Part I The History of White Feminism
To talk about racism within feminism is to get in the way of feminist happiness. If talking about racism within feminism gets in the way of feminist happiness, we need to get in the way of feminist happiness.
—Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life1
Chapter One The Making of a “Feminist”
“FEMINIST” USED TO BE
a dirty word in modern popular culture. At the height of her influence in 2012, after being praised for producing “empowerment” anthems for young women, Taylor Swift famously denied that she was a feminist to a Daily Beast
reporter. Her response, which would evolve in the coming years, conveyed a belief in gender parity while dodging the term. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”1
It was quintessential “I’m not a feminist, but…” a recurring and well-documented cultural shorthand in which equal rights were espoused but allegiance to feminist ideology was evaded. Swift, while a prominent example of this, was part of a larger cohort of pop icons who made similar statements. That same year, Katy Perry said at Billboard
’s Women in Music luncheon, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.”2
The following year, in 2013, Kelly Clarkson told Time
that she has “worked very hard” since she was a teenager, but “I wouldn’t say [I’m a] feminist, that’s too strong. I think when people hear feminist it’s just like, ‘Get out of my way I don’t need anyone.’ ”3
Earlier that year, then newly appointed Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer explained, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that, I certainly believe in equal rights.”4
These shortsighted, yet “I believe in equal rights!” tempered responses were reflective of an outright vilification of feminism in the broader culture. In 2003, Maxim
notoriously published a pictorial guide on “How to Cure a Feminist.”5
Around that same time, the proliferation of the term “feminazi” was used across then dominant, George W. Bush–era right-wing culture to describe women
who believed in abortion rights, particularly by influential figures like Rush Limbaugh.6
This was coming off the late 1990s, which saw the Riot Grrrl movement give way to a whole Billboard
list of underage pop female vocalists with Christian-adjacent values of virginity, when a series of pop cultural digs at feminism was also rampant.
In the 1999 film Election, Reese Witherspoon’s character, a plucky, self-determined know-it-all student who aims to win a high school election, is framed as a villain—a thorn in the side of the relatable and therefore reliable male narrator, played by Matthew Broderick. In 10 Things I Hate About You, another popular teen movie that came out that same year (and a remake of The Taming of the Shrew), the lead character Kat Stratford is similarly maligned for her explicit feminist politics and The Bell Jar consumption. From politics to pop culture, the message was very clear: feminism is bad.
Yet, in other arenas of culture—most notably the internet—gender was a coursing concept. Like a lot of subcultures (and yes, gender politics was definitely an internet subculture in the 2000s), people who thought critically about gender or who wanted to consume it in real time through media congregated around blogs: Jezebel, Feministing, Racialicious, plus a myriad of personal blogs and YouTube diatribes. This was as close as you could get to feminist interpretations of pop culture without physically hosting them in your living room or taking a women’s studies class or accompanying me to queer parties.
So it’s no surprise really that the first time I heard Beyoncé’s 2013 song “***Flawless,” which included a clip of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s explosively popular 2012 TEDxEuston talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” I expected the sound bite to cut right before the word “feminist.” That’s how sanitized the mainstream culture was of that term. The fact that the word and its extended definition were included in their entirety came across as very, very intentional.
The pivotal moment when Beyoncé stood before prominent “FEMINIST” signage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards7
drove home the signature pink-and-black possibility that you could be an internationally top-selling female vocalist and care about systemic gender inequality—or so I thought. Like many journalists and writers at the time, I initially saw this strategic declaration as progressive, informed by the fact that I had honestly never seen anything like this come out of pop culture in my relatively brief lifetime, nor had others.
Barbara Berg, a historian and author of Sexism in America
, told Time
the VMAs that “[i]t would have been unthinkable during my era.”8
Roxane Gay, who had just published her essay collection Bad Feminist
a few weeks before, said on Twitter, “What Bey just did for feminism, on national television, look, for better or worse, that reach is WAY more than anything we’ve seen.” And Jessica Valenti facetiously tweeted a screencap of Beyoncé’s shadowed silhouette before the blaring “FEMINIST,” stating, “Really looking forward to the next magazine piece calling feminism dead or irrelevant.”9
Unequivocally, Beyoncé had moved the proverbial needle between pop culture and feminism.
But when you see “FEMINIST” as a set prop during the VMAs, what does that even mean? What does a feminist stand for?
If you asked suffragettes—the elite white women who built the first wave of American feminism—the term “feminist” evoked obtaining the vote and having access to what their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers had.
That’s the feminist credo that motivated blooming suffragette Alice Paul to join the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), circa 1910.10
She believed she should be able to pursue the same professional and educational opportunities available to the men in her community. As far as she was concerned, she always had—until she left her isolated home and realized many women couldn’t.
Even though she was born in 1885, Paul was raised to believe in gender equality from a very young age. She played sports like field hockey, baseball, and basketball and was an excellent student, particularly an ardent reader. Her parents were Quakers, a faith that had many “radical” teachings, including spiritual egalitarianism between men and women and no official religious ministers or ceremonies.11
“I never had any other idea… the principle was always there,” Paul later said of the atypical opportunities she took for granted.12
But although these principles were central to her home, faith, and community, Paul would realize they were not reflected in society. Many American laws and political practices kept women in secondary positions to men. And not being able to participate in an alleged democracy by voting was, to women like Paul, the biggest disenfranchisement.
