Quick note on Patricia Arquette and White feminism

Inez Milholland, representing the social kind of White women's feminism that elevates "women" to special symbols of national pride. (Image from Wikipedia)

Inez Milholland at a suffrage parade in 1913, representing the special kind of White feminism that elevates “women” to symbols of national pride. (Image from Wikipedia)

I have just a little to add to the controversy over Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. She said:

To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights, it is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.

Backstage, she doubled down:

And it’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now!

Arquette is not a major feminist, not the organizer of a major activist group, and not in charge of messaging for all of feminism. So I don’t think we need to try to get too into her head, or attack her individually for the way she expresses her feminism. But there is a history to this way of looking at things that is important.

Nyasha Junior, writing at the Washington Post, gave some historical context:

Historically, white women’s efforts to support greater women’s equality have been directed toward greater equality for white women. For example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and some other white suffragists supported the right to vote for white women and refused to back the 15th Amendment, which allowed U.S. citizens to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” At the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913, African American women were told to march separately—at the end of the parade.

My comment

This takes me all the way back to my master’s thesis — “Nationalism and Suffrage: Gender Struggle in Nation-Building America” — which was all about this.

Junior’s history doesn’t go back quite far enough. Because White women’s feminism was very constructively tied up with abolitionism before around 1860 (Frederick Douglass spoke at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention). Even though they frequently juxtaposed “women” with “slaves” in a way that made it clear they were thinking first of White women, there was nevertheless a strong undercurrent of solidarity, as when Sarah Grimke said in 1838, “Woman has been placed by John Quincy Adams, side by side with the slave…. I thank him for ranking us with the oppressed.”

It was the controversy over the 14th Amendment (not 15th), which for the first time in the Constitution specified voting rights for men, that sent the White suffrage leaders into a racist rage. And it accompanied a philosophical shift from women as equal to men, with natural rights, to women as inherently different from men, as the basis for a claim of democratic rights.

Gender essentialism fueled White racist nationalism. Saying women are different and therefore special required them to explain what real womanhood was, which is where the racism, nationalism, and exclusionary politics came in.

When Arquette says, “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation,” I hear Carrie Chapman Catt in 1915:

We appeal [for suffrage] in the name of our foremothers … in the name of those women who unmurmuringly bore the hardships of colonial life, who kept their high courage despite the wild beast and the savage lurking ever near their door, and planted the noble American ideal deep in the hearts of their children; in the name of those women of revolutionary days who kept the fire of freedom burning in their breasts, who fed, clothed, nursed, and inspired the men who won liberty for our country.

This is the ideology under which Elizabeth Cady Stanton complained that the 14th Amendment elevated “the lowest orders of manhood” (Black men) over the “highest classes of women.” And Susan B. Anthony said, “if intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government, let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.”

The wrinkle I want to add to Junior’s history is that the racism and exclusionary politics followed the shift from natural rights to gender essentialism. So, at least in the U.S., when White women start saying things like “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation,” racism is often lurking nearby.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Quick note on Patricia Arquette and White feminism

  1. Arielle K

    My personal hero Sojourner Truth was both a Black abolitionist and a first wave feminist (See her famous speech “ain’t I a woman?” for a great critique of gender essentialist that specifically comes from her black feminist/former slave perspective).

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  2. I think you are right about the dangers lurking in gender essentialism — mobilized for white nationalism (especially but not only in the US) and also for heteronormative family prescriptions (see US same-sex marriage and French same-sex parenting debates). Intersectionality connects both the heterosexism and the racism with the essentialism of gender and needs to be seen in terms of such frames and dynamics, not just of the people at the intersections (who may be well situated to point this out).

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  3. Pingback: Arquette and the Trouble with White Feminism - racismreview.com

  4. Jill

    Thanks for your great post. Junior discusses a lot of this important history in more detail in her forthcoming book on Womanist Biblical Interpretation.

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