The Trouble with White Women
A Counterhistory of Feminism with Kyla Schuller
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I spent the first two decades of my conscious life figuring out how to confidently declare my feminism. I’ve spent the next (nearly) two decades of my life trying to figure out how to leave white feminism behind. That doesn’t mean that I’m trying not to be white and trying not to be a feminist: it means that I’m trying to leave behind the priorities of “white feminism” as a posture, an ideology, a way of thinking of what we should be fighting for and who should be leading the fight.
Which is why I find Kyla Schuller’s new book, The Trouble with White Women, so valuable. She’s highlighting the fundamental brokenness of white feminism, in part by showing just how long feminists of color have been doing this work — a truth underlined yesterday with the death of Black feminist scholar bell hooks.
But The Trouble with White Women is also, as Brittney Cooper explains it in the foreword, illuminating the very real damages, past and present, of white feminism. “For Black women who need white women to admit it, this book will do that,” Cooper writes. “For white women who continually ask me how to get better, I say, begin here.”
I’ve known Schuller, an associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, for nearly a decade, and have come to deeply admire the rigor and insight of her academic work — but I was also thrilled when I found out that she was writing this particular book for a broader audience. You can read a glowing review of the book in the New York Times Book Review — but I think the interview below also evidences just how vital this book is in this moment.
I wish I’d had this book as a high school student, and a college student, and a graduate student. I wish I’d had this book as a professor, and a high school teacher, and as someone with a past mentoring relationship to people new to feminism. To be clear: no book can do the work itself. But it certainly can make the work itself feel essential.
I’m going to start this with a hard and broad question but I also think it’ll allow us to start this conversation at full speed. What *is* the trouble with white women, at least within the framework of your book?
I landed on the title The Trouble with White Women (after some hesitation, tbh) because I like its double register. There’s the trouble white women pose, but also the trouble white women face. The trouble they pose is in creating a feminism that understands gender to be the primary, sometimes even the singular, power hierarchy they contest. The idea that feminism is about gender equality may initially seem a no-brainer… until you start to wonder about what happens to other systemic injustices. Where do structural racism, wild wealth disparity, and climate collapse fit within this framing? Aren’t these feminist issues too? Yet the white feminist icons I profile in this book — such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, Betty Friedan, and Sheryl Sandberg and lesser-known women such as Alice Fletcher and Janice Raymond — created a feminism that puts gender above all.
The result of this single-minded drive to lift women up to positions equal with (white) men, is that white-dominated feminism becomes a ready partners of capitalism, white supremacy, and empire. If you have a one-dimensional notion of equality, such as getting women to the top, then you end up leaning in to all the other inequities that have created the top in the first place. Sandberg puts it bluntly: “a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies, and men ran half our homes.” But her status as a feminist billionaire Facebook COO really exposes the unbearable contradictions of the idea that putting a woman in charge redeems the systems she runs!
At their worst, white women even find feminism compatible with explicit white supremacist, nationalist platforms. One of the most shocking details I encountered while researching this book is that late in the Trump presidency, 42% of women who identify as feminists vote Republican. So the trouble with white women is not only that they vote, in near majorities, for far-right candidates in national elections and in Alabama and Virginia. The real trouble is that a good chunk of these women call themselves feminists!
Meanwhile, well-off white women are lured by the rights and opportunities their brothers, fathers, and perhaps boyfriends or husbands possess. The men of their social world set their standard, and they confuse attaining those privileges as true equality. This is the trouble white women face. The full privileges of whiteness are dangled before them: they want to eliminate the gender barriers that prevent them from attaining it! And the feminism they are most likely to encounter, until quite recently, reinforced the idea that gaining the rights and opportunities enjoyed by wealthy white men was the goal. But it’s white women’s task to understand that liberatory feminism dismantles whiteness, rather than reinforces it.
My goal is less to judge than to organize: to bring new audiences to the anti-racist, anti-capitalist feminism that’s been sidelined, yet thriving on the margins, for nearly 200 years.
White bourgeois feminism has come to seem like feminism itself over the past nearly two hundred years. The notion that feminists fight for gender equality, full stop, has become naturalized. Yet there’s always been another version of feminism, reaching back to the early days of women’s rights in the 1850s and 1860s, that understands sex inequality to be threaded within other major structural forms of power, such as systemic racism, the forced assimilation of Indigenous people, and the extractive forces of capitalism. Kimberlé Crenshaw brilliantly named and theorized this approach as intersectionality in 1989. Yet its history reaches back. That’s the counterhistory I show in this book, that an anti-racist feminism has been there from the very beginning. And this history has been brought to light by Black women historians like Paula Giddings, Angela Davis, and Nell Irvin Painter over and over again, yet doesn’t break into the mainstream as the history of feminism because gender-primary white feminism gets all the oxygen.
