Patricia Arquette & the Trouble with White Feminism

While I am all for equal pay, I am not here for white women who think that gender inequality is the only inequality left in the world, especially not rich ones. Despite the copious amount of praise I saw last night and this morning for Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay, she squarely placed herself in those dubious ranks with her follow-up remarks on the matter.

“It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

A perfunctory glance at the history of social justice reveals that while people of color have always showed their support for women’s rights, white feminists have always been and continue to be exclusionary of non-white women’s concerns.

Lest I be accused of taking her out of context:

It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don’t have equal rights for women in America and we don’t because when they wrote Constitution, they didn’t intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.

Patricia Arquette

When have white feminists “fought for” the rights of people of color? More specifically, when exactly has white feminism prioritized the rights of people of color?

Was it during the First Wave?

nor is it fair that a plantation Negro, who can neither read nor write, whose ideas are bounded by the fence of his own field and the price of his own mule, should be entrusted with the ballot. We ought to have put an educational test upon that ballot from the first. The Anglo-Saxon race will never submit to be dominated by the Negro so long as his altitude reaches no higher than the personal liberty of the saloon, and the power of appreciating the amount of liquor that a dollar will buy. New England would no more submit to this than South Carolina. ‘Better whisky and more of it’ has been the rallying cry of great dark-faced mobs in the Southern localities where local option was snowed under by the colored vote.[…]

I pity the southerners, and I believe the great mass of them are as conscientious and kindly intentioned toward the colored man as an equal number of white church-members of the North. Would-be demagogues lead the colored people to destruction. Half-drunken white roughs murder them at the polls, or intimidate them so that they do not vote. But the better class of people must not be blamed for this, and a more thoroughly American population than the Christian people of the South does not exist. They have the traditions, the kindness, the probity, the courage of our forefathers. The problem on their hands is immeasurable. The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt. The grog-shop is its center of power.

— Frances E. Willard

It couldn’t be then. That was when white suffragettes spoke disparagingly of black men, taking advantage of white supremacy in order to further their cause.

How about the Second Wave? One of the biggest voices in that particular movement was Betty Friedan, who wanted to liberate women from lives of housewifely drudgery, completely ignoring the significant subset of the population, i.e. women of color, who were already compelled to work out of necessity.

When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, more than one-third of all women were in the work force. Although many women longed to be housewives, only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique.

bell hooks

So much for Second Wave. Bored, educated white ladies mattered more than women of color.

That brings us to the Third Wave, the arguably current one. In it, we have women like Arquette erasing the problematic history of non-intersectional feminism and other white women with platforms rushing to defend her by characterizing criticism of her as “tear[ing] her down” (because she’s at least not as bad as a blatant racist or a domestic abuser, scraps being a feast during a famine and all). She echoes the way that Sheryl Sandberg tells women to lean in without acknowledging her racial privilege and advocates for feminism-lite in one-percenter style instead of working for economic equality for all women.

It’s Monday, not Thursday, so here’s a good chart from a very good article that considers the wage gap from a more intersectional perspective. The title says it all: The Gender Wage Gap Is A Chasm For Women Of Color.

It’s a chasm with a long and storied history, one that white feminists might want to at least peruse before making statements about how people of color need to fight for them even more than we have before.

Patricia Arquette & the Trouble with White Feminism

25 thoughts on “Patricia Arquette & the Trouble with White Feminism

    1. 2.1

      Meanwhile, black and Hispanic households in general make less than white ones: white households made $58,270 in 2013 at the median, while Hispanic ones made $40,963 and black ones made $34,598. Black workers, for example, have experienced a decade of consistently high unemployment and black job applicants are half as likely to get callbacks or job offers than white ones. And getting more education won’t catch them up.

