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Feminism of the Few Has No Place in a Nation for All

This moment of reckoning for neoliberal politics should include a sincere interrogation of feminism as we know it

The grave of women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony is covered with “I Voted” stickers left by voters in the U.S. presidential election.
The grave of women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony is covered with “I Voted” stickers left by voters in the U.S. presidential election. (Adam Fenster/Reuters)

I wore black on election day. I did so amid a sea of feminists wearing white in honor of racist suffragette leader Susan B. Anthony for her role in the struggle for white women to secure the right to vote. I saw black as the only choice on November 8th, which for me and many other citizens was not a day of celebration, but a day of mourning as the United States faced the false choice between two candidates who ranked among the least favorable in our nation’s history. Both options were corrupt, racist, and burdened by the extra baggage of their respective past and present – some of which had literally overlapped for more than a decade. I saw little to celebrate, despite the historical significance of a woman having made it so far in U.S. leadership, and instead lamented the pitiful state of our supposed democracy where only women like Hillary Clinton possessed the means to ever make it this close to the presidency.  

To make matters worse, calls to wear white on election day in honor of two women who had worked against the interests of marginalized groups at so many turns marked a complete disregard of our humanity. A timeline full of enthusiastic chatter about pantsuits, wearing white, and posting “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s headstone induced the same feelings for me as pronouncements from Trump supporters eager to “make America great again.” Their celebration was not meant for women like me. On the contrary, the praise they heaped upon Clinton was in direct opposition to the chorus of people, many of them also women, who had presented extensive, fact-based arguments against Clinton’s bourgeois, corporate-aligned, imperial feminism and empty messaging. And it was ultimately their cognitively dissonant defense of the candidate so many had justifiably labeled as an adversary that came at our expense.

Now, as the Democratic Party works to pick up the pieces of their severely fractured operation following Clinton’s loss, another institution in desperate need of some deeply reflective soul-searching is feminism as we know it. It should go without saying that I do not place the blame of Trump’s win entirely on feminism’s flaws. That would be incredibly short-sighted, to say the least, though considering the current propensity to dwell on fragmented thoughts to stir up moral panics instead of considering ideas in full, it has to be said nonetheless. What I am encouraging instead is that the adherents of feminism in its most mainstream manifestation come to terms with the fact that feminism in the United States, much like many other egalitarian movements, has fallen prey to neoliberal seizure.

If feminism is to survive into the future, particularly through a Trump presidency when its fundamental principles are urgently needed, its most vocal supporters must take stock of where they went wrong by putting all of their eggs in the Clinton campaign’s basket while simultaneously silencing legitimate critique coming from women harmed by the policies she supported both on the record and off. Or, as blogger Becky Alfaro noted in her prophetic treatise on mainstream feminism from May, “[white feminists] cannot co-opt our struggle and then deny its existence when we don’t fall in line.” Indeed, one of the most secure ways mainstream feminism could regain its footing would be to listen more and pursue a truly intersectional approach going forward that takes the concerns of all women seriously.

As Alfaro predicted, however, it appears at present that little work is being done to that effect. After all, the march proposed on Trump’s inauguration day has been plagued by racist appropriation and simultaneous indifference to the concerns of women of color, only to be saved from itself at the last minute by women of color organizers from being a complete mess. The usual suspects in the navel-gazing, elite feminist crew continue to pump out think piece after think piece, each more tone deaf than the other, that tokenize the marginalized groups who will suffer most under Trump’s presidency while simultaneously blaming everyone for Clinton’s loss but the candidate herself. Some even go so far as to cloak themselves in the same victimhood as their imagined heroine-in-chief, arguing that their corporate feminist approach toward poor women, women of color, and other groups Clinton has historically slighted needs little alteration. At the same time, a cadre of Clinton apologists in the mainstream press have resorted to focusing their attention once more on poorly substantiated claims of election interference by Russia, hysteria over “fake news,” and defending the CIA instead of working toward alleviating the ongoing problems of disenfranchisement that disproportionately affect voters of color or attempting to reckon with Clinton’s failure to convince enough working class workers of any race that casting a vote for her was worth the trouble.

