If you haven’t heard, some staffers at Newsweek recently assessed the state of feminism, and, as Jezebel (see also) and Girldrive point out, they did so entirely through the lens of how upper-middle-class white women, most of whom work or have worked at Newsweek, felt about it. (I have to admit I did enjoy Courtney at Feministing’s response.)
You know, I feel for the writers of this piece somewhat, who have responded with some surprise:
Well hot damn, Jezebel. We thought we knew you! We thought that you, like Salon, and New York Magazine, and even the Women’s Media Center, would see our piece as a brave weapon in a struggle that’s not over. And, like all those places and others, we thought you’d take at least some pleasure in Newsweek’s willingness to look critically at itself, and see something positive in the fact that we convinced our editors to let us write about sexism at Newsweek in the pages of Newsweek—something that has never, ever happened before (and something, we might add, that took months and months and months of extensive reporting and editing to make happen). But man, it’s like you’re actively trying to find something to criticize. How is it that we’ve got the old guard championing the piece, and the young new wave—of which we’re a part—tries to discredit it with left-field accusations of racism?
Generally, I’m not that fond of the way they formulated this response; listing all the things that are Great About You rather than engaging with the meat of the criticism is rarely a successful tactic. And in general, “you’re just looking for something to criticize” is just defensive. (It may be true, but why is it a bad impulse to test ideas?) But I can see that there was a time and place in which I might have written it myself, along with the original article. Because when you start out with this whole feminism thing – and I don’t say that condescendingly, the article itself opens with a confession that the need for feminism was not always so obvious for the author – it can be tempting to get drunk on it and then consider yourself qualified to issue pronouncements. And then you get the blowback, because it turns out that there are lots of people out there who are also invested in the advancement of women who don’t identify with the things you identify with in feminism, and suddenly, you’re on the stove burner when you thought we were all in this together.
That said! The critique being advanced here – that it is, frankly, at least a little odd to write about “sexism at work” in the modern age without quoting a single woman of colour, or hell, a woman who doesn’t have what people would call a “white-collar” job, is pretty fair. And yes, that is true even if your story hook is what happened on your own workplace way back when. Because as any good opinion writer knows, unless your story is straight reporting – which the Newsweek story isn’t – the hook is only there to take you into the greater societal theme. And since women of colour are an integral part of the greater “early 21st century equality in the workplace” theme, I don’t think you can simply shrug and say it was just beyond the scope of the discussion. It’s that kind of maneuver that sort of writes women of colour out of feminism in the most insidious way possible – sometimes exclusion by silent omission is worse than explicit expulsion.
I mean, interestingly, in another response, the Newsweek writers mention that the lawyer who took up the original Newsweek case was actually Eleanor Holmes Norton – a black woman. Again, I feel for these writers, because they’ve now invoked the “my best friend/lawyer (ha!) is black” argument, and apparently without regard to substance, because there are no quotes or anything from Holmes Norton herself in the article. She got written out of what sounds like probably is her own damn story, and the reasons why, sadly, can’t be explained without reference to the erasure of women of colour in feminism. Because whatever else you want to say about it – that ain’t good journalism.
(Also! I recommend this woman‘s tumblred responses to the Newsweek folk.)
This critique can cut all ways, of course. Sometimes – and to be clear I am not talking about this particular case here, but being abstract – people get so riled up about that history of erasure that they actually manage to do some erasing themselves. Audre Lorde, Holmes Norton, Shirley Chisholm, hell, Yoko Ono – all of these women were integral to the so-called “white” second wave of feminism insofar as they were visible participants in the conversation. And this is even true for something like sexual harassment, which has been, for better or for worse, identified as a white woman’s cause from time to time – but major developments in the case law have occurred upon suit by women of colour, including Mechelle Vinson and Lillian Garland. The presence and importance of these women does not in any way absolve the problematic history of the exclusion of women of colour, of course. They are not trump cards. But they do suggest that there is nuance here that deserves exploring, including class – because I’ve got to tell you, the experiences described in this article aren’t how the rural poor (but nonetheless white) branch of my family experience sexism either.
Unfortunately that’s not what the Newsweek piece does, in any event. And I’m beginning to wonder, myself, if it’s even possible to pay attention to nuance if what you are is a journalist writing for a general interest magazine and you’re trying to say something definitive about the movement. I mean, there was that crazy Times article from the other day, and Courtney tried it, and I still saw a lot of problems with it (see here), and it just seems like this whole assumed ability to collapse the thoughts of hundreds upon hundreds of women (and I’m only counting really committed feminist activists in that number which is a problem to start with) into 1500 words is probably… not the best thing if what you’re really interested in is feminism. Because I think at its best, what feminism can be is a conversation about what it would mean to construct a politics that benefits all women/defeats white supremacist patriarchy, rather than an answer about what it means to do all these things.
But the key to that, of course, is making sure that all voices are at an equal volume in that context, and that’s what keeps things tricky, because definitionally, they aren’t. Economically-advantaged white women get more volume for reasons they’ve admittedly no a priori control over but which are nonetheless inimical to what a politics of all women would have to look like, and it behooves us to do as much as we can to share that wealth, even if it means broadening our subjects. I don’t know that any of us do that perfectly, of course, but it is an obligation that we need to do a better job of taking up.