Does "White' feminism help women of color?

African-American women protest at a political demonstration in the 1960s.

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By Justin K. Thomas

May 20, 2017

Since the mid-1800s, women in the United States have worked to attain equal political, social and economic standing with men. However, some women in America, most notably women of color, state that feminism does not necessarily address their concerns as it does for women of European ancestry.

According to Dr. Danielle Phillips-Cunningham, an assistant professor of multicultural women’s and gender studies at Texas Women’s University, the topic of whether or not the predominantly white Women’s Movement has helped or hindered women of color socioeconomically succeed is a sensitive issue that must be carefully addressed, if there is to be cooperation in the future.

“I’d like to complicate the word ‘succeed’ because the stratification of wealth in the United States has historically and continues to be mostly determined by race and gender,” Phillips-Cunningham said. “The grassroots efforts of organizing and scholarship of women of color since the nineteenth century, however, has created significant socioeconomic opportunities for women of color.

While having more admittance to positions of greater social stature has improved for women of color over the years, Phillips-Cunningham says that women of color continue to experience sexism and racism in the workplace.

“Discrimination consequently makes it sometimes difficult for women of color to succeed in their professions,” she said. “Women of color in academia experience a higher degree of difficulty while working towards tenured professorships than their white colleagues.”

Patricia De Jesus-Phillips, a Mexican-American, wife, mother of three and owner of her own small business in Houston, said that she has mixed emotions regarding equality of feminism between white women and women of color and that some people allied with feminism may have moved from the Women’s Movement’s fundamental beliefs.

“Feminism, in my opinion, has helped me prosper,” she said, “but at certain times, I feel that it has hindered my success.”

“I do believe that the movement aided feminist Latinas such as Dolores Huerta, who helped to establish what has become the United Farm Workers Union, to create better occupational conditions for indigenous and immigrant farmers of the United States. However, as the years have progressed since Ms. Huerta’s accomplishments, I believe that a substantial number of female activists and their supporters throughout the nation have forgotten the true meaning of feminism and have become more racialized and ‘haters of men,’” De Jesus-Phillips said.

As to why some women of color have fundamental differences in their beliefs and application of today’s feminist ideals than white women, Phillips-Cunningham said that it is the overall experience of women of color in the United States compared to that of white women that has created a rift.

“Racial tensions, especially between black and white women are deeply rooted in the history of the Women’s Movement,” she said. “These tensions goes back to the 19th-century when prominent white female suffragists decided to not organize with black female suffragists to protest for the right of all women to vote. So, black activists such as Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell created their own associations to fight for paid livable wages and the right to vote.”

Black feminists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have carried on this tradition because of the persistent racial divisions in the Women’s Movement, Phillips-Cunningham said.

“While there is much more work to be done to address racism in the Women’s Movement,” she said. “I find it particularly hopeful that the activism of those earlier 19th-century black women has started to take center stage in today’s struggle.”

Phillips-Cunningham said that if it had not been for black feminists of the 1800s, the very foundation of intersectionality, a theory that legal feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined in 1989, would not have assisted in the arrangement of the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017.

“Intersectionality was the guiding framework for the organizing of the Women’s March earlier this year,” she said. “I believe that the enormous success of the March, which took place on every continent across the world, speaks to the importance of intersectionality and its potential to create alliances among women across race, ethnicity, and nationality.”

Although the difference in opinions on how to promote equality for females between whites and women of color is multi-faceted, Phillips-Cunningham says that both sides want to be treated with equality in a society where some people feel that they are not.

“Philosophically, I believe that feminists both white and women of color want the same thing; equality,” she said. “The march in January put intersectional feminism in the forefront, and therefore I am more optimistic about improved race relations in the Women’s Movement in the future than I have ever been. I say this, of course, with the understanding that this country was founded on ideologies of race, and therefore it will take much more work to dismantle the racial divides in the Women’s Movement and the United States more broadly.”