WHAT IS FEMINISM TO YOU, ME, AND US?

Natalie Nelson | Staff Writer

The academy strictly sets white women’s achievements as the benchmark for feminism which, in its purest form, is exclusionary. The first, second, and third waves of feminism are meticulously identified by white women such as Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Kathleen Hanna, but there has always been so much more behind the very Young people’s introduction into the academy in their formative years sees them being sold an idea of what equality of the sexes is supposed to look like. The second World War called American women into the workplace at the highest rate than it ever had before, solidifying Rosie the Riveter as everyone’s first icon of women’s advancement. The 1960s gave feminist leaders room to keep the momentum going by calling for women to get out of the home and into the workforce. Formative education in the United States heralds Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the only relevant suffragettes, furthering the exclusionary and overwhelmingly white narrative of feminism. This view is so narrow and doctored that until young people are equipped with the tools to learn and understand what feminism is, they will only know cis white women as feminists. The basic idea of feminism has undergone such drastic changes over the last century to the point that now, as we enter what may very well be defined as the “fourth wave”, many people are abstaining from identifying with feminism. Now, with the stakes so high for feminism to either continue or die after immense critique and reshaping, there exists a vital question: how is feminism defined to you?

For almost two hundred years, feminism has stood as a pillar of hope for women. Feminists achieved the right to vote, but not all women gained that right with the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. Susan B. Anthony believed that everyone living in the United States should be guaranteed the right to vote, but ultimately thought that if only one group could be granted that right, it should be white women. This is because, as her contemporary Elizabeth Cady Stanton not-so-famously declared, “it’s better to be the slave of an educated white man than of a degraded black one.” Within mainstream academia, the timeline of feminism begins here, on the foundation of “white women first.” Ida B. Wells, who worked closely with Anthony on suffrage and anti-lynching efforts, always falls to the wayside in education, many people do not learn of Wells’ role in the suffrage movement until they get to college, and even then, that is not in an average history class, but in mainly Black studies courses. Wells’ efforts were in securing rights for Black people and establishing them in society alongside women’s suffrage and abolition, but women of color weren’t allowed to vote until 1965. With white activists like Anthony and Stanton that have all of the social power at the forefront of women’s issues, feminism’s foundation is created by white women as inherently racist.  

The second wave of feminism is marked by leaders like Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem who called for women to get out of the kitchen and into the professional workplace to remove men from the center of both their public and private spheres, and to move into spaces where they were never allowed to. This remains a powerful message and solid movement, however, it drowns out the voices of the women of color in America that had been working, the women that could never comfortably exist simply by relying on men because the men of color in America also were not given any special privileges and opportunities in society. Black women had been in the mines and in the homes of white women as domestic laborers since the beginning of the twentieth century. Creating a platform that solely advocated for the rights of privileged white women left behind women that were on the receiving end of both misogyny and racism while simultaneously trying to support their families. 

The third wave found women deciding that it was time to assert themselves in the new spaces that the second wave pushed for them to be. This era made feminism a completely different movement to be a part of while navigating misogyny, since the stakes were much different than they had been in the past. Kathleen Hanna, the front-runner for Bikini Kill, based her feminist politics on “bring[ing] girls to the front” and squashing rape culture. However, the “post-racial” world that the third wave began in allowed women of color to continue to be policed without any regard. After Anita Hill testified in front of an all-white, all-male committee, the third wave was created by Rebecca Walker’s support for Hill. As the fourth wave becomes larger  this same issue has come up, except now, women of color are given a stronger voice than before. It might be assumed that since this new surge in feminism was mobilized by Black women through movements like Me Too, started by Tarana Burke. While widespread, Burke’s contribution is still being suppressed through the co-option of capitalism to be as inclusive as possible, and that includes those who are the oppressor. Alyssa Milano’s tweet mentioning “me too” made her the face of the #MeToo movement for a while and it took time and effort to get people to realize that she was not the first to use that. Rich, cishet white women who are pro-life, racist, transphobic, etc., or who remain complicit in these issues are allowed to express feminist propaganda through stickers and shirts and pins, but this just means they are only fighting for themselves to stand in the same position as rich, cishet white men. 

The truth is, as the pillar of hope, feminism is utopian. Whimsically, feminists imagine a world in which women are free to live whatever life they decide. And while that is righteous, it is important to think about the different obstacles that women born without privilege must overcome in this highly sectionalized society. Given what we know about the history of feminism, it is important that we remember and continue to validate the women of color who have been stifled by, and activists against, the hegemonic values that oppressed them in the first place.