      Links and more at that article I linked a few times in my post but that I’ll link here for your convenience: The Gender Wage Gap Is A Chasm For Women Of Color, In One Chart

      1. Don’t you love how the chart in an article called “The Gender Wage Gap Is A Chasm for Women of Colour, In One Chart” shows that white women are discriminated against compared to Asian women? Well technically it shows nothing at all because it doesn’t tell us what it actually measures. Is it wage per year? Per hour? What? Does it take into account marriage status (never married men are paid about the same as never married women)? How about experience? Nope. It is a chart that is useful only for dishonest people who want to convey false impressions. It tells people of intelligence nothing significant.

    2. 2.2

      Czarpo, you are correct in part. I would have to go chase down some papers I’ve previously read, and trying to include intersectionality in statistical studies can quickly reduce your degrees of freedom, making analysis less powerful, but the general impression from the academic literature recently is that the more education that women get, the lower the wage gap is, and that for women who have entered the workforce more recently, the wage gap is also smaller. This does not mean that the wage gap shrinks to zero (and this is contradicted, in fact). Women of color almost certainly continue to experience worse discrimination (and there are a lot of reasons to doubt that Asian American women are an exception) than white women across all sub-samples, but this is hard to study, because a statistical study which tries to simultaneously study all of the independent effects between a “25-year-old cishet white woman with a master’s in statistics” and “a 50-year-old Indian trans woman with a bachelor’s in theatre” would need to have a really big data set, and would have a huge problem with interaction effects, etc. So this basically doesn’t exist.

  1. 3

    Good post, Heina.

    And, true to form, there’s always someone who shows up in the comments of any article about the pay gap, to try to dispute the fact of its existence using facile excuses that the authors of pay gap studies already accounted for. It’s almost like they don’t actually READ the studies, just reflexively dismiss them.

  2. 4

    Good stuff. Still, it is too simplistic to say white women never supported people of color. For example, in somewhat of a reversal of the point, there was a division after the Civil War based on the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony opposed it on the grounds that it was discriminatory towards women, while others, including Lucy Stone supported it. Both grew out of the abolitionist movement, so it would be simplistic to say they opposed it purely on racial grounds. They actually dissolved into two separate groups, the National Women Suffrage Association and the American Woman’s Suffrage Association, based largely on this division.

    1. xyz

      I think you’re letting Anthony and company off the hook way too easily. They collaborated with and supported white supremacist, anti-Reconstruction politicians while fighting against the 15th Amendment, and used appallingly racist language to advance the idea that white women deserved the vote more than black men. Speaking as a white woman who identifies as feminist, I am very troubled by that history and take it as a sign to do better.

      1. Understandable. Though it is important to think of the context of some of those alliances. Susan B. Anthony was an abolitionist, and without a doubt devoted to social justice. In the 1860’s, this meant she founded a women’s organization devoted to ending slavery. She pushed hard for women to be included in the 14th and 15th Amendments. She failed. This put her politically in line with some strange bedfellows, such as Southern whites, who suddenly had an interest in white women voting to counterbalance the black vote. Is this a mark against her? Against the Republican voting block who didn’t want to fool with women’s rights at the same time as black rights? I’m not the judgy type, so I won’t venture a guess there. History is as history does.

    2. 4.2

      Who said that white women never supported people of color? And how is not being a horrendous white supremacist racist make you a “supporter” of people of color? If anything, it makes you neutral.

      1. Susan B. Anthony, despite the disputes about voting, was without a doubt a supporter of people of color. She was a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and formed the Women’s Loyal National League, which was devoted to end slavery. They got 400,00 signers of a petition to end slavery.

          1. I’m not saying you did, but you did ask:

            “When have white feminists “fought for” the rights of people of color? More specifically, when exactly has white feminism prioritized the rights of people of color?

            Was it during the First Wave?”

            I think the history of women’s rights and racial minority rights are pretty entwined, so it’s worth exploring.

          2. Though there were a few or even many who stood up for people of color, my point is that feminist priorities have almost always been white women’s concerns and in fact often go against women of color’s concerns.

