How white feminism threw its black counterpart under the bus

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Schuller, a white historian and feminist scholar at Rutgers University, clearly understands the political significance of this labor transfer. From the start, she shows how white feminism, rooted in a binary and dated understanding of femininity, “is a political position, not an identity” and has no interest in disrupting the status quo or reallocating power. . Instead, she writes, “it approaches the lives of blacks and aboriginals, other people of color and the poor as raw resources that can fuel women’s social advancement.”

Credit…via the New York Public Library

The most skillful historian is one who can transform nuggets carefully extracted from archival documents into compelling, if not pungent, prose. Schuller is a gifted storyteller, her counter-story being both a writer’s profession and a learned diligence. Each chapter pairs a popularly idolized white feminist with a black, Native American, Latin, transgender or lesbian feminist, many of whom are less well known. Suffragette icon Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to whom Schuller credits despicably “inventing white feminism,” appears alongside poet, novelist and first black feminist theorist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Schuller puts abolitionist writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs, birth control activists Margaret Sanger and Dr. Dorothy Ferebee, Betty Friedan and civil rights leader Pauli Murray, Sheryl Sandberg and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into conversation. But Schuller’s mission is not simply diversity and inclusion: “The problem with white feminist politics is not what it fails to address and whom it fails to address,” she writes, but “What she does and who she removes”. Schuller’s writing is strongest when it comes to locating the precise historical moments in which these feminist figures crossed paths. Every transgender, lesbian, and non-white feminist has provided dominant white feminism with an opportunity to choose a more equitable moral path, and Schuller elucidates the very real consequences of every white feminist’s refusal.

Schuller takes care to render these women not as heroes and villains, but as studies in complexity, contradiction and nuance. Sometimes, however, the balance between the two subjects can feel bad. For example, despite Schuller’s recognition of the “literary talents” of organizer Yankton Sioux Zitkala-Sa in “prestigious” journals like The Atlantic and Harper’s, without enough of his own written prose in the text, his perspective seems much more ephemeral than that of Alice. C. Fletcher, a white advocate for Indigenous women and families. And Schuller does not adequately support her claim that Ferebee’s birth control plea “incorporated eugenics,” noting only that she was less eugenic than Sanger.

However, when Schuller strikes the right balance, as she does between anti-trans feminist Janice Raymond and trans theorist Sandy Stone, the result is mesmerizing. “The Trouble With White Women” is a welcome addition to the feminist canon. Undertaking the kind of critical work needed to engender truly liberating feminism, Kyla Schuller gets the job done.


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