White women have a history of betraying their sisters. The 2016 election was no exception. According to exit polls, 53% of white women in America voted for Donald Trump. The pattern of white women choosing white men over women of color underscores some of the more insidious machinations of patriarchy and the racism ingrained in the feminist movement. White women’s modus operandi for gaining power—economic, political, and otherwise—is simple: acquire power from those who have it. And those who have historically have had it are white men. This has resulted in white women’s historic abandonment of their black and brown sisters, as well as their more heinous adoption of white supremacist rhetoric to advance their own status.
These ethically unjustifiable strategies are evident in some of the feminist movement’s darkest days, beginning with the fight for suffrage. After the decision was made to exclude women from the 15th Amendment, which gave free black men the right to vote, leading suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton adopted blatantly racist rhetoric. Frustrated with the stonewalling of women’s suffrage, they actively courted and collaborated with white supremacists in exchange for financial assistance to advance their cause. By aligning themselves with white men, these early feminists turned their back on black women and even black suffragists. White male supremacists welcomed the coalition, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a piece at the Atlantic, because it would shore up white nationalism at the voting booths.
During the next wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, a similar strategy played out, this time on a structural level. The organizations fighting for women’s rights deliberately excluded their black and brown sisters so as to appear more acceptable to the white male legislators who held the power.
In her book, A History of U.S. Feminisms, Rory Dicker recounts one of many instances in which white feminists decided to ignore black activists. In 1968, she writes, “[white] women debated whether they should reach out to Kathleen Cleaver, the communications secretary of the Black Panther Party and wife of Eldridge Cleaver, for the names of radical black women to invite to an upcoming conference.” But the white women never contacted Cleaver, she explains, “and women’s liberation lost a valuable opportunity for interracial dialogue.”
The ethical failures of white women resulted in black women creating their own feminism—womanism—as well as their own groups such as the Combahee River Collective, which argued that ending the systemic oppression of all women was a political imperative. “[W]e are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking,” they wrote in their mission statement.
White feminism, by contrast, is the calculated rejection of intersectional sisterhood in favor of the acceptance and appreciation of white men. In its most destructive form, it is racism masquerading as self-empowerment. This is apparent in Elle magazine interviews with a handful of female Trump supporters after the election, who claim that they are “absolutely not racist” and they really just care about the “economy” and “get[ting] a good job.” These women’s myopic worldview and unrepentantly American sense of individualism is not feminism, nor can they claim they are not racists if they are willing to overlook the bigotry that fueled Trump’s campaign.
The millions of white women who voted for Trump—a man accused of rape, a man who has publicly called women “pigs” and jocularly riffed about sexually harassing and assaulting women—also seem to have been willing to ignore Trump’s misogyny in order to get rid of the “establishment.” (Because nothing says “establishment” like a feminist woman president of the United States who actively declares Black Lives Matter!) History will judge them for helping to tip the election. White women account for 37% of the American voting population, which means the votes of black and brown women, no matter how impressively they turned out for Hillary Clinton (94% of black women; 68% of Hispanic and Latino women), were countered by the large swath of white women who supported Trump.
White women need education, empathy, and a collective consciousness. In the minds of the 53% of white women who supported Trump, what makes them think that a sexist, racist white man will change the system and upend “the establishment”? This contradictory logic highlights a toxic cocktail of cognitive dissonance, internalized misogyny, and not-so-subtle racism that continues to impede women’s political and economic progress. This isn’t ideology; this is about ending the oppression of all women and eradicating the structures that prevent women from controlling their bodies and their lives.
It’s clear now that far too many white women still see white men as their saviors. Feminism will not succeed in its goal of ending oppression until white women break this pattern. Because as history shows, white men are in no hurry to make women their equals—in fact, doing so would only threaten their sense of masculinity and their manhood.
Instead of turning to men for political coalition and social acceptance, white women need to turn toward women of color. This is the message of the late Harvard lesbian-feminist Barbara Johnson, who wrote in her conclusion to The Feminist Difference that “conflicts among feminists require women to pay attention to each other, to take each other’s reality seriously, to face each other.” Only by doing this will we be able to eradicate women’s internalized misogyny. Johnson continued, “feminists have to take the risk of confronting and negotiating differences among women if we are ever to transform such differences into positive rather than negative forces in women’s lives.”
While racism is undoubtedly a significant factor in white feminists’ failure to engage in intersectional activism, history also suggests that white women have been largely risk-averse when it comes to building coalitions with their black and brown sisters. This is near-sighted and unambitious logic. As Audre Lorde famously wrote in 1984: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” because “[t]hey may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
This is arguably also the reason why the feminist movement seems to be in an interminable state of stagnation when it comes to women’s advancement and liberation—a circular movement of two steps forward, one step back. We are still dealing with many of the same issues as our foremothers when it comes to equal pay and equal rights; reproductive rights are in constant limbo; and we face a never-ending struggle to be respected as human beings, not sexual objects to be “grabbed” whenever a man has the urge to do so.
Feminism depends on vital, intersectional sisterhood. White women, black women, and brown women must face each other, engage in and accept our differences, if we are ever to rise together.