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Fragmentation in the Women’s Liberation movement specifically between the white and black women largely contributed to the disintegration of the movement and hindered its effectiveness. The black feminist movement was more focussed on issues of equality in health care, reproductivity, sexual harassment among many other pertinent issues. White feminists, on the other hand, were more focussed on fighting institutional and structural feminism. The black women who had initially joined the movement later departed because the movement seemed to be only focussed on the plight of white women which was not the same as that of black women. Although the feminist movement appears to be advocating for the rights of women, their approach seems to be colour blind hence resulting in race blind feminism. Race-blind feminism is a sociological term that can be used to describe disregard for racial differences when selecting people to take part in a particular activity or receive some service. In this paper I will discuss how western feminism has been ‘race blind’ and what impact black feminist challenges have had on current developments in feminist thought in relation to the concept of ‘intersectionality.’
Race-blind western feminism in relation to the concept of intersectionality
The concept of difference has been at the centre of feminism in the United States since the start of a women’s movement in the U.S. Many people were astonished after Sojourner Truth, a black woman walked into the White Women’s convention in Ohio in 1851, a scant 3 years after the 1st Women’s Rights Convention in New York. Everyone was quiet. She was an imposing woman. She was almost 6 ft tall and had scars from brutal beatings. The loss of her own children and parents had devastated her, and she had also been sold into slavery. Standing among educated, affluent white women, and the men who supported them, the sight of her initially brought about fear, which later evolved into awe. The white women who were at the convention did not want to cripple their demands and struggle for the rights of women with the discomforting subject of race and rights of coloured people, regardless of their pledge to keep the issue of women’s rights for all at the centre of their struggle at the convention at New York. However, when Truth joined their conversion she spoke words which were collected under the title, “Ain’t I a woman,” which drew much of admiration and formed the basis of the question of Western feminism as to who exactly is a woman (Hooks, 2015).
In her speech, she spoke of the contradictions in the everyday use of the word ‘woman’, and she exposed the economic, political and cultural assumptions under its use. After taking the platform, she dismissed the declarations of some men who held the belief that women were not to be subjected to heavy work, both mentally and physically. So as to fulfill their nature of womanhood (Truth, 2009). Truth had no idea of this nature of womanhood proposed. What she was used to was strenuous work similar to what any man could do.
More than a hundred years later, Truth’s words were echoed in Simone de Beauvoir’s challenge to the claims of the meaning of a woman being self-evident (Philosophynow.org, 2016). She studied the meaning of womanhood in the West by putting the gender issue into focus. In response to the discontent among the French males that French women were continuously losing their femininity and were not as feminine as their Russian counterparts, she wondered if one is truly born a woman or if she gains womanhood through various indoctrinations and socialization process (Scott, Crompton, and Lyonette, 2010). This perspective made her challenge the relevance of the categorising of women altogether and asked whether the term was helpful in representing the experiences of the members of what the often referred to as the second sex. Ideally, nothing illustrates the concerns of Beauvoir (Philosophynow.org, 2016) over the effectiveness and legitimacy of the woman concept than the development of the common feminist thought in the white United States relating to challenges presented by women of colour, lesbians, the poor, immigrants and women who hailed from the third world nations. In ensuring that their voice was heard, these women who were marginalised, stretched feminist thought that womanhood ideologies had as much to do with class, race, and sexuality as they had to do with sex (Yuval-Davis, 2010).
The term intersectionality was coined by black legal scholar Kimberlẻ Crenshaw in her 1989 insightful essay. “Demarginalising Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” Intersectionality is not an abstract notion, but it describes the way various oppressions are inflicted on people. In the essay, Crenshaw describes how black women are discriminated against in ways that do not qualify to be classified as either sexism or racism but a combination of both (Crenshaw, 2012). However, the legal system classifies sexism to be injustices against all women including white women while racism refers to those injustices experienced by all blacks including men and all people of colour. In this perspective, as Crenshaw argues, black women are legally invisible and hence face injustice (Crenshaw, 1991).
Crenshaw (1991)further describes how various employment discrimination based lawsuits further point out how the complaints of black women fall through, simply because the oppressed are black women. One such case is the DeGraffenreid vs. General Motors that was filed in 1976 by black women. Before 1964, the General Motors Corporation had never hired a black woman until the Civil Rights Act was passed that year through Congress. All the black women who were hired after 1970 quickly lost their jobs in major layoffs between 1973 and 1975. The plaintiffs argued that the method of seniority-based layoffs on using the principle of ‘last hired first fired’ was discrimination against the black women employees at General Motors. The courts, however, denied the plaintiffs the option to combine a race based and sex-based criteria into one category of discrimination. This decision clearly rejected the construction of a new classification of black women who would have had a little more power on their side. Crenshaw (1991) argues that the decision to only provide legal relief to black women only after they have shown that their case is based on race or sex is similar to the driver of an ambulance being called after the driver who has knocked down the victim who has been identified.
