Trouble with White Women and White Feminism

Today begins a series of posts about white women and white feminism.  There is something troubling to me in the pattern of white women’s behavior and white feminism’s response to inequality that I want to examine in long form. When this photo appeared last week on January 19 – celebrated as MLK Day in the U.S. – of Dasha Zhukova, sitting on a chair made from the mannequin of a black woman, many people were outraged.  Or, in the words of one British news outlet, the photo sparked a “racism row.”  The editor of the magazine interviewing Zhukova has since apologized, saying, “We are against racism or gender inequality or anything that infringes upon anyone’s rights.” The chair was designed by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard.  Zhukova, the woman pictured said (through a spokesperson), it “reinterprets art historical works from artist Allen Jones as a commentary on gender and racial politics.”

Black Woman Chair

(Image from here)

I, too, was outraged when I saw this photo and initially dismissed the apologies as predictable non-apology apologies. But, upon reflection, I think that this piece of art rather succinctly captures both the historical position of white women vis-a-vis black women and the current position of white feminism vis-a-vis feminists and womanists of color.  This series is meant to explore these ideas in more depth over an extended period of weeks. I’ve written about the phenomenon of white women and white feminism before (here, here and here). In the series, I’ll draw on the scholarship in this area to offer a more in-depth analysis of some of the recent outrages.

I should probably begin by saying that some of my closest friends are white women. I, myself, am a white woman.  I have been helped in my career by white women, many of them white feminists. And, perhaps predictably, I come from a long line of white women ancestors.  This is me (about 1962) in the arms of my great grandmother (“Little Granny”), and next to her is my grandmother (“Big Granny”) and my mother in the hipster glasses and chic polka dots.

Four generations of white women

(Family photo)

The other thing that you should know about these women, my ancestors in Texas, is that none of them made it past the 8th grade in school. All of them were married by the time they were 15 years old, and as a point of pride they would have me tell you, not one of them pregnant *before* they got married.  I would add, of course, that they were all pregnant shortly after they married; most them were mothers by the time they were 16 years old.   Not me. I found feminism and got an education, and got the hell out.

FemMystique50_Screenshot(Screenshot from here)

So when the anniversary of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique came around last year and lots of people were asking, “are you better off than your grandmother?” my answer was a resounding, and deeply personal, yes! Yes, I am, thank you very much, feminism.

At the same time, I recognize that there is no whiter, more heteronormative feminism than Betty Friedan’s. The “problem that has no name” which was the centerpiece of that volume was really a problem of white, upper-middle class, well-educated, heterosexual women who wanted “something more” like Friedan herself.  Yet, Friedan was no friend to queer women, like me (lavender menace, anyone?), and her vision of feminism was not meant for the millions of women – working-class and women of color – who already worked outside the home.

So what’s the trouble with white women and white feminism?  I’m not sure exactly, but as a sociologist – one who studies patterned, human behavior – I see a pattern here.  Of course, as Joe (and lots of people have) pointed out, it’s white men who hold the power and are a social problem. There’s also a consistency to the way white women behave and white feminists respond that is both troubling and requires critical attention.

Justine Sacco certainly got more than her share of attention for this tweet, sent just before she boarded a plane from the U.S. to South Africa:


(Image from here) 

This incredibly offensive tweet sent by a professional PR executive, created a furor on Twitter. As Sacco was en route to her destination in Africa, the Twittersphere lit up with indignation and then, perhaps inevitably for Twitter, with humor.  Soon, the hashtag #hasJustinelandedyet began trending.  By the time that Ms. Sacco had in fact landed, she had been sacked by her employer.

If you missed all this furor, it may be because this unfolded over a few short days in late December when many people are traveling, spending time with family, or otherwise away from the interwebs.  Fortunately, there is data to illustrate Ms. Sacco’s ignominious rise to prominence, and her rapid descent into the oblivion of “Justine who..?” 


(Graph from here.)

It’s precisely this graph that prompts this long form series I’m launching.  If you know me at all, you know I love Twitter, but the rapid-fire, short-form exchange is not the ideal place to locate an extended critique of white women and white feminism.

