March is Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contributions women in the U.S. have made toward history, culture and society. In high school history classes, that meant hearing about the work of suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, emphasizing how much good they did for American women. However, in my high school experience, White feminism was accepted as the norm; Anthony and Stanton were hailed as the heroes who worked to get all women to vote, but this was incorrect as they focused merely on women’s suffrage for White women while silencing the voices of Black women and perpetuating harmful stereotypes about them.
As the name implies, White feminism refers to an ideology that functionally only acknowledges the rights of White women while failing to address the distinct violations against women of color. According to author Koa Beck, who wrote a book called, “White Feminism,” White feminism does not focus on altering systems that oppress women, including the patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism; instead, it focuses on allowing women to succeed within such oppressive systems, therefore only majorly benefitting White women.
Further explained by feminist author, professor and activist bell hooks, the goal of feminism is to be a movement that ends sexism and targets exploitation — which occurs at a systemic level, not an individual level. An intersectional approach allows people to better view these different structures that perpetuate such systemic inequalities, including institutions (such as institutions of higher education), laws and policies. Therefore, White feminism really isn’t feminism at all.
This Women’s History Month, it is important to recognize that White feminism is ineffective and can be harmful. Instead, it is better to look at feminism through an intersectional, radical lens in order to understand others’ experiences as well as systems of oppression that perpetuate gender inequalities.
Intersectionality essentially refers to the idea that people each have their own experiences of discrimination and oppression based on their identities, such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, social class, age and ability. This framework of intersectionality is essential in order to better understand what others are going through and how such discrimination and systems of oppression can be dismantled. Intersectional feminism specifically refers to feminism that emphasizes equality for all genders with an understanding of differing experiences of oppression based on different, overlapping identities — as opposed to White feminism which does not take into account other perspectives and identities at all, thus only working to elevate the status of White cisgender women.
White feminism also echoes imperial ideology, a perfect example of which is shown with dress codes. In the U.S., the topic of dress codes is highly contested with people fighting to have the right to have more of a choice in what they wear; in middle and high school, many likely remember how girls were told their shorts had to be a certain length and girls could and couldn’t wear certain types of pants because it could be distracting to other students and male teachers (which is extremely messed up for a plethora of reasons, but I digress). However, many of the same people who fight for this right to control your own clothing will simultaneously fight against Muslim women wearing a hijab simply because White feminists hold steadfast to imperialistic ideals and white savior complexes.
With a more intersectional feminist perspective applied to dress codes, one would understand that the idea of choice is more important to consider rather than the imperialistic idea that certain non-Western attire is oppressive. In a recent Instagram post, activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai brought up this idea, explaining how her stances against the Taliban forcing Afghan women to wear burqas and against Indian authorities forcing girls to remove their hijabs at school is not contradictory. Instead, this emphasizes that, especially in terms of dress code, recognizing individual freedom and autonomy is an aspect of feminism that considers others’ identities rather than focusing on imperialistic ideas rooted in the white savior complex.
This example of a dress code and the difference between White and intersectional feminism proves how White feminism isn’t true feminism at all — it can actually be quite oppressive and, true to its name, works only to elevate the status of White women. Understanding and maintaining ideas of intersectional feminism is much more beneficial and constructive.
In cases where whole systems of oppression cannot be dismantled overnight, a good step in working toward incorporating an intersectional feminist perspective could encompass a lot of things. In educational settings — including colleges and universities like the University of Connecticut — this means teaching ideas of intersectional feminism in a historical perspective as well as a perspective focusing on present-day. Rather than solely focusing on suffragettes like Anthony and Stanton, high school history classes should focus on Black female suffragettes such as Ida B. Wells — a journalist and one of the founding members of the NAACP — and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper — one of the first women who openly confronted Anthony and Stanton because of their overt racism and lack of female solidarity.
Educational settings in general can also majorly benefit from teaching about Kimberlé Crenshaw — who coined the term “intersectionality” — and Angela Davis — who, among other things, discussed intersectionality in great detail in her book “Women, Race and Class” and has criticized the prison industrial complex in her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” I can say with confidence that if I wasn’t pursuing a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, I wouldn’t have been introduced to these concepts of intersectionality and intersectional feminism at all — concepts that are immensely important for everyone to learn about regardless of their specific field of study. Intersectionality comes into play in all facets of life in fields from medicine to education; therefore, everyone should be taught these ideas at some point.
In a more individual sense, outside of formal educational settings, it is important for more people to understand what intersectional feminism is and realize how it fights to end sexism by deconstructing systems of oppression while taking into account people’s diverse identities. In addition, it is essential to realize that White feminism is not true feminism and can be rather harmful. Therefore, this Women’s History Month, work to make your feminism more radical, intersectional and inclusive of all identities.