How to make a feminism for all women - Devika Jina
Updated: Apr 5
Last year, Gloria Steinem said, “If it doesn’t include all women, it’s not feminism. That’s just the way it is.” (Steinem, 2017)
While some saw this as revolutionary, it was really a reminder of the purpose of the movement.
We only need to look back at Steinem’s early days to understand why. She is among the founding mothers of the second-wave. They burned their bras outside the Miss America 1968 pageant, calling out hyper-sexualisation of their gender They fought for fair access to birth control. Among them were also black women who were not only fighting against hyper-sexualisation and for access to family planning, they battled for their rights as black people.
One of these women is Dorothy Pitman Hughes. She posed with Steinem in a now iconic photo of resistance: two women standing defiantly with one fist in the air. They were different to one another, and they worked together to create something with meaning.
After founding the Women’s Action Alliance in 1971, Pitman Hughes and Steinem worked and toured together, speaking about the intertwining of gender, race, and class. Pitman Hughes also set up the first women’s refuge in New York City, and co-founded Ms. Magazine in 1972. Like Steinem, she was a trail blazer, a force to be reckoned with, and we are blessed to have had her pave the way for our freedom and success. That’s the f word in action, right there.
Yet, Pitman Hughes along with the other non-Caucasian women who inspired Steinem are given scant credit for their efforts. Why is it that the founding mothers of second-wave feminism we celebrate today are largely white straight women? How is it that even now in 2018, women of colour are reminding their fellows that feminism must be for all women for it to be worth its salt? Why is it that this is so predictable?
Enter “intersectionality”. The buzzword of the moment, it might be used an awful lot, so it can seem as jumping on the bandwagon, but I’m not disenchanted because its eight syllables promise that we listen to and empathise with the experiences of other women. Easy, right?
It was first coined in 1989 by Law scholar Kimberlee Crenshaw:
“The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.” (Crenshaw, 1989)
It’s been almost thirty years since Crenshaw brought the word and its meaning to our attention, but are we putting it to fair use? Well, one may say, “we have Fenty, and Oprah we’ve done it!”
Or so we might think.
Last year, #MeToo shook the world up like it needed to. This is the uncomfortable conversation we’ve been trying to get everyone else to pay attention to and now it finally seems like it’s working. Thanks to the brave survivors who shared their stories, predatory men are no longer able to shirk their crimes. Their time, is indeed, up.
Amongst the survivors is Rose McGowan.
When she spoke out on social media about how Weinstein raped her, and appended it with the hashtag #MeToo, I was amongst the scores of people around the world who stood in solidarity with her. Here we saw a woman of influence sharing her story and pressing the world to take stories like hers seriously. A lot was contained in those 140 characters, so much so that thousands of others shared their stories too, stoking the fire in our bellies and the hope that, at last, a change was about to come.
That was until she said this in response to James Corden’s series of jokes at the amfAR Charity Gala, about the Weinstein scandal.
“This is white male privilege in action! Replace the word “women” with the N-word! How does it feel?”
It’s times like these where a ‘are you sure you want to tweet this?’ button would have helped.
Go ahead and call Corden out for his dull and badly executed humour. But at a time when nearly three quarters of all people killed by the US police are black (Beckett, 2016), and there is an entire social movement dedicated to ending this frightening trend, the swapping out of one word for another pretty much erases the experiences of those affected by race and gender in ways only they will really know. Rightly so, scores of people took to Twitter to remind McGowan of this simple fact.
Granted, this is one of the more divisive and emotionally loaded instances where intersectionality didn’t come into play, but there are other, more everyday examples, like cultural appropriation and the flimsy representation of non-white women. They’ve got me thinking, why aren’t we better yet?
I think the answer (or at least part of it) lies in how we see difference.
Take race for instance. Lots of people say they “don’t see race” as if registering that someone’s physical form contains a little more melanin than others makes us terrible, discriminatory human beings. Some see it as progressive, but it’s this attitude that stops us from progressing. The thing is, “not seeing race” makes out that all our experiences can be told with one language, that we all feel excited, sad or empowered by the exact same things. This isn’t just a logical impossibility, it stops us from understanding each other, which, if we really think about it, is key to being intersectional, right?
It could be that this is down to us simply trying to comprehend each other. But by approaching the puzzle this way, we’ll never really solve it because we’re stopping ourselves from finding that one awkward piece. You know, the one we managed to lose on the other side of the dining room table when we remembered we needed more snacks and wine.
So I ask: Feminism is for all women, but is it really? As much as I am hesitant to say yes just yet, a part of me thinks (or at least hopes) we’re breaking out of that rut. Here’s why. We’re speaking and listening to each other. It’s so simple, but by continuing to do this we can take feminism to the point where it really is for all women. People share their perspectives to give a wider context, and that’s a good thing because we’re learning that our experiences don’t speak to those of other women. In this way, we begin to understand that we need and experience feminism in different ways. This is what people reminded McGowan of following her tweet, and so it’s a lesson we can all learn from.
We’re celebrating and engaging with women who move and shake in their own ways. When feminism has largely been dominated by white, straight women, it’s refreshing to see others who don’t fit this mould coming to the fore. Beyonce’s album, Lemonade, spoke openly about the experiences of African-American women and pushed the world to see the need for the Black Lives Matter movement. Afua Hersch is a prominent journalist who talks candidly about her experiences as a Ghanian-British-Jewish woman. Mindy Kaling, the Indian American comedy writer has shown how women of our kind can be infinitely more than doctors of lawyers. These women carve out room for themselves, engaging audiences from and beyond their own backgrounds. By doing as they do, they enable every single member to learn about the world beyond their immediate perspective.
We’re at the tipping point, and what’s on the other side is as exciting as it is important. That iconic photo of Pitman Hughes and Steinem is celebrated not just because of its fame, but for its meaning. Like them, let’s keep listening and learning from each other so every woman can play a part in shaping a feminism that works for all of us