The disparaging term “white feminism” is used to describe the ethos of a very specific type of woman. Generally speaking, a “white feminist” is not just a feminist who happens to be white. Instead, a “white feminist” is a middle-class Caucasian woman who believes she’s committed to advancing women’s rights, but who rarely stops to consider how sexism affects women who aren’t exactly like her. She doesn’t think about how issues of racism and sexism can overlap and intersect, and becomes defensive and upset when asked to do so.
Gloria Steinem is a feminist, and she is also white. But, in a new interview, the activist, writer and leader says that the concept of white feminism “alarms” her.
“If it’s white, it’s not feminism,” she tells Vice magazine. “By definition, [feminism] includes all women.”
Steinem, 82, has been a prominent figure in the women’s movement in the US and around the world since the early 1970s. Over the years, she’s engaged in feminist debates with all kinds of women – perhaps most notably Betty Freidan, the author of The Feminine Mystique.
Consequently, she rubbishes the notion that it’s somehow unsisterly, or a sign of “feminist infighting”, to critique another woman’s thinking, particularly when it comes to the important matter of race.
“It’s not infighting to point out racism,” she says. “That’s important – just like it’s not infighting to point out sexism.”
It’s essential that white women are told when they’re inadvertently thinking or behaving in white-centric way, says Steinem. “We need to do this because we [white women] are not raised to understand the long-term impact of institutional racism.”
Steinem also offered her take on why 53% of white women in the US voted for Donald Trump as president. (In contrast, 94% of black women and 68% of Latina women voted for Hillary Clinton.)
“[A majority of] white women have traditionally voted Republican because they are dependent on their husband’s income,” says Steinem. “They are voting for their husband’s interests.”
She adds: “It has always been true that since the beginning of the women’s movement in this country, African-American women were twice as likely to support the movement and the issues of feminism as white women were.”
There is still work to be done before mainstream feminism is truly inclusive. But if we’re to move forward, Steinem says that we should take pride in discussing subjects that might make us feel uncomfortable.
“I’m very proud of the women’s movement for being the most diverse of any social justice movement, and for having these important conversations,” she says.
Images: Getty, Rex Features