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.