Ain’t no sisters here: A long history of white feminism consistently excluding women of color and embracing white supremacism
White women voted for Trump in 2016 because they still believe white men are their saviors
[White women have a history of betraying their sisters. The 2016 election was no exception. The pattern of white women choosing white men over women of color underscores some of the more insidious machinations of patriarchy and the racism ingrained in the feminist movement. White women’s modus operandi for gaining power—economic, political, and otherwise—is simple: acquire power from those who have it. And those who have historically have had it are white men. This has resulted in white women’s historic abandonment of their black and brown sisters, as well as their more heinous adoption of white supremacist rhetoric to advance their own status.
These ethically unjustifiable strategies are evident in some of the feminist movement’s darkest days, beginning with the fight for suffrage. After the decision was made to exclude women from the 15th Amendment, which gave free black men the right to vote, leading suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton adopted blatantly racist rhetoric. Frustrated with the stonewalling of women’s suffrage, they actively courted
and collaborated with white supremacists
in exchange for financial assistance
to advance their cause. By aligning themselves with white men, these early feminists turned their back on black women and even black suffragists. White male supremacists welcomed the coalition, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote
in a piece at the Atlantic, because it would shore up white nationalism at the voting booths.
During the next wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, a similar strategy played out, this time on a structural level. The organizations fighting for women’s rights deliberately excluded their black and brown sisters so as to appear more acceptable to the white male legislators who held the power.
The ethical failures of white women resulted in black women creating their own feminism—womanism
—as well as their own groups such as the Combahee River Collective, which argued that ending the systemic oppression of all
women was a political imperative. “[W]e are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking,” they wrote in
their mission statement.
White feminism, by contrast, is the calculated rejection of intersectional sisterhood in favor of the acceptance and appreciation of white men. In its most destructive form, it is racism masquerading as self-empowerment. This is apparent in Elle magazine interviews
with a handful of female Trump supporters after the election, who claim that they are “absolutely not racist” and they really just care about the “economy” and “get[ting] a good job.”
Instead of turning to men for political coalition and social acceptance, white women need to turn toward women of color. This is the message of the late Harvard lesbian-feminist Barbara Johnson, who wrote in her conclusion to The Feminist Difference that “conflicts among feminists require women to pay attention to each other, to take each other’s reality seriously, to face each other.” Only by doing this will we be able to eradicate women’s internalized misogyny. Johnson continued, “feminists have to take the risk of confronting and negotiating differences among women if we are ever to transform such differences into positive rather than negative forces in women’s lives.”
While racism is undoubtedly a significant factor in white feminists’ failure to engage in intersectional activism, history also suggests that white women have been largely risk-averse when it comes to building coalitions with their black and brown sisters. This is near-sighted and unambitious logic. As Audre Lorde famously wrote in 1984
: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” because “[t]hey may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”]