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White Feminism – how feminist movements failed to be inclusive - banner image

White Feminism – how feminist movements failed to be inclusive

By Neeti Jain, Content Consultant

Feminism is often categorised as ‘waves’ – time periods aimed at elevating women’s status in society and giving them equal rights

In the first wave of feminism, The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) initially worked towards suffrage for all women but with the entry of younger feminists into the organisation, the goal became White-centric. Members believed that the support of Black women was a liability and a hindrance to their cause. Therefore, the first wave ended up marginalising Black women, who faced discrimination based on race as well as gender.

The second wave of feminism began with Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (1963). It was not revolutionary in its thinking, as many of Friedan’s ideas had already been discussed by academics and feminist intellectuals. But the big change was that the ideas reached out to the masses. It gave access to housewives and their friends who passed it along through a whole chain of well-educated women. “The personal is political,” said the second wavers. The second wave cared deeply about the casual, systemic sexism ingrained into society. 

This wave lasted until the mid-1980s. The movement focused on the rights of women in the workplace, reproductive rights and domestic violence. The movement demanded rights for women to work outside the home, neglecting the fact that Black and Latinx women had been working outside of their homes for centuries. The movement identified the need for reproductive rights and body autonomy but failed to discuss that for centuries, Black women had been forced into compulsory sterilisation practices. Black women found themselves alienated from the central platforms of the mainstream women’s movement. 

The third wave of feminism began in the mid-1990s and the early third-wave activism focused on fighting against sexual harassment and working to increase the number of women in positions of power. The third wave was more inclusive than the previous movements, as it strove to include women from all backgrounds, sexualities and ethnicities. It was influenced by second-wave feminism, Black feminisms, transnational feminisms, Global South feminism, and queer feminism.  

Though it was inclusive, the movement failed to identify the additional struggles and oppressions faced by women because of their sexuality, gender expression, race, ethnicity and citizenship status. There were some efforts to bring intersectionality into the conversations, but feminist media continued to highlight the struggles faced by White women only.  

The Third Wave focused to bring in communities that were previously left out of feminist goals and recognised the intersectionality of oppression. It focused on race and gender and grew out of the sex-positive debates of the second wave. Transfeminism was brought more into the mainstream during this time period. The discussions of gender, body image and sexuality made the Third Wave more inclusive to trans feminists

The fourth wave of feminism began in the most recent feminist movement in 2012 and continues to date. The movement focuses on sexual harassment, body shaming, rape culture and largely uses social media as a tool to address these issues.  

Though the current wave focuses on intersectionality more than the first three waves, White feminism and White supremacy still prevail in the movement. This is exemplified through the #MeToo movement, which was initiated by a Black woman, Tarana Burke, for other Black women and went on to be appropriated by White women in Hollywood. Though the movement was launched in 2006, the campaign gained widespread attention in 2017 after it was revealed that Harvey Weinstein, a powerful figure in the Hollywood film industry, had for years sexually harassed and assaulted women in the industry. The movement grew over the coming months to bring condemnation to dozens of powerful men in politics, business, entertainment and the news media. 



Understanding what White Privilege means 

Similar to how men at times are unable to identify ‘male privilege’ because they are born with it, it becomes difficult for White individuals to be aware of ‘White privilege’ because they are born with it. It is very visible for those to whom privilege was not granted. Furthermore, the subject is extremely difficult to talk about because many White people don’t feel they have power or privilege over others and therefore fail to acknowledge it. 

Becoming aware of privilege should not be viewed as a burden or source of guilt, but rather an opportunity to learn and be responsible so that society works towards inclusivity. Privileges are bestowed on individuals by the institutions with which they interact solely because of their race, not because they are deserving as individuals.  

Women share the experience of sexism, of living in a society that is patriarchal in its hierarchical structure. White women and women of colour experience sexism at work, in communities, at home and in many of the policies that govern their lives. However, women of colour face not just patriarchy but also racism in society. The challenges faced by them are much more than those faced by White women. I’m not negating the fact that White women do not face challenges, but they do not experience oppression because of differences in skin colour and appearance.  

Race and racism are closely related to power, authority, leadership, privilege, and superiority, and women have traditionally had difficulty dealing with these issues. White women, when compared to women of colour, have a higher authority, power and privilege. They do not have to worry about being bullied/harassed/discriminated against because of their skin tone. 

White women all too often do not want to acknowledge their White skin privilege. This White skin privilege and access to power are not available to most women of colour. When this difference is put on the table, it affects communication and, unfortunately, often forces it to shut down.

Many White women do not see race and racism as problems and that’s the major reason that women of colour do not feel included in the feminist movements and conversations that circulate around ‘equal opportunities for everyone’. It causes anger and frustration among them because the feminist movements convey the message of ‘rights for all women’ but do not include the additional racial oppression faced by non-White women

White feminism describes the feminist theories and practices that affect White women and their struggles, without addressing the challenges and oppressions faced by women from other backgrounds. It is the fight for women’s equality concerning only issues that White women face and ignores those that women of colour do. The solution is simple: if you want to fight for women’s rights, you must mean ALL women. Feminism is not truly feminism unless you incorporate the intersectionality approach to dismantling systems of oppression.