the more things change

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[CN: patriarchy, classism, white-supremacy, colonialism in abstract terms]

Next week I want to write up a book report on Memoir of a Race Traitor by Mab Segrest. But until then I want to talk myself through the feminist historiography I’ve been studying lately, and what it has to bear on some recent events such as the masculanist gaters and the critiques against white liberal feminism.

In short, I find that the misogynist terrorists who make up the #GamerGaters and liberal feminists use historical myths to legitimize their political positions. These myths serve oppressors because they center white folk and sanctify the “radical 60s” as the taproot of feminist progress, which allow masculanists to think they live in a transformed matriarchal society and have a gendered “lost cause” to grieve. On the other side, this same mainstream narrative obscures the activism of militant antiracist women, whose activities reached a height at the very period that this myth would have us think were dead years for feminism.

(So strangely the same root myth is used to exaggerate the achievements of 20th century feminism in the former, and in the latter diminishes its achievements in order to obscure the contributions of w.o.c. and their allies.)

Here’s a sketch of the “feminist history” I got in secondary school:

From 1775 everything was fine. Then some uppity women (white, Christian, middle-class) successfully got the suffrage in the 19th century. Then in the next century, some more uppity women (white, Christian, middle-class) campaigned for various reforms in various spheres, such as education, mental health, prisons, poverty, etc. And then, after the second world war, some more uppity women (white, Christian, middle-class) began organizing strikes (which meant not being in the kitchen or keeping house) to stop nuclear proliferation because they  were concerned mothers who were not interested in their children living in the shadow of the Bomb. Then some more uppity women (younger than the previous ones but still white) who agitated in three flavors of feminism: liberal reformist, socialist (including Marxist and anarchist), and radical (including but not limited to lesbians). This was the “second wave.”

But then came the ERA: the Equal Rights Amendment which would have put the imperative of equal rights for women in the Constitution. It was just three ratifications short, but it failed. This was 1982 and feminism was dead. Bummer, but, hey, at least they tried!

It’s a comforting story (that magic number 3), and it’s tinged with failure. It’s a narrative that privileges bourgeois organizations and blows a smokescreen over the history of working class women, and feminists who encompassed a principled stance against racism and capitalism as well as patriarchy. Cultural critic/theorist Chela Sandoval calls these normalizing myths “hegemonic feminism.”

I’ve been reading stuff lately that’s helped me to unlearn hegemonic feminism and construct an alternative model to understanding social justice movements in the last century. And this historical revision aims to create a messier, more off-kilter, and definitely un-respectable vision of activism than many would care to see. It’s also way more rich, exciting, and inspiring by several orders of magnitude.

Sociologist Becky Thompson describes this alternative model of multiracial feminism (her term) as “multitudinous forms of women’s activism throughout the world.”

A revision of hegemonic feminism, she argues, will change its chronology. The white myth has women of color joining the movement white women started. Instead, women of color were always there, as some of the earliest “second wave” organizations were started and run by women of color. These included the Chicana-led Hijas de Cuauhtemoc, the Asian Sisters in LA, the Women of All Red Nations (WARN), and the Third World Women’s Alliance, all in the early 70s. Many of these groups came from more well-known organizations (TWWA came out of SNCC, for instance). Along with these autonomous feminist organizations, women of color worked in mixed-gender collectives as well as white-dominated organizations such as NOW. The result is not a triangle (lib/socialist/rad-fems) but a web that creates an intersectional analysis of oppression that grew alongside feminism, not as some “third wave” P.C. revision.

Moreover, the 80s-90s, seen as the beginning of the Right’s resurgence in the US and the fallout of feminism, become way more energized when we recover the histories of multiracial feminism, which includes women in the Black Power movement as well as militant white antiracist women. These were the years when Assata Shakur broke out of prison. This was when The Bridge Called My Back, and other intersectional texts drastically expanded the horizons of feminist and anti-imperialist critique.

So now I don’t have time for master narratives, with their origins and identifiable heroes. I don’t have time for white feminists who say women of color are being “divisive” or “too mean” when calling out white privilege. Not in a country that is built on white solidarity across class and gender lines. I don’t have any more time than white antiracist women had for the feminists who called the Attica revolt the work of “male chauvinists.”

How many people accept the myth of neat and unified movements of the 60s, and were then distressed by the messiness of Occupy? I remember an anti-fraternity organizer at Duke publicly shaming activists who used vandalism and property destruction as protest tactics, claiming with confidence that successful movements for justice in the past never resorted to violence.

It’s tragic that #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen is necessary. The stories of white antiracist women activists give the lie to the hegemonic myth that mainstream liberal feminists are invested in protecting. I can’t help but feel that many wouldn’t want to hear these stories even if they weren’t being marginalized, because they were not pacifist women. I do need a change in my milieu, though.

In reclaiming this lost history we (so-called whites) can meet the imperatives for oppression-free coalition building, as outlined by Thompson:

Don’t expect women of color to be your educators, to do all the bridge work. White women need to be the bridge — a lot of the time. Do not lump African American, Latina, Asian American, and Native American women into one category. History, culture, imperialism, language, class, region, and sexuality make the concept of a monolithic “women of color” indefensible. Listen to women of color’s anger. It is informed by centuries of struggle, erasure, and experience.

Another insight from Thompson: What does “the personal is political” mean when white feminists are so ready to dismiss this anger? Kathy Davis, in her book The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders, points out that a hegemonic founding myth for feminists allowed them to ignore their own racial and economic privileges, contributing to “the illusion of a level playing field in which any woman, regardless of her circumstances, can do the same.” In a sense the white liberals who find intersectionality “toxic” are feeding into that same ol’ US cult of individualism and its entrenched mythology.

And our culture’s reflexive rejection of combative protest tactics anywhere outside a blockbuster movie lays on another excuse to ignore the stories and ideas of black power feminists and the white women who worked with them. I know “Riots” is a poisoned well (in a highly racialized way), but the reforms that came in the wake of “violence” (you know, if you think hurting private property is equal to or worse than murdering black and brown people) have been whitewashed away by bourgeois liberal respectability. I don’t have time to play on the oppressors’ board.

And I don’t want to come off like I’m goading white USians to be doing more things like the heroic protagonists we fancy ourselves to be. More useful, actually, would be to reflect on our privilege. And in doing so figure out what myths of the past do we embrace, and whose company do we keep.


Second from the left in the picture is Kathy Boudin, a white antiracist feminist. Other feminist race traitors who saw jail time include Marilyn Buck, Linda Evans, and Laura Whitehorn.

Becky Thompson, “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism.” Feminist Studies 28.2 (2002). It’s a paywall.

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