The word intersectionality was widely adopted after it was coined in 1989 because it covered all the various oppressions that black women faced. Since the time of slavery, black women had repeatedly referred to multiple oppressions of class, race and gender as simultaneous oppressions, interlocking oppressions, instilling double jeopardy among the use of the many consequent infractions.
Crenshaw (1991) further observes that women are repeatedly ignored from the assessment of racism and gender oppression since the latter mainly focuses on experiences of white women and the former on those of black men (Crenshaw, 1991). She attempts to challenge both antiracist and antifeminist practice and theory that does not reflect the interaction of gender and race. She argues that since intersectional experience is worse that combination of both sexism and racism, any assessment that ignores taking intersectionality into account cannot adequately capture the specific manner in which black women are despised. The key component of intersectionality lies in multiple oppressions being viewed not as separate entities but rather a single synthesized experience.
With respect to the first approach, Jacquelyn Dowd Hal assesses the interconnections of gender and race in her discussion of lynching. Hal (1997) states that lynching was used to maintain racial etiquette, enforce labour contracts and also maintain the socio-economic status quo and additionally served in re-inscribing gender roles among the white people (Hall, 1987).The white men presented themselves as the protectors of the white women and sheltered them from the purported threat of the sexual prowess of the black male while at the same time enforcing adherence of white women to ideals of femininity and chastity (Higginbotham, 1989).
Feminists from the United States are now on a mission to expose, subvert, and identify the ever existing gender stereotypes which have been employed in dominating and subordinating women (Ahmed, 2009). The centre of any feminism theory, therefore, is how words like, female, woman or feminine are misconstrued or construed. The first women feminists in the United States, the Suffragist Movement fought for and spoke of women’s rights to refer to all women. They, however, failed to appreciate the fact that the notion of womanhood was constructed on the problems and experiences of a small percentage of women who, just like them, were mainly middle class, white and well educated. Moreover, the assumption that all women’s experiences were similar to the experiences of the white middle class women was not only made by the early feminists but continued to direct the notion of womanhood even during and after the second wave of the American feminist movement (Butler, 1990).
In the book that helped to usher in the second wave of feminism in the United States The Problem That Has No Name, Betty Friedan talks about the inside frustrations of women who had adopted the mystique of feminine fulfillment (Friedan, 1974). Some of these women had traded their careers and ambitions for the promised bliss of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. Most of them found themselves isolated and trapped behind white picket fences, and this is referred to by Friedan (1974) as the housewife syndrome. Friedan however failed to recognize that this syndrome mainly affected the minority of women who were middle class, white and well educated like her. She failed to understand that complimentary and binary gender divisions that classified the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the bread maker were constructed upon a radicalised patriarchy that did not include the poor women, women of colour and immigrants (Friedan (1974). These were the women who were summoned to leave their homes and children so as to cater for the homes and children of the white women who had liberated themselves from the chains of domesticity and joined the workforce voluntarily.
By disregarding the experiences and lives of women of colour, and working under the assumption that all women had similar experiences as those of the white, middle-class women, Friedan (1974) assumes a unity among all women that is non-existent. This misguided idea of gender solidarity is constructed upon another assumption of similarity that is supported by the idea of the existence of a common patriarchy of oppression around which all women must aggregate and against which they must launch an assault. The common oppression idea is a corrupt and false platform mystifying and disguising the real nature of women’s different and complex social reality Friedan, (1974). The complexity is especially evident in the lives of women of colour who must deal with various overlapping oppression forms including oppression from white women who do not recognise the different struggles facing women who are different from them.
Mainstream feminism thought continuously grapples with interrelations between race and gender in addition to colonialism, class, imperialism and matters of sexual orientation in what may be described as the third feminist wave in the United States. Of more importance is the criticism of women who have been subjected to the sufferings of the sexist societies- the poor women, women of colour and women from third world countries who are now at the frontline of progressive and contemporary feminist politics (Davis, 2008). Therefore, to fully understand the current inclinations of mainstream feminist thought in the United States, and the issue of race, one needs to look at how the feminist practice and theory have addressed differences among women and particular ways in which the different lives of different women have shaped their relationships to mainstream United States feminism (Evans, 2003).
Feminist theories have attempted to address the issue of feminism and race in two different approaches. The first approach views race as part of gender and looks at ways to construct an identity of gender in relation to race and how race identity can be also constructed around gender (O’Toole, Schiffman, and Edwards, 2007). The second approach explores the way in which the voices of women of colour are incorporated into the conventional curriculum in a separate but equal way. This approach simply adds the voices of those who have been historically excluded from mainstream feminism. However, it does not assess what is constituted in these voices in the context of power that has resulted and therefore bears the risk of essentialising race and gender or holding the assumption that these categories are timeless and fixed.
