Political Physics – There’s No Place in the Feminist Movement for Women Like Me


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

Black Feminist Symbol

A colleague and I were having a discussion a few weeks ago about feminism.  The catalyst for the discussion was that I had called myself a feminist.  This prompted my colleague to ask if I considered myself a feminist.  Now, if she had asked me this question when I was stomping around campus in my Smithie days, I would have told her of course and then promptly admonished her for not considering herself a feminist.  But more than ten years later and what seems like worlds away from Smith, I paused before I answered and thought about it.  “No, I don’t,” I answered.  “I do not believe the feminist movement has a true place for women of color…so I consider myself a womanist, meaning I believe in equity in every sense of the word for women but cannot identify with a movement that would have me subjugate my race to my gender”

In Webster’s Online Dictionary, feminism is defined first as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”  Wiki states that “the term feminism can be used to describe a political, cultural or economic movement aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women.

In an article entitled “Who Said the Feminist Movement Is Dead?” Elinor Miller Greenberg describes the origins of the feminist movement.  “We usually recognize the first women’s movement as having taken place over the more than 70-year-period between the Women’s Suffrage Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 and the passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which gave women the right to vote in every state.  Most historians acknowledge that the second women’s movement took place in the United States from about the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and continued in various forms for many years after that brief activist period.”

Greenberg argues that “in many ways, these two movements were remarkable in that they achieved much of what they set out to do.  And the results were institutionalized.  Women now vote; enjoy full standing in U.S. courts of law; may own property, participate in the workplace, and profit from their own investments; hold political office at every level of government; and engage in every aspect of community life.”

And Greenberg is right, women have indeed made progress.

In the 1960’s 31.6% of women held Master’s degrees; today that number is 55.9%.

In the 1960’s about 400,000 women owned their own business nationwide; today that number is 8.47 million.

In the 1960’s there were 20 women in Congress; today there are 91.

What did the old cigarette slogan say? “You’ve come a long way, baby!”  But, women still have a long way to go.

According to DiversityJobs.Com “the income gap between men and women is at 23.5%, which means that for every dollar a man earns in a certain position, a woman will earn 76.5 cents in the same position,” I believe that the feminist movement is clearly still relevant.  Moreover, according to Unicef, “while it is estimated that women perform two-thirds of the world’s work, they only earn one tenth of the income, and own less than one per cent of the world’s property.”

However, relevance is not the issue for me as a woman of color.  The issue is resonance.

This is why I define myself as a womanist.  The term womanism qas first used by Alice Walker in her book, “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose.”  Different people define womanism differently, but for me womanism is about acknowledging that gender and race are inextricably linked.  Therefore, I am not just a woman or just African American, I am a Black woman.  But if feminism is focused solely on gender then where does that leave me?

On the blog Feministe one women commented “…race-centric analysis of women’s issues bothers me. Feminism is about women, period. It’s race-neutral.  Hopefully, it will remain about women, instead of turning into an ersatz black civil rights movement pre-occupied with issues of police brutality against black men.  If I am interested in race issues, I know where to go to read about them.  If I am interested in women’s issues, I should be able to go to feminist websites and read about them.  I don’t need my feminism to become a catch-all for all social justice issues…”  And as I read through the comments other posted it just reinforced my belief that for many women in the movement, feminism is about women and there is no room for discussions of race.

An article in the Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “Like first-wave feminism, the second wave was largely defined and led by educated middle-class white women who built the movement primarily around their own concerns.  This created an ambivalent, if not contentious, relationship with women of other classes and races. The campaign against employment and wage discrimination helped bridge the gap between the movement and white labor union women. But the relationship of feminism to African American women always posed greater challenges.  White feminists defined gender as the principal source of their exclusion from full participation in American life; black women were forced to confront the interplay between racism and sexism and to figure out how to make black men think about gender issues while making white women think about racial issues.”

On one hand, there are some many similarities between the central  goals and themes of feminism, womanism, black feminism, etc.  During the first conference of the National Black Feminist Organization, black women activists acknowledged that many of the goals central to the mainstream feminist movement—day care, abortion, maternity leave, violence—were critical to African American women as well.

But what is not a central theme – race – that leaves some of us women out in the cold.

And apparently, the issue of resonance is not just an issue for women of color.  According to a 2007 Gallup poll, only one in four women said that they consider themselves feminists.

On the blog Racialicious, Latoya Peterson wrote an article entitled “Does Feminism Have to Address Race?”  In the article, Peterson noted “…while I can truly understand if some women feel that their gender problems take more prominence than their race problems, other women need to understand that for some of us, that separation does not happen.  And what bothers me most about a lot of feminist discourse is that while it may claim to speak for all women, it leaves out crucial parts of the dialogue because it refuses to engage with these other issues…I don’t have certain issues because I am a woman; I have certain issues because I am a black woman.”

Gloria Steinem, a fellow Smith Alumni, once said that “In my heart, I think a woman has two choices: either she’s a feminist or a masochist.”  Though I thoroughly respect Gloria Steinem, I am not sure it’s really that simple.

If feminism is based on a racial neutral construct, then how can it include women of color who live in a world where discrimination is quite real and impacts their daily lives?  For woman of color, gender and race are inextricably linked.

Peterson said it best in her article, “Our discrimination is not race neutral.  So why should our feminism be?”