So much of the post-Sacco analysis (if it can be called that) has turned sympathetic toward the fallen PR-exec and critical of Twitter for the incendiary atmosphere.  It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to her, it’s just that that is the wrong frame. The more relevant frame is that her behavior in sending that Tweet is emblematic of a broader pattern of behavior by white women that merits a longer, more thorough, historically contextualized analysis.

So, I hope you’ll join me here on for this series, where I’ll continue to put all this into a broader context. At the end of the series (which I’m predicting to be about 15-weeks, the length of a long semester), I’ll accumulate these posts into a free e-book, should you want all this in that format.

Finally, in an attempt to not completely re-center and re-privilege whiteness and white women, our new editorial calendar will feature regular posts (and re-posts) from feminist, and womanist, women of color.  One of the key issues, of course, is that white women simply don’t read enough writing by feminists of color, so this is meant to offer an opportunity to correct that.

>>>> Read next post in series


  1. Be Human

    Dear Ms. Daniels,

    I just came across this series of articles after a google search on white feminism and racism. In the early 1990s, I received a Masters Degree education in feminist political philosophy with a minor in Women’s Studies. Two of my professors were Lori Ginzburg and Kathleen Barry, who wrote biographies on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, respectively. During my studies, I proactively sought out the writings and history of women of color in political movements because I assume that all white people (myself included) don’t know what we don’t know with regard to the perspective of other races and because I did not want to perpetuate unconscious bias and also because I wanted to be the best scholar I could be and for me, that includes all voices, including women of color. And because my mentors (yes, mostly white women academics) instilled in me the necessity for understanding the voices of women of color.

    I was conducting this google search now because I have noticed an upsurge on social media of attacks on “white feminism,” particularly with respect to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I was curious how social media platforms were creating an organized voice around this issue, circa 2016.

    Today, like 25 years ago, I am still troubled by what I see as some problems with the critical analysis of white feminists. First, I agree that there have been and still are many problems with how white feminists have perpetuated racism that should be discussed. But I should also say that we do ourselves a disservice when we present a one-dimensional analysis of history and context. Particularly when that analysis holds women human rights leaders to a higher standard than male human rights leaders.

    For example, the history of sexism in black male civil rights leaders is quite parallel to the history of racism in female civil rights leaders. Yet, one rarely sees an organized voice calling out these historic males for their sexism. Nation of Islam leaders, Black Panther leaders and even MLK all still felt that women’s place is in the home, a home with a patriarchal power structure. They all participated in a system in which women give up their names and take their husband’s names (as was the case with African-American slaves taking their masters name). This is exactly parallel to the criticisms of early white feminists with respect to race–and took place nearly a century later, in fact.

    Frederick Douglas famously refused to disavow the 14th Amendment when it did not include enfranchising women, after working side by side with white women in the abolitionist movements for many years.

    More recently, one could call out Barack Obama for his “patriarchal liberalism.” He regularly uses language like “mankind,””all men are created equal” and talks about God using the masculine pronoun. He also regularly quips about the Athletic Sports Complex, an institution built on reinforcing harmful gender roles that excludes females from participation.

    Yet we do not have #thetroublewithblackmen hashtag calling out these leaders or the notoriously misogynist black male rap music artists whose lyrics and videos clearly promote the sex slavery, objectification and abuse of females. Movies like “Straight Outta Compton” portray these men as heroes without producing a social media movement calling out the misogyny in their music.

    The point is that there is an inherent sexism in a wholesale blanket condemnation of “white feminism” when we do not ask or require that same standard in male human rights leaders of color. In other words, isn’t it sexist AND racist to hold white women to a higher standard than men of color?

    For example, the “chair” controversy you mentioned above. Yes, the chair is racist. That was the artist’s point. I agree with this article’s analysis of the controversy that “…in reality, it is not about racism as such. It is about the clumsy exposure of a strange work of art to popular culture in a way that begs to be misunderstood.”

    I believe that women reinvent the wheel every generation precisely because our history is stolen from us. And a big part of that history is the 70 years campaign of thousands of women to win women the right to vote, which was clearly the largest political revolution in history.

    Yet, we have not holidays, not monuments, not streets named after it’s heroes. Even though every city in the nation has something named after MLK (and rightly so). Yes, we should point out what was problematic with white feminists, of course. But when we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we are shooting ourselves in the foot, on the whole.

    I look forward to reading the rest of this series and would love to hear your thoughts on these observations.


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