Real Intersectionality

In lieu of this misguided approach, those who are open to change will engage in an act of serious introspection on how to make feminism more than just inclusive, but “intersectional.” I am not referring, of course, to the vapid and clumsily bungled version the Clinton campaign utilized in an attempt to garner support from black women voters, nor am I referring to the milquetoast attempts over the past few years to call out “white feminism” ™ that focused only on representation and stopped short at any real interrogation of mainstream feminism’s elitism, classism, and political narcissism. I am referring to the idea in its more denotative sense, which encourages us to consider how multi-faceted forms of oppression impact our daily lives based on our position in our respective societies and communities.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term in 1989, explains that “feminist theory and politics that claim to reflect women’s experiences and women’s aspirations do not include or speak to Black women,” and, by extension in an updated reading, any women marginalized on the basis of their race, class, nationality, etc. Instead, the exclusionary feminism that has staked its claim as “universal” relies on a particular type of woman’s experience while ignoring or actively obscuring others out of privileged convenience. In reference to black feminist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, Crenshaw notes that “Black women must ask, ‘Ain’t we women?’” as feminism fails to address the often multivalent challenges that befall us. The question continues to resonate in the present as some feminists masquerading as allies to women of color absorb everything from our words to our struggles to appear invested in our equality, only to silence our concerns when our voices become too loud.

Acting as a viable antidote to this problem, intersectional feminism in its purest form focuses on easing varying forms of oppression so that all women can move closer toward equality. It is not about making the world more equal for certain women or simply making the line-up of oppressors more racially diverse. An intersectional approach encourages a type of feminism that stands against militarism, works toward ending economic inequality, commits to antiracism, and supports the undocumented and women around the world. People who fully understand and practice this type of feminism would not champion a person who advocated for and later defended mass incarceration and the death penalty, who continued to fund coup governments and encouraged militaristic interventionism in other nations, who argued on the record that refugee children should be sent back to regions she helped destabilize, who rejected the prospect of universal healthcare, who campaigned against welfare for impoverished women and their children, and who dismissed a living wage for hourly workers at the national level, just for starters. Those invested in intersectional feminism would not express gleeful support of Clinton in full recognition of these well-documented acts in the interest of oppressing women and girls.

I take no issue with the people who were honest about Clinton’s record and reluctantly supported her in hopes of keeping Trump out of the White House. This, after all, was at the heart of the hashtag #GirlIGuessImWithHer, which a black woman started to express her reluctant support of Clinton. At the heart of its message lay recognition of the barriers Clinton had erected and upheld to limit people from marginalized communities from approaching equality while simultaneously marking Trump as the greater threat. The hashtag echoed the sentiments of many black women voters – at least if the hashtag’s success is any testament the resonance of its message. Those celebrating Clinton’s candidacy, on the other hand, and papering over her record in full knowledge of its deleterious effects on marginalized communities were a different story.

That is not to say that people from those very communities were not among the most eager to cast their vote for Clinton. On the contrary, there were many. That doesn’t mean their uncritical support of Clinton stung any less. Watching as several prominent black feminists peddled contradictory and ahistorical narratives to legitimize their support for Clinton or warmly embraced the candidate despite her well-documented support of anti-black policies that intentionally targeted our communities felt like a betrayal. The same could be said of other women of color in political office and women union leaders who fell in line behind Clinton despite her awful record toward the communities for which they had once advocated.

For these supporters, the prospect of simply having a seat at the table to exert power over others like themselves was enough for them to ignore the glaring problems with Clinton’s campaign, including the paltry outreach to marginalized groups, which proved patronizing at best and non-existent at worst. In their quest to elevate Clinton above the needs of their own communities, they opted to engage in a counterproductive form of shallow feminism that has prioritized the maintenance of predatory capitalism, ultimately collapsing all women’s struggles into the narratives of their economically powerful counterparts who remained far removed from the women experiencing forms of material adversity. They repeatedly used Clinton as a privileged surrogate for women languishing under the yoke of sexism, classism, and racism to the detriment of those women instead of prioritizing their concerns.  

