During the month of March, we celebrate and honour the women who fought for the rights and freedoms that we have today. We honour the suffragettes, the women who were “first” in traditionally male roles, the women who stood up for what they believed in and didn’t give up.
We have come so far.
But who do we mean when we say “we”? We, as women, have earned the right to vote, the right to work, the right to hold property, have bank accounts, the right to be equal contributors to society. So why is it that the wage gap is greater for black women than white women? Why is it that black women and infants are more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women? Why are more black women at higher risk of getting sick or losing their jobs during the pandemic than white women?
The answer to this is white feminism.
There has been a crack in the foundation of feminism since the beginning of the movement and it has been largely ignored by wave after wave of white feminists. But the cracks are now too large to ignore, and they reveal the racist bedrock that the foundation rests upon.
As the early suffragettes marched for the right to vote, not only was this right not extended to black and Indigenous women, but they were actively excluded. Manitoba was the first Canadian province to give women the vote in 1916, and the Western provinces followed suit shortly afterward. However, the Western provinces were not being “more progressive” in their policies, they were actively using the right to vote as a tool of white oppression. They dangled this carrot of equality for white women to attract more settlers to colonize the West and further marginalize Indigenous communities who lived in those areas.
All over the country, early suffragists were typically white, middle-class women who were interested in advancing their class and status. Many leaders of the movement, such as Nellie McClung, were openly racist. She promoted the pseudoscience of eugenics and supported the involuntary sterilization of thousands of marginalized people through Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act.
During the second wave of feminism, from the 1960s to the 1980s, we see the rise of the term “intersectionality” and authors, such as Bell Hooks and Audre Lorde, were calling out white feminism to examine the challenges faced by black and Indigenous communities, LGBTQ+, trans, and disabled communities. However, white feminism continued to ignore the call for unity, as it was more concerned with women’s equality to white men.
Equality with white men meant that white feminism had to learn to work within the system. Capitalism and patriarchy only succeed when others are oppressed, so white women wearing power suits and shoulder pads worked within the system to become the oppressor.
Today, white feminism has again evolved to a more subtle — yet just as racist — form. In this era of “leaning in” and “girl bosses”, the oppression is evident in yoga studios that appropriate the practise of asana and glorify thin, white bodies, and in women-owned businesses that still pay their workers low wages.
Koa Beck, author of the book, White Feminism, says that “the goal of white feminism is not to alter the systems that oppress women — patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism — but to succeed within them.”
White feminism is focused on increasing individual wealth, not helping the larger community of women around it. The unfortunate truth is that white women have been and currently are largely absent from the fight for equality for BIPOC communities.
“What we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.”Bell Hooks
How to dismantle white feminism
- Do the work of dismantling your own white feminism. Examine all the intersectional ways you may hold privilege within the current system (a woman who is white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, and thin) and be aware of the fact that you can be both oppressed and the oppressor at the same time.
- Research and acknowledge the contributions of black women throughout history. Some names to research are the Honourable Jean Augustine, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Viola Desmond, and Senator Anne C. Cools.
- Take action in the workplace. Author Koa Beck says that “we have to redefine what it means to be a feminist workplace, a feminist company, and a feminist leader. ” Use your privilege at work to dismantle and change policies to create an inclusive workplace.
- Get political. Use your privilege and networks to amplify the voices of BIPOC. In the short documentary, Amplify, Sonia, a black university student in Sudbury, says, “People will assign activism to me because my identity is inherently political. I don’t have the choice of being neutral. I have to be an activist because of my personal survival.”
- Create a community that uplifts black, Indigenous, and women of colour. Buy goods and services from black-owned businesses, donate to charities that support BIPOC issues, vote for BIPOC candidates.
“The systems that oppress us work best when we’re divided.”Tria Donaldson
Koa Beck on dismantling the persistence of white feminism by Marie Solis
Feminism’s White Default by Nora Loreto
Canadian Museum for Human Rights