Feminism and Race

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Feminism and Race





The term feminism means advocacy for the well-being of women in both theoretical and practical ways. In the United States, feminist scholarship and practice in the nineteenth century was dominated by white middle- and upper-class heterosexual Anglo-American women, and the same was true in the twentieth century up until the 1960s. But from about 1970 onward, the concerns of women of color, poor women, and lesbians have become more prominent in feminist discourse, and they have also been explicitly recognized by traditional white feminists, both in the academy and in mainstream organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Among the women at the forefront of this movement, bell hooks has insisted on a distinct identity for black women, Patricia Hill Collins has argued that black women need to bring their own life knowledge into the field of sociology, and Paula Gunn Allen has shown that women were respected leaders in many indigenous societies before European contact.

Still, at the turn of the twenty-first century, establishment American feminism continued to be mostly white and middle class, although not exclusively heterosexual. However, lesbian feminism has certainly grown as a field of inquiry, particularly through the work of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys, and Monique Wittig. Also, some academic feminist scholars during the late twentieth century took up the postmodern theories of French feminists, such as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, who provided literary critiques of male-dominated Western culture by criticizing its canonical texts. As Cynthia Willett indicates in The Soul of Justice (2001), however, addressing women’s problems via such criticism is usually restricted to privileged educated women.

At the same time, women’s studies scholars have increased their recognition of feminism and women’s problems and social movements in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The twenty-first century challenge for feminism is to include all women’s voices, and to support and generate social movements that do not divide women by race. When feminism, in both theory and practice, does not include the concerns of women of color, then women of color may view feminism itself as one of the causes of their social disadvantages.


American feminists often refer to their history as comprising three “waves.”The first wave occurred between 1790 and 1920. During this period, feminism overtly excluded women of color and was, at times, explicitly racist. The second wave took place between 1950 and 1980, and it began to address social divisions among women based on race. Unfortunately, these attempts at inclusion resulted in a fragmentation of feminism itself. The third wave began after 1980, and it will need to be inclusive across race if feminism is to remain credible as a movement for all women, even though scholarly work by feminists has historically supported a diversity of feminisms.

The first wave began with Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1790 publication in England of Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft was inspired by the promise of universal human equality in the philosophies that motivated the French Revolution. She argued for the education of girls and the entry of wives and mothers into public life, with full rights as citizens. The philosopher and English political activist John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women in 1869. Both Wollstonecraft and Mill argued for child custody rights for divorced women, independent property ownership for married women, and suffrage for all women, precisely so that they could better serve their families and contribute to society as wives and mothers. However, those advocating for such rights were focused solely on white middle-class women, who had become overly domesticated and confined to their households after the Industrial Revolution. Wollstonecraft and Mills did not apply their arguments to poor women or women of color, who had always worked outside their homes in fields or factories, or in the homes of white women. For most of these women, such work was necessary to help support their families.

Women did achieve the right to vote in both the United States and Great Britain by 1920. According to the historian Eleanor Flexner, in Century of Struggle (1974), as a social and political movement, the achievement of suffrage developed by fits and starts, in ways that were closely related to the abolitionist movement to free the American slaves. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott emerged as the leaders of the suffrage movement after the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York. Susan B. Anthony was the great organizer of this movement, while Stanton supplied much of its rhetoric. The Seneca Falls Convention had occurred, at least in part, because female abolitionists were frustrated at not being able to speak publicly against slavery. (Public speaking was generally a privilege reserved for men.) The suffragists were bitterly disappointed that the rights of women were not recognized when slavery was abolished, and some veered toward racist comparisons between themselves and uneducated blacks after blacks were granted suffrage.

As the first wave grew on a state by state basis in the second half of the nineteenth century, a strong women’s club movement took shape, especially when temperance, or the outlaw of alcoholic beverages, became a women’s issue (many women saw men’s drunkenness as a problem for their families). These clubs were mainly restricted to white women. African American women formed their own clubs and civic organizations to secure education in their communities, protest against lynching, and create social standards for new generations (see Hine 1993).

Despite the racism within the first wave of the women’s movement, the second wave, as a political movement that brought American women into the workforce and secured entry into higher education, was inspired and assisted by the civil rights movements of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, outlawed discrimination “because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”On the theoretical and ideological side, the second wave was inaugurated in the early 1950s through the publications of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Friedan proclaimed that the domestic lives of middle class women obstructed human fulfillment and de Beauvoir argued that women’s social differences from men, which were based on ideas about their biological differences, resulted in a second-class status compared to men.


