In honor of National Women’s Equality Day a couple weeks ago, Facebook posted the following message to its users:
Not too long after, the following photo appeared on my Newsfeed with the caption, “fixed it for you, @facebook.”
For the rest of the day, most of my white friends who were posting about National Women’s Equality Day were excited to commemorate the occasion, while my friends of color remarked, “Wow, Facebook, way to fail,” or, “Facebook exposing its white feminism.”
Unfortunately, although white women in America were given the right to vote in 1920, women of color were not. In fact, many of the white female pioneers of the suffrage movement ignored and sometimes even actively worked against women of color in order to secure the vote for themselves. Although many of the white pioneers of the suffrage movement had been Christian abolitionists, some eventually aligned themselves with racist campaigns in order to gain traction for white women’s suffrage.
White people tend to forget that although white women gained the right to vote in 1920, Native American women received suffrage in 1924, Asian women in 1952, and Black women in 1964. These rights, however, were continually infringed upon as states exercised their power to deny them the vote. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was enacted, which prohibited any racial discrimination in election practices. (See a more comprehensive timeline of voting rights history here). That solved the problem, right?
Well, no. To make this even more complicated (and horrid)— disproportionate incarceration rates among white women and women of color affect the conversation as well. Black women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are nearly 2 times more likely than white women to be incarcerated. Black women “represent 30% of all incarcerated women in the U.S., although they represent 13% of the female population generally,” and “Hispanic women represent 16% of incarcerated women, although they make up only 11% of all women in the U.S.” People of color are disproportionately convicted for the same crimes as whites—even though crime rates among whites and people of color are similar. In the case of drug convictions, white people actually engage in illicit drug use five times more often than Black people, yet Black people are incarcerated ten times more often for illicit drug use. In many states, if one is convicted of a felony one loses the right to vote altogether. These things have resulted in what Michelle Alexander has termed “the new Jim Crow,” which you can learn more about here.
Job discrepancies are rampant as well. While white women are paid only 78 cents to every dollar a white man makes, Black women earn only 64 cents, and Latina women only 56 cents. In scientific vocations specifically, Black, Latina, and Asian American women were more likely to report an obligation to “prove” their competency to male colleagues than white women. Asian-American women were more likely to report an expectation of assuming the role of “office mother,” “dutiful daughter,” or other feminine roles. Latina women report expectations “to do large loads of office housework, including literal housework (making coffee), administrative work typically performed by support personnel, and emotion work in helping students with their emotional problems.” Although Black women report an ability to be more assertive than white women, this only applies if they aren’t deemed the “angry Black woman.” Black women were “more likely than other women to report a sense of bleak isolation,” and Latina and Black women were more likely to be mistaken as janitorial staff. (This study is definitely worth reading in full, check it out here.)
The particular issues that women of color face in this country significantly differ from those of white women, and thus all discussions of feminism must take this into account. Intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Intersectionality teaches us that in discussions about sexism and feminism, one must always be careful to look for the ways in which the conversation may be erasing the experiences of those who do are not members of the “dominant” group.
It is because of this that it’s important to say: if a church claims that it cares about women, then that church must also care about the particular discrimination that women of color face in our society.
In its conversations about sexism, churches have certainly been guilty of erasing the experiences of women of color, something of which I have grown increasingly aware as I’ve researched these topics. In March of this year, I had the opportunity to lecture on feminist and womanist theology for an undergraduate class. Generally speaking, feminist theology challenges patriarchal interpretations of theology and Scripture and seeks women’s liberation from these strictures, while womanist theology is the study and perspective of these things from a black women’s perspective specifically. Alice Walker, who coined the term womanism, states: “When I offered the word ‘Womanism’ many years ago, it was to give us a tool to use, as feminist women of color, in times like these . . . We are not white women and this truth has been ground into us for centuries, often in brutal ways.”
I had originally planned to devote equal amounts of time to both types of theology and treat them as their own mini-lectures. When I began to dig into my research, however, I discovered that it was impossible to talk about one without the other, primarily because womanist theology was formed as an active push-back against feminist theology’s erasure of black woman’s experiences. I began to see this when I discovered a letter written by womanist writer Audre Lorde to white feminist theologian Mary Daly. Daly had used an excerpt from Lorde in her theological tome Gyn/Ecology, and Lorde had this to say in response:
“To imply . . . that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how those tools are used by women without awareness against each other . . . . To realize that the only quotations from Black women’s words were the ones you used to introduce your chapter on African genital mutilation made me question why you needed to use them at all. For my part, I felt that you had in fact misused my words, utilized them only to testify against myself as a woman of Color…. 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.” (1979)
The discovery of how white feminists had co-opted black women’s voices for their own gain didn’t stop there. I learned about Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca Walker, who wrote an essay titled Becoming the Third Wave in 1992. Rebecca Walker is credited with coining the term “third wave feminism,” a movement that began in response to the 2nd wave’s failure to account for women of color and women in other marginalized spaces. Whereas the 2nd wave (in the opinion of some) presents a monolithic idea of woman, 3rd wave draws in varied expressions of woman, and empowers women to determine for themselves what their feminism looks like.
In our culture today we talk about feminism all the time, and yet what many do not know is that our current iterations of feminism have their genealogical roots in womanism. Black women paved the way for my current participation in feminism, and I didn’t even know that until a few months ago. White women talk about feminism all the time, and yet, even though the way we understand it now can be directly attributed to women of color paving the way for all of us, feminism still fails women of color—and it often fails them because white women appropriate the narrative and erase women of color altogether. Oftentimes this is actually done unintentionally—but this does not make the process any less harmful to women of color.
I am a white woman, and the majority of my life has been spent in predominately white spaces and white churches (something I have been very intentional in trying to change as I’ve grown more aware of these issues). In those white settings, when we talked about feminism we never talked about intersectionality. When we talked about women’s experiences in the church, we never talked about the particular challenges that women of color face, or the fact that theological perspectives and ways of experiencing God and Scripture are different among women of different cultures and races.
The hard truth is that my freedom as a white woman was paved on the backs of women of color, and even now—even as I wish it weren’t so—I continue to benefit from it while women of color continue to be crushed to the curb. There is a reason that if I as a white woman am ever pulled over for a traffic violation, I can expect to come out of the situation alive, while a woman of color fears arrest and even death if faced with the same situation. (Here I am referencing Sandra Bland, a black woman who, on her way to start a new job in Texas in July of this year, was pulled over for a traffic violation, arrested, and found dead in her cell two days later. Read about her story here.)
When I hear discussions about feminism or egalitarianism in the church, oftentimes the particular experiences that women of color face are glossed over entirely. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that we are still so segregated in the church—it makes sense after all, that a predominately white church would have little engagement with and understanding of the particular issues that women of color experience in our society.
True feminism must account for all women, not just white women, and egalitarianism in the church must begin to engage justice issues on all levels, not simply the things that affect white women. What will it take to get there? This is a question we all must begin to ask.
If you are interested in learning more about theology from the perspective of women of color, here are some potential starting points. I’ll be reading a few of these in the coming months, and am always up for a good book club:
- Women Encounter God: Theology across the Boundaries of Difference by Linda A. Moody
- Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores Williams
- Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz
- We Dare to Dream: Doing Theology as Asian Women, editors Virginia Fabella and Sun Park
- A Native American Theology by ClaraSue Kidwell, Homer Noley, George E. Tinker (although the whole text isn’t specifically from a Native American woman’s perspective, certain chapters are devoted to women’s perspectives).
Another good book to check out is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I’ll be reading it this winter if anyone cares to join me.
Have you read any books that you think are “must reads” on this subject? Drop a comment and let me know!