COLUMN: Feminists must move past white-centered history

The women’s rights movement has historically centered the voices of white women. Moving forward, feminism needs to include all women.

Sarah Rubinstein is a freshman journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about politics and societal observations for The Maneater. Jamie Holcomb is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about social justice for The Maneater.

On March 3, 1913, women’s rights activist Alice Paul courageously led suffragettes through a historic parade that was met with violent mobs. While Paul stood at the front, proudly fighting to earn her recognition in the history books, Black women were forced to march in the back.

This past March, Women’s History Month, the push for continued intersectionality has been stronger than ever, but in order to progress, we must understand the origin of the women’s rights movement was never for all women.

White suffragettes did not only exclude Black suffragettes but used and betrayed them. Prominent suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were members of the American Equal Rights Association and appealed as progressive to Northern abolitionists. Yet, when it came to a disagreement over the passage of the 15th Amendment, gaining Black men the right to vote, they broke off and formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association. After the divide, they allied with Southern white women and showed they were willing to compromise the rights of Black women to get their right to vote.

We can no longer celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment as a progression for all women when its intentions were to undermine the Black male vote by white women. Any historic feminist movement that was a step forward for white women and a step backward for marginalized women should not be honored.

Upper-class white women, in fact, used their feminism to further propel racism throughout the country. Once they received the right to vote, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan was launched. The United Daughters of the Confederacy continued to flourish, a group whose harmful placement of Confederate memorials even enforced a segregationist agenda onto MU’s campus until 1975.

If we want to be anti-racist, intersectional feminists, it feels wrong to celebrate and uplift the suffrage movement that only worsened the lives of marginalized women. Even if these white women were assets to gaining women’s rights, they take the credit for the significant impact of women of color and queer women who had been fighting long before.

Historically, women of color have rarely been acknowledged within the women’s rights movement. However, queer women and non-binary people have also experienced a large share of discrimination frequently ignored in modern feminism.

Intersectionality is an essential part of the modern feminist movement because it recognizes that race, sexuality, class and other factors have a large impact on the frequency of violence that women and non-binary people face.

Feminist protests and online movements have often been co-opted by white women at the expense of marginalized women’s voices. The #MeToo movement is a good example of this. It was started by a Black woman named Tarana Burke in 2007 but only became relevant in 2017 after white actress Alyssa Milano tweeted about it.

Modern-day feminism centers the narratives of white, straight, cisgender women over LGBTQ+ women and women of color. With the renewed conversation on social media about violence against women, this phenomenon is very apparent. The violence that straight, white women face is important to discuss, but not at the expense of marginalized women who face disproportionate levels of violence.

The hate crime in Atlanta that targeted and killed six Asian women was caused by decades of racism, xenophobia, sexism and bigotry that white women have never faced. Recognizing these systemic factors that lead to increased violence toward marginalized women is essential in the fight for liberation from the patriarchy.

“Racism and misogyny are so deeply intertwined that they cannot be disentangled. We really can't talk about one without talking about the other,” author Celeste Ng tweeted.

Homophobia also plays a big role in increased levels of violence. While 35% of straight women have experienced intimate partner violence, 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Many women also don’t report sexual violence out of fear, thus it’s possible that these statistics don’t mirror many women’s reality.

LGBTQ+ women experience much higher rates of rape and sexual violence than straight women. However, commonly shared statistics about violence against women are generalized and don’t highlight this disparity. These statistics also don’t show the disproportionate level of violence that transgender women face, as about half report they’ve been sexually assaulted.

The conversation surrounding sexual violence against women and non-binary people needs to focus on those most affected by it. Rates of violence are disproportionately higher for women of color and it is especially dangerous to be a queer woman of color or transgender woman of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 22 of the 37 transgender and gender non-conforming people that were killed in 2020 were Black.

The issue of violence against women and non-binary people is not one that can be solved through white feminism or legal equality. What women and non-binary people need is liberation from the violence of the patriarchy because mere equality does not ensure that.

While feminism represents the common goal of the fight against the patriarchy, the narratives of the most marginalized need to be central to this movement. Women of color, queer women and non-binary people’s experiences have been ignored for far too long and must be acknowledged in modern feminism.

White women must also understand that feminism has always benefitted them and step back and let marginalized women get the chance to march in front. Understanding the shortcomings of the women’s rights movement is key to recognizing the need for feminism: to push for equality and liberation for all women and non-binary people.

The Maneater encourages all readers to commit to the fight against racial injustice and donate to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “The Asian American Legal Defense and Education fund, a New York-based national organization founded in 1974, protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans.”

Edited by Sydney Lewis | slewis@themaneater.con

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