White Feminists Built a Narrative of Innocence To Mask Their Racism
The violence of white feminists relies on the carefully constructed myth of white womanhood’s innocence, purity, and righteousness.
By Anuhya Bobba
An important yet overlooked scene of the 2004 movie, Iron Jawed Angels, was the disservice of Ida B. Wells (Adilah Barnes) at the hands of suffragette, Alice Paul (Hilary Swank), who asks Wells to march at the end of the Suffragette Parade of 1913 so as to not further divide the already hesitant political observers: “We can’t afford to lose their vote,” explains Paul. Wells does not comply. In the film, Paul meets Wells’ protest with a smile. In reality, Paul deliberately marched separately from Wells.
Anti-Black racism becomes palatable when it is rendered fictitious in narratives like that of Iron Jawed Angels. The evil of anti-black racism is also subdued when it is asked to exist indefinitely for a “greater cause” like the white woman’s right to vote.
The Suffragette Movement as we know it, from inception to end, was a white (supremacist) feminist movement. White feminism, a derivative of the suffragette movement, is a feminism rooted in division. In the separation that the suffragette movement created from Black and Indigenous people, it also created the white female commitment to nationalism.
Tactics utilized by suffragettes attempted to “convince male politicians and votes that white women’s votes would serve the nation by complementing rather than challenging men’s role” — the nation, here, is the white supremacist nationalist patriarchy.
White women banded with white men to form an exclusionary alliance, an alliance purported to “serve the good of all women.” White feminism, like white supremacy, co-opts history to ensure that it is remembered on the “right side.”
The backbone of white feminism is constituted by characteristics typically attributed to white women by white supremacy: innocence or purity. White feminism weaponizes these qualities, in any narrative that it furnishes of itself. White women can mean or do no harm because they define and represent a righteousness and a sanctity that other women, specifically Black women, must follow.
This righteousness, one that is posited as for “the good of all women,” is seen across the political history of this country — well past the suffragette movement. The past and the present act as a witness to its fallacy.
The eugenics movement — which (in the words of Theodore Roosevelt) “feared that the children of immigrants and minorities would soon overtake the white, native-born population” — that predominantly sterilized Black people? White women, in the same movement, were considered “Mother[s] of Tomorrow” or “middle class white women—considered to be the most mentally and physically sound, and therefore the most able to lead the advancement of civilization—to bear children and raise them with a particular set of conservative values, promoting the gendered status quo.”
This attitude also resulted in decreased social security benefits for Black people, 65 percent of whom were considered ineligible for the Social Security Act of 1935.
After Brown v. Board of Education, it had been white women who acted as “‘segregation’s constant gardeners’” — indoctrinating young white men with KKK ideology.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that had been reintroduced in 1971? White women mobilized to oppose it. In fact, it had been white women that shifted the Republican Party stance from a support of the ERA to a political party rooted in “‘family values.’” The same white women further vied for “limiting government welfare and social support” — which had already been prejudiced against Black persons.
Their fervent opposition to the ERA transformed to become a “‘Pro-Family Movement’”, leveling policies that would curtail the right to abortion. Who are the most affected, when anti-abortion policies are implemented? People of color!
The same carefully constructed myth of white womanhood’s innocence, purity, righteousness, and sanctity have acted as impressive shields against criticism and been used to portray white women as the leaders of feminist movements while they simultaneously sabotage any steps toward real liberation.
It is best seen in the 2016 election. Prior to it, the media consistently painted the Republican Party, Trump supporters, or the alt-right as angered white men. Yet, fifty-three percent of white women voted for Donald J. Trump. That statistic came as a shock to many, even though history has consistently acted as a testimony to the white female support of the white supremacist nationalist patriarchy.
In a similar way, celebrating 2020 as the 100th year anniversary of the “Women’s Right to Vote” erases the pervasive racism that sustained the Suffragette Movement and its historical or present-day implications.
In her book, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women And Feminism, bell hooks wrote, “Southern white suffragists rallied around a platform that argued that [women’s] suffrage in the South would strengthen white supremacy.”
The Suffragette Movement worked hand in hand with white supremacy; it vied for the continued oppression of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in the United States. And, it has largely succeeded. White women have demonstrated time in and time out that if they are asked to choose an alliance with BIPOC or an alliance with whiteness, white women will opt for the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
If white feminist movements, like the Suffragette Movement, were remembered correctly as white supremacists invested in white nationalism, they would be viewed exactly as they are: an unhinged, open celebration of violence.
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