Feminism Friday: When women who advocate for women’s rights reject the label “feminist”

2nd May 2008: This post has been updated in light of the recent flare-ups in the rounds of discussion about how mainstream feminism remains inadequate in engaging with matters of race. See footnote.

There are many critics who view “feminism” (and the progressive movement generally) as focussing too much on the West, and too much on the experience and goals of the white middle-class, to the detriment of the experiences and goals of non-white women, poorer women and non-Western women.

It’s hard to deny that the most public faces and voices of the feminist movement – popularisers and academic theorists – have been and remain mostly white, middle-class Western women.

[link no longer valid]1brownfemipower describes how she first realised this as a student:

But Andy started class off with something different. She asked us to tell her everything we knew about feminism. We told her all about Seneca Falls and Susan B. Anthoney and Gloria Steinem–and some of us even told her about NOW or Feminist Majority or bell hooks or Alice Walker. One person mentioned Adrienne Rich.

She asked us what we knew about “the waves” of feminism. At least half of the class raised their hands.

Then she asked us what we thought women of color were doing during all the ‘waves’.

All of the hands went down and we all just stared at each other. One person finally said, “Well, we said Alice Walker,” to which Andy replied, What do you know about Alice Walker?

Everybody replied “The Color Purple” and then we lapsed back into silence.

Then the big question came. “Why do you only know about white women?”

Now, I’ll admit, at that point, I was feeling very very defensive. Most of the women in the class were women of color–I think there were a total of three white women in the class if I remember right. Every other person was either black, native or Latina. But in spite of this diverse class dynamic, I could tell most of us were feeling pretty defensive. We’d just been shown in the period of about 10 minutes how much we’d been completely bought into a particular definition of “feminism”–and even more so, we’d just been exposed to our vast ignorance of our own histories.

So, does this mean that the feminist movement is defined by these white, middle-class public faces? If that is the movement’s history and current “branding”, must it continue to be?

Donna Darko makes a telling point in a post about the “Third Wave” of feminism:

Then in 1995, Walker wrote To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. In 1997, Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake wrote Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. In 2000, Jennifer Baumgartner and Amy Richards wrote Manifesta. Baumgartner and Richards became the face of third wave feminism. I think what happened was people were so used to seeing white, middle-class women lead the first and second waves, they assumed white, middle-class women would lead the third wave.

Does the traditional domination of the public sphere of feminism by white, middle-class women act as a form of institutional privilege in the feminist movement, so that other women feel marginalised, invisible, and voiceless? For Western women outside the white middle class, does feminism seem hopelessly tainted by classism and unacknowledged racism? For women in post-colonial countries, does feminism seem hopelessly tainted by cultural imperialism as well as unacknowledged racism? If this is true, or even only partly true, can anything be done to overcome it?

I don’t have much in the way of answers, so I offer you links to essays discussing these criticisms:

Criticisms and Rejections:
Aaminah Hernández: Why I am Not a Feminist, or “My Anti-Feminist Manifesto”
BlackAmazon [link no longer valid]1:
Why is it OUR problem?
The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Played
Donna J: More on Full Frontal Feminism
Sylvia/M at Problem Chylde: Studying Women: A Mirrorless Act
brownfemipower [link no longer valid]1:
For Allies: How “Gender Trumps Race” Plays out in the Real World
So Katha Pollitt has decided that “American Feminists” are pretty darn cool.

Feminists discussing ally work and/or responding to criticisms:
Katie at shrub.com: Suggested Actions for White Feminist Allies from Katie
Vegankid: Qualities of an ally
Andrea Rubenstein (tekanji): An argument for feminism
Aunt B.: Become Like Us
Ilyka Damen: Which Americans? Which Feminists? Which Women?
Sylvia/M at Problem Chylde: Stretching the Knapsack Metaphor To Its Full Bent (And Then Some)

Footnote 02 May 2008
1. brownfemipower and Blackamazon have both left blogging for now, and have probably done so for good, taking down their blogs entirely (these links are to their final word on other blogs).

