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Pink Pussy Hats, Pantsuits, and Beyond: The Symbols of White Feminism

Among the different symbols of white feminism, we see common themes of selfishness, co-option, and faux allyship emerge.

CW: Sexual Assault

By Gloria Oladipo

Throughout history, white women have used a variety of symbols to define their “feminism” and commitment to dismantling the patriarchy and other violent systems. Here are seven of those symbols that white feminists have used to seem more productive than they actually are: 

The Suffragette Sash 

The Suffragette Sash—a green, white and purple sash that reads “Vote for Women”—was a proud symbol for women fighting for the vote. However, like most campaigns that don’t center intersectional politics, white women only advanced their voting interests within the movement and were actively anti-Black. White women were the only group to secure voting rights in 1920, with Black women not being able to vote until 1964 and 1965 via the Voting Rights Act (Asian American women were not allowed to vote until 1952 and all Native Americans could vote in 1965). Black women were continually asked to march separately from other suffragettes. Moreover, suffragist leaders such as Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony were known for rejecting the involvement of Black women in the movement; Anthony was famously quoted saying, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Overall, the suffragette sash represents exclusionary anti-Blackness within feminist movements. 

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (and Equal Pay Day) 

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 is often regarded as a key step for feminists; it was one of the first moments when equal pay between men and women was codified. However, like many moments in feminist history, the Equal Pay Act only secured some benefits for white women. Black women are still paid 67 cents for every dollar a white man makes, with Latinix women making 54 cents (though the race of the Latinix women who are paid less isn’t offered, providing inaccurate data sets). Moreover, when intersections of sexuality and education are added in, it lowers pay for BIWOC even more. The Equal Pay Act (and all its celebrations since) are an example of how women of color so often have our problems ignored to celebrate mobility for a selective minority. 

The Image of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher is often celebrated as a feminist figure for being the first woman to enter British Parliament; especially for the United States that has yet to inaugurate a woman president. Thatcher serves as an inspiration for white feminists on what “progress” looks like. However, for non-white women/anglophiles, Thatcher is regarded as a white supremacist, protecting the colonial wealth of Great Britain while decimating other places. For one, Thatcher was a racist, famously regarding the African National Congress as a terrorist organization (sound familiar?). Moreover, Thatcher authorized foreign policy that devastated Black and brown people, including the sinking of the Belgrano in Argentina that killed hundreds of innocent soldiers. Thatcher represents the willingness of white women to applaud hollow accolades of leadership, even when they are devastating to a multitude of people. 

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The Pink Pussy Hat 

Trump’s election inspired a wave of protests across the country. In addition to Black and brown people in the U.S. protesting his election and his violent campaign, white women were also “politically awakened”, co-opting—I mean, joining—movements across the country. A symbol used to champion this resistance was the pink pussy hat. On January 20th, Trump’s inauguration day, hundreds of thousands of (mostly) white women donning pink hats marched, demanding Trump’s resignation for his misogynistic and violent comments where he advocates for men to sexually assault women (“You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy”) during his campaign. While this kind of political mobilization sounds positive, within the march, the Women’s March and other iterations that centered white women were extremely problematic. For one, white women leading the march never acknowledged the role that white women played in getting Trump elected. Instead, they positioned themselves as the would-be-victims of Trump’s presidency when, in actuality, their vote brought violence for BIPOC. Moreover, the march was violent towards different intersections of women. TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) were prevalent in the march, using transphobic rhetoric that defined womxnhood by having a vagina. The pink pussy hat has since represented white women’s inability to hold themselves accountable while simultaneously harming marginalized groups. 

The Safety Pin 

Post-election, another symbol of white feminism was the safety pin. White women encouraged people to wear a safety pin as a sign of showing their solidarity with people affected by Trump’s election. The safety pin represented another example of aesthetics being equated with action. Compared to committing resources or labor to supporting affected parties (i.e. volunteering with organizations that support undocumented immigrants, donating resources to non-profits that make abortions more accessible, etc.), the safety pin was presented as another way to “give back” and make a change. Not to mention, most white women didn’t do the necessary self-reflection or education before positioning themselves as allies. They assumed that because they were women, Trump’s election would have the same effect on them versus different intersections; they neglected to understand the way their white privilege would insulate them from some of the worst effects. The safety pin, compared to being a way to identify allies during this turbulent time, has since been a tool for white women to participate in the bare minimum of resistance. 

The Pantsuit (and Hillary Clinton) 

Ah yes, the all-mighty pantsuit. The preferred power outfit of white women everywhere. We watched as Hillary Clinton donned this in every debate as a subtle “fuck you” to anyone out there who wouldn’t have voted for her if she had worn a dress. The pantsuit, in the abstract, was an… interesting concept: dressing less “feminine” and still coming with the same ideals demonstrated that anyone not voting for you is a misogynist. Unfortunately, the issue is that the pantsuit (and all the politics surrounding it) became a convenient way to avoid accountability for other voters that weren’t captured. Misogyny was used to explain away the lack of Black people, queer individuals, low-income folks, and other marginalized groups that were not in favor of Hillary and other women candidates; this one-dimensional analysis was favored in place of understanding why one’s platform felt inaccessible to folks. The pantsuit became a convenient scapegoat in the face of much need, nuanced understanding of why certain demographics feel alienated, even by “liberal” candidates. 

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“Free the Nipple

I have vivid memories of “Free the Nipple” being positioned as the most relevant issue concerning women everywhere. Women should be allowed to display their nipples with the same freedom that cis men are able to; the reason the two are policed differently is because of the inherent sexualization of women’s bodies. The desire to stop the surveillance of bodies is an important point to rally around, especially given how policing of social media hurts LGBTQ+ individuals, sex workers, and other folx who use those platforms for work. However, campaigns like “Free the Nipple” and others were mainly used to help thin white women (who are often allowed to post sexualized social media posts without consequences), leaving other users whose accounts are heavily reported and surveilled on the periphery. “Free the Nipple” became a way for women who already have a monopoly on privilege to fight for themselves off an issue that affects marginalized groups more. 

Overall, among the different symbols of white feminism, common themes of selfishness, co-option, and faux allyship emerge. White womanhood will always use the position of being subverted by the patriarchy versus the privilege of whiteness to launch their own gains, leaving other vulnerable groups harmed and behind. 

Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels. 

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