By Brittany Bing, VI Form
Feminism: a word so heavy it often feels like an elephant in the room when mentioned amongst a group of people.
Feminism pisses people off. Feminists are supposed to be man haters and bra-burning idealists who think that women are superior to men. As ridiculous as the stereotype sounds, the true modern feminist doesn’t believe that women are inherently better than men. Unlike misogyny, feminism simply refers to one’s belief in the equality of the sexes. Of course, feminist ideals are exponentially more complex than just wanting equality. Over the summer, I explored these concepts in depth at the Independent School Gender Project held at the Hotchkiss School.
As a veteran conference attendee, I knew what to expect. ISGP is a small, all-women’s conference meant to reinforce feminist ideals and give a sense of empowerment to its young attendees. One of the first events I attended was a keynote speech given by Amy Richards, coauthor of Manifesta, Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. She spoke about the different feminist waves over the course of modern history. In her summary of the women’s movement, I realized that she failed to focus on the more oppressed members of American society. While she spoke thoroughly on things like the suffrage movement of the 1920’s and the sexual revolution of the 60’s, her talk lacked the voices of women of color and people who identify as LGBT. At the end of her talk I posed a question for her and the audience. I implored everyone to remember that the fight for equality in this country is not limited to the white majority. Often times the activist efforts of LGBT people and women of color are not recognized in the same regard as their more privileged counterparts. Take Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example. They are widely hailed in history textbooks as the pioneers of women’s suffrage. In 1865, upon the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment which granted the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (2), Cady Stanton spoke widely against the passage of this paramount bill. Her response to a law which only granted universal male suffrage revealed racist aspects of her thinking. In a speech to the National Women’s Suffrage Convention, she remarked:
“If American women find it hard to bear the oppressions of their own Saxon fathers, the best orders of manhood, what may they not be called to endure when all the lower orders of foreigners now crowding our shores legislate for them and their daughters. Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling-book” (1).
Cady Stanton’s xenophobic remarks reveal the flaws in the feminist leaders that students learn about in history classes. The Fifteenth Amendment and the rights of people of color were disregarded by one of the most prominent activists in American history. It’s not my intention to undermine the achievements of Anthony and Cady Stanton, but when understanding American history, it is important to remember that the people we’re taught to admire are not so admirable after all. A true activist supports the rights of all oppressed peoples. Fredrick Douglass openly considered himself a “women’s rights man.” At the Seneca Falls convention (where he was the only African American attendee) he explained:
“I am glad to say that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. Recognizing not sex nor physical strength, but moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of republican government, to which all are alike subject and all bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman’s exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws, and thus shape the destiny of all the people, irrespective of sex” (3).
Fredrick Douglass was a feminist by modern standards. His work supported African Americans and other minorities while recognizing the women’s movement in the fight for overall equality. Douglass was a champion of intersectionality.
Intersectionality is what drives feminism beyond its recognized domain including white women. It is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination (4). Fredrick Douglass openly supported intersectional causes; Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not. There is a vast world of non-white, non-cis and non-able-bodied opinions relating to social justice, particularly gender equality. Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”, given at the 1851 Women’s Convention, highlights the black female struggle throughout history.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” (5)
Truth’s experiences doing physical labor contrast with the view that women are fragile therefore they must remain housewives. Throughout history, the white woman has been expected to stay at home because traditionally their husbands had means of keeping the family financially stable. Historically, the African American woman was in worse condition. Institutionally, racist policies affected everything from quality of education to wages. Life as a nonwhite female was experienced very differently from their white counterparts. Hence there is the need for black feminism and intersectional studies. Women like the Black Panthers’ Angela Davis and Alice Walker are two great sources of intersectional feminist writing.
The Independent School Gender Project introduced me to intersectionality as a formal subject. Throughout my English and history classes I had not really considered the differences between the privileged oppressed and their more disadvantaged counterparts. Intersectionality is so relevant because focusing on one form of oppression without considering how it intersects with others’ is counterproductive and results in a lack of real progress.
Brittany Bing is a VI Former from Brooklyn, NY. She is a member of the GSA and is vibrant participant in the drama program.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Address to the National Woman Suffrage Convention, Washington, D.C., January 19, 1869
Trouble with White Feminism: Racial Origins of U.S. Feminism
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Fredrick Douglass: A ‘Women’s Rights Man’
(5) Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio, May 28-29, 1851. Quoted in Crenshaw, 153.
Brittany Bing is a VI former from Brooklyn, New York. In her free time she enjoys long walks on the beach and listening to underground hip hop. She hopes to study history and economics in the future.