In her excellent post from yesterday, Joanna Shenk reflected on the ways that feminism – especially feminism as it has been defined by white, middle-class women – has not always taken issues of racism, classism and even heterosexism seriously. Joanna, in dialogue with the powerful writings of bell hooks, called on each of us to carry a vision for “feminism that cares for the liberation of all who are oppressed.”
This is a critique and a challenge that feminism has been dealing with for quite some time, and that, I believe, must become a vital part of the very definition of feminism if we have any hope of success. The inability of middle-class white feminists to take into account the voices of all women, and the desire of women of color to articulate their own realities and build their own movements, led to the development of the womanist and mujerista movements, which sought to embody the stories, voices and experiences of African-American and Latina women respectively. Although it certainly was ground-breaking at the time, the experience of the “trapped housewife” described in The Feminine Mystique was certainly not everyone’s experience – there have always been many women for whom getting out of the house to work was not something to be desired and fought for, but was simply an economic reality (For good reflections on this, check out Ruth Marston’s post over at the Feminism and Religion blog).
And this tension is one that has certainly been well-documented over time. Perhaps one of the most famous “dust ups” between feminists and womanists came when womanist poet Audre Lord published her open letter to radical feminist scholar Mary Daly, challenging and pushing her for her perceived lack of inclusivity towards non-white women. Throughout her letter, Lorde notes repeated places throughout Daly’s now well-known book, Gyn/ecology, where she feels that Daly has missed opportunities to draw on African and black women’s sources and work. She suggests that Daly has painted a picture where women of color are not academic partners in this work, but rather helpless victims. Lorde writes, “So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women? Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us? This is not a rhetorical question.”
Lorde made this letter public because of her perceived lack of response from Daly, although it has also been documented that Daly did,
in fact, send a letter of response (you can read it here), although whether it felt adequate to Lorde is clearly up for debate. But whatever their exchange, Lorde’s letter points to the disconnect between white feminists and women of color that still is too often at play today.
And I do not excuse myself from this conversation. As I have reflected back over the writings featured on this site, I must self-critically reflect that, while there has been some diversity in age and sexual orientation, the vast majority of the writers for The Femonite have been white, middle-class feminists. There have been many wonderful, poignant reflections, but the group that they have come from is more homogenous in some ways than I would probably like to admit.