Throughout the second wave, American women gained unprecedented access to employment and higher education. Colleges and universities supported programs in women’s studies, ethnic studies, and Afro-American studies. As a result, feminism developed a theoretical foundation across the humanities, with a strong focus on issues of racial and cultural difference. Supporting such diversity in feminism was an implicit and explicit realization that the capabilities of women and the social roles they occupied were not determined by their female biology, but by historical events, cultural circumstances, and male rule. Indeed, it was on the issue of patriarchy that women of color began to protest that the concerns of white women did not mirror their own. They argued that for women of color, racism was as much or more of a problem than sexism. The questioning of the ability of white feminists to speak for women of color raised wider questions about whether there was one essence that all women shared, which made them women. Elizabeth Spelman, in her 1988 book Inessential Woman, brought the question of women’s commonality to the forefront of feminist theory. However, as Linda Alcoff pointed out in 1989, both the lack of a biological essence and the emphasis on culture could also lead to new oppressive assumptions that the lives of women of color were completely defined and shaped by their cultures. From the perspective of women of color, a new branch of feminism, known as intersectionality, developed. Proponents of intersectionality—such as Kimberle Crenshaw, in legal studies, and Irene Browne and Joya Misra, writing about labor markets in 2003—have held that women’s “genders,”or their social and economic roles and experiences, are a result of both racism and economic factors. Out of this perspective came the well-known equation, “race + class = gender.”This means that women of color have different “genders”than white women. Insofar as theorists such as Judith Butler have viewed biological sex as an effect of social factors and beliefs, or as a social construction, feminism itself has become very divided according to racial divisions. It would likely be further divided according to class, except that poor women rarely have a direct voice in theoretical discourse.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was wide recognition among U.S. feminists that the women’s movement is global, and that much can be learned from feminisms in less affluent and more traditional cultures, and from those societies that are more proactive about women’s rights and concerns. Women’s groups in India, Latin America and Russia, for example, have often gained political support, not through advocacy of equality between women and men, but through demands for governmental and social support for women as wives and mothers. Throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, the practice of microfinance (usually taking the form of loans to women of several hundred dollars or less) and outright gifts of domestic animals have been important contributions to the family well-being of poor women responsible for providing food to their children and relatives. In Latin America and Russia, mothers’ groups have effectively prevailed on government and military authorities to furnish information about missing husbands, sons, and brothers who have died or suffered in military service. In Norway after the 1970s, it became a legal requirement that 40 percent of all members of parliament be female, with the understanding among political elites that women in government have stronger interests in family welfare and social well-being issues than do men. Moreover, Norway’s “Credo on Difference”recognizes that the political inclusion of “women’s issues,”such as education, pensions, and welfare, on the top tier of the national agenda benefits all members of society, and not just women.

As Gayle Rubin has pointed out, and as feminist followers of Karl Marx have stressed, women perform work in agricultural and industrial societies, which enables male heads of household to do their paid labor. Mothers are still not paid for child rearing, housework, social tasks, and other parts of “women’s work,”so that many women who work outside of their homes must also perform a “second shift”without compensation. While women have secured the vote, child custody rights after divorce, and reproductive autonomy, they are still not fully the political equals of men, in even the most affluent Western countries. Those women who do participate in political leadership, even women of color (e.g., Condoleezza Rice, who became the U.S. secretary of state in 2005), often do so without special attention to the concerns of women or people of color.

Intersectionality and the “second shift”problem present a challenge to feminism: Is it possible for feminism to be both a system of belief and a source of change in the world that furthers the interests of all women? For this to occur, it is necessary to recognize the historical disadvantages of women and their future potential, and to acknowledge both what women have in common and the ways in which they are different. One way that feminist theorists could do this would be to abandon attempts to posit a common essence in all women, and instead view women as human beings who have been assigned to, or identify with, a group that makes up at least half of humankind. To be assigned to this group or identify with it would not mean that one had to be a mother, a man’s heterosexual choice, or a female at birth, but only that this was one’s social identity. Surely it is as mothers, men’s heterosexual choices, and human females that women have suffered the problems that first led to feminism and women’s movements in many different social, national, cultural, and racial/ethnic contexts. Such a common basis for women’s social identity would not negate the real-life differences, demands, and expectations of justice experienced by women on account of their racial diversity. It would allow women to come together across their racial differences to address common problems, such as the second shift, while they continue to think about and act against specific race-based problems.

SEE ALSO Antiracist Social Movements; Asian-American Feminism; Black Feminism in Brazil; Black Feminism in the United Kingdom; Black Feminism in the United States; Chicana Feminism; Sexism.


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Naomi Zack

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