A Tale of Two Feminisms

by Kaila Philo

Art by Jenn Solo

Art by Jenn Solo

A Tale of Two Feminisms: How Black Women and White Women View Social Justice Differently

I’m going to be honest: I could not fully understand the Hilary hype. She ran on a starter feminist campaign—I’m With Her, Chillary Clinton, etc. The only times I truly resonated with Hillary was when she was juxtaposed with Drumpf, where the whole world had to compare a brilliant, competent woman against a blithering demagogue several levels below her. He cut her off, he raised his voice, he recruited sexism to debase her campaign, and it reminded me of so many women, so many scenarios in my own life. This experience was nearly universal, but it was also the only time I understood the hype.

Otherwise, White women appeared to gravitate towards Hillary Clinton in an unprecedented fashion, whereas Black women (as a collective) were justifiably critical of her, despite 94% of them voting for her in the end. It wasn’t until months later that I realized why.

There are profound differences between White feminism and Black feminism.

White feminism, or, arguably, mainstream feminism, centers general women’s issues such as reproductive health, the wage gap, slut-shaming and shattering the glass ceiling, among others. This branch of feminism differs from intersectional feminism in that it much too often omits trans people and people of color. It all began with the first-wave, when White women in America began campaigning to gain women’s suffrage, and was perpetuated by leaders such as Susan B Anthony, Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem, each with her fair share of terrible actions. White feminism is essentially a basic form of activism that employs progressive philosophies in order to propel White women to the same societal status as White men, which sounds better than it is. Think of it this way: White feminists want to be as destructive as any White man.

Black feminism, or womanism, is a school of thought founded as a response to the overt racism of mainstream feminism back in the mid-20th-century. The term “womanism” was coined by novelist Alice Walker, inspired by the Black colloquialism “womanish” (“Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered good for one.”) This branch was formed in the 1970s during the Civil Rights Movement, but scholars have cited proto-womanist thought in the works of Zora Neale Hurston and even in Linda Brent’s Incidents of a Slave Girl. Contemporary womanism is an expansion—or, at least, more specific form—of intersectional feminism. It centers Black women’s issues such as misogynoir, colorism, and the intersection of race and class, and is informed by thinkers such as bell hooks and Michele Wallace. It is inherently more intersectional than White feminism but considering the definition doesn’t expressly state that it includes trans women of color, some womanists still strictly abide by the gender binary. It isn’t perfect.

These two branches of feminism catalog the differences between American history for White and Black women based on the chasm between their socioeconomic positioning. White women, while abused and maltreated in America from 1492, maintained a sense of comfort and security in their Whiteness. The fight for women’s suffrage in the late-19th and early-20th century was credited as the beginning of continental feminism despite the gender equity throughout the Iroquois communities in pre-colonial America, which Elizabeth Cady Stanton later used to inform her activism. Ironically, she only prioritized middle-class White women as suffragettes.

Meanwhile, thirty years after the enslaved Africans were allowed societal agency, Ida B Wells traveled to Great Britain in 1893 to deliver a speech about racial violence in the United States. It was 1893 and lynchings had become dangerously commonplace to the point there were 161 reported attacks in 1892 alone. The women’s rights movement was launched in the throes of the Reconstruction era so while White women at the time were expected to remain in the household, Black women were thrust from one workforce to another as they left slavery with no home, money, or resources. Some Black women freed prior to the Emancipation Proclamation founded small institutions to fund and support women of color; for example, pioneering journalist Victoria Earle Mathews established the White Rose Mission in New York City to help young Black girls find work. It wasn’t until half a century later that White women begin to join the workforce, prompted by the onslaught of World War II. The aviation industry saw a surge in women workers as men left their positions to join the trenches. The number of employed women in America grew from 14 million in 1940 to 19 million in 1945, so that they then made up 36% of the workforce.

The latter information you probably learned in high school, as did I. Unfortunately, the word most public school textbooks and beginner’s history websites refuse to use in these kinds of articles is “White”. The most popular scholarly work does not go enough in-depth about the racial disparity in certain industries, as well as how many Black women were employed by both employed and unemployed White women as housekeepers or nannies. In fact, nearly ninety percent of Black women in the South worked in middle-class-and-beyond households, but they are rarely factored into statistics about working women because these infographics exclude domestic work.

Thus, the standards for femininity within these cultures differed greatly: White women were expected to be docile housewives while Black women were expected to work. There was never a period of American history where Black women were not expected to work, and so the dominant Mammy and Sapphire tropes arose. Black women became Strong with a capital S. This is why Black women today tend to reject mainstream feminism—they cannot relate to it.

There is no monolithic experience of womanhood or femininity, but certain cultures do have experiences in common. The worst thing we as feminists can do is act as though Hillary Clinton’s feminism is the same kind as her housekeeper’s, and ask ourselves who She is when we say “I’m With Her.”

Kaila Philo is an English lit major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, currently working as a freelance writer and journalist. She is the editor of Purple is to Lavender, a literary and cultural zine that aims to bring women of color artists from the margin to the center. So far she has been published in Mask MagazineThe MillionsWinter TangerineArts.BLACK, and Catapult. Her academic work will be featured in the forthcoming book Critical Insights: Civil Rights Literature—Past and Present, to be released in 2017 by Salem Press. She is currently based in Baltimore, MD, and someday hopes to establish herself as a novelist while pursuing a PhD in American Literature.