The new Alt-Feminism, when white supremacy met women’s empowerment

Much has been written about what is popularly known as “white feminism”. Catherine Young wrote the most comprehensive breakdown of its definition and what white feminism entails politically. This form of feminism is also sometimes called “liberal/neoliberal feminism” or “Lean In feminism” because of its persistent focus on corporate careers at the expense of other sociopolitical issues that affect women.

In 2013, when I started tracking the rise of this sort of hyper individual, mostly white corporate feminism to the mainstream, I wrote

The result of this constitution of neoliberal feminism as “the neutral” or the default, has also led to a sense of “amplified agency”. We are told to “maximize our freedom”, we should “brand ourselves better”, we should “choose our choices” and demand a better distribution of the resources. In the process, we are left with a feminism that imposes on us the moral task of maximizing our own value. This is a feminism of the individual with an inflated sense of the self that is devoted to the creation and administration of individual business opportunities in detriment of systemic change or, at the very least, in detriment of an analytical approach that examines our individual relations as part of a whole and our interactions and participation in a system of inequalities we cannot escape.

In the past four years, since I wrote the above, many political changes have taken place. Mostly, we have witnessed a relentless growth of extreme right ideologies vying for positions of power in North America and Europe. Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, the list of people advocating white supremacist ideologies to position themselves within their respective electorates goes on. It then stands to reason that, vis a vis this mainstreaming of white supremacy, women’s issues would follow suit (after all, they are half of their respective voter bases). Enter what I call “the alt-fem” or “alt-feminism”, a repurposing and expansion of white feminism to explicitly serve white supremacy. As part of this expansion, women like Megyn Kelly or Ivanka Trump are lauded as feminists advancing the cause of women’s equality, even though they both support extreme right and racist ideologies.

In 2007, Jasbir Puar published “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times”. In her book Puar laid down the associations between nationalist ideologies and LGBTIQ rights. In this cooptation of gay/queer rights and discourses of sexual diversity, nationalist and white supremacist ideas are coupled with “gay friendly” rhetoric to expand the powers of the nation State. The current co-optation of feminism by right wing ideologists seem to follow a similar pattern that adds to an already long history of feminism as a tool to advance colonial and corporate interventions. As Professor Jessie Daniels pointed out, this white supremacist feminism is the logical endpoint of white, neoliberal feminism.

However, this cooptation of feminism by right wing ideologues didn’t happen overnight. In 2011, CNN published an op-ed extolling Michele Bachmann’s evangelical feminism. They claimed that “some religion and politics experts say that she exemplifies an evangelical feminism that is producing more female leaders in Christian nonprofits, businesses, and education and politics”. Around the same time that she was lauded as an “evangelical feminist icon”, Bachmann saluted the upside to chattel slavery as a “positive for Black families”. The same year that Michele Bachmann was profiled by CNN, the British paper The Telegraph interviewed Marine Le Pen about her rise to Front National leadership. In the profile that ensued, they repeatedly spoke of her “feminist politics” and her “feminist appeal”. The Economist unapologetically celebrated Sarah Palin as a feminist noting her gratitude “to those brave feminist foremothers who struggled and sacrificed, endured imprisonment and ridicule…to grant future generations of American women a voice.” Margaret Thatcher has been repeatedly celebrated as a feminist icon as well, erasing the disastrous consequences of her policies on millions of working class and poor women across the UK.

In turn, other feminists (mostly those writing from and about the margins of gender, race, sexuality, disability, working class, etc) resisted this inclusion of obviously non feminist women into the mainstream. However, whatever resistance was vociferously laid down, it didn’t help to prevent us from getting to the point where some of the most read media such as Vanity Fair or The Daily Beast celebrate Megyn Kelly’s “feminism”. Perhaps one of the reasons why this co-optation might be easily available is that mainstream white feminism failed to articulate how to move beyond individual white women and their issues, encapsulated in the 70s slogan of “the personal is political” and into a system wide definition of women’s empowerment that included issues beyond gender. By embracing the personal in the form of the individual and never setting any ideological goals beyond “career for mostly white women”, this feminism could be easily co-opted by any woman who just attaches the label to herself or by any media outlet that pins it on a woman (whether she claims it for herself or not). As long as the woman in question could claim that her politics were rooted in her personal, individual experience, she could call herself (or be called) a feminist.

With the mainstreaming of eugenics as part of right wing ideologies seizing power, it will be vital to keep track of these further co-optation, especially considering how the white supremacists that call themselves “the alt-right” are focused on reproduction, maternity and the rights of women in so far as these rights enable births of white babies in greater numbers. I foresee that if these ideas continue moving forward, the “alt-fem” embodied by the likes of Megyn Kelly and Ivanka Trump will be instrumental in advancing a specific ideal of white femininity at the service of totalitarianism.

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