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White Feminism Is Over If You Want It to Be

What is absent from the lives of too many white women isn’t feminism. It is a sense of justice.
(Photo: Joe Raedle and JP Yim/Getty Images)

(Photo: Joe Raedle and JP Yim/Getty Images)

The eulogies, elegies, and requiems for white feminism have been written, and, this time, they’ve been penned by white women. Time of death would appear to be November 8th, after an election in which 53 percent of white women voters installed a braying patriarch — a self-avowed pussy grabber who has still yet to explain what he meant when he said of a woman that he “moved on her like a bitch” — at the seat of American power.

Liza Featherstone’s announcement was the most direct: “Elite, White Feminism Gave Us Trump: It Needs to Die.” Without “a watering down of the movement” into “Sheryl Sandberg-lite” feminism, his daughter could never have credibly defended him, argued Jessica Valenti — who, not long ago, defended Sandberg’s feminism from her feminist critics like Featherstone. What changed? As Sandberg ended up proving, feminism — or writing about it, anyway — has never been easier to sell. “Many of us were so busy celebrating this superficial saturation as a systemic success,” wrote Julie Zeilinger, “that we confused talking about feminism, vocally supporting it, with actually doing the work.”

Of course, many of these arguments feel familiar. Black feminists and womanists, queer feminists, Arab feminists, disabled feminists, trans feminists, and sex worker feminists, to name just a few, have long called for white feminism’s funeral. Their arguments are getting a wider hearing as more white feminists seek answers. To some, understandably, this is all long overdue. “You might actually get what so many of us have been describing all along,” wrote LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant in An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists. “Welcome to that deep perpetual angst. Embrace it, and allow it to motivate you to a deeper form of action.”

There is not much pleasure in being right when this is what right feels like. Not when this election result has placed such a fearsome task before anyone who says they still believe in divorcing the distribution of power and resources from the assignment, expression, regulation, and experience of gender. Which is to say, for anyone who believes in feminism. If anything, the last few weeks have been a fresh reminder that this is not a task that falls more “naturally” to women simply because they are women. In electing over-tanned male supremacy, women were understood to have betrayed feminism, betrayed their gender. What they did, too, is remind us it is long past time to get very precise about what the task of feminism is, and whose interests it has served and must serve.

What was “white feminism” — if it was a phenomenon divorced from what’s been lately dubbed “mainstream feminism,” or previously “liberal feminism,” or sometimes “marketplace feminism” — is now forever linked to that 53 percent of white women voters. Whatever feminism means to women who can vote in the United States, it was not enough to turn their votes away from a man accused of serial sexual assault, a man who would seek to punish those who terminate pregnancies — both long understood as unalienable feminist litmus tests. Whatever feminism means, after the election, it was understood as insufficient to elect a powerful, wealthy, perfectly qualified white woman.

“Mainstream white feminists consistently make the fatal mistake of presuming that their motivations are stimulating to every woman,” wrote Tamara Winfrey Harris at Bitch. “Self-reverential, non-intersectional feminism doesn’t speak to most women of color, but here’s the real rub, at least when it comes to progressive politics: It doesn’t speak to most white women, either.”

For all the rights white women have gained in the last century (highlight reel version: suffrage, divorce, contraception, employment) perhaps, for some of those women, once they got theirs, that was enough? If you, a white woman voter, can afford to travel wherever you need to for an abortion, does a prohibition on Medicaid covering abortion matter to you? If you, a white woman voter, are without a criminal record, does the disenfranchisement of women with felony convictions matter? These are the calculations white women, including white feminists, make across the political spectrum. These restrictions, they can see, largely fall on women of color and women in poverty.

What is absent from the lives of too many white women, then, isn’t feminism. It is a sense of justice that still fights as if it really believes that, until all women are free, no women will be.

As the American project was conceived, this election was no aberration. The next morning, patriarchy and white supremacy were re-inscribed in the rise of an easily wounded grifter. Now, as before, there is no presumed freedom for women, at least not for most women.

But as feminism is currently transmitted and mass-marketed in, say, the guise of the president-elect’s daughter and her lifestyle brand, white women may still come away thinking they have all the freedom they need. To the extent that mainstream feminism is indistinguishable from such an Insta-ready platform for “successful women” (just like her), many women did vote for just that. The problem isn’t just that white feminism was irrelevant. It’s that white feminism can dwell comfortably in the narrow space between Ivanka Trump and her old friend Chelsea Clinton.

And white feminists built that.

Any obituary for white feminism, especially at this late date, must point to those who survive it: all the women who saw the writing on the wall long before the ninth of November, and, more critically, all the women who had already committed themselves to their own fight.

These women are far from hard to find. Lately, Teen Vogue has been putting what we might have a decade ago called “feminist blogging” to shame, highlighting the young women and girls at the forefront of social justice movements: young Native American women at Standing Rock fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, young black women marching and organizing as part of the Movement for Black Lives in Baton Rouge and Ferguson, young trans women in Ohio and North Carolina challenging their schools for equal rights. If feminism has really gone so mainstream, then pop feminism will remain a media fascination. Perhaps these women and their work, at least, can be its face.

Whatever the state of the feminist project is, you can undeniably see feminism — if that’s what you want to call it — in all these women. And if you did want to call it that, it would be an incomplete description of their work. But despite the loss of #Her, with or without white women at the lead, what you see in the world after this election are so many young women doing what they were doing before, what they do every day. They are taking their own place in history.