White Feminism by Design

November 10, 2021   •   By Marcie Bianco

The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism

Kyla Schuller

“WHITE FEMINISM” MAY appear to be a 21st-century coinage amounting to a clever hashtag: an anachronism cast onto women’s history to “undermine,” “divide,” or — my favorite lament — “erase” women. But several recent publications prove that the opposite is true. In fact, as these books show, the origins and impulses of white feminism lie at the very foundation of the US feminist movement.

Published within two years of each other, Koa Beck’s White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind (2021), Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color (2020), Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption (2021), and, most recently, Kyla Schuller’s The Trouble With White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism (2021) begin by observing that “white feminism” is not an indictment of a person’s skin color but refers to a political position that promotes white supremacy through equality efforts. Writing from different perspectives and disciplinary methodologies, each author reveals how efforts for “equality” that are singularly focused on gender — to the exclusion of not just other identities but other values — only reify the very systems of oppression that uphold and defend the power of white men.

Whether an “ideology” (Beck), a cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance to “consider the role of whiteness and the racial privilege […] in feminist concerns” (Zakaria), or a “political position” expressing an all-encompassing “biopolitics” (Schuller) that even renders itself in defensive affectations of “white tears” to further justify racial violence (Hamad), one thing is glaringly clear:

White feminism is no accident.

It has been carefully, intentionally designed for centuries.

This is why, as Schuller explains in The Trouble with White Women’s opening paragraphs, it should be no surprise that a majority of white women voted for US President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. And it’s not, Schuller distinguishes herself from popular commentaries, that these women “chose their whiteness and their class status over their gender.” This is a false dichotomy. Rather, these women, she contends, have not voted against their interests but for their interests — as women. And, more precisely, as feminists.

“For nearly two hundred years,” Schuller explains,

a large and vibrant tradition of white women has framed sex equality to mean gaining access to the positions historically reserved for white middle-class and wealthy men. The goal, for these feminists, is to empower women to assume positions of influence within a fundamentally unequal system. Many of these feminists even argue, explicitly or implicitly, that their whiteness authorizes their rights. They weave feminism, racism, and wealth accumulation together as necessary partners, a phenomenon that has a tidy name: white feminism.

This strand of feminism is mainstream feminism, from “girl bosses” to anti-sex-work advocates. The brilliance of Schuller’s work is that she reveals that white feminism isn’t simply a politics, rather it is a mandate of a biopolitics — a wielding of science and government to regulate populations — that extends into the realms of the sciences, economics, and morality that empowers “woman” through strengthening and securing “whiteness.”

Women who vote for misogynists, who defend rapists, who climb the corporate ladder are, in fact, doing so in accordance with their gender politics of empowerment and equality. This is because, Schuller argues, the gender binary of “man” and “woman” is a racial structure. Who gets to be a “man” and who gets to be a “woman,” she explains, evoking a long history of Black feminist thought, is very much a function of whiteness. The design of white feminism, as a project of biopolitics, isn’t collective recognition, well-being, or care; instead, it’s a deployment of the idea of equality to shore up privilege around those marked as white.

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The Trouble with White Women consists of a sequence of counterhistories in which Schuller situates two contemporaries — one representing a white feminist and another an intersectional feminist — in conversation to reveal that “white feminists weren’t just products of their time — they chose to promote competitive, resource-hoarding ideologies, even as their contemporaries made different decisions.” Instead of depicting feminist disagreement within temporally tidy and tiresome “waves,” Schuller shows how mainstream feminism’s efforts for equality evolved according to the latest techno-scientific developments that were, again, weaponized in support of a broader, white nationalist aim of population control. These efforts demanded the dispossession and erasure of all people who did not “fit” or comply with this goal — the work of intersectional feminists, much of which has been marginalized, buried, and omitted, has been to challenge the many machinations of this biopolitical agenda through liberatory efforts that center the most marginalized in society.

Schuller’s history of US feminism unfolds through civilizing, cleansing, and optimizing biopolitical mandates in the service of whiteness. A “civilizing agenda” in the 19th century “promised that anyone could be made useful to white society.” This mandate, she explains, became a strategy to cleanse society — most notoriously through the 20th-century eugenics push that sought “sexual autonomy for the so-called fit, reproductive violence for the so-called unfit.” Today, the mandate is that of self-optimization, whereby “improving the self, and lifting up some of the other women from those lofty heights, has become white feminism’s ultimate goal.” Schuller analyzes how the tactical decisions of white feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Bette Friedan, and Margaret Sanger — the most recognized feminists considered to be the “leaders” of the movement — not only shored up their womanhood and whiteness but also gifted them with power, privilege, and, in some cases, equal rights to white men.