Can you talk more about how the general ideas for this book coalesced — and how your previous research and grounding informed them? In other words, how did your greater intellectual journey lead you here — and also writing for a popular (as opposed to academic) audience?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about when I first realized I was a feminist. It was late at night during finals week of my first quarter of college (University of Oregon), in 1995. I was studying with two male classmates, and they asked me — “do you ever feel like you’re treated differently because you’re a woman?” I thought about it for a few seconds and said “no.” I wanted to be one of the guys. But it didn’t sit right with me, and I kept thinking about it over winter break. I went to my grandparents, where my grandfather trotted out one of his favorite “jokes” -- looking me in the eye and saying “women are meaner than people.” I watched how he belittled my grandmother. And bored, looking for idle reading in those pre-internet days, I picked up an encyclopedia volume and found the entry “woman.” “A woman can be many things in society,” it cheerfully explained, such as doctor, secretary, or teacher. It seemed very weird, a three-page article summing up Woman. So I got the M volume off the shelf and under Man, read — “see Human Being.”
And then I realized. The idea that women are an aberration, while men are people and human beings, was even built into my friends’ well-meaning question. They didn’t say are you treated differently than men. Just — are you treated differently from the unspoken norm — us. And I quickly became a women’s studies major, and soon enough, a PhD student in multiethnic literature. And this has given me an opportunity to dig deep into the social construction of gender and race.
In the past two decades, my academic work has focused on investigating how exactly the modern concepts of race and sex difference came into being. They’re both inventions of the nineteenth century, and of race science specifically. What I mean by that is while there have long been ideas of difference based on physicality and appearance, racial groups and male/female sex didn’t get codified as states of absolute, unmodifiable, biological difference until the race science of the nineteenth century. Before then, bodies were understood to change according to climate and experience. But in this new era, difference was drilled down into the tiniest substances of the body. In the 1880s, the feminist naturalist Antoinette Brown Blackwell argued that “sex means differentiation in every process of body and mind.” Sex “modifies every drop in the veins” and extends “even to every hair of the head.” Sex was not located primarily in the genitalia: it tentacled throughout the flesh. And today sex is often (erroneously) located down to each individual cell.
But the male/female binary wasn’t universal. Instead, race scientists and some white women feminists like Blackwell argued that sex difference was an evolutionary achievement. They argued that whites alone had evolved into the state of complete binary sex, a state of mental, physical, and emotional difference. What I want to emphasize is that they didn’t just argue that only whites could achieve the social roles of pure womanhood and manhood. Race scientists also insisted that the very physical and mental state of female and male was a specialization only whites had attained.
This got me thinking! What, then, does the project of the rights of women mean in this context? If mainstream thought reserved Woman for white women alone, then was feminism inherently going to be a project of whiteness when it launched in the nineteenth century? And what are the implications of this now? This book results from me thinking through those two questions over the past decade. And I found that women’s rights as an isolated agenda was always going to be cozy with white supremacy. Woman became an equivalent of Man — an unmarked universal that erased entire groups of people.
Meanwhile, the women and men fighting for a broader form of liberation since Seneca Falls in 1848 would be less legible in part because they had to interrogate so many institutions and inequities at once. And not only monumental dispossessions like slavery and capitalism, but also their very right to organize as women and men. So their work hasn’t been called feminism as often, even as they offer the most useful paths forward. And that’s what I highlight in this book as well — this counterhistory of feminism.
One of things I’m proudest of in this book is the range, that it covers underappreciated Black poets, Dakota/Lakota struggles for sovereignty, early Black supporters of birth control, and trans musicians in the 1970s, in addition to more recognizable feminist struggles. This was possible because of the seven years I spent in graduate school reading broadly in Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American literature and culture.
In some ways I’ve always wanted to write for a general audience. I spent college, after that fateful conversation, in the women’s studies aisles of Eugene’s used bookstores. But I was also scared. Did I have the chops, and would anyone want to hear what I had to say? In the past years though, led especially by Black feminists like Brittney Cooper and the rest of the Crunk Feminist Collective, the lines between public and academic feminist writing have blurred. And publishers want PhDs again, as long as we’re not writing like PhDs! But to overcome my fears, I had to give myself explicit permission. I literally told myself repeatedly, in early spring of 2019, “I give myself permission to want a bigger writing career.” And within a week, I woke up one morning with a clear thought in my head: I’m going to write a history of white feminism. I started outlining the book almost immediately.