Clinton’s most prominent yet ideologically inconsistent fans faithfully bought tickets to her cheering section only to pay dearly for her loss. They had yelled the loudest because of direct connections to the campaign (proudly announced or subsequently revealed through leaks), angling for journalistic access, or the prospect of positions following a Clinton win, but their hopes were dashed along with their already precarious reputations as “minority” voices in predominately white, male fields. At present their bruised egos remain an impediment to an accurate and nuanced interpretation of post-mortem numbers that demonstrate that voters from the groups they sought to speak for were far less enthusiastic about Clinton than they were. After all, even with the looming threat of Trump’s win – always a very valid concern due to his vitriolic election rhetoric and now confirmed by his cabinet picks – the predicted lower turnout at the polls among marginalized groups, particularly millennials of color, demonstrated in part that they were less willing to buy the Clinton hype. She had done little to earn their support and distance herself from the policies under which they were personally terrorized and their communities ravaged. They justifiably responded in kind.

Historical Challenges

Unfortunately, the people who make up the groups who reluctantly voted for Clinton or opted not to vote for her at all in light of these concerns will continue to suffer as a result of the unabated opportunism of self-assigned “leaders” who put their interests before those of their communities. Beyond the irreversible material impact their political miscalculations from this election cycle will undoubtedly yield (particularly for the people who make up the groups Clinton and her ilk pretended to support), their intentional misappropriation and distortion of centuries-old histories of resistance and legacies of activism for Clinton’s sake will leave behind vestiges of troubling revisionism in the public consciousness. Speaking more specifically, mainstream feminists’ uncritical advocacy for Clinton was a direct assault on all that so many women of color had done to fight for their freedom against figures like Clinton – elite white women who not only gained power by their default proximity to their husbands but who often exercised that power to our detriment.

As historian Thavolia Glymph explains in her captivating work Out of the House of Bondage, black women were frequently the victims of violence and deprivation exercised by the wives of their slave masters. Through extensive archival evidence, Glymph soundly challenges accounts of slavery in popular culture that obscure white slave mistresses’ abusive practices by focusing almost exclusively on the cruelty of their husbands. In such popular accounts, only men occupy the role of violent administrators, while essentialist views of white womanhood as “gentle” or “non-threatening” pervade. These depictions have repeatedly relegated masters’ wives to the category of “victims” right along with the slaves on the basis of the paternalism and sexism they faced. While these women certainly faced adversity, their realities paled in comparison to those of black female slaves who experienced the sadistic wrath of their male and female masters and fought against both sources of power to assert their personhood.

Following abolition in the United States, black women like Ida B. Wells, just as one example of many, continued to fight for their rights, often with their elite, white, feminist contemporaries as some of the most vocal opponents. Wells famously took on feminist leader Frances Willard for her racism toward black men and women in the late 1800s. While on tour in England for a campaign against the prevalence of lynching in the United States, writer Monee Fields-White notes, Wells publically called upon feminists like Willard to be intersectional avante la lettre. Frustrated by Willard’s “wiling[ness] to court white Southern women, at the expense of blacks,” Wells used her platform during a lecture during her tour to hold Willard accountable for her words. Facing an audience that included Willard, Wells read a damning interview of the feminist leader that demonstrated her racist tendencies and “asked the audience how influential white women could continue to turn a blind eye to the white mobs who threatened black lives.” In retribution for Wells’ bold attempts to bring attention to racialized violence white women had ignored if not encouraged, Willard and several other white feminists worked diligently to shame and silence Wells. Thankfully, their smear tactics failed.

Likewise, women throughout the Americas have pushed back on white feminists whose criticism of patriarchy failed to examine their complicity in standing in the way of social and economic equality for women of color. Well into the present, black and indigenous women in Brazil, for example, continue to challenge the ongoing practice of white, middle to upper class dominance of feminist spaces. As black Brazilian feminist activist Thamyra de Araújo notes in a piece on the exclusion of black women from mainstream feminism in Brazil, graffiti scrawled across a wall in her city succinctly characterized the obstacles facing many women like her: “What kind of feminism is this that the person who washes your underwear is a black woman, your maid, instead of you?” Researchers have documented this disconnect in detail, noting that despite gains for women in Brazil as a whole, women of African descent in Brazil remain marginalized on the basis of their economic and racial status, leaving little access to education, much less the free time or interest to organize alongside the very women who mount impediments to their socio-economic growth. And while Brazilian domestic workers, a staggering number of whom are black and brown, have begun to demand more from their employers, to unionize, and to seek greater social recognition of their labor, new political developments in Brazil toward economic austerity will pose severe setbacks to their efforts.

