Some progressives accuse white women of clinging to white men in order to benefit from patriarchy and white supremacy. Some radicals fault white women who fought white men for inclusion in professions and politics. Others criticize white feminists for distancing themselves from men. These critics say this is an unreasonable expectation for women of color who feel the need to ally with their men in the fight against racism.
The solution for white women seems to be: You can neither support white men, nor want what they have, but you can’t expect women of color to treat their men the same way. To me, it feels like a trick bag, as we used to say in New Orleans.
Let’s start with the first idea. Last year, Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell wrote:
Throughout history, privileged white women, attached at the hip to their husband's power and influence, have been complicit in black women's oppression.I agree. But in a world where women, including white women, often held little power on their own, why would anyone expect them to rise up en masse against their husbands? World history also yields plenty of women of color who allied with their husbands to oppress other people of color, poorer people, people of different religions, etc. And some women, of whatever color, didn’t need husbands to oppress others.
I can understand why Harris-Lacewell doesn’t feel she can trust white women until they prove their dedication to anti-racism. I don’t trust men to fight for feminism until I see some evidence. But, then again, I also prefer some evidence from women before I give them my whole-hearted support.
If you strip race out of this equation for a moment, it’s safe to say that some women, because of their attachment to men, have been complicit in women’s oppression. I’d argue this is true of almost all women. It’s very hard not to be complicit, at least to some degree, in the systems in which we find ourselves.
Women often are blamed for our own oppression. For example, Echidne recently linked to an article about a South African man seeking redemption for the rape he committed in his youth. The first comment is from a woman who blames mothers for raising boys who grow up to commit crimes against women.
Anna Carastathis, who teaches feminist political theory at McGill and Concordia, has a criticism similar to Harris-Lacewell’s.
The problem was (and is) that although women of colour, lesbians, and working class women were always active in feminism in the US and Canada, feminism became dominated by white upper class women who retained identifications with men and white male power.Fights against racism and capitalism also have had their share of middle-class leaders. It can help to have education, time and money to advance your causes. But the women’s movement has been so long and so broad that I don’t buy Carastathis’ given: that wealthy white women have dominated.
They weren’t willing to trade in the power they got from being wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters to powerful white men in order to forge true unity with women of colour and with working class white women. In other words, they weren’t willing to give up on the small privileges they gained through loyalty to white men and to whiteness in order to work for the liberation of all women. (Adrienne Rich,  1979.)
As I did above, I’d also argue that women from all backgrounds gain privilege from their associations with men at times. After all, we have a black woman in the White House because she’s attached to a man. (Yes, she has many other attributes, but like all other women who have lived there, she does so because of family ties.)
It’s not like all women of color and working-class white women have taken to the barricades for gender equality. Many of them are just as firmly entrenched in the status quo as anyone else, and I say this from lived experience in poor neighborhoods. Oppression doesn’t necessarily ennoble or radicalize us, I’m sorry to say.
I could turn around Carastathis’ statement, and say that some WOC and working-class white women have not been willing to give up on the small privileges gained through loyalty to men in order to work for the liberation of all women.
Let's look at the three examples that Carastathis uses to illustrate the racism and classism of “privileged white feminists.” We've discussed these issues before on this blog, but I want to name them now briefly so that people understand what's being debated. No. 1, she says, privileged white feminists fought for abortion, but ignored – and sometimes even encouraged – forced sterilization. I can't speak about Canada, but in the United States, I challenged that idea in this post. Planned Parenthood also has refuted accusations about Margaret Sanger.
Second, Carastathis says privileged white feminists sought professional jobs, getting out of the home at the expense of poor women and women of color. I talked about domestic work here and here.
Third, Carastathis says gaining political power, even the vote, was divisive because it benefited privileged white women more. Although they did benefit first, in regard to jobs and politics, other women were able to follow. Including me.
From the idea that white feminists are too close to white men, let’s jump to the accusation that they are too distant, a critique from womanism. On Black Girl Blogging, elledub08 says one aspect of womanism is: “supporting and working with men as opposed to treating them like the enemy.” The Feminist Theory Dictionary says womanism
includes the word “man”, recognizing that Black men are an integral part of Black women’s lives as their children, lovers, and family members. Womanism accounts for the ways in which black women support and empower black men, and serves as a tool for understanding the Black woman’s relationship to men as different from the white woman’s.The word first appeared in print in the writing of Alice Walker, who said a womanist is “not a separatist.”
As Patricia Hill Collins aptly notes, "many black women view feminism as a movement that at best, is exclusively for women, and, at worst, dedicated to attacking or eliminating men … Womanism seemingly supplies a way for black women to address gender-oppression without attacking black men" (p. 11).
Once again, if race could be taken out of the equation, a lot of womanism would sound like liberal feminism, which has attracted far more support than more radical feminists of any color. It’s not surprising that some white women want to call themselves womanists.
As an example of liberal feminism, consider Betty Friedan, who “was adamant that the women's movement present itself as reasonable, moderate, heterosexual, family-loving not family-destroying, man-loving not man-hating in its approach.” (Friedan also falls into the category of “privileged white feminist” who gets accused of ignoring poor women and women of color. Interestingly, Friedan worked for rights for African Americans and workers before writing “The Feminine Mystique,” a criticism of suburban homemaking.)
Womanists and WOC feminists do not support men of color uncritically. That would be a mistake, since the world has a long history of women fighting for rights alongside men, only to find that the new (male) regimes had little interest in women’s rights.
For some WOC, supporting men of their own ethnicity is a political stance. But others do it for the same reasons many white women do: They want their lovers, friends and family to succeed.
On the flip side, white women also can support white men for social-justice reasons. “White men” is a broad category that includes men who are oppressed in different ways, such as by class, ability, sexuality, age, etc. A white woman may want to encourage her gay son, for example, or bolster her working-class family, including the men.
Generalizations about groups help us make sense of our world. When talking about the differences between groups, however, we can't forget the differences within groups.