  3. 5

    I completely agree with the general point of this article, but it’s way too easy to support it by the cherry-picking of quotes and it would be way too easy to support the opposite argument by the cherry-picking of other quotes. Even in the case of Arquette, your own post suggests that this sentence: “The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households.” doesn’t refer only or even primarily to white women.

    As for support, I think Arquette is thinking the wrong way about it, It’s not a case of supporting some specific group. It’s about identifying the causes of inequality and supporting counter-measures. For example, we should all support anonymization in evaluation and selection wherever possible and appropriate (I’m not saying that’s a magic bullet against all discrimination, but there are clearly places where it can and has worked). Perhaps we should support quotas in some situations. Perhaps we should insist on public transparency with regard to wages. If she’d given a talk on the various possibilities and their pros and cons, I could have respected that. Just talking about ‘supporting women’ is essentially empty of meaningful content, regardless of whether it’s fair.

    1. 5.1

      I’m sorry, but no. “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” says that gay people and PoC have been fought for by women, which is not necessarily true; that gay people and PoC’s struggle is over so now it’s time for gender equality, which is certainly false; and now they are obligated to fight for white women, since PoC have already gotten their rights, which is privileged nonsense.

        1. “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
          “People of color” = men, women, and neither/both of color. So at the very least, she’s asking for women of color to fight for the rights of white women.

          1. When have white feminists “fought for” the rights of people of color? More specifically, when exactly has white feminism prioritized the rights of people of color?

            I’m going to take this as a good-faith question and assume that you’re largely ignorant of both early feminist history in the USA and also early anti-racist activism in the USA. (And, really, I probably would treat this as a not-literal rhetorical flourish if you hadn’t spent most of the rest of the post doubling-down.) The answer is always. White feminists – though, of course, not all White feminists – have always supported anti-racist activism. White feminists – #notallWhitefeminists – have also always been racist assholes trying to oppress women of color. It’s always both; why generalize about “White feminists” in one way as opposed to the other? Indeed, the article from which you pull the Willard quote has a throwaway line that mentions that other (much more prominent) White feminists worked for abolitionism: “Meanwhile, many suffrage leaders — such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — had also championed black equality.” I can also name Lucretia Mott and the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, as additional prominent First Wave feminists who were anti-racists (while I’ve never even heard of Willard, not in any of the four courses I took that examined First Wave feminism – her prominence is being drastically overstated, and the organization she headed was originally devoted solely to temperance and refused to advocate for feminist goals at all). You say “white suffragettes spoke disparagingly of black men” when the article you link to shows exactly two White suffragettes speaking disparagingly of Black men, which does make the wording technically correct, but also misleadingly general. Obviously more than two did; also, many spoke in defense of Black men.

            Ditto for other ‘waves’ (and really, the Second Wave is characterized by The Feminine Mystique?) – there are always prominent feminists who are not perfect, who may even be terrible, with respect to other axes of privilege and marginalization. The problems faced by people with other marginalized identities or statuses within some feminist spaces are real, are problematic, and should absolutely be called out. Anyone actually concerned for justice generally should welcome this, becasue we’re not going to get anywhere close to perfect, maybe not even acceptable, if we refuse to examine and address problems within our movement(s). I’m not calling for anyone to stop calling out (or calling in) White feminists when they are on the wrong side of intersectional issues. I am sick to death of this divisive false narrative. Generalizing about White feminists on the basis of their worst actors ignores or erases the efforts of countless White feminists who acted and still act in solidarity with women of color, and it actively promotes an oppositional, divisive narrative that feeds into the very issue it purports to address*. I would posit that feminists are more likely than the general public (and I think this would hold true for any demographic subdivision of each of those groups e.g. White feminists and White people generally, wealthy feminists and wealthy people generally, etc.) to support efforts for equality for groups that are not specifically women. Please ditch that narrative; please keep pointing out problems you see.

