What does “women’s progress” mean in a racist culture?

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The works of Shulamith Firestone (A Dialectic of Sex), Audre Lorde (The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House), Angela Davis (Women, Race & Class) and Reni Eddo-Lodge (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race) all demonstrate how race and sex are interlinked. 

The message I take from these writers, is that eliminating sexism is inseparable to eliminating racism. This is because they are conditions of the same disease.

Which is why I am fearful when I hear women like Sady Doyle, feminists author, say encouragingly on the BBC that women have made leaps forward. Some like guardian columnist Laura Kipnis here going as far as to audaciously say, “we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution…” I question the intent behind these statements. Are they spreading an anti-feminist message? Are they voicing fear for real change? Either way, I fear this rhetoric has the potential to halt further discussions and work to bring about fundamental change. 

I am fearful because this narrative doesn’t seem to reflect movements like Black Lives Matter. The headlines that suggest a rampant racist culture both in Europe and US. If black people are still marching for their right to exist, how can anyone seriously talk of progress for women? Do these rosy statements reflect a deficiency in information? Of the connection between sex and race? 

Firestone’s work gives a clear explanation of how these two diseases work together to keep those in power. This is what I understood. The white man places himself at the top of the social order. He expresses his power by bringing the white woman beneath him. He then looks for ways he can control other men. Race is his chosen tool. He takes those with a different race to mean less than him, less human. So, he extends the control established over the white woman to the black man. Thereby creating an order that leaves him in total control. In this sense the white man’s control over the black man is an extension of his control over the white woman. 

What about the black woman? If he’s got control of the white woman and the black man, it is assumed control over the black woman is unquestionable. In this context, racism is the extension of sexism. Both sex and race being important factors only because of this unequal spread of power. 

This order of power also gives the illusion (delusion) of the white woman having power over the black man. Her acceptance of her position, (I use the word acceptance not to mean consent but rather, a belief of her helplessness), leads her to react to racism in one of two ways, Firestone explains. She indirectly identifies with the black man, (not woman). Or throws frenzied racism his way.  

Angela Davis’ book Women, Race & Class is good evidence of this. 

“The Anti-Slavery Movement and the Birth of Women’s Rights”

In this 2nd chapter, we see white women identifying with black men. This is expressed in their “concrete” work as abolitionists. This forms the beginning of the women’s movement. It was around the 1830s in America that black people started to rise up against their oppressor, the white man. Prior to that, the industrial revolution had taken productive work away from women. This going from being centred in the home, where men and women contributed equally, to the factories. Capitalism cemented this robbery. Assigning a new social status for women. Servants to their husbands and “passive vehicles for the replenishment of human life”. 

This is one explanation for why white women joined black people in ending the slave trade. Davis shows their work as abolitionists was “immeasurable”. She also shows very few women understood the connection between theirs and black people’s situation.  

With the exception of the Grimke sisters. Sarah and Angelina were among the first American women to see the abolition of slavery as a crucial task. They demonstrated a conscious understanding of the connection between race and sex. Grasping that the continuation of slavery “natured and perpetuated” their own oppression. For that reason, they wanted to be identified with black women. 

Other great women that Davis talks about include Prudence Crandall. A school teacher who admitted black girls into her Academy. A decision she stood by even when parents of white students withdrew their kids. Even when her academy was vandalised. She continued educating only black students right until her arrest following the passing of the ‘Black Law’ which prevented the schooling of black people.

Unlike the Grimke sisters, it seems possible that Crandall may have failed to understand that the backlash she faced was not only a racist one, but a sexist one. Challenging the male social order would have been seen as an unnatural trait in a woman. It is possible she, and many others, may have not consciously grasped why they readily identified and stood so resolutely with this cause. Failed to identify their own oppression as women. Or didn’t think it could effectively be challenged.

The abolitionist movement helped spark a belief that male power could be challenged. With skills obtained, women set out to do just that. However, an important element was abandoned on the journey to the women’s vote; black people. Revealing ignorance of the role racism plays in maintaining sexism. 

