“Feminism Is Whatever I Want It To Be!”
And Why This Is Bullshit
This is an introduction into a series of writings designed to unpack the structural fallacies of “white feminism” and argue for an understanding of intersectionality. Suggestions for topics on future pieces are welcomed.
I recently got into a somewhat heated debate with an anti-choice activist recently about the term “feminism”, the “feminist community” and its niche entry requirements and various scruples which have dictated who can consider themselves a member of the movement towards equality between sexes. My esteemed colleague argued that being anti-choice, and fighting to have the reproductive rights of women be removed (particularly abortion), was “feminist” in that “it’s a choice I have made for myself, as a woman”. Reflecting on this statement to accurately articulate why it was utter trite, I began to think about the inherent privilege in that statement. “It’s a choice I have made for myself, as a woman”. On the surface, this is a perfectly reasonable argument — yes, as a woman, she has made the decision to be anti-choice. However, let’s examine where this “choice” came from.
Firstly — this woman is white, heterosexual and married to a white man. Here we have the most privileged population in the globe, likely with adequate health insurance and the ability to pay the approximately $20–30,000 it costs to give birth in the USA. While it shouldn’t be a privilege or a luxury to afford to birth and raise a child, the fact remains that in the USA it is. A denial of reproductive health care and abortion services would likely impact this woman and her family much, much less than other populations that cannot afford it, such as the immigrant, black and latinx populations who are paid disproportionately far less than the white majority.
Secondly- this is not simply a “choice” she has made for herself. She is making the choice to politically lobby, and donate to organizations who advocate for the termination of abortion rights for all. Had it been a personal choice which impacted herself, such as “I couldn’t get a termination for myself, but will not fight for this right to be taken from others”, her argument of having feminist beliefs may be believed. But this is not the case.
Thirdly — the belief that women should not have access to reproductive health care and abortions is inherently misogynistic in that it is literally controlling a woman’s body and her ability to make choices in regards to it. If you change the argument to stifle the ability of men to get vasectomies or access Viagra, you are met with accusations of being “ludicrous” and denying bodily autonomy. This double standard, folks, is misogyny.
The accepted definition of “feminism” lends itself to the understanding of economic, social and political equality of the sexes. This means that people under the broad umbrella of “women” (including trans women, women of color, women of minority religions) deserve equal representation in these fields — and deserve the same right to make the “choice” for their livelihoods and their bodies, just as the woman defending her anti-choice efforts had. However, using her logic and adopting the term “feminist” to suit her personal beliefs and needs, she is actively stifling other women from this equal access to rights in a multitude of ways — not least economically, where people who give birth STILL do not have access to paid maternity leave in the USA. I argued with this woman, if you truly believe in equality between sexes, you must recognize that appropriate and affordable access to reproductive health care is crucial when discussing ALL women, not just women with the same inherent privilege as you. My plea for empathy, structural analysis and understanding of nuance was met with accusations that “my” feminism is exclusionary and un-accepting of conservative and “moral” viewpoints.
Further reflecting on this indictment, I began to look into what alignment there is, if any, between feminism and social/economic conservativism. Being an Australian who lives in the USA, I’ve experienced what I consider to be “democratic socialism” in Australia, and conservativism/capitalist libertarianism in the USA. On the surface (again), the capitalistic system isn’t against feminist principles per se, relying on a supply/demand system generated by the consumer dollar. But it’s when we look into historical context and nuance that we begin to notice that capitalism is the economic oppressor of minorities, particularly women. Let’s think of it this way — economically (and in a huge number of other ways), white men are the most privileged, and have the most power. They have more consumer dollars to spend. Ergo, supply/demand would dictate that more is created for them, more is provided for their assumed needs, and society continues to be structured towards what is best for them as they are the ones with the most means. It is this way because of history and an adherence to the status quo which is white patriarchy. In the USA, it stems from colonialism and the slaughter of Native populations, and moved on to slavery and the constant treatment of women as the property of men (particularly Native and black women). Despite progressive movements for women over the centuries, including the right to vote and access to birth control (both movements which are laden with the oppression of minority women, I will link related articles below), these “rights” have been “granted” to women not through peaceful discourse or a recognition that it should have been the way all along — but from anger, from radical protest, from strike action and from blatant demand. In other words, women had to make things uncomfortable for men for them to notice, make changes and then feel comfortable again. And let us not forget — these rights were originally granted to white women, not all women.
So, why am I rambling on about capitalism and the oppression of racial minorities in an article about feminism? Because the truth is that it is all intertwined. The various levels of power and privilege in society are inter-linked through the structures of race, gender, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status. Viewing issues through various lenses is known as intersectionality, a term coined by civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and more recently researched and theorized by bell hooks. Intersectionality is, perhaps, the antithesis of white feminism, with its emphasis on various aspects of identity and how injustice and inequality occur on a multi-dimensional basis. In other words, how systems work to oppress minorities across various economic, social and political spectrums.
Going back to my debate companion. I argued with her that, if deconstructing her argument to point out its inherent fallacy and privilege is causing her discomfort, perhaps she should reflect on why this discomfort is there. As a middle-class, white woman, I have time and time again been guilty of not recognizing my privilege and believing that I was being “attacked” and “not given a choice” simply when being told that my opinion or view had come from a white patriarchal background. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, yes. But minorities live with their voices actually being silenced every single day. My mild discomfort is nothing compared to a denial of rights and a denial of humanity due to skin color, religion or sexuality. Perhaps my esteemed colleague should also look at why her definition of “feminism” is at odds with the long-established goal of economic, social and political equality for ALL women. Not just white women.