“Bow to the woman,” or Revisiting the racism of white feminism.

I’ve been told that my post yesterday quoting from writings and speeches by Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was “a cheap shot” and “ineffectual.” Apparently there are no connections to be made between the political stances of the leaders of the suffrage movement in the mid-19th century and their ideological great-grand daughters now. I dressed down the LiveJournal commenter for his rudeness, primarily, but also his lack of critical analysis, which, despite the cop-out he offered in apology, has nothing to do with his race (white) or his gender (male). What it does have to do with is the lack of attention anyone is paying to the history of American feminism, and how that history is influencing the ways this presidential race is being framed by white women, Clinton’s most strident supporters on almost every blog and message board I’ve seen.

The guy who commented and I are cool now, but I thought it might be worthwhile to expound a bit–connect the dots, as it were–for anyone else who’s missing my point.

There’s nothing cheap at all about quoting one of the leaders of the proto-feminist movement who, when it looked like black men might vote before white women, in the midst of the terrorism against black people that followed the Civil War, decided to draw a line in the sand–despite the fact that Douglass was her co-vice-president of the Equal Rights Association and continued to support [white] women’s suffrage. (The voting rights of black women were, of course, not even on the table. Just ask Sojourner Truth. Ain’t she a woman?)

Stanton and the MAJORITY of the suffrage movement opposed the passage of the 15th Amendment on the same grounds that underlie the various editorials and statements that have come from no less than Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Erica Jong, Roseanne Barr, and most recently Geraldine Ferraro: a fundamental sense of entitlement on the part of white women to walk through that “celestial gate” into the White House before “Sambo.”

To drive home this point, I will quote from “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College and former professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College:

Several years ago, one young White woman wrote the following sentence…: “I am in favor of affirmative action except when it comes to my jobs.” I wrote in response, “Which jobs have your name on them?”

The sense of entitlement conveyed in the statement was striking. Of course, she wanted to get the jobs she applied for, … yet she seemed to assume that because she wanted them, they belonged to her. She assumed that she would, of course, be qualified for the job, and would therefore be entitled to it. What was she thinking about the candidates of color? She did not seem to take into account the possibility that one of them might be as qualified, or more qualified, than she was. The idea that she as a White woman might herself be the recipient of affirmative action was apparently not part of her thinking. While she expressed a desire for equity and justice, she also wanted to maintain her own advantage.

And so, this is what we’re reading and hearing in the media–the same assumptions are being made about how much Senator Clinton “deserves” the presidency (why, exactly?); the same argument abounds that the success of black men has somehow exceeded that of white women in government and corporations (patently false); the same claims of Senator Obama being unqualified and his successful candidacy the result of “affirmative action” (a charge that could easily be lobbed at Senator Clinton as well); the same erasure of black women from the discourse, except for when we’re being insulted or our experiences exploited. (In Jong’s effusive memorializing of mistreated female leaders, she notably leaves out Shirley Chisholm’s presidential run in 1972. Steinem and Morgan both talk about imaginary black female candidates as though we haven’t had them before–and don’t have one now in Cynthia McKinney, running for the Green nomination.)

One would think that after 150 years, white women might have gotten over such divisive politics. But while white feminists have surely made strides, recognizing their own racial privilege is not one of them.

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7 Responses to “Bow to the woman,” or Revisiting the racism of white feminism.

  1. Beau says:

    You raised a really good point and I guess what illicited my (uninformed and thus boorish) response was that I couldn’t make a connection between your earlier post RE Jong’s piece (which frankly I couldn’t make it through as the woman cannot get to whatever point she is trying to make without her “zipless fuck” style which I find as lively as percocet). What brought me to your side were the quotes you provided in your response (well, that and the fact that I know I can be an ass sometimes and try to cop to it when I should).

    You’re right. There is a division here that is palpable and it’s not being noticed. Least of all of course by the media (to no one’s great surprise) but not even by the blogosphere in general.

    Henry Rollins has a great quote along the lines of “when someone rubs your nose in your shit be sure you remember the smell. It’ll keep you straight.”

    Hope I’m not the only guy who gets a whiff off off this one.


  2. Beau says:


    Would you mind if I published this post on my own LJ?

  3. Hey Beau,

    Not at all–thanks for the comments. Also, I came across this today–Michelle Goldberg’s a bit more articulate than I am: http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/michelle_goldberg/2008/03/hell_hath_no_fury.html

  4. LisaR says:

    Excellent post, thank you. FYI, am a 45 year old white woman who’s just sick over what this primary has become, and the doublespeak and gaming that’s been going on.

    The bit about the young woman who was oblivious that affirmative action might help her, and her entitlement – oh, I’ve seen that, indeed.

    This is why I’ve resisted being labelled as a feminist for nigh on 20 years now. It doesn’t mean what they think it means. It’s exclusionary empowerment, and I want none of that.

  5. Hi, Lisa. Thanks for your comment. Peace.

  6. Pingback: The Colonization of Gender « Mammouth

  7. mymammouth says:

    Indeed. Thanks for your writing!

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