Feminism Isn't One-Size-Fits-All

ByDanielle Nelson

Last spring I submitted an entry to Michele Norris’ Race Card Project, a forum for an “honest” conversation about race in just six words. My six words were “White Feminism. I live with contradiction” and underneath my entry, I explained:

“I’m proud to be a feminist, but I’m not proud of the unspoken privilege that comes with being a white feminist. Fighting privilege with privilege? It’s so contradictory, yet I cannot ignore both these parts of my identity. Whiteness consumes me every day, every minute, but because it’s so ingrained in society, I sometimes fail to see it. The never-ending battle … race and gender, gender and race. Inseparable, a complex, complicated narrative …”

It’s the only entry tagged under “feminism” on the Race Card Wall even though the reigning influence of white privilege on mainstream feminism remains at the forefront of the conversation. Historically, this is also true as feminism has been traditionally represented by white middle-class heteronormative cis-bodied women.

From Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racism-fuelled anger towards black men receiving the vote before white women to Betty Friedan’s homophobic fear of the “lavender menace,” equality feminism as it stands today has been elevated and popularized on the basis of privilege and exclusion.

There is something unsettling about the seemingly illogical notion of fighting one particular privilege — the patriarchy — from society’s privileged positioning of whiteness. And as a straight white woman studying at a prestigious university, I am uncomfortable with the admission that even though I consider myself an intersectional feminist, I am situated within the very systemic and societal oppression that I profess to fight.

So I must ask the question: Why aren’t we talking more about the contradictions and consequent limitations of streamlining white feminism as mainstream feminism? And why is mainstream feminism resisting the urge to progress from a standard one-size-fits-all definition to one that more aptly reflects the age of intersectionality. 

It seems as if the founders of the white feminist parody Twitter account @WhiteFeminist are navigating this thorny terrain by interjecting a good dose of sarcastic humor. According to Campus Progress, the Twitter account @WhiteFeminist, was started after "hearing and experiencing the numerous (sometimes) well-intentioned but inadvertently oppressive statements by self-identifying 'feminists' and 'womanists.'"

Although the managers of the Twitter account stated that the tweets were based on real experiences, satire is employed here as a valuable and important measure for sparking conversation on the importance of shaping feminism through an intersectional lens and addressing the privilege embedded in the notion of one standardized definition of feminism. But the thing about satire is — it’s not too funny when it edges too close to the truth; and some of these tweets certainly magnify a slew of semi relatable scenarios with some users replying, “Is this actually a parody?” and the majority (for the most part) sending tweet after tweet of encouragement and praise.

But perhaps in between laughing and cringing, we need to listen to the very real and pressing divides that face modern feminism. And by listen, maybe we need to re-write the current feminist narrative that touts gender equity as the ultimate marker of feminist progress. The white feminist parody Twitter, while entertaining and amusing, successfully hints at something quite profound — it’s a warning of what is at stake by reducing feminism to one voice and one experience in order to foster romanticized visions of female solidarity. Instead of striving to universalize and standardize what it means to be a white heteronormative middle class feminist, we need to unpack the ways in which race, gender, class, and sexuality inform the reality of what it means to be a woman.

The narrative of feminism isn’t a neat and tidy bedtime story; it’s nuanced, intricate, and layered, but this distinctive nature within the movement should empower in encouraging productive discourse and disagreement rather than a barrier. Feminism needs to begin with the mission of amplifying any and all women’s voices, because as an ideology feminism is preserved by its potential to be shaped and re-shaped, challenged and reworked.

Maybe then the truth is simply that when we are finally able to accept that we cannot build an empathetic and inclusive feminism on the utopian pillars of sisterhood and solidarity amongst all women, then and only then will we be able to begin distancing ourselves from an alienating feminism and instead move towards an increasingly more progressive and intersectional feminism that doesn’t attempt to separate gender from other factors of race, class, and sexuality.

In the same way that we cannot expect one feminist to speak for all women, there cannot be a uniform feminism that speaks to all women. Feminism is more than striving for equal opportunity — it’s about breaking down the structural barriers that silence the ongoing fight for a comprehensive and diversified variation of feminism.