There are lots of posts discussing the particular fuck-ups by white feminists which led to yet another round of recriminations and not listening and some saying why can’t we just get past all this while some seethe with the pain and anger of not being heard.

WOC PhD (who does continue to identify as a feminist) has some commentary on Seal Press in particular:
Why Seal Press is OFF the Syllabus
Don’t Mess With Feminist Press
Why Seal Press is Off the Syllabus pt. 2
Celebrating Feminist and Multicultural Presses: Publishers that Rock!

Here are some discussions of the larger picture beyond just these particular most recent fuck-ups. If I remember correctly it was Blackamazon who once wrote about how the racial divide in the USA is the most dissected and analysed and Othered racial divide anywhere in the world, so obviously that is the racial divide which dominates the links in this post. I’d love to see links to feminists elsewhere discussing racial issues within feminism and beyond feminism: if you have some good ones, please leave them in comments.

NB: only some of the bloggers below have rejected the label of “feminist”.

ABW: Allies Talking
Latoya at Racialicious – The “or” versus the “and”: women of color and mainstream feminism
ABW: Standing in solidarity with my sisters
Sudy – A Question of Feminism or a “Movement?”
Sylvia/M – Don’t Hate; Reappropriate
Questioning Transphobia – In Light of Appropriation and Race
Grandpa Dinosaur – The Person You Protect
A Slant Truth – For My Peeps
PhysioProf – Intellectual Appropriation, Attribution of Credit & Privilege
Sudy: Apparently, Feminists Need Acting Coaches
Tracey at Unapologetically Female – Why we can’t “just get along”. (And why we shouldn’t.)

About tigtog

writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

21 comments on “Feminism Friday: When women who advocate for women’s rights reject the label “feminist”

  1. Ha, I thought at first reading that it was a comment from DONNIE Darko.

    Ok, I’m Asian American and super-feminist.

    I think the rejection of Feminism is the rejection of the newspaper definition. You know, like when hipsters deny that they are Hipsters because they don’t want to be reduced to that definition.

    The movement is ultimately defined by us. It is about equality regardless of sex / gender and I really think this struggle moves into race and sexual orientation. So when I say I’m a feminist, I’m saying I believe people deserve equal treatment regardless of what they are.

    I had a boyfriend who said he thought minority movements were outdated because it’s really all “humanism” but this is the melting pot / colorblind philosophy that robs us of our differences.

    The focus is on the white middle class because that demographic has been so visible and vocal but I doubt any young white feminist today would deny a black, brown or yellow sister standing by her.

    Rather than reject the movement, we should contribute and participate in order to make it our own.

    Like how I don’t expect my white sisters to be the voice of my experience (how could they be?).

    Here’s the fix – DON’T BUY THE BRANDING. It’s a MOVEMENT – and the only way to move forward, is to continue refining and progressing.

    Have we forgotten? A huge part of Feminism is fighting against those who try to tell us as women who we are, what we can do, what we should do, how we should be. Why should we allow them to define our movement?

  2. For this topic, I think this post has more to do with the topic than the privilege one; I wrote it in response to BFP’s post.

    Studying Women: A Mirrorless Act

  3. Thanks, Sylvia. I just wanted to link to your knapsack post so badly. Perhaps that should be in the Ally Work section and the Studying Women post should be in the Criticisms section?

  4. Amy, sorry for the delay in publishing your comment. The spaminator grabbed it for some reason.

    Have we forgotten? A huge part of Feminism is fighting against those who try to tell us as women who we are, what we can do, what we should do, how we should be. Why should we allow them to define our movement?

    As someone who embraces the label “feminist”, this is very much how I feel. I can however see why others might feel differently.

  5. I think that would probably be best.

  6. The link for “More on Full Frontal Feminism” is me, Donna J or Donna Johnson, not Donna Darko, we are two different WOC bloggers.

  7. So sorry, Donna – I followed someone else’s link who attributed it to Donna Darko and I didn’t check. I’ll fix it right now.

  8. No problem. You wouldn’t believe how often we get mistaken for each other.

  9. LOL, Donna. That is sad because I think that most people who read both of you should be able to tell you apart. You have two very different voices and different ideas.

