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Ain’t I a Woman: Feminist Intersectional History and the Women’s March

Suffragettes holding a sign containing a William Rooney quote from 1921

Diverse American women

As I write this post, the Women’s March is in full swing. Women across the globe came out of their latte’d existences to protest the democratically-elected new President of the United States. For many women attending that March, the last 8 years have been commanded by Michelle Obama whose presence has resulted in her being the most dominant, globally-lauded female presence of the last 8 years, and for many women, those 8 years had been formative. It is here that a new feminism begins, however before we can talk about where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been and that’s what this post is about: the history of feminism and race in America.

Race, Gender and the 2016 Election

I admit that I am having a problem with the current state of feminism. I am feeling disillusioned at the response of white women to the acceptance and embrace of the objectification and downright predatory instincts and behaviour of the campaign. I am feeling the gut-wrenching disappointment, the shock, the absolute numbing in the desire to participate in the fight for equity (not equality, equity). Although I espouse feminist ideals and probably a feminist way of thinking, I have a problem with how feminism is marketed, distributed and implemented, since I always receive the same message loud and clear: feminism is for white women’s solidarity and everyone else is back-of-the-bus. Only, as this last election shown us, white women’s solidarity is a myth. Even the bae of white feminism, Hillary Clinton, couldn’t either: a) convert their support into votes, or b) bring out their support at all; 53% of white women voted for Trump. You know who Hillary did bring out though? Black women (94%) did because we will be the ones who ALWAYS show the fuck up.

History of Race and First-Wave Feminism

The history of feminism has been one fraught with an underlying struggle, within feminism, of race and the Women’s Movement has continued in that fashion. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Abolitionist Movement and the advocates for Women’s Rights saw synergies and common ground in mutual support; Fredrick Douglas was a great supporter of women’s rights, due mostly to the influence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

“Douglass strongly supported suffrage for women, but believed that white women, already, enjoyed some amount of electoral privilege through the family, something which all black peoplewomen and menwere totally cut off from. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that one should not go without the other. White women suffragists had been avowed and crucial supporters of emancipation. Stanton, among others believed, that support had earned a united front toward suffrage.The dispute cleaved the women’s suffrage movement for nearly three decades.” The Atlantic

Too bad Lizzie became Becky. If the destruction of the alliance between the Suffragettes and the Abolition Movement ended the confluence of these progressive movements, the Fifteenth Amendment completed the rift. The Fifteenth Amendment effectively extended voting rights to free, black men and caused much consternation amongst the Suffragettes:

“One source of opposition to the proposed amendment was the women’s suffrage movement, which before and during the Civil War had made common cause with the abolitionist movement. However, with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which had explicitly protected only male citizens in its second section, activists found the civil rights of women divorced from those of blacks.[14] Matters came to a head with the proposal of the Fifteenth Amendment, which barred race discrimination but not gender discrimination in voter laws. After an acrimonious debate, the American Equal Rights Association, the nation’s leading suffragist group, split into two rival organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who opposed the amendment, and the American Woman Suffrage Association of Lucy Stone and Henry Browne Blackwell, who supported it. The two groups remained divided until the 1890s.” Wikipedia

That’s right, feminism’s woman crush wednesday, Susan B. Anthony was a racist.

The historian, Jad Adams, buttresses this dissonance with Blacks with the following:

“While women’s suffrage in the US has its roots in the anti-slavery movement prior to the 1860s, they increasingly found that having any support for black people was a drag in their campaign,” says Adams. “White suffragettes found it would be better if they distanced themselves from black women.”

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the American suffrage movement spread across a number of states. But by the early 1900s, there were no suffragettes in the southern states. Women in the northern movements realised that they could use race to promote their cause down south.

“They thought, what do we have to do to attract southern states?” explains Adams. “They thought, ‘if we enfranchise white women that will consolidate the white vote and balance the vote against black men.’”—The Telegraph

And therein lies the origins of First-Wave Feminism―racism, notably white supremacy, which cannot be untangled. So it’s no surprise this tradition has continued. The suprising thing is, most white women are unaware of this history, yet continue to treat voices of colour as an appendage to their agenda.

History of Race and White Women’s Sexuality

“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”Dylann Roof, 2015

I want to introduce another historical, socio-political concept that pervades, generationally, throughout the white, North American society (for Canada, exchange “Black” for “Native” in most cases, and you get the idea): the protection of white, female sexuality at the expense of the lives of black men. On my personal Facebook profile, I have spoken a lot about the Emmett Till case, who was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman, became the harbinger of the Civil Rights Movement, primarily because his lynching case is an exploitation of how white women’s sexuality has been―and continues to be―something to be honoured and protected at the expense of everyone else.

African-American feminist and journalist, Ida B. Wells, wrote about this pervasive, cultural viewpoint in her Southern Horrors pamphlet in 1892:

“Eight negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke(?) into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man, and five on the same old racket—the new alarm about raping white women. The same programme of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter.

Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”Ida B. Wells

The fear of freed slaves in the Antebellum period of U.S. History introduced mass fear:

“In the years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Southern whites feared the end of slavery. These fears were shared by plantation slave owners and white yeomen farmers alike. While the type of fears varied, they all shared a common thread of unabashed racism. In addition, most fears were rooted in a concern for social order and economic development.”Classroom.Synonym.com

What specifically were they afraid of? Well, for one, black sexuality, which underpinned the miscegenation laws―overturned by Loving vs Virginia in 1967―and the “Mandingo” caricature of black-white interracial relations. The book of the same name is an uncut view to the sexual exploitation of black men and black women at the hands of white men and yes, white women. That is power. That is white power. That is how white women have implicitly, or explicitly, served at the altar of white supremacy, historically.

(Mandingo trailer)

History of Race and Second-Wave Feminism

Let’s move on to Second-Wave Feminism where not much has changed for black women. Enter: The Feminine Mystique, written in 1963 by feminism’s next bae, Betty Friedan. Despite this monumental work being written and published during the Civil Rights Era, there is next to no mention of black women. In this book, we were not even on the bus to be at the back of it. This is a book created for white, upper-class women, not meant for the peons at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, and definitely not for women who occupy that space. This book is the lighthouse of feminism: it’s the most-oft recommended book for feminist reading, and while eye-opening as to the plight of women as a whole in those days, it is wanting.

Seems like bell hooks, noted black feminist, had a problem with Friedan’s book also:

“Friedan’s famous phrase, “the problem that has no name,” often quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women—housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating: “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.'” That “more” she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.

… From her early writing, it appears that Friedan never wondered whether or not the plight of college-educated white housewives was an adequate reference point by which to gauge the impact of sexism or sexist oppression on the lives of women in American society. Nor did she move beyond her own life experience to acquire an expanded perspective on the lives of women in the United States. I say this not to discredit her work. It remains a useful discussion of the impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women. Examined from a different perspective, it can also be seen as a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence, which reaches its peak when Friedan, in a chapter titled “Progressive Dehumanization,” makes a comparison between the psychological effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confinement on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.”The Atlantic

Welp. There you go.

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes 1972 and 2014
Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes 1972 and 2014

Gloria Steinem would probably be feminism’s most heralded and regarded figures of the second wave, next to Betty Friedan. I really have nothing bad to say about her, especially since she started Ms. Magazine with Dorothy Pitman-Hughes and primarily because she has been one of the few white, female figures to acknowledge that it was black women who were the first feminists:

“I realize that things being what they are, probably the white middle-class part of the movement got reported more,” Steinem continued. “But if you look at the numbers and the very first poll of women thinking about responding on women’s issues, African-American women were twice as likely to support feminism and feminist issues as White women.”Gloria Steinem

Yes, because as I said before, black women show up. And we show up because for us, we must protest for the right to live like white women.

