Disclosure: I’m not going to talk explicitly about ecofeminism in this week’s column. This column is about a few things mainstream feminists often have difficulty acknowledging.
Feminism originated in a white-supremacist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic society. As I said in my first column, people who don’t identify as feminists because they don’t know what the term means deeply frustrate me. But as history shows, feminism excluded and continues to exclude — be it intentionally or unintentionally — women who aren’t white, educated, straight, cisgender, American, etc. How can we expect everyone to identify as feminists if the feminist movement does not incorporate an end to the oppression of all female-identifying people?
To illustrate how mainstream feminism has been ignorant of these issues and exclusive towards certain women, here’s a brief history of it:
“First-wave” feminism began in the 19th century, driven by white, middle-and-upper-class Protestant women bent on achieving women’s suffrage in the United States. While suffrage theoretically came with the 19th amendment in 1920, female minorities continued to face discrimination at the polls, such as black women in the Jim Crow South. Today, minorities still face difficulties when voting in certain (red) states due to recent voter ID laws, restrictions on voting hours, gerrymandering and other (primarily race-based) discriminatory policies. So, though first-wave feminism did achieve one important goal, this goal wasn’t extended to all women for decades, and still isn’t enjoyed equally by all women in the United States.
Second-wave feminism began in the 1960s, leading to the legalization of abortion and the passage of other laws that impacted women everywhere in the United States. But white, well-off women still led the movement, and many of their goals focused on equal job opportunities for (college-educated) women like themselves, which did not have the same impact for lower class women, immigrant women and women of color who faced discrimination and fewer job and education opportunities.
Third-wave feminism began in the 1990s and continues today. Many third-wave feminists have become more aware of issues related to race, class and gender identity, and many feminists from different backgrounds have called out mainstream feminism’s problems, but there are still improvements to be made.
Many mainstream feminists continue to ignore and marginalize women of color. Lena Dunham’s show “Girls” (2012 – present), for example, features straight, white, college-educated, well-off girls who live in diverse New York City but somehow never interact with anyone from backgrounds different from their own. Despite the fact that Dunham’s show only represents a small portion of the female population, Dunham has implied in the past that she speaks for “all” women of our generation. Similarly, Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” (2013) instructs women how they can “have it all:” a corporate job that probably requires eight years of costly higher-level education, a happy home life and an awesome husband. But the book doesn’t address underlying structural barriers that women — especially women marginalized by race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity — face. Still, mainstream feminists have called both Sandberg and Dunham “feminist icons.”
Finally, some feminists today refuse to include transgender women. Even women’s colleges in the United States — including Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Smith and Wellesley — deny admission to transgender women, who are disproportionately at risk for sexual violence and therefore may need the safe space of an all-women’s college more than anyone.
Throughout most of its duration, mainstream feminism has, implicitly and explicitly, excluded marginalized groups of people. Feminism, by definition, strives for equality regardless of gender, but this goal loses its credibility if it does not incorporate the need for equality based on social, racial, sexual-orientation and gender-identity differences as well.
Simply put, if the feminist movement does not become more sensitive and actively involved in these issues, it will not and should not succeed.