    But don’t you hate it when you take a link from someone else and find out they had something wrong? I’ve done that a few times myself… so embarrassing. 🙂

    TT – Thank you for including my post in your links. I do want to clarify that it was written in about 10 minutes flat and does not fully and accurately flesh out all the depth of my thoughts and feelings. So alot of people reading it are offended, which was never my intention and I apologize to any of your readers that might take it as an attack on their own dearly held beliefs. I respect every woman’s right to label herself as she desires and I deeply respect and love many many women who do consider themselves feminist, I just personally don’t care for the label myself.

  10. Thanks for dropping by, Aaminah. I did understand that, but considering all the flak you copped I can understand your wish for clarification.

    Those of us who want an (ideal) feminism which truly represents all women are just saddened when others don’t find that feminism is the word for them.

    That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, just that feminism isn’t as ideal as it might like to be.

  11. Quick comment to keep this post updated in the wake of brownfemipower and Blackamazon deciding to leave blogging and the silencing and disappearing of their voices by the mainstream that led to their decisions:

    It’s easy to find the views of the larger feminist blogs on this latest fuck-up i.e. the views of white American feminist bloggers. It’s somewhat harder to find the views of WoC and RWoC bloggers, and when mainstream blogs do link to smaller WoC blogs it’s often to offer up a single voice as if it speaks for all. It would be great if FF101 readers offered up lots of links to all sorts of bloggers discussing the problems with the way that much of mainstream feminism talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to race.

    Latoya at Racialicious:

    How horrible is it to not be surprised? To see the conversation gradually rolling downhill, to know that this is the same conversation that has happened dozens of times, to see the same patterns being repeated, to hear non-allies serve up the same arguments over and over as if they were new, as if they were nothing we heard before.

    And then to hear some bullshit call to come together, put the past behind us, and move forward.
    I need to be in the company of women who do not have the luxury of looking past issues that are inconvenient to them.

    I need to be in the company of women who understand on a gut level, not an intellectual level, what I am going through. I need people who understand my life, not because they have read and studied and occassionally worked with women like me. I need to know that somewhere, out there, someone just knows.

    And I need to be there for them.
    The issue is much bigger than one incident. It is bigger than three incidents. It is bigger than the blogosphere. It is a pattern of behavior that will be repeated, again and again, probably until I leave this earth.

    And I feel it is my responsibility to try to end this, to leave a better world for my children to inherit.

    Latoya highlights a classic post on standing in solidarity from ABW, and then this list of further links:

    Sudy – A Question of Feminism or a “Movement?”
    Sylvia/M – Don’t Hate; Reappropriate
    Questioning Transphobia – In Light of Appropriation and Race
    Grandpa Dinosaur – The Person You Protect
    Feministe – (Read this piece for the comments – some real All-Stars were pulling out their best)
    A Slant Truth – For My Peeps
    PhysioProf – Intellectual Appropriation, Attribution of Credit & Privilege
    Aaminah Hernández- Why I Am Not A Feminist or My Anti-Feminist Manifesto

    Aaminah’s piece has already been linked to in my post above, and as you see from the comment above this one she was a bit surprised by how many other people linked to it and commented on it. But the linkage was for a reason – she articulated many of the frustrations many women working for equality feel with mainstream feminism.

    I also recommend another short piece from Sudy: Apparently, Feminists Need Acting Coaches. As a former acting student myself, the reminder of the power of listening struck me hard.

  12. I also want to quote this large chunk from Fire Fly’s The Revolution Will Not Be Published, who as an Australian WoC pointedly wants “to get away from blogosphere conflicts that centre around white North American women”.

    The fact is, ‘professionalisation’ in feminism is not a new issue nor an issue specific to white US feminists. I have had a number of conversations with women around the world who have criticised the women who take up “leadership” positions in their regional/local/national feminist movements through a combination of class/ethnic/race/sexual/able-bodied privilege and professionalisation of feminist work.

