December 1, 2015

HABR | On White Feminism

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The phrase “77 cents for a dollar” is one that is familiar to most. The cry for equal pay has become an integral part of the modern American feminist movement, yet it leaves more out than it tells. The true statistic is that white women make 77 cents to a dollar. Black women and Latina women make significantly less. This amount decreases when sexual orientation, gender identity and ability are factored in. Around Cornell, I have heard a lot of inspiring feminist rhetoric, but unfortunately, it has been very limited in its scope. Various signs and initiatives, positive in their intent, encourage women to rise to the top of corporate institutions and prove they can perform as well as men can. On the surface, these initiatives are a good idea; however, in reality, they overshadow the fact that only a few select women benefit, and the institutions being promoted cause more harm than good.  The erasure of intersectionality in the mainstream feminist movement and the focus on white feminism have overshadowed the efforts of many diverse individuals to further the feminist movement and only further a system that continues to oppress men and women around the world.

Let me first clarify what I mean by white feminism. I don’t mean white women who identify as feminists, for any woman (or man) regardless of race can support white feminism. I am also by no means saying that white Western women and men should not be feminists. In fact, the opposite is true. Problems facing women and men in the global North and South have the same roots: patriarchy and misogyny — these issues just manifest themselves in different ways. For example, the same misogyny that enforces discriminatory dress codes in America blames female victims of violence for their dress in many parts of the world. Feminism is needed to tackle the large gender inequalities that exist both in the developing and the developed world such as oppressive gender roles, wage gaps, employment discrimination, maternity leave, reproductive rights, sexual assault and many other issues that affect white women, women of color, LGBTQ women, disabled women and even men.

What I do mean by white feminism is a type of “feminism” that is led by and helps specifically upper-class white women. The type of feminism where being the CEO of big businesses that exploit thousands of women across the world is seen as empowerment and where female politicians who advocate for Western imperialism are held up as feminist icons simply because they are women in power.

My issue with white feminism is that it serves to further and justify harmful systems of oppression that exist across the world. Additionally, the exclusive focus of media and academic curriculums on white feminism erases the struggles of women who cannot be represented under a homogenous identity and the feminist movements led by and fighting for them.

The types of feminists that this movement supports are not fighting against Western patriarchal notions of masculinity and dominance — they are embodying them and aiding a system that exploits women. Last year, I joined a Facebook group of one of the women’s groups on campus, but was aghast when I saw Condoleezza Rice listed as a feminist icon, being praised for a quote about women being leaders.

The problem with women like Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice (just to name a few) is that their “feminism” is extremely limited. Both of these women are held up as feminist icons but both supported the war in Iraq and an increase in drone strikes, both of which killed a large amount of civilian populations. Clinton has passionately defended Israel’s war crimes that have come under fire from the U.N., knowing full well that situations of war and brutality disproportionately affect women. At home, they have opposed LGBT rights and have offered only silence in response to the systematic inequality and brutality facing people of color in America, reversing these views only when it was politically advantageous.

In focusing on feminism, the media as well as school curriculums should include other feminist movements from around the world alongside white, American, upper-middle-class ones. A broader focus would help to show that feminists should be fighting against the repressive system and institutional barriers that hinder women across the world, not using the existing system to climb up a ladder to success that is built on the backs of other women. A feminist icon should be one that furthers the feminist cause — not just a woman in power. Feminism should not aim to make women equal to men but to end sexism, because making women equal to men doesn’t make sense in a world where race, class, sexuality, gender and ability have so much weight.

These categories complicate individual identities beyond gender, and it is important to acknowledge the intersectionality of various identities that nuance the experiences of each individual. Feminism should not be focused on band-aid solutions, but should attempt to critically engage with the roots and complexities of the problems facing men and women in society and work to remedy them. Being a woman in power does not mean anything if that power is not used to dismantle oppressive systems that hinder women around the world. Intersectionality is critical if the feminist movement is to reach its true goal. Feminism does not mean anything if it is for the benefit of an individual person or group. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Katy Habr is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. Comments may be sent to On the Margin runs alternate Wednesdays  this semester. 

  • George

    So Katy, your message seems to be that the only real feminists are socialists. Women that are successful in business are just oppressors. Where do you learn this drivel?

    • Anna

      Real feminists are people who identify as any sex and believe in equal rights regardless of genitals! Women who are successful in business are not oppressors, however women (and men) who become successful by benefitting from systems of oppression that allow the wealthy/upperclass to continuously prosper and do not use their position of power to ‘level the playing field’ and work to undermine this deeply rooted systemic oppression are indeed oppressors. You can’t be neutral on a moving train yo

  • Arafat

    Given that you support the Palestinians who openly advocate Jewish genocide (see their duly elected leaders clear-cut party covenants), you correspondingly do as well. It’s hard to believe in this day and age that anyone would openly advocate the liquidation of Jews, but you clearly do and it doesn’t seem to bother you a whit.
    Moreover, it would be hard to believe that anyone would support second class status for women, the honor murder of teenage girls, the brutalization of gays and the suppression of dissenters. But you, as supporters of the Palestinians who regularly practice all of the above, are therefore complicit in these sexist, racist and fascist beliefs as well.
    Why are you so bigoted, misogynist, anti-gay and such hater of Jews? Please tell us pray tell.
    And if to be opposed to such garbage practiced by so many Muslims world-wide makes one an Islamophobe, count me and all who believe in freedom and hate sexism and bigotry vs Jews as a proud Islamophobe.

  • Dr. Necessitor

    PayScale released data showing the wage gap is only 2.7%. The numbers come from a survey of about 1.4 million full-time employees over the course of two years. The company doesn’t just report the raw numbers, but also controls for various factors such as marital and family status, job, industry, seniority, geography, education, and generation.

  • Arafat

    In Nigeria and Iraq, Muslim armies are selling women as slaves. Iran hanged a woman for fighting off a rapist. ISIS was more direct about it and beheaded a woman who resisted one of its fighters.

    But we don’t have to travel to the Middle East to see real horrors. The sex grooming scandal in the UK involved the rape of thousands of girls. The rapists were Muslim men so instead of talking about it, the UK’s feminists bought $75 shirts reading, “This is what a feminist looks like” which were actually being made by Third World women living sixteen to a room.

    This was what a feminist looked like and it wasn’t a pretty picture.

    The same willful unseriousness saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a survivor of genital mutilation and an informed critic of Muslim misogyny, booted from Brandeis by self-proclaimed feminists. Meanwhile the major feminist cause at the moment is Gamergate, a controversy over video games which can be traced back to a female game developer who slept with a video game reviewer.

    • Fan

      Mr. Arafat,
      It is obvious, sir, that you have a problem. Taking it on others will not help you get better.
      We are blessed that we live in a country where anyone can express his ideas and believes. Yet, by defending our freedom, we should respect others freedom as well.
      If you have or want to advance an idea or agenda of any sort, no one is stopping you from getting your own column in any newspaper that will publish your writings, and do so.
      But if you think that trying to attack others and playing the intimidation game is your way of proving your point, then you are fighting oppression with oppression. You are no better than the people you are attacking.
      I think that, by now, we all know where you stand. If you disagree with Katy so much, then stop reading her column and spare us your comments.
      A final note: the name Arafat was used by the “chief terrorist” as per the people you pretend to defend. I suggest you drop it for a more appropriate one.

  • George

    Arafat- I very much enjoy your postings. Please keep up the good work.