If you’re having a difficult time being inclusive in your feminism — I’m looking at you, Jennifer Lawrence and Taylor Swift — broadening your horizons with some powerful literature might do you some good. Reading “Ain’t I a Woman?” by bell hooks is a great way to examine and possibly alter what feminism means to you.
hooks wrote this book in response to the second feminist wave back in the 1960s, but issues she spoke of are still present today. She examines where black women have and have not fit into the white feminist movements because of the historic disconnect between most white and black women in America.
Two major reasons bell hooks believes white and black women didn’t work together during the feminist movements are both racism in white feminism and classism in the white feminism.
The second feminist movement in America was unfortunately polluted with institutionalized racism, a problem we still have today. White women and black women are both subject to sexism of course, but the lives of the white feminists who argued for equal rights left out a large group: black women, who had even less equality because of their race. The rhetoric white feminists used of “sisterhood” and “solidarity” between women in the 20th century left out black women and other women of color, because the experiences of white women and women of color were largely different. White women failed to acknowledge the power they had over black women because of their race.
Sexism is absolutely a problem that needed (and still needs) to be combated, but white women of the 1960s disregarded the issues of black women and did not see (or did not want to see) how different their experiences as women were.
“In America, white racist ideology has always allowed white women to assume that the word woman is synonymous with white woman, for women of other races are always perceived as Others, as dehumanized beings who do not fall under the heading woman,” hooks writes.
By not challenging the word “woman” to include all women rather than white women, they contributed to the racist tendency to eliminate the struggles of non-white women, by not acknowledging their separate struggles.
Another large limiting factor in the second feminist wave was their exclusion of poor women in America from their movement. By limiting the women’s movement this way, upper and middle-class women were able to advocate for things such as the right to work. For white women, working became an outlet for freedom of their husbands, but for poor women, and most black women, working was not something liberating, it was something necessary to survive. The importance of the right to work should not be diminished, but the poor women oppressed by work should not have gone overlooked. Black women at work were degraded not only by employers but by coworkers who were white as well. While it’s great that we all have the right to work — even though women, and particularly women of color, earn less than men!— white women entering the workforce solidified the white supremacism that dominates capitalism in America.
hooks explains it best with her quote: “...racism is the barrier that prevents positive communication and it is not eliminated or challenged by separation.” White feminism and black feminism failed during the first and second movements because of racism. Black women were unable to connect to white women’s issues, and white women didn’t alter their agenda to include black women’s rights. Segregation, and the concept of “separate but equal” largely divided the two groups of women.
Thankfully today, I believe that strides are being taken by all feminists to include women of color, transgender women, as well as other women who don’t fit the “heterosexual white middle class” norm that previous feminist movements catered to…but it still needs some work.