Feminism Isn’t Just For Women of Privilege

NOW_womenIf you stopped an average American on the street and asked him or her to describe a “feminist,” what do you think this person would say?

Maybe they’d mention Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, picturing older white women. Or a hippie who liked to burn bras. Or maybe they’d talk about an angry woman with a short haircut, lots of earrings, or tattoos. I’m not sure exactly how most Americans perceive feminists, but I do know that feminism has an image problem in the media and in popular culture.

I’m not suggesting that this is the main reason why so many young women do not identify themselves as feminists, but I think that it’s part of the answer. Because the feminist movement has so long been associated with white, middle class women’s concerns, it has notoriously had a problem convincing minorities, men, and people of different class backgrounds that feminist concerns are also their concerns.

I was pleased to see the PBS series “The Makers” show the diversity of women’s experiences that led them to feminism. There were powerful interviews, for example, with women who worked in the civil rights movement who became involved with women’s rights causes.

But I think that many of us white and middle class feminists still take for granted that many “women’s” issues will impact everybody in the same way. And those preconceptions — by feminists themselves in the topics that are discussed and the language that is used — play a role in contributing to stereotypes about feminism and feminists themselves. For example, when Sheryl Sandberg tells women to “lean in” when thinking about their career paths, this perspective does not resonate with many working class women. In too conversations about women, work, and family, professional women’s interests are assumed to be the same as all women’s, as if elite women, such as Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer, will make gains that will automatically “trickle down” to every woman.

As a doctoral student in educational policy who has researched gender and education, I have read about the fancy, “academic” name for recognizing that not all women’s experiences and interests are the same. It’s called “intersectionality.” It’s the idea that a person’s experience is impacted not only by their gender but also by their race, social class, religion, age, and sexual orientation.

What this theory basically argues is that you can’t just worry about all women’s oppression and then next think about racial, class, or sexual orientation separately. They’re not additional, but instead are “intersectional” and interlocking in how they operate to affect people’s lives and identities. Intersectional feminists also reject the idea that one form of oppression or discrimination is worse or more severe. As the leading scholar of intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins states, “In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.”

And during the last couple years, I’ve thought about these issues a great deal during my own research with high-achieving, urban girls of color who attend elite boarding schools. Soon into my interviews, I realized that my own experiences of privilege — as a middle class, educated, white woman — had even impacted my choices of interview questions. I realized that I was asking these girls questions based on my own experiences (as a girl at boarding school during the early 1990s) that were not even relevant to their own lives. I soon learned to stop asking questions based on my own concerns and my prep school friends’ and just to ask more open-ended, broader questions and to listen. For example, I originally asked questions about body image for girls at elite schools — a pressing issue at these institutions, based on my own experiences with friends at prep school who had eating disorders and struggled with body image issues — but the African American girls expressed complete confusion over why white girls were even thinking about these issues in this first place and didn’t know how to answer my question.

Now, of course, women such as Mayer and Sandberg cannot be expected fight battles in every case for all women everywhere, such as by considering at the same time how to account for differences in race, class, age, religion, and sexual orientation. But I do think that when feminists — or those who consider themselves aligned with bettering women’s lives — choose their battles and talk about them publicly, they can turn off large parts of the population by framing their own problems and choices as ones that are meaningful to every woman’s. Because often they are simply not.

Feminists can go a long way toward improving feminism’s public image by being more clear that we as women share some commonalities, but we also have many differences, based on other aspects of our identities. In short, feminists need to show that they get that women are not just women: they’re also lots of other things that may be related (or not) to their experiences as females.

Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate in educational policy and fellow at Boston University.  She has been a teacher, curriculum coordinator, research assistant, journalist, and nonprofit research fellow.  While not chasing after her toddler or trying to finish her dissertation before this spring, she writes about parenting, feminism, and education at School of Smock.
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