“Racism in the Woman Suffrage Movement”

In this 4thchapter, Davis reveals the women’s “superficial” relationship with race. This expressed in two ways; cutting formal ties with black people and, adopting a racist narrative.

The context here, while women started demanding political recognition, black people struggled to maintain a precarious existence. Freedom recently obtained came with no political power. Their economic success threatened white business owners. Black people were terrorised with no protection from state/government.

The American Equal Rights Association(AERA), formed in 1866, was the collaborative effort to bring about fundamental change for black people and women. Members such as Frederick Douglas argued for the AERA to prioritise political participation for black people. To support the 15thAmendment. Which he believed would have provided the protection the community needed. 

Some women members disagreed. Davis explains the women’s predicament. The 15th Amendment set to allow black men to vote, with women still denied that same right. There was no guarantee black men, once inside the political arena, would make the women’s vote a priority. Black men were not immune to a sexist stance. So, it is perhaps understandable why white women did not immediately support the Amendment.

What makes less sense was the racist narrative adopted. One of the key leaders of the women’s movement was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her justification for opposing the Amendment and ultimately cutting ties with the AERA went along the lines… black men are stupid and inferior. While white women are educated and placed higher by their race. White women ought to think of themselves first. If women were denied the vote, better they continue to be oppressed by the devil they knew, the educated white man….

This exposes what she feared more, black men in power. In distancing the women’s movement from black people, she formed links with racist men like George Francis Train. Who advised the issue of race would confuse the women’s rights issue. 

Fundamentally, this frenzied racism exhibits a sense of helplessness. Seen in the context of the social order explained above. This is why Firestone qualified it as “inauthentic” racism.  

The 15th Amendment passed in 1870 but narrowly interpreted that the majority of black people didn’t participated in American politics for another 95 years. Some barriers, especially to women, still exist today. Similarly, the women achieved the vote in 1919 but not the political power to drive meaningful change.

Firestone explains the vote was but a strategic decision by those in power to end the threat of women. As was the move to end the slave trade. The real winner, the white man firmly at the top of the social order. 

“…  recognize that we are collective agents of history and that history cannot be deleted like web pages…”

This history tells me thinking about sex and race as separate issues helps no one but those in power. Looking at them as competing issues, is to pursue unproductive goals. In my opinion. Black people are intrinsic to women’s rights. Racism is a women’s issue. As the Grimke sisters put it,” …women could never achieve their freedom independently of Black people.”

Separating these issues is also an impossible task for black women. It alienates them and their experience of both racism and sexism. It asks them to choose which of their two characteristics impact them more. As if they can be black today and woman tomorrow. I am learning intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is that work to bridge our understanding of this experience. To draw light to this group of women that “women” continues to exclude. I will explore this in more detail another time. 

For now, if we agree that where there is racism, there is sexism. Any talk of women’s progress that doesn’t reflect the experience of black people is therefore nonsensical. Those determined to only speak of this imagined progress are either uninformed or not serious about social justice. 

Everywhere we look, we see indicators of a rampant racist culture. To name a few; Child birth for black women “can amount to a death sentence” in the US, and in particular for the more well off women like Serena Williams. Symptoms that would otherwise be treated are ignored. Young black boys who fall victim to knife crime are reported about to suggest their inherent guilt, as explained by Afua Hirsch. Job discrimination remains unchanged for minority ethnic Britons. European ministers’ experience with racism that bears resemblance to a Jim Crow like system. Windrush continues to reveal inhumane treatment of immigrants. AKA human beings. Reports of systematic racial profiling in London affirm a fractured relationship between police and the black community. On that, they say a picture is a thousand words, this is certainly the case in this Metropolitan Police campaign…

Luckily there are many, like Suzanna Moore here, not committed to the progress fantasy, but take a more considered analysis of where we are today. 

14 Comments on "What does “women’s progress” mean in a racist culture?"


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    1. Ruffled is good, I think. 🙂 Becoming more aware of these matters can feel a lot like that.

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      Milly,

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