            An additional note on your second question about prioritization: those White feminists who were/are anti-racists frequently prioritize issues of racial equality (becasue they care about justice and want to address the greatest areas of injustice where they can be effective). This is a part of the reason that Black men were able to vote before any women, why Black men enjoy formal legal equality (if not anything approaching practical equality) that many of our states still deny any women. The advocacy around abortion clinic support is dominated by White women heading up big organizations that are working on the issue, White women of means who are not personally facing a world in which they are unable to get abortions. That is a current example of White feminists prioritizing the needs of women of color, as women of color are disproportionately the people losing access to reproductive health services. Who are the populations facing FGM** most often? Not White women, yet combating FGM is a leading feminist cause internationally. Sex workers of color are disproportionately targeted by police (as are trans sex workers); White feminist efforts to end targeted policing of sex workers (or even decriminalize sex work) are yet another current example. So are child care services and leave time policies and even equal pay itself – women of color are disproportionately poor and impacted most by these issues. We have easily as many White feminist writers in the blogosphere defending Beyoncé’s feminism (which, I should note, looks suspiciously like Sandberg’s, becasue apparently exploiting cheap, disproportionately-female international labor for your capitalist branded-product empire is totes feminist?) as attack it (though, sadly, rarely for her work with companies that use functional slave labor, and mostly for being too sexy and/or Black). I could probably go on and on, but this is long enough as it is. I don’t think feminists of color or people of color generally owe White feminists anything; I’m making a list in response to your direct question, not to catalog thinks for which feminists of color should thank White feminists. I don’t even think that what Arquette said is unproblematic; I think your framing of her comments, a framing echoed far too often, is both false and harmful.

            *I’m NOT claiming here that pointing out racism is racist, I’m saying that a division of (latently-)racist and anti-racist feminists is more relevant here than feminists of color and White feminists, which both ignores/erases racist feminists of color and anti-racist White feminists.

            **I’m narrowly defining genital cutting performed without the consent of the person whose genitals are being cut, perhaps becasue consent is impossible because the person is an infant, as “female genital mutilation”; I do not think that voluntary surgeries can ever be legitimately described as “mutilation”, and I find the common refrain that women who have undergone genital cutting are necessarily damaged in some way, particularly in terms of sexual function or response (which isn’t even true – it can be true, but isn’t necessarily so), deeply disturbing.

          2. I think the issue is deeper than just overt instances of white feminist racism, though. Feminism, historically, even when it hasn’t actively antagonized women of color, has ignored or glossed over the concerns of women of color. That’s the issue beyond the most egregious quotes. Mainstream feminism hasn’t exactly shown a lot of sensitivity or concern for those of us standing at the intersection of sexism and racism.

  4. 6

    There’s still a (rapidly closing) window of time for Arquette to fix this, and I wish she would. The Oscars are, for the speakers, an emotional time, and it’s not unreasonable to think she merely worded that last line in the quoted paragraph poorly. But if that’s the case, or even if it’s to be made the case retroactively, she needs to get in front of this by acknowledging the bad phrasing, and issuing a better call for a more unified approach to social justice, one where none of the different marginalized groups throw some other portion under the bus.

  5. 8

    lots of #whitefeministsplaining going on in these comments.

    Yeah I am a little late on this, but she won the Oscar but failed at intersectionality. And I don’t need to hear about what her intentions were, she clearly chose to specifically call out LGBT people and people of color. And I don’t understand why. What suggests that these groups aren’t already fighting for equal pay? And was it the Congressional Black Caucus voting en masse against the Ledbetter Act? Or was it a bunch of mostly white men? Were queer people of color in charge of Hollywood studios determining that actresses would be paid less than actors?
    And perhaps she skipped those pictures in the history book of white women cursing and spitting at civil rights protesters and little black girls trying to go to school. So no sister, not all women have always stood by gay people and people of color.
    She needed to take several seats

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *