the New York Giants, at the Met Gala in 2016:

“[H]e looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards…. He was like, ‘That’s a marshmallow.  That’s a child.  That’s a dog.’  It wasn’t mean – he just seemed confused. The vibe was very much like, “Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a … yep, it’s wearing a tuxedo. I’m going to go back to my cell phone.”

Schumer’s response was only to compliment to Dunham for her look that night.

Dunham has since apologized for her statement, correctly noting that it was narcissistic. But it also sexualized black men, perpetuating racial stereotypes about the danger they posed to white women’s irresistible virtue, sounding for all the world like a 21st century Frances Willard.  What does that say about this feminist icon?

Schumer, whose silence normalized Dunham’s remark, has her own issues.  She and Goldie Hawn recently spoofed  , taking their place in a history of appropriating black works, stripping them of their historical, cultural, and racial significance.  Beyonce’s video pays tribute to black resilience in the face of tragedy and subordination, featuring an ensemble of black and brown dancers, references to Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana Creole culture, police brutality, and racism, and black pride.  With lyrics like “I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” the song is an anthem made specifically for black folks.  The Schumer and Hawn remake triggered outrage for its failure to recognize the original work as a call for and paean to black women’s empowerment.  Regardless of Beyoncé’s supposed approval of the remake, these women co-opted art not made for them.

All is not lost, though.  Feminism has the capacity for change.  And it’s happening.  The Women’s March on Washington (WMW), a coalition for women’s rights in the face of this election cycle, released its official policy   .  And it is beautiful and intersectional.  The organizers place their march in context with the movements before it –abolitionism, suffragist, the Civil Rights Movement, earlier waves of feminism, Occupy Wall Street, marriage equality, and Black Lives Matter.  The organizers name-check all the right leaders – Harriet Tubman, Gloria Steinem, Audre Lorde, Malala Yousafzai, Dolores Huerta, Wilma Mankiller, and Sylvia Rivera.  It is written the way intersectional feminism should look.  And, you know, maybe it’s all talk, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good.  I felt something I haven’t felt since the election of Donald Trump – hope.  I believe feminism can (and will) be better, more inclusive and more whole.

To white feminists, all we ask that you listen not to respond, but to understand.  We all win when the movement for women’s equality is for all women and not just some.  And while we all ruminate on how we can be more inclusive, I leave you with a quote that WMW used in its statement of inclusion for reflection:

“It is not our differences that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde

Ashton Tucker is the president of If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice. She plansto go into criminal law after graduation.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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