Through this careful analysis, Schuller shows how systems do not manifest out of thin air — that they aren’t agents that operate distinct from human action. “Seemingly impermeable structures of oppression are reinforced or destroyed through groups of people making deliberate decisions over and over again to defend their own interests or to fight for the commons,” she explains. “Understanding how feminists have made those decisions can help us navigate similar dilemmas are we face them today as individuals and as collectives.” Rather than making broad, sweeping statements about historical events or personages, Schuller pinpoints the actual human choices that have created and maintained the practices, policies, and values that we identify as operating in “systems of oppression.” In acknowledging that humans design these systems that perpetuate harm, Schuller offers a refreshing contrast to a particular strand of 21st-century white feminism that willfully divorces human responsibility — arguably, to prevent the white male discomfort and anger that would threaten these white feminists’ power and popularity — for these systems.

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An associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Schuller laid the theoretical groundwork for The Trouble with White Women in her first book, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2018), in which she reveals how contemporary categories of race and sex originate in 19th-century biological determinism.

As “a biopolitical subjectivity,” Schuller defines “woman” as a “racialized concept” that “represents a tactic of risk management grounded in ideas of relative bodily feeling, responsiveness, and malleability that correlate with the perceived properties of genitalia.” Womanhood was and, as current debates indicate, is a highly policed identity only accessible to those who do not challenge normative notions of gender or race.

What this has meant for feminism, Schuller elaborates, is that “it works within biopolitical priorities to administer bodies according to distinct physiological types that protect the normatively sexed bodies of whiteness, root womanhood in the possession of penetrable vagina, and condemn the bodies of everyone else.” White feminism “works within the racial logic of sex differentiation,” whereby “racial power has delineated the notion of woman and its corresponding physical attributes and affective capacities.” Who gets to be a woman has been determined by the color of one’s skin and how one’s body meets the arbitrary scientific designations that equate gender with genitalia.

As a project of biopolitics, white feminism assists white supremacy — choosing which lives matter, which lives are supported, and which lives are granted with human dignity. In The Trouble with White Women, Schuller acknowledges the long tradition of Black feminists who have written about how “woman” was an identity denied to Black, brown, and Indigenous women. Identity, therefore, is not innate to a person but is a power structure that is produced by negotiation — between how a person perceives themself and how society perceives them. Integrating Black feminism and biopolitics, Schuller writes that white feminism “produces the fantasy of a common, even uniform, identity of Woman, a morally upright creature whose full participation in the capitalist, white supremacist status quo will allegedly absolve it of its sins.” Beck, too, highlights the aspirational morality of white feminism when she observes that “white feminism aspires to and affirms the illusion of whiteness, and everything it promises, even if those who practice it are not.”

And it is here, Hamad meticulously details in White Tears/Brown Scars, where “white tears” function as a manipulative “tactic of risk management” to protect whiteness and white power by claiming victimhood and hurt feelings that are thrust onto Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous women. “This is the common strategy of white feminism,” Hamad says, explicitly drawing upon Schuller’s biopolitical framework, “to align with women of color when it suits, trumpeting a nonexistent sisterhood as a mask for appropriating our work to advance the myth of a better world run by women.” When white women are challenged or their motivations are exposed, the tears flow. “[T]he cost of white tears is brown scars,” Hamad explains. “White settler-colonial society could not bear to face its own history, so it invented an entirely new one instead. In this tale of good versus evil, colonialism is transformed from a traumatic invasion into a benign settlement that brought the gift of civilization.”

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According to Schuller’s genealogy, Elizabeth Cady Stanton “invented white feminism.” Her campaign for women’s suffrage “framed white civilization as imperiled until it made room for white women’s leadership, which she figured as more moral, just, and ultimately profitable than men’s leadership.” These white feminists did not develop solidarity with abolitionists seeking the vote for formerly enslaved men via the 15th Amendment, and Schuller quotes extensively from Stanton’s speeches and writings to show how “she opted to frame universal male suffrage as menacing white women’s dignity and purity.”

Situated alongside Stanton and like-minded white feminists, including Susan B. Anthony, who colluded with white supremacists to fight against Black enfranchisement, is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black feminist-abolitionist and poet who “advocated for alliances and contact between enslaved and free people, feminists and antiracists, and spiritual belief and secular politics.” The opposing visions of Stanton and Harper represent the schism that ruptured the American Equal Rights Association, an organization with the mission of winning women’s suffrage.