For me, telling this history in the form of stories instead of dry logic was liberating. Entire parts of my brain and heart opened up when I wrote these narratives, complete with dialogue, setting, and dramatic tension. Now I’m hooked! And of course, the narrative style is a lot more fun to read, too, and that was my largest goal for the book: to use my research to make a useful, public intervention into white supremacy.
I appreciated how the book provided different types of audiences with different tools: if you’re a white bourgeois feminist, for example, it gives you a lot to sit with, and the tools to dismantle and rethink the (white) feminist project. But I also think that the way you structure the book offers feminists of color a way to talk about and otherwise give shape to problems, fault lines, intrinsic failings of “feminism” just generally.
As Brittney Cooper puts it in the foreword, “It’s not that we haven’t been here; it’s that white women have refused to listen. For Black women who need white women to admit it, this book will do that. For white women who continually ask me how to get better, I say, begin here.” How much of this was intentional? Or, more bluntly, how did you do this?
I’m glad you think it works! I had one objective as a narrator: to disappear. I chose to immerse the reader in the thoughts, speech, emotions, and shortcomings of white feminists and the intersectional feminists who created a truly liberatory feminism, so the reader can experience these histories for themselves. This is probably the place to say that each chapter pairs a leading gender-primary, white feminist with a feminist activist who was organizing around the same issue--such as abolition, birth control, and trans rights — but from a multi-pronged perspective we would now call intersectional.
When I decided upon this structure of pairings, I knew that there was a sidelined anti-racist, anti-capitalist feminism led by Black and Indigenous women that needed more exposure. Yet I was stunned to discover just how strong the counterhistory was at every key juncture--and how marginalized. Today, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to create a more just feminism. It’s been there all along! And I am not discovering the counterhistory. Black women scholars have been doing this work since at least the 1980s. What I am doing is providing another avenue to encounter the long history of multi-issue feminism, and to appreciate its depth and breadth. And I’m showing how this pro-Black, pro-worker feminism has not been ignored — it’s been deliberately trampled upon.
I bring the conflict and tension between these two forms of feminism down to the ground to uncover how systemic change happens. But it also reveals just how often a liberatory feminism was literally under the heel of white feminism. One of the most shocking details I learned appears in the chapter about Betty Friedan and Pauli Murray’s work to reignite feminism in the 1960s.
In the 1950s, before Friedan tapped Murray for her ideas about getting feminists into the streets to fight employment discrimination, and before Friedan argued that housewives should liberate themselves by hiring out their menial tasks, Murray actually worked for Friedan, anonymously. At this point, Murray was incredibly accomplished. She had obtained a master’s in Law from Berkeley, provided much of the legal rationale for Brown vs Board of Education (uncredited), written a book about civil rights case law that Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible,” and had even become the first African American to be awarded a MacDowell Colony artist residency, on the strength of her poetry. Yet she couldn’t get full-time work as a lawyer. So she earned her living by working as an anonymous typist — often for Betty Friedan!
This just blows my mind. And over and over again, the larger structure of white feminism securing more liberties for white, well-off women by further marginalizing women of color and the poor plays out on the individual level. I think this makes for compelling reading, too. Or, at least, it was fascinating to write!
The book is about how white feminism as a practice maintains power for a particular *type* of woman, and that identity is intersectional — a power gleaned from whiteness, of course, but also from cisnormativity and, in many cases, ability to adhere to larger ideals of femininity.
In your chapter on transfeminism, you write that “double essentialisms characterize the TERF position: biological essentialism and experience essentialism. The former assumes that women have a common embodiment and the latter that women’s experiences of those bodies are likewise shared. Both positions are two sides of the same white feminist coin.” Can you unpack that more? And, if you’re up for it, what can the history of TERFism tell us about why it’s gained such a foothold in the UK in particular right now?
To put it bluntly, TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, are a type of white feminist. It’s not immediately obvious, because the TERF position that “sex is real” and that trans people violate the basic laws of nature, seems at first to have nothing to do with race or racism. It seems to be straightforward biological essentialism —that is, the idea that biology is destiny. And TERFs are biological essentialists! But that position is saturated by the history of racism and race science. Going back to my academic work, their belief that sex is real refuses the extent to which the absolute male/female binary itself was invented by race science over the decades. But bodies and lives belie the binary. This, by the way, will likely be the topic of my next general audience book — Sex is Not Real: The Racist History of the Male/Female Binary. Though I plan on taking a year-long nap before starting it!
TERF thinking contains another essentialism, too. Experience essentialism, which is probably a term I’m making up, identifies the fantasy that there is a universal Woman. This fantasy says Woman has the same girlhood, a similar sexuality, a common experience of menstruation, and illness, and partnerships, and family. Trans women, TERFs say, can’t be women because they weren’t raised with this universal experience of Woman. But Woman is a white fantasy! Audre Lorde called it out in the 1970s: there is no common, homogenous female experience. Women of color have dramatically higher rates of breast cancer, sexual assault, obtrusive medical procedures than white women, as she explained in a famous letter to philosopher Mary Daly. There is no common experience of girlhood or womanhood or of living in bodies deemed female, because gender is only one aspect of power. Our lives are shot through with the effects of capitalism, empire, racism, homophobia and transphobia, disability injustice, climate disparity…. we could go on.
Behind the insistence that only cis women are Woman lies the hidden belief that Woman is white.
The animosity of UK feminists toward trans feminism and trans women is gutting. And it’s everywhere — even all over the pages of the relatively progressive paper, The Guardian. I am no expert here. Sophie Lewis wrote an excellent op-ed about this in the New York Times that I recommend. But one clue lies in their suspicion of gender, full stop. Many TERFs don’t call themselves TERFs — they prefer “Gender Critical feminism.” What they mean is that the ideology of gender is too fluid, too lax, and too dangerous. They believe in Woman, and she is Real. In other words, they have retreated from analyzing how power materializes as ideas about sex roles — that’s what gender names! — and have doubled down on biological essentialism and identity. They fight for Woman, and they argue that trans women are erasing Her.
It is a very regressive move, a kind of ultimate white feminism. And I do think the lack of a similar intersectional counterhistory of feminism in the UK has a lot to do with it. In the absence of the large movements against white supremacy we’ve seen in the US over the last two hundred years, white feminism could run less opposed. On top of that, historically, white English women often embraced the British empire as a means of bolstering their own influence — Lewis helpfully makes this point, and Ruby Hamad’s recent book White Tears/Brown Scars takes on white feminism and English empire over the centuries. Certainly there have been intersectional UK feminists! But they have been even more sidelined than in the US, and organize in smaller numbers. So UK feminism has become more naturalized as the rights of Woman — a defense of an imperiled identity threatened by men, rather than part of a fight against broad systemic injustice.
Whose words and work makes you feel like there is a way forward right now?
I think white people especially still have a lot to learn from the lessons of Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, James Baldwin, and the perennially relevant Angela Davis. And for thriving skills, such as how to find joy in the face of misery, fiction writers like Grace Paley and Samuel Delany are helpful. And so many other classics from the 1970s and 1980s!
As a political strategy, intersectional feminism urges us to form alliances across identities and positions in order to build power successfully. Black Lives Matter leaders have been exceptional in showing what intersectional organizing looks like on a large scale, in the streets. In a different vein, in Washington, the expanding Squad models what coalitional politics means. It doesn’t look like purity or even always getting what you want, but it does mean forming strategic alliances that can inch us forward, and prevent us from sliding ever further back, even when that means aligning yourself at times with people with much less radical politics than yours. (Hello, Biden and Pelosi!) And Tarana Burke’s #MeToo ripples with extraordinary effectiveness across the world, such that Japan, for example, is in the midst of its first major public feminist awakening (or so I understand!)
There’s so many great writers working today who illuminate how we can insist simultaneously on compassion and justice, on coming from a place of forgiveness and generosity (especially toward oneself!) while always pushing toward freedom — Mira Jacob, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Kiese Laymon, and T Kira Madden, to name just a few.
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is a less-obvious but no less crucial guidepost. One of the most intriguing things I learned about intersectional feminism is how often its key figures reach past the human plane and into the universe in their notion of justice. For white feminists, the goal is to seize power, and the rights of the individual set the horizon of its vision. But for intersectional feminists like Frances Harper, Zitkala-Ša, and even AOC, power doesn’t even belong to humans in the first place. Instead, true power is a quality of the universe, even of the divine. It is something we can tap into, but it extends far beyond our capacity to grasp it.
I find this approach so instructive for navigating the climate crisis we face. We need to un-think that the earth exists to support us and that the greatest force in the universe is the individual human mind. And especially, that putting Woman in charge will change things! Instead, we need to learn how to live with and learn from forest and water and mountain. (Among many other strategies, of course.) It’s not just a collective approach — it’s a spiritual one, one that admits humans are only a small piece of the cosmos. And once again, Black, Indigenous and other women of color have been leading the way.
You can buy The Trouble with White Women here (it would make a FANTASTIC gift to a feminist in your life, a local library, or, you know, just yourself). You can follow Kyla on Twitter here. And if you’d like more of her writing, I love this essay, published earlier this year, on climate grief and chronic disease.
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