Why Is 'White Feminism' Such a Dirty Phrase? A History of Feminism and Exclusion


As evidenced by numerous celebrities' social media feeds — such as Emma Watson or Girls Meets World's Rowan Blanchard — the term "white feminism" has officially made its way into the zeitgeist. And it's generally not considered a good thing. 

A dissection of the politically and socially charged phrase would be remiss without a definition. White feminism is "prioritizing the experiences and voices of cisgender, straight, white women over women of color, queer women and those who fall outside this narrow identity," Julie Zeilinger wrote for Mic in September. Many contend this is — and always has been — the default of mainstream feminism.

The delineation between the fight for gender and racial equality in America can be found in the roots of the feminist movement. After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era saw a roughly simultaneous struggle for the expansion of women's and blacks' rights. 

But "women's rights had become subordinated to civil rights in this era," Louise Michele Newman wrote in her 1999 book White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States

"White women's expressions of resentment over the enfranchisement of black men and these women's subsequent decision to keep the movement clear of 'race' questions were part of a larger post-Reconstruction retreat from support of racial justice."

This division helped shape the trajectory of the feminist movement, often excluding the experience of racial minorities or transgender women. The pervasive added social obstacles for such demographics informs their experience of gender inequality in a way that a cis-, middle-class, white woman might not necessarily stop to appreciate, many advocates for intersectional feminism — a more inclusive brand — argue. 

"Without a position of privilege to call on, it is even harder as a woman of color to fight for issues that are important for every woman, but especially for women of color," Anthea Butler wrote in Rewire. "Not recognizing that privilege of whiteness or class hampers the ability of feminists across ethnic lines to join together for common causes."

Intersectional feminist activists argue that even the best-intentioned, high-profile feminists reveal themselves to be "white feminists." In the eyes of intersectional feminists, Amy Poehler did just that in August when a pilot episode for Difficult People, a show she produced, featured a line about a character not being able to "wait for Blue Ivy to be old enough so R. Kelly can piss on her." Critics contend such a joke would never be made at the expense of a white child and the presence of such humor in popular culture reinforces our subconscious relegation of certain demographics to certain places in society. 

Other celebrities appear to be more attuned to the debate. After being explicitly asked if she was a "white feminist" in October, Watson had some self-reflective words

The label "implies that I am not aware of my own privilege, but I mention my own luck/good fortune/privilege something like five times in my [United Nations] speech and my wish to make sure other women have access to the same opportunities that I have," she wrote.  

"It implies a willful ignorance or neglect of the issues surrounding intersectionality," Watson continued. "My mandate as HeForShe and women ambassador [to the U.N.] was to include men in the dialogue about gender equality."

Every individual's experience is invariably shaped by the status quo relationship between their demographic and the environment in which they live, meaning a woman's visceral understanding of gender inequality is in some ways limited to her lived experience. But, as many intersectional feminists would argue, the key is to make sure that a diversity of experiences are being included in the rhetoric surrounding and fight for feminism. 

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