Harper challenged the myopic, and racist, views held by Stanton and others who overlooked the lives of and specific forms of oppressed experienced by Black women. And she was not shy about calling out this white nonsense. “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life,” she said in one of her lectures. “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. […] I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”

Stanton might have failed to prevent the passage of the 15th Amendment, but she guaranteed that the efforts of feminist abolitionists like Harper were excised from historical record. In her six-volume History of Woman Suffrage that she compiled with the assistance of Anthony, Stanton deliberately omitted Harper’s speeches. “If Harper’s name is unfamiliar to you today,” Schuller remarks, “the singular authority of Stanton and Anthony wielded over the ‘official’ account of the suffrage battle is a significant reason why.”

Civilizing not only included tactics of erasure but also of severance, assimilation, and dispossession. Schuller turns to Alice Fletcher as the epitome of settler-colonial feminism, who made a career out of “sever[ing] Natives from the lands with which they lived in reciprocal relation.” Profiting from stealing and privatizing Native lands, this severance also included removing Native children from their families. Many children were placed into boarding schools, Fletcher and other Native reformists believed, to rescue them from “savagery” and “barbarism.” As Schuller explains,

For Fletcher and other white feminists, assistance meant taking guardianship over people of color. Fletcher felt that Indigenous people were not doomed to be forever suspended in the barbarian stage of development. They could be saved, trained into the habits of civilized sex specialization.

Yankton Dakotan Zitkala-Ša was one of these Native children. She was placed into a boarding school — the suggestively named White’s Manual Labor Institute — established, Schuller explains, “in the early 1880s for Indigenous youth […] to produce assimilated workers.” She continues: “It was also an apparatus of death, for boarding schools’ seemingly benevolent intentions to train Indigenous youth simultaneously destroyed tribal communities.” Later, as an adult, Zitkala-Ša utilized her education to document and publish the stories from her own Yankton Dakota tribe. She was, Schuller notes, “the very first Native American woman to tell her story in print in her own voice, free of translation, editing, or other forms of mediation,” and her publications “reveal a political commitment that intertwined women’s rights with Indigenous self-determination and cultural renewal.”

For Schuller, the intersectional feminism of Zitkala-Ša, Harper, Harriet Jacobs, Pauli Murray, and Sandy Stone emphasized the ethic of self-determination — a freedom practice and centerpiece of liberatory politics found in definitive works by Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, among other Black feminists. Practices of self-determination directly challenge white feminist tactics of erasure and dispossession. If Schuller’s counterhistory proves anything, it’s the importance — the historical importance — of controlling the narrative.

White feminism’s cleansing mandate extends to all people who fall outside scientific classification and political regulation. White feminism’s fight for gender equality has resulted in not only racism but transphobia — the subject of Schuller’s penultimate chapter on gender essentialist Janice Raymond and trans feminist Sandy Stone. “In the TERF [trans exclusionary radical feminist] worldview,” she explains,

race, capitalism, and family are all distinctly secondary to the primary fact of sex identity, an identity it insists flows transparently from the body at birth. In this updated version of white feminism, being a girl or a woman is biological, self-evident, and creates a unified political class unto itself. The false universal “woman,” rooted in allegedly similar biology and experience, lies at the center of TERF politics.

Where Schuller’s argument falls short is in her final section on optimizing, defined as the “striving for a streamlined efficiency in which personal health and happiness and feminist empowerment are indistinguishable from capitalist productivity” and exemplified by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her brand of “lean in feminism.” What differentiates self-determination from self-optimization, it seems, is that the latter is done in the name of wealth accumulation and professional advancement. Yet both are products of drives, of ambition and desire. Considering the examples of antiracist feminists provided in the book, who were ceaseless and tireless in their resistance efforts, and who attempted to leverage capitalist institutions to the best of their ability, Schuller’s critique of self-optimization would be strengthened through further, clearer differentiation from self-determination. Even Schuller recognizes that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — her intersectional feminist counterexample to Sandberg’s white feminist — is “still forced to navigate the optimizing trap that demands unceasing work [the privileged site of self-development] and unremitting excellence.”

That capitalism is so utterly unavoidable is perhaps why Schuller’s proposed solution to this self-optimization feels both insufficient and unpromising: “The solution instead may be simply doing less. Producing less, buying less, working less, demanding less of ourselves and our leaders.” Harriet Jacobs, Schuller tells us, “spent seven years in the living grave” and then, after finding safe passage north, endeavored for years to write and publish her story, titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Pragmatically speaking, not everyone can afford to take a break, and there is, sadly, no rest when it comes to doing the freedom practices constitutive of an intersectional feminism. And, in this world run by mediocre white men and their white feminist accomplices, I cannot imagine demanding less of our leaders, or ourselves.

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“[T]o know the counterhistory of feminism is to have an emerging blueprint for a collective future,” Schuller concludes. Yet, it is a past and a future largely imagined with one mission in mind: equality.