Raised on a sprawling farm in New Jersey, Paul and her three younger siblings had access to a lot of comforts for the early twentieth century: indoor plumbing, electricity, and a telephone.13
Most of the labor on the “home farm,” as Paul called it, was completed by hired laborers and domestic workers;14
her father was a very successful businessman15
and the president of a bank in Moorestown, New Jersey.16
With the bulk of the household labor managed, Paul’s mother, Tacie, was able to make other investments in her daughter. Tacie hosted and attended regular suffrage meetings, both on the farm and elsewhere. She started bringing her eldest daughter with her to listen as women openly discussed the ongoing failure to get states to ratify a women’s suffrage amendment. That had initially been the plan laid out by iconic suffragettes from the 1890s: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone. Get the states on board with amendments and then pressure Congress to approve a federal amendment.17
But this strategy had stalled. And now, sitting in a new century, in parlor rooms and farmhouses and kitchens, women still did not have the right to vote.
Around the time Paul began attending suffrage meetings with her mother, the plan had shifted again. NAWSA had decided to implement a “society plan” to draft influential people, including privileged women and college-educated women, into the gospel and societal necessity of suffrage.18
Paul would grow up to put this plan into action, but not exactly as the ladies who sipped tea in her living room had imagined. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1905 (her grandfather, another champion of equality between men and women as it stemmed from Quaker faith, had cofounded the institution), Paul traveled to England to study social work at a local Quaker college.19
Historians credit her time in England with radicalizing Paul in her political strategies; while studying, she passed a large crowd heckling a woman speaking publicly to the urgency of women’s suffrage. The screams and verbal harassment from the crowd were reportedly so loud that you could barely hear the speaker. The chaotic public demonstration (this was not her mother’s demure suffrage meetings) piqued her interest and she introduced herself to the woman who had been yelling at the crowd.20
Her name was Christabel Pankhurst, and she was the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, both deeply radical British suffragettes photographed often in the press for fighting back when mobs heckled them. The Pankhursts were routinely arrested for breaking windows, throwing rocks, and engineering rowdy, public demonstrations to publicize the need for suffrage. The more pictures of them getting handcuffed in the London newspapers, the better.
Paul was fascinated by this approach; it ran so counter to how her mother
and other Quaker women organized quietly around petitions and prayers. The way their meetings were always sequestered in the private spaces of homes and living rooms, away from public view and scrutiny. Militant British suffragettes wanted to be seen, and they were willing to defy the conventions of gender and social order to achieve that. Paul quickly joined their efforts. The good and quiet little girl from New Jersey who was valedictorian at Swarthmore21
was now getting arrested in the name of suffrage, going on hunger strikes, and being forcibly fed while imprisoned.22
(She later told a newspaper in Philadelphia that she never broke any windows, though.)23
By the time Paul arrived back in the United States by way of the steamer ship Haverford
she was intent on bringing wide-sweeping, public demonstrations to American suffrage. And she credited her education from British suffragettes with illuminating that necessity. In 1910, she reported this update on how British women were progressing with the cause: “The militant policy is bringing success.… [T]he agitation has brought England out of her lethargy, and women of England are now talking of the time when they will vote, instead of the time when their children would vote, as was the custom a year or two back.”25
After formally joining NAWSA, Paul set her sights on planning a big spectacle for women’s suffrage in Washington, D.C. With friends and activists Crystal Eastman and Lucy Burns, Paul envisioned a huge parade up prominent Pennsylvania Avenue to coincide with President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.26
With all the press in attendance, no one would be able to ignore them.
The idea was power. The big victory was the vote. When that right was achieved, young white women everywhere knew they could enter and influence institutions, whether they be politics or commerce. They could be recognized outside of the home to shape and impact the politics that governed the country. Simultaneously, they set a template for how this ideology would thrive: by partnering with power and consumerism.
As Betty Friedan would say in her widely sold book The Feminine Mystique
five decades later, “The feminist revolution had to be fought because women quite simply were stopped at a state of evolution far short of their human capacity.”27
Chapter Two Who Gets to Be a Feminist?
IF “FEMINISM” IS PRESENTED as a hot new trend among elite women like Beyoncé, then that same math works backward too: elite women are, and always have been, the trendsetters for feminism. They will dictate the decor in the proverbial “room of one’s own.” Feminism will ultimately be framed as having a certain fashionability, and it’s very easy to look out on the cultural landscape to discern who the trendsetters are.
In 2016, it was The Wing, which I was a member of from 2017-2018, “an exclusive social club for women”1
with high-profile founding members across entertainment, media, politics, business, and the digital influencer space, like then president of J.Crew Jenna Lyons, editor Tina Brown, Man Repeller
founder Leandra Medine, rapper Remy Ma, among many others. Upon opening their first location in New York City, cofounders and CEOs Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan told multiple outlets that the club drew inspiration from the American women’s social clubs of the turn of the century while also offering members a highly curated “network of community,” according to The Wing’s website.2
In the 1910s, it was the suffragettes actively courting the interest of popular actresses Mary Pickford and Ethel Barrymore,3
both young, glamorous women who were challenging conventional understandings of gender with their very public personas and professional prowess, dual aberrations for women of the time. Pickford was one of the first American actresses to be a powerhouse with instant name ...