Friday, July 11, 2008

In defense of white feminists (by Suzie)

           Conservatives who oppose feminism have long said that white women are the most privileged people in the world. It bothers me that many progressive men and women echo this.
          Search the Internet for “white feminists,” and you'll see that we* have become synonymous with “elitists who don’t care about poor women or women of color.” Why would anyone want to work with us?
          Consider the Dear White Feminists letter:
I’m sick of us exercising our white privilege and then accusing our sisters of color of causing divisiveness when they refuse to submit to our racism. Mostly it’s unintentional racism by white women who want to believe that we are saving the world. But we are not. We’re oppressing and silencing the very people we talk so eloquently about being allies with. … We are the enemy and the oppressors of WoC.
          Race is not the only source of privilege. Therefore, we can't say all white women have more privilege than all women of color. Not all white women have money, for starters, and not all women of color are poor. Shouldn’t everyone get that by now?
           The idea that white feminists only want rights for themselves is a subset of a bigger idea that has been around a long time: Women must think of others first or else they are being selfish. Some women of color have argued it’s OK for white feminists to think only of themselves, but they should make it clear that they are talking only about white women. But anyone who cares only for herself is speaking only for herself, not all white women. Similarly, when a woman of color works for her own rights, there’s no guarantee that she’s helping all women of color, who are diverse in desires and needs, just like white women.
           I don’t know of any famous white suffragist or feminist who did not have some interest in poor women or women of color. This doesn’t let them off the hook for criticism, but it’s incorrect to say they never cared about anyone but themselves. 
          As an example, take Betty Friedan, who wrote “The Feminine Mystique.” Critics cite her as a white feminist who cared only about middle-class white women getting professional jobs. But Friedan had been a leftist, supporting unions and opposing war, before feminism. Whatever her many faults, you can’t say that she cared only about wealthy white women.
         Although many low-income women had to work outside the home, “the feminine mystique” still affected them. By the 19th century, a lot of people believed the ideal was to have a man earn enough so that his wife didn't have to work for money. Many poor people aspired to this, even when they could not achieve it.
         Opening professions to women did not just benefit middle-class whites. It also benefited middle-class women of color then and those who would reach the middle class later. I was a poor teenager in the 1970s, and feminism opened doors for me.
        I got back on this topic after reading Amanda Erickson, writing on the Swamp, the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau site. She quotes a professor saying that, in the fight over the 15th Amendment, black women sided with black men while white women opposed them. Actually, there were black women with mixed feelings, and white suffragists split over the issue, as I’ve written before. Erickson continues:
          The question of competing aims continued into the 1960s, as white women pushed for equal treatment in public life. They lobbied for equal pay and better representation in top corporate and government positions.
            African-American women, however, sometimes chose instead to link issues of race and gender, lobbying for better quality of life for families and the poor.
          It wasn’t that simple. There were strong disagreements, but these tensions did not all fall along racial lines. Feminists of all colors worked for reproductive rights, women’s health, paid maternity leave, affordable childcare, no-fault divorce laws, fair hiring practices, fair lending, equal pay, and an end to sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in the workplace as well as in housing and education. They worked against rape and domestic violence.
          If we know our history, our assessments -- and criticisms -- will be more accurate.
          *I use "we" guardedly. I have to include myself among white feminists, but hope my readers come from various backgrounds.