The immigration policies of the United States and discriminatory practices directed at Asian Americans have inevitably resulted in the embracing of gender ideals amongst Asian American women who are opposed to the ideals of most white feminists. Chow (1991) explains how colonialism, racism, and imperialism have positioned Asian American women at different positions towards feminism, Asian American men and westernization. Analysing the lack of feminist activism and consciousness in Asian American women, she explains this deficit to be as a result of ethnic pride and unity with Asian American men to get rid of discrimination against Asians in the United States. For instance, Asian American men view Asian women’s participation in mainstream United States feminism as a danger to the Asian American community. Chow (1991) further identifies particular Asiatic values of filial duty, fatalism, obedience, loyalty and self-control that promote submissiveness by Asian American women that are not compatible with American self-assertiveness and individualism. The demands of the traditional Asian values contribute to the specificity of Asian American women’s fights to distance their struggle from the objectives of the white feminist mainstream movement. These differences in addition to others are the reason why Chow states that the evolution of feminist consciousness for Asian American women cannot be understood or judged through the experience of the white women (Chow, 1991).
The concerns brought up by women of colour in the United States are similar to those of women from the third world. However, instead of fighting against the cultural norms of white womanhood, third world feminists fight to show their difference. They do this in opposition to the dominant and monolithic mentality of western feminism.
Mohanty (1991)describes the impact that western scholarship has had on women from the third world in a system dominated by the western world (Mohanty, 1991) When the struggles and lives of women are not locally and historically situated, they are deprived of their political agency (Quataert, 2011) Western scholarship, therefore ,ought to realize the ethnocentric universalism that comes out when representing and encoding women from the third world as victims of the decontextualized and historical mentality of patriarchy that leads to a homogenous mentality of the suffrage in women from the third world. Feminist thinkers can only make significant progress if they examine their role in western dominations (Mohanty 1991).
Narayan (1997) stresses the accuracy of historical situations of women as she exposes the specifics that confront the third world women in taking part in a feminist movement. Due to the history of imperialism and colonialism, suspicions against feminist movements as a possible trick of colonial domination are raised when women attempt to organise change. Narayan (1997) specifically explains how the word westernization is used to shut off the criticism from third world feminists on the treatment and status of women in their societies. It is ironic that it is the men who have received western education and have been assimilated by the Western world who are at the forefront of the attacks against third world feminists by accusing them of embracing Western customs and values and disrespecting their culture.
Second wave and third wave feminists would all agree that the black feminist’s movement was borne out of a response to the black liberation movement and women’s movement occurring in the West and the United States. The title of the article published in 1982, All Women are White, All Blacks are Men, but Some of us are Brave, best shows the thoughts behind the need for formation of a black feminist movement. In both movements, it is clear that black women were openly discriminated against and marginalized and it was impossible to be in solidarity with those who were acting as their oppressors (Robinson and Richardson, 2008). Most of the time the term black is associated with black men and the term woman is associated with white women. This leads to black women being made invisible with their needs and existence completely ignored. These frustrations led to the emergence of the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 in New York. Wherein, black feminism is only an effort used to cope with black women oppressed racially by the women’s movement and sexually by the Black Liberation Movement, in addition to the black community patriarchal system that perpetrates the sexist ideas in the general society (Rahman and Jackson, 2010).
The history of the United States feminist thought has developed from an essentialist mentality of womanhood based on the normative model of white middle class women to an appreciation of the fact that women are quite diverse and view themselves differently. Elizabeth Spellman states that the true problem of feminism is how it is has mistaken the experience of one group of women to be the experience of all women (Spelman, 1988)Assuming that the experience of white middle class women represents the lives of every woman is a false solidarity and union among women. To adequately address the complex multitude of oppressions experienced by women, political alliances are to be formed as a struggle against specific exploitative structures rather than to be based on someone’s sex or race. In today’s world, the United States’ mainstream feminism is involved in appreciating the diversity that exists and forms cross- cultural movements against oppressions. Recognising the difference is however not adequate until more commitment is made towards ensuring institutional change.
When feminists appreciate the interconnections between race, gender, class and nationalism, they can better work with rather than work for women of colour. In general, feminists in the United States have worked tirelessly to address the differences among women as well as what unites them in the struggle (Gunkel, Nigianni, and Soderback, 2012). During the early 20th century, Emma Goldman articulated the importance of appreciating differences while simultaneously working in unity to fight institutional inequalities that hinder individuals from existing in a free society. Goldman presented a vision that stretches further that mere recognition of difference and further argued that the problem that we face today and which we should strive to resolve is how to be one’s self but still be in unity with others (Goldman, 509).
Despite the division between the white and black women feminist groups, both of them advocate for the liberation of women in general. Both groups independently fight to alter the negative narratives and thoughts surrounding their constituencies. In their never-ending efforts for inclusion, the Black feminists have successfully developed the womanist movement whose main aim is to collectively eradicate the gender and racial oppressions faced by the black women. Hopefully in the years to come women, in general, will be celebrated and sexism afforded zero tolerance.
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