Schuller, Beck, Hamad, and Zakaria all demonstrate that white feminism advocates for equality on “the single issue of sex equality alone,” to use Schuller’s language. From the moment of white feminism’s very inception in the United States in the mid-19th century, white women strove to attain equal rights to white men, Beck states plainly, “particularly through education, property, and most importantly, the right to vote.” The consequence, Schuller explains, is that

for nearly two centuries, white feminists have set lifting white women into the nation’s structures of power as the ultimate goal, and they’ve framed that rise up the hierarchy as the very meaning of equality — even when it requires, by definition, lifting up some through pushing-down many others.

Of the four, Zakaria’s Against White Feminism offers the most rigorous critique of equality, especially when it is conceived of as an American ideal “gifted to” or imposed upon the rest of the world. In her examination of the US invasion in Afghanistan and Bush’s “War on Terror,” for example, she explains how equality functions as a cloak of imperialism, and as a justification for war:

American values respected women’s right to equality, and so the imposition of American values was crucial to getting people in these lesser states to learn to respect women’s rights. […] American feminists did not question loudly enough the wisdom of exporting feminism through bombs and drones. Trickle-down feminism, everyone assumed, would miraculously fast-forward the realization of a gender-equal, free-market world created in the self-image of America.

Gender equality understood as parity with white men, including the assumption of privileges and rights historically afforded to white men, does nothing to fundamentally change the systems, institutions, and structures that demand oppression, discrimination, and exploitation to function. These efforts merely and insidiously expand the reach of these systems by including more people who are willing to conform to and be complicit with the system’s demands. And Schuller is right: “Inclusivity within capitalism is a fool’s errand.”

If, as Schuller and I agree, staying “in terms of the system […] merely reproduce[s] the system,” then feminists must interrogate the very terms of that system, including its central, democratic value: equality.

But, is it equality that women really want? To have what white men have? To value what they value? To join them in the C-Suite or on the frontlines of another American imperialist war?

The critiques of white feminism seem to think so, despite having shown that “equality” is sentimentalized as a democratic ideal that is really a ruse to maintain systems of oppression. Schuller, by way of conclusion, emphasizes that “[f]eminists may support equality for women, but our true task is to determine what exactly equality looks like.” Others similarly pose the question — and the challenge — directly to white women:

“White women have a choice,” Hamad says.

It is a choice they have always had to some degree, but never before have they been in such a strong position to make the right one. Will white women choose to keep upholding white supremacy under the guise of “equality” or will they stand with women of color as we edge ever closer to liberation?

In the context of Schuller’s biopolitical framing, I would posit that equality is nothing less than a logic of whiteness, a value designed to be achieved through the very same civilizing, cleansing, and optimizing impulses enacted to produce a homogeneous society complicit with the white power structures in place.

This is largely because equality is understood as an equation that demands sameness — what Zakaria refers to as the “cult of relatability.” Politically and economically, this manifests as parity — quantifiable numbers and statistics. But who has devised this equation in the systems in which we operate? We are all different: each of us comes from different backgrounds, with different support structures, different advantages and opportunities. Recognizing our differences is not a declaration of equality but rather the acknowledgment of the dignity of each human being.

Equality, I would argue, especially in the hands of white feminism, is a form of colorblindness cloaking white fragility to protect people from uncomfortable truths. This was even a point of conversation on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Garcelle Beauvais labored the entire season to convince all the white housewives that “we’re not equal. […] We [Black women] are not treated equally as you are.” In no sense are we treated the same or equally in society — even when it is written into the law, from the bogus “separate but equal” of Plessy v. Ferguson to the “the equal right to vote” supposedly enshrined by the 19th Amendment.

Yet, who actually has the right to vote? Who has been stifled, threatened, and even prevented from exercising this constitutional right? Which communities are prevented wholesale from exercising this equal right, and which categories of people are completely denied this right? Voter suppression laws are not of history — they are happening now.

Rejecting equality as feminism’s endgame is also one way that we as a society can take account of — and hold ourselves accountable to repairing — the horrifying history of colonialism and slavery established for white people’s prosperity and the United States’s global domination. To delude ourselves into believing the lie of equality amounts to nothing less than the historical erasure of slavery, of colonialism, and of gender violence that all work in the service of white supremacy.

Another part of the counterhistory of feminism — one also at the foundations of a Black feminist tradition — provides a pathway toward the recognition of human dignity, of a respect for all of our differences. This version of feminism fosters a true sense of belonging not through a reinvention of equality but by asking, to echo Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s call, how we get free.

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Marcie Bianco is a writer and editor based in California.