History of Race and Third-Wave Feminism

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

“The term intersectionality theory was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. In her work, Crenshaw discussed Black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and of being a woman considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other. Crenshaw mentioned that the intersectionality experience within black women is more powerful than the sum of their race and sex, and that any observations that do not take intersectionality into consideration cannot accurately address the manner in which black women are subordinated.”―Wikipedia

Bree Newsome in her act of civil disobedience
Bree Newsome in her act of civil disobedience on June 27, 2015, when she was arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds. The resulting publicity put pressure on state officials to remove the flag permanently, and it was taken down for good on July 10, 2015.

We are now in the third wave of feminism and not much has changed. Economically speaking, white women have made great gains in the latter half of the twentieth century and it’s no coincidence that white women have disproportionately benefitted from Affirmative Action programs. When Affirmative Action is discussed it is as though underqualified minorities are using the system to get ahead economically without merit, even though the idea that we live in a meritocracy is false. (In fact, the only time I hear the concept of merit talked about in terms of employment or economic gains is when we talk about diversity, as though merit all of a sudden becomes a deciding factor when people of colour and women are discussed, but I digress.) However, now that white women have made these gains, many are in the process of pulling up that ladder from people of colour as Vox.com noted in the Abigail Fisher case (#BeckyWithTheBadGrades as she is known on Twitter):

“According to the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, nearly 70 percent of the 20,694 self-identified non-Hispanic white women surveyed either somewhat or strongly opposed affirmative action.”—Vox.com

So let me get this straight, I’m supposed to be in solidarity with women who have benefitted from a program that was originally intended to help Blacks overcome, and now they want to abolish it because their economic progress has been realized? NOAP. And that’s why when I hear white feminist say they believe in the economic advancement of women, I know they mean white women.

Here we are at the third wave and what I see is Becky Feminism. “Becky Feminism” is the type of clueless racial obliviousness, married with a steadfast, arrogant declaration of a truncated view of feminism that Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer parade around with authority. It is the type of feminism that continues to ignore the issues of women of colour, trans women, disabled women, etc at the expense of the socio-economic progress of white women.

Skeletor with the caption "The Beckery"

I have to ask: where were all these protests with the death of Black men and women in the last few years? I never saw this turnout supporting Black Lives Matter, an organization started, organized and run by black women. Where was the solidarity then? Where was the solidarity when Sandra Bland was killed? The 9 Blacks murdered by White Supremacist Dylann Roof? I heard a lot of “That’s too bad” and a lot of “I’m sorrys”, yet no action. Where was Madonna then? Where was Lena Dunham? Taylor Swift was definitely silent. Where were all those white women when we were protesting the death of Abdirahman Abdi? Oh yeah, they were too busy condemning Black Lives Matter – Toronto for stopping a parade in the name of achieving justice.

So I am sitting this one out. And I deserve to because I show up for women who will never show up for me.

Ain’t I a Woman?

AIN’T I A WOMAN?

by Sojourner Truth

Delivered 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

5 thoughts on “Ain’t I a Woman: Feminist Intersectional History and the Women’s March

  1. Thank you for taking the time to begin the dialogue by writing this history with so much passion and care.

      1. Such a pleasure and joy to see you again Ms Erica/the woymn with the big personality!!! I have scanned and read in detail some parts of your very long and sometimes rambling blog. A bit like our conversation yesterday because there was so much to say and “so little time” in which to say it. We are the blest to have our roots in “Mother Africa/The Caribbean” because talking over each other and together and still following each other only us could do with such style and pizazz! We sure covered a lot of topics.

        You inspired me to take the narrative out of my head, personal experiences included and really write the Canadian story of Black Womyn and the silenced voices of what is being portrayed as “diversity”. Let us follow up with you guiding me technologically which includes a website?! In sisterhood, Anne Clarke, Gender Specialist

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