By some measures, the past decade could be considered a feminist golden age. Between #MeToo and the Women’s March, bestsellers like “Lean In” and “#GIRLBOSS,” and the proliferation of women’s empowerment conferences, it could be tempting to believe, as the T-shirt slogan proclaims, that “The future is female.”
But what type of female do these books and slogans speak for? This question is at the heart of Koa Beck’s probing and galvanizing new book “White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind.” A former editor at Jezebel, Vogue, and Marie-claire.com, Beck illuminates how prejudice and elitism suffuse mainstream feminist thinking. Feminism, she argues, has become a brand — and one that takes as a given that to be female is to be white, straight, cisgender, and economically comfortable.
As a biracial and queer woman, Beck knows what it means to be excluded from this narrative. But because she’s “light skinned and very conventionally feminine” — and often mistaken for white and straight — she has also experienced its privileges. Her status as both an outsider and insider to white feminism’s default identity gives her a prime vantage point from which to critique its mechanisms. It’s possible, she posits, that being able to “pass” as straight opened doors for her in women’s media. But inside, she discovered that the topics she cared about — such as the rising number of incarcerated Black women, or violence against trans women — were considered too “niche” to cover in depth. “The reality of women’s lives,” she observes with incisive wit, “stopped somewhere around attaining a white-collar leadership job and achieving a heterosexual marriage with a cis man who also changed diapers.”
Beck clarifies that white feminism is a “state of mind” rather than a particular identity. As a belief system, it disregards the needs of Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and otherwise marginalized women, but a “white feminist” need not be white or female. They need only have absorbed that gender equality can be won through personal aspiration and self-optimization — that all progress takes is “a better morning routine, this email hack, that woman’s pencil skirt, this conference….” This outlook is enticing, she shows, because it makes a woman’s individual needs “the touchpoint for all revolutionary disruption.”
Too often, Beck argues, women’s “empowerment” means achieving male privileges, even if this involves repeating patriarchal “patterns of white supremacy, capitalistic greed, inhumane labor practices and exploitation.” She explores the ironies of recent “feminist” success stories, such as that of “#GIRLBOSS” author Sophia Amoruso, who rose to fame as CEO of the company Nasty Gal and was sued in 2015 for terminating four pregnant employees. Or when she points out that to “lean in,” many professional women must lean on the overwhelmingly female labor of domestic workers, over half of whom identify as non-white, and nearly a quarter of whom make below minimum wage. What’s “feminist about oppressing other women within the shadow of slavery so you can have a corner office and be profiled in ‘The Cut’?” Beck rightly asks.
Beck artfully traces how these contradictions have been baked into the feminist movement from its beginnings. They were there in 1913 when the organizers of the Washington Woman Suffrage Procession made Black suffragettes walk at the back of the line, concerned they would tarnish the movement’s white image. They were there in the 1920s when American feminists declined to support their Latin American counterparts in their fight against imperialism. And they were there in the 1960s, when Betty Friedan’s fledgling National Organization for Women committed its efforts to middle-class women while deprioritizing the impoverished.
There’s perhaps no more fitting backdrop for Beck’s book than the COVID-19 crisis, which has painfully exposed white feminism’s failures. Not only have Black and Latinx women experienced higher rates of job loss and food insecurity, but they’re also more likely to hold frontline jobs that put their health and lives at risk. The pandemic has highlighted that for most women, and certainly for the disenfranchised, true progress will take collective solutions, including fair working conditions, healthcare, affordable childcare, paid parental leave, and other fundamental supports — none of which can be achieved with the perfect pantsuit.
Beck is a perceptive cultural critic, but even more importantly, she’s a visionary. Her book ends with a rousing blueprint for a more inclusive “new era of feminism.” As a white, straight, cisgender woman, I cannot speak to the experience of reading this book as a marginalized person, and how validating and encouraging this might be. What I can speak to is the understanding “White Feminism” gives me of my own responsibilities in making this new era a reality. For as much as I’d like to like to think of myself as a feminist who happens to be white, I now see that — when I bought my daughter a “Girl Power” t-shirt without considering the labor conditions that produced it, or when I published a feminist think piece using the pronoun “we,” as if speaking for all women — I’ve also been, at times, a white feminist.
“Discomfort, for more privileged sects, can be the threshold into increased awareness,” writes Beck. It’s long past time for those of us who identify as white, heterosexual, cisgender feminists to allow for this discomfort, heeding what it has to show us about creating a more humane and holistic movement for gender equity. “White Feminism” is a powerful and inspiring call to do just this.
Nicole Graev Lipson is a freelance journalist, essayist, and critic. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.
White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind
Atria Books, 320 pages, $27