Left Behind and Broken Trust: How Feminism Let Down Women of Colour

Chelsea Kiefer

The feminist movement has achieved many rights for women in America

The feminist movement has achieved many rights for women in America, from the right to birth control, to the right to vote, and even the right to have a credit line in their own name separate from a male family member. However, the movement is also very disconnected. Many women do not recognize issues that do not impact them and fail to understand that fighting against all oppression is the only way to end any oppression completely. Unfortunately, due to race relations in the United States, the default for women is white women. This means that when feminists fight for women's rights or highlight women's issues, it has historically been issues that impact white women that are pushed to the forefront. Due to these fragmentations and race relations, including racist sexism, women of color have been left out of the feminist movement and its achievements. The separation of white women and women of color, especially African-American women, began during the time of slavery. When women of color were enslaved, many stereotypes about them were invented to justify the behavior. Enslavers spoke of enslaved women as if they were exceptionally promiscuous, using this as reasoning for rape laws to exclude their protection. Those enslaved had no right to refuse sex to a white man, so it was never legally classified as rape. Whereas white women were expected to stay home with the children, enslaved women were forced to put their work above motherhood. In fact, some had to wean their newborns so they could nurse the babies of the white families. In other cases, enslaved field workers would be forced to put their babies on the side of the field as they worked. Motherhood was a privilege of free white women. Enslavers treated enslaved women as if they only gave birth to ensure the continued sources of forced labor, and therefore did not allow them the resources to properly care for their children. Down the line, this formed the stereotypes that women of color were not fit to raise children. Oftentimes, young white children would be gifted enslaved females who their father had raped or who had been born through their father raping the mother. Raised so differently, even half-sisters had little to no chance of banding together or seeking any type of equality with one another. Once the enslaved women were eventually freed, they had learned over the course of their lives to distrust white people – white women included. This led to even less of a chance of women working together. These stereotypes have also been used to control the way black women behave or react to their unfair treatment. When women of color spoke out against their treatment, society gave them the title of angry black woman. This put the blame on the woman for how she reacted, and not on the oppressor for their treatment of enslaved people or, later, of women in color in general. Unfortunately, this is still a widely used stereotype to take the pressure off of inequality in society and act as if black women are simply over reacting and unjustifiably angry. To combat women from speaking out, the mammy character was invented to teach black women how white society expected them to behave. The racist caricature depicted the fact that society saw the purpose of black women as one of service, and that they were seen as less than their white peers. When black women are seen as less than women, it is obvious why their issues would be seen as less than women's issues. The way enslaved women and girls were treated can be seen in the racial stereotypes of modern society. This leads to African American women experiencing gender inequality very differently than their white peers. Due to the large instances of rape against young enslaved girls, they often lost their innocence to sexuality at a much younger age than free women. Still, today, black girls are perceived as older, more sexual, and more likely to get in trouble than white girls of the same age. Where enslaved women were told they were too lazy and punished for not being able to do inhumane amounts of work, or constantly live up to impossible standards, today black women face the stereotype of welfare queens. When enslaved individuals fought against doing back-breaking work for free, they were told they simply did not want to have to work for a living. In modern times, many black women are told they just do not want to provide for themselves when they ask for equality or better working conditions. As white women were protected as delicate creatures to be kept in the home, enslaved black women had to be seen as stronger, more independent, and less needing of comforts to explain and justify the fact that one group of women was not allowed to work outside of the home and the other forced to work the fields, and these racial expectations have continued to modern society, contributing to the divide that keeps women from being united. The different gender roles for black and white women may have begun the divide, but it has not been the only factor in issues facing women of color being left out of the feminist movement. In the 1830s, white women began to express their unhappiness with their situation. Their husbands and fathers held power, and white wives were often regulated to the home as housewives, in charge of the house, children, and often times even the enslaved person on the property. During this time, they described their life in the home and their marriages as a form of enslaved labor. This proves not only that they understood the harsh treatment of enslaved women, but that they would use that terminology as shock value to better their own cause while not working towards abolition.
Left Behind and Broken Trust: How Feminism Let Down Women of Colour
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As feminists became more organized in their fight for equality, black women became more of an afterthought