    The criticisms — that these women represent only a narrow agenda based on an even narrower conception of the problems, that they are self-serving and unresponsive, that their work is compromised by the agendas of business, academia and the state — are predictable and well-worn, but still have yet to be addressed or dealt with.

    However, there’s a bigger criticism out there. It’s an elephant-sized issue, and hardly anyone talks about it. Anne Summers mentioned in a speech last year, but it’s the first I’ve heard of it, and I want to explore it more.

    That is, when you rely on bureaucratisation and incorporation of high-level leaders into the state and business, once the state decides it doesn’t want to deal with women’s issues any more, you’re basically fucked. And this is what has happened to the Australian women’s movement in the eleven years that John Howard was in power. Women’s government agencies were consistently de-funded, attacked ideologically and dismantled, while sexist policies around abortion, welfare, family, childcare, maternity leave and workplace relations were put into place.

    This is also occurring in the environmental movement, where large NGOs are becoming more conservative so as not to lose lobbying access, while ineffective and even dangerous policies are being pursued (e.g. increasing reliance on nuclear energy, carbon trading, bio-fuels, carbon sinks, ‘clean coal’, electricity privatisation).

  13. Hi. thanks for the links. I did just want to register that I am a feminist and have not advocated giving up the label or the movement. As a WS prof I teach the herstory of feminism beyond the canonized waves and woc and other marginalized women have always been present, active, and powerful members of the movement. I know you are talking about the public face of the movement here but I just wanted to register that we have always been here and I think we should always be here. My posts are calling for responsibility, productive dialog, and active engaged change (ie not “sorry you got hurt . . . by the way I’m not changing my personal engagements or book editors or anything else. but man what those other people did was wrong.” but actual commitment to be constantly learning, constantly working, and constantly aligned with decolonized practice.).

  14. Thanks for dropping by, prof bw. If there’s any specific phraseology in the post that you think could be improved, please feel free to suggest better wording. I’m sure I’ve phrased several things clumsily.

    P.S. I’ve edited the post to reflect that you do continue to identify as a feminist

  15. thanks. I think it is great that you are trying to document the list of people involved in this conversation and what the reactions have been with regards to mainstream feminism. not to worry.

  16. Hey there,

    I’m a black, female, anti-feminist and found this article and the links in it very interesting; thanks for the reading material.

    Also, I see you’ve linked to my co-conspirator Grandpa Dinosaur, awesome!

  17. Welcome, davitacuttita!

    On with the links: some discussion of the issues involved in how illustration choices push their own subtext into the narrative, from the perspective of comics readers, with a roundup of links about the Seal Press issues in particular:
    Just Past the Horizon: It’s Not the Shovel That Smells.

    [perceptions that complaints are exaggeration, oversensitivity, demonisation etc]

    The problem with all of those reactions is that the past never dies. It lives and grows into the future. It affects the present. There is no true abandoning the past, we can only just distance ourselves enough to forget why we behave the way we do.

    History is the foundation of our culture. We build on it. History affects everything. Stories are handed down from generation to generation. Things are altered, made more palatable for modern sensibilities, but ultimately the base remains the same.

    When you read a comic book, you aren’t just reading a nice story about a good guy fighting a bad guy. You’re reading a story about a person who represents what that our culture finds admirable fighting someone who represents what our culture finds distasteful. The symbolism’s loaded. There are messages in that story, and leftover prejudices. We paint a coat of current events on it, but the history is still there.

    The post finishes with:

    The problem is that people keep shoveling shit on a pile. And when someone points out what they’re doing, they take that as “I shouldn’t use a shovel anymore” and start using another utensil, or their bare hands. They completely miss that there’s a pile and that the substance being moved is shit.

  18. […] of April went on, though, with brownfemipower’s and Blackamazon’s final statements, other women rejecting the term “feminism”, the Seal Press girlcott, A.J. Rossmiller’s and Kay Steiger’s highlighting of the […]

  19. Further reading from my perspective on feminism and white privilege: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2008/04/three_suggestio

  20. Some of the ‘not working’ links, are now working again…

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