What do Mary Daly, Margaret Sanger, Nellie McClung, Martha Griffiths, Gloria Steinem, Geraldine Ferraro, Julie Bindel, Robin Morgan, Germaine Greer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, and Beth Elliott have in common?
You were going to tell me they’re feminist icons, weren’t you? Awww, how cute.
That’s actually the wrong answer.
All of these ‘leading lights’ of the feminist movement are contributors to a long and not very proud history of dragging -isms into the feminist movement. Racism. Ableism. Transmisogyny and transphobia. Classism. In celebrating the undoubted contributions of these women to rights for nondisabled, white, cis women, people conveniently erase their more problematic contributions to feminist thought and ideology.
Today, the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, I am reminded that racist arguments were used by white suffragettes to lobby for their right to vote. This is far from the only example of blatant racism, or other -isms, in feminist history.
Let me be blunt. I was going to write a series of detailed posts documenting the extremely lengthy and problematic history of -isms in feminism, but instead, I’d like to turn the tables. I’d like to challenge you, Bitch readers, to find challenges to the dominant narratives when it comes to talking about feminist icons.
I suspect you’re going to have some trouble. Margaret Sanger’s discussions about eugenics, for example, are going to be tricky to find. It’s not because they didn’t happen—it’s because people are ashamed of them, and would prefer to focus on her more sanitized accomplishments. It takes some serious digging to uncover some of the dirtier facts, especially about early figures in the feminist movement, although others of our ‘sisters’ in the modern movement are proud to fly their prejudices from the highest mountain for all to see.
This does all of us a big disservice. I’m not really a fan, generally speaking, of re-writing history to erase its more unpleasant bits, but in this particular case, the problem goes beyond that. Many feminists are unaware of the deeply embedded racism, ableism, classism, ageism, and transphobia in the feminist movement. As a result, they don’t comprehend why some people feel alienated by and uncomfortable with feminism.
It’s because of the memories. A lot of the attitudes that prevailed when feminism was openly rife with -isms are still there, they are just buried beneath the surface. And, in a lot of cases, they have been internalized. Even as feminists struggle to resist social conditioning and turn to feminism to challenge dominant narratives, they absorb equally problematic narratives, but because they have a shiny new feminist covering, they’re swallowed without a qualm.
Take the reproductive rights movement, for example. It’s about bodily autonomy, right? Wrong. Actually, the origins of the movement lie in preventing poor women from breeding, protection of ‘racial integrity’, and prevention of disability.
In 1920 Sanger publicly stated that “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.” (source)
Sanger also supported euthanasia and compulsory sterilization, incidentally. Is there any wonder that disabled women are alienated by the reproductive rights movement? Especially when it continues to include classist narratives such as the policing of women who have “too many” children? And ableist ones such as righteous outrage about doctors lying about prenatal diagnoses ‘because women might be forced to have disabled children’ or horror at the thought that disabled women might choose to have children?
Is it any wonder that nonwhite women and women of color aren’t celebrating the Pill? And have serious doubts about the narratives that surround reproductive rights, since those narratives tend to center the concerns of a different group of women?
Yet, the voices of people in marginalized bodies are silenced when it comes to talking about the history of problematic attitudes within the feminist movement. We are supposed to shut up and celebrate all that these ‘icons’ did for women, even as they actively oppressed some women.
I hear it claimed that anyone who works against the rights of women is not a feminist. Well, by those lights, none of the women listed at the beginning of this piece should be considered feminists, because all of them have a history of agitating against the rights of women.
Until we start talking about this, until we start exploring the roots of the feminist movement and the origins that lie behind some problematic feminist thought, we cannot even begin to hope to create a truly intersectional feminist movement. Because those of us standing on this side of the intersection are well aware that you on the other side have run us down before, and you’ll run us over again if you get the chance.
Why does this matter when we’re talking about responses to feminist critiques of pop culture? It matters because the history of silencing people like us, telling us to wait our turn, telling us to celebrate people who advocate(d) for our deaths, plays a direct role in the silencing of our critiques of pop culture. Every time a nonwhite woman, a trans woman, an older woman, a disabled woman, a poor woman, a woman of color, a teenager, a queer woman talks about pop culture and is silenced by women in a position of privilege in the feminist movement, it’s a repeat of a very, very old pattern.