The Hypocrisy of White Feminism
by Gwendolyn Fowler
Feminism is a much-debated term. If you ask five different people what feminism is, you will receive five different answers. It is the kind of thing that is mostly defined by personal experience, knowledge and identity. I identify as a Black feminist, and not only because I am a black woman. Black feminism is an ideology present since black women fought to free themselves from enslavement in the US. Its definition can be found in the work of Patricia Hill-Collins (Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment). Basically, black women as the most marginalized group of people in the US oppressed by race, class, and gender, are the key to freedom of all marginalized groups. If black women are liberated, so is everyone else. Sojourner Truth was a feminist, a black feminist, and she was aware of the hypocrisy of white women. She knew that because she was black and a woman that the virtues of womanhood, defined by white men, did not apply to her. Just Google “Ain’t I a Woman.” Although historian Nell Painter successfully argued in her biography of Sojourner Truth that Truth’s most famous speech has some serious untruths, one thing that does come across as an honest critique is Truth’s comparison of the treatment of white women as compared to black women. To summarize, Truth says that no man helps her in and out of carriages or covers mud puddles so she does not step in them and is she not a woman because of this? She questions the chivalry shown to white women because it does not apply to all women, specifically black women.
But why is this relevant today? It is relevant because again, black women in the US have been ignored and distrusted in regards to the massive amount of sexual assault and harassment claims made by, for the most part, famous and successful white women in Hollywood against numerous men in the same business. It started with Harvey Weinstein, but in the past couple of weeks, it seems that almost every man in any kind of powerful position in Hollywood, the federal government and even the US gymnastics team has had allegations of sexual assault made against them. When actress Aurora Perrineau accused Girls writer Michael Murray of raping her when she was just 17 years old, Girls creator and star, Lena Dunham quickly issued a statement in defense of Murray. In the statement, Dunham even goes as far to say that Perrineau’s claim is one of the 3% of rape claims that are misreported. Dunham was quickly and correctly chastised for the hypocrisy of her statement and she apologized. However, the most troubling aspect of Dunham’s actions is the fact that what she did is a part of the long tradition of white women upholding racism and white supremacy in the name of a feminist agenda.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are hailed as the champions of woman’s suffrage in the United States, and they very well may be, but no one seems to want to remember the vile and racist campaign tactics these women employed in order to secure the vote for white women in the US. To be clear, women did gain the right to vote in 1920, but black people in general did not fully enjoy voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So even though suffrage allowed women the vote, it really only benefitted white women. In order to ensure their right to the ballot, white women essentially threw black men and Asian men under the bus. They challenged that they as white women assuredly deserved the right to vote, more so than the black men and Chinese men that were already allowed to do so. There are many cartoons, for example, that compare black men to apes, a racist stereotype older than the US itself.
The point is that white women have never been innocent bystanders to racism and they will not hesitate to defend and uphold white supremacy as long as they can get what they want. And what they want is what white men have, power. Whether it is Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony, white women have historically used the work of black women to gain certain freedoms (Sojourner Truth was also a suffragist, but no one wants to remember that either.) It is important that we all remember that it was a black woman, Anita Hill, that first sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace, but today the assaults against black women and other women of color remain largely ignored. Aurora Perrineau is one example, but I am sure that there are many more women afraid to speak out, and if they never do so, part of the blame rests on Lena Dunham and all the white women like her. I guess that if I had to impart any sort of wisdom to someone struggling to figure out how to define their feminism, I would encourage them to know the history of the struggle beginning with black women and to also remember that white women like Lena Dunham and Susan B. Anthony are not feminists. Oh, and read the Combahee River Statement.