Assessing What Lies Ahead

I was reminded of these and countless other struggles women of color have long had with their white counterparts as so-called feminists cheered Clinton on despite (or, arguably in some cases, because of) her warm embrace of conservative leaders who had actively oppressed marginalized communities and her parroting of their divisive rhetoric. I watched in indignant horror as these feminists nodded along with Clinton and Obama’s declaration that “America is already great” while indigenous, black, and Latinx people are being murdered by police and racist vigilantes on a daily basis and remain disproportionately poor. And when I consider that they appeared to have done more to chastise those of us who pointed out our reservations about Clinton than to attend to the grievances of their white female peers who went on to vote for Trump in higher numbers than for Clinton, it raises even more questions about the value of continuing to promote a style of feminism that does not work for all women.

In a  piece titled “The Decent White Woman Who Voted for Trump (does not exist),” Elizabeth Grattan tackles the role racial privilege played in this election, particularly among white women voters, at the expense of communities of color. Grattan rightfully includes Clinton’s privilege in her assessment. “I did cast my ballot for Clinton,” Grattan admits, but in an examination of Clinton’s concession speech, Grattan outlines how Clinton’s obliviousness to the lived realities of people of color created blind spots within the campaign. For Grattan, Clinton’s remark that “we have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought,” provided “yet another example of the white woman bathing in her privileged perched pedestal of denial” precisely “because women of color weren’t taken by surprise by the divide in this nation. They live it. All their lives. It is a divide that has been witnessed by women of color for generations.” Grattan argues further that this direct knowledge of our divided nation may have compelled women of color to “[come] out in support of Clinton, despite the knowledge of the pandering and the realization that white women would fail them yet again.”

Though I agree with Grattan’s assertion, I would take things a step further to remind readers that Clinton has always been willing to sacrifice people of color when she wasn’t wielding the knife herself. Considering that her team elevated Trump when they were clearly unprepared to defeat him showed how little Clinton actually cares about us. Coupled with her celebration of endorsements from the political figures who had built their careers on oppressing people of color in the United States and far beyond its borders, this presumptive miscalculation serves as the backdrop to Clinton’s assertion that we “owe” Trump, the man she and her team rightfully portrayed as a fascist, “an open mind and the chance to lead” as he prepares to enter the White House. These factors may also provide an explanation as to why, since her loss, Clinton has virtually disappeared into thin air – save a speech at a Children’s Defense Fund Gala, an appearance with Katy Perry at a UNICEF gala, and a brief address in favor of press censorship – instead of coming out to join the fight against whatever ghoulish policies Trump and his team will enact. Along with the women who voted for Trump, Clinton also deserves our ire. At the end of the day, she might as well have cast her vote for Trump right along with them.

Her solidarity was never for us, after all, but for women like herself who ultimately will suffer little materially under a Trump presidency. Their daily lives are replete with safety nets, whereas many other women have no such privilege. For many women, every day is precarious under any president – female or otherwise – who values systems meant to enrich their economic status over our lives. Going forward, mainstream feminism as a social movement and arguably an institution must look to other movements for cues on the direction society is moving lest it perish in a heap of its own disconnected hubris. The collective intersectional work members of the Movement for Black Lives have led, just as one of many examples, provides a good place to start. Instead of hiding out in the woods in silence as police murder people with impunity (despite months spent pretending to be an ally to victims’ grief-stricken mothers) or resorting to excuses in place of introspection, real intersectional feminist leaders push beyond their own daily moments of defeat to defend equal rights. Real movement work never has room for cowards or fair-weather friends, and most certainly not in the advent of the Trump administration where the luxury of time to lick one’s wounds has expired.

Moving forward, feminism must not only be inclusive of women who make up marginalized groups, but be led by them. Their concerns must be prioritized and their voices must be at the forefront of feminist movements. Women active in their communities and organizations invested in the same work must be consulted over pop-up philanthrocapitalist ventures that exploit human suffering for their own gain. Furthermore, instead of placing the burden on marginalized women to serve as mammies, mules, or saviors for fledgling organizations or sinking campaigns, those looking to feminism as an anchor for their socio-political orientation should do their best to offer support for these women in their efforts toward equality instead of working against them.

Written by Wendi Muse

Wendi Muse

Wendi Muse is a Writer for Progressive Army. Follow her on Twitter @MuseWendi.

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Kristi Hart
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Wendi….Fantastic article. Thank you for writing this. Your words were especially insightful to me; a 40-something white woman from a privileged background. I am an RN and anthropologist, who has been politically active most of my life. I had similar reservations, regarding Sec. Clinton’s record. So often, when I voiced concerns to other white women (and some men) I was told that my criticisms were “drowning in (my) own privilege.” I was called horrible names. Let me be clear: I NEVER would have voted for Trump. To be honest, the reason I voiced my concerns was because I hoped that… Read more »
Wendi Muse
Guest

Thanks for your openness here and for reading. Don’t be afraid to keep speaking up. Voices like yours are valuable if rights for women are ever meant to truly be for all of us. – Wendi

Terry Purdue
Guest

I agree with the article. Clinton only paid lip service to racial justice, while taking money from those who opposed it. She was an old woman’s candidate, and a white feminist candidate. She didn’t address her support of so many things that devastated black communities, called us superpreadators, and went after the white vote with gusto when her husband was President

I don’t care what anyone says, she wasn’t vetted. Thanks DNC for Trump!

Bob Mardell
Guest

i stopped reading at “both options were corrupt, racist”, since i don’t give a shit what entitled, head-up-their-asses, psuedo-progressives think.

Terry Purdue
Guest

They are…it was the illusion of choice

Greg Vinson
Guest
Wendi Muse Nice to see the author chiming in. I certainly agree with your critique of Hillary, and for people who pay attention to facts and have the capacity to understand what they mean, the statement that both candidates were racist is so obvious it ought to be considered a truism. But I doubt your assumption that mainstream feminism is represented by the paraniod, ignorant, and dishonest women and men among Hillary supporters who simply insisted on ridiculously labeling any critic of Hillary, a mysogynist, is accurate. I don’t think they are one and the same, and I think most… Read more »
Wendi Muse
Guest

that’s an unfortunate thing to say, as i am neither entitled nor a “pseudo”progressive. all of us writing here are committed to the cause of forwarding progressive means to a society in which equality is the rule, not its exception.

Bob Mardell
Guest

Wendi Muse i doubt you truly understand the meaning of corruption or racism if you equate the two candidates within those realms, and doing so exhibits an astonishing lack of self-awareness. ignorance on the left sacrificed the first female president and first liberal supreme court in 50 years on the altar of some purist fantasyland. idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive.

Bob Mardell
Guest
Greg Vinson lol you and people like you are exacty the goddamn problem. gloria steinem, who’s devoted her life to achieving equality for all made an offhand comment on a fucking comedy show and was attacked by a bunch of idiots on the left. and it wasn’t really for the comment. it was because she had the unmitigated temerity to be a hillary supporter. because she disagreed with your dumb ass. pull your ignorant head out. ever hear of divide and conquer, one of the most basic tactics of multi-party competition? that’s why we got trump. because stupid assholes like… Read more »
Peace
Guest

I noticed how your the only one with poor vocabulary. It’s utterly sad to read your abusive and vulgar response to the reality women of color face.

John Elfrank-Dana
Guest
Susan B. Anthony a racist? Becuase she protested that more men, who happened to be black, would get the vote before white or black women. I guess, Soujouner Truth was a racist too? Here’s a quote from her found at Weslyan University: “I feel that I have the right to have just as much as a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will… Read more »
Wendi Muse
Guest
susan b. anthony, while a suffragette, exemplified similar problems as her peers. this has been addressed in countless works. if you need a full bibliography, i’d be more than happy to provide it as i’ve come across several documents/works in my own research to this effect (hence my confidence in referring to the issue at all in the article). it’s also worth noting on your other point, that yes, some abolitionists were indeed racists, many of them actually advocated for eugenics and racial segregation following the end of slavery and supporting ending the practice solely bc it meant competition to… Read more »
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The grave of women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony is covered with “I Voted” stickers left by voters in the U.S. presidential election.

Feminism of the Few Has No Place in a Nation for All