As feminists became more organized in their fight for equality, black women became more of an afterthought, or worse, were purposely pushed out of the conversation. In 1848, there were no black women at all present at the Seneca Falls Convention for the Women's Suffrage Movement. A few years later at the Akron Conference, in 1851, Sojourner Truth was the only non-white women in attendance. Formerly enslaved, Truth was an abolitionist as well as a feminist. She had many informative speeches to give from a unique perspective, but she could not carry the load of all black women on her shoulders alone. When women of color did make it to the meetings, their concerns were often pushed aside. In 1899, an African-American woman, Lottie Jackson, faced harsh racial discrimination when traveling on a train to the National American Woman's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meeting. Once she arrived, she asked famous feminist Susan B. Anthony to bring the transportation issues to the committee. She was quickly shut down and told they had no power to be giving orders to the railroads and it was not a matter for this convention. Susan B. Anthony is upheld through history teaching as an excellent example of a fierce woman who fought for equality, was friends with former enslaved man and activist Fredrick Douglas, and who championed for rights and the vote for women. However, when she had the chance to include all women in her scope, she shut them out time and time again. At one point, Anthony even asked Fredrick Douglas to not come to a meeting in Atlanta as she was afraid his presence would upset southern women. Though Douglas had been an honored guest at many suffrage meetings, at this point in his life a free man that stood up for women's equality, Anthony was more worried about keeping white women in the movement than standing up against racist reactions to her friend and supporter. Feminist meetings progressed in their disdain for the inclusion of women of color in the following years. In 1900, the Gender Federal of Women's Club refused the one black woman who tried to enter as a delegate - Josephine Ruffin was sent away and not allowed to attend. If women of color could never enter the meetings where women's issues were discussed and responses to those inequalities were organized, it is no surprise that their voices were never heard and the forms of oppression they experienced went unrecognized. In 1903, the NAWSA meeting highlighted the racism among some of their ranks. Belle Kearney made a speech about how the only way to end the race war was to secure white supremacy in the country. She suggested achieving this by allowing women to vote, but keeping a literacy test and a land-ownership test at the polls. Essentially, her idea was to give women the vote and then find ways to block all non-white voters, to keep the political power in the hands of white families. There was not much more these women could have done to show the country that their fight for women's rights was a fight for white women's rights only. The racial segregation spread to other organizations, as well. In 1913, a suffrage parade asked any women of color who attended to separate themselves and to form their own parade. Ten years later, in 1923, the Women's Ku Klux Klan (WKKK) was formed, showing that many white women would align with their race to get ahead in society, abandoning non-white members of their gender. As the movement advanced farther into the twentieth century, black women still continuously saw themselves being forgotten or intentionally pushed out to focus on the struggles of white women. In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminist Mystique, kicking off a new wave of feminism. Friedan's book challenged society's assumption that women would be fulfilled in their lives as wives and mothers, sticking to the home sphere and leaving careers and political power for men. Friedan was a force to be reckoned with in the feminist world, and encouraged many women to accept the fact that they could ask for more out of life. While she did amazing work for women, and has been remembered as a champion for feminism, even Friedan failed to mention women of color in her writings. Black women were not tired of being stuck in the home, because it was a luxury in which they rarely had access. A substantially higher number of black women than white had to work outside of their homes to support their families, often taking on domestic roles in the homes of white families. Whereas the nuclear family may have been a symbol of oppression to white women, it would have been freedom for most women of color to have the choice to stay at home. However, when the freedom of choice to work outside of the home was discussed, it rarely, if ever, included talks about solutions to allow women of color to be able to stay at home with their children. The women's movement in the 1960s-1970s continued to be white-centric. At this point, many black women gave up hope of aligning themselves with a movement that did not want them involved. Instead, they tried to find their place within racial movements. By 1966, sixty percent of the Black Panther Party members were black women, and was only one of the groups fighting to end racism that women joined. However, they face obstacles in this realm as well. Where feminist groups thought race issues were a distraction from their cause, race groups tended to have men in power who thought gender issues should take a back seat to race issues. The following decades were not much brighter in regards to hope for an inclusive feminist movement. In 1974, a white jailer raped Joan Little while she was serving her prison sentence. During the attack, she was able to secure a weapon and stab her rapist, killing him on the spot. Despite being found with his pants around his ankles and semen running down his thighs, Little was charged with his murder and sentenced to death. She was acquitted the following year, after public outcry and organized protests. However, being seen as more of a race issue than a gender issue, those protesters were mainly women of color. Again, proving there was little to no intersectionality among the feminist movement. As black women were seen as closer to black men than white women, making feminist see their issues as part of the race movement, not gender movement. The issue of unequal imprisonment rates continued to trouble women of color, and continued to be considered a race-only issue.
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Mass incarceration has long been seen as a societal issue impacting black males in America.

Mass incarceration has long been seen as a societal issue impacting black males in America. Despite the fact that it heavily impacts black women, and most women of color, as well, it has not been picked up as a main-stream feminist talking point. In 1984, only eighteen percent of New York City was black females, yet they were fifty-one percent of the prison population. In the 1990s, imprisonment of black women in the United States grew by over eight-hundred percent, primarily due to the fact that drugs that were prominent to communities of color consistently received harsher punishments in the laws than those commonly used by white individuals. These racist laws were and still are impacting women of color and their families at an alarming rate. Even when black men were incarcerated more than black women, it left black women at a disadvantage as they were left alone to hold down their families. If feminists considered the war on drugs, as well as mass incarceration rates, an issue to take up in the cause it would help cut down on single motherhood, single income families, poverty, and inability to access education and jobs. Prison time is not the only aspect impacting black women's success in the job field. While white beauty standards lead many women of color to straighten their hair out of social pressure or internal racism, those who do not find it difficult to secure a job with their natural hair. While feminism has fought against strict beauty standards for women, it is hard to come by a feminist movement that calls for acceptance of natural hair in the workplace, again leaving women of color out of the fight and conversation. The historic exclusion and silencing of women of color, black women in particular, has caused the separation of the feminist movement that is seen today. As women were left out of the conversations, were told their issues were not gender related, and even witnessed some movements manipulated to give white women the advantage, they learned to distrust feminists and distance themselves from the word. Today, many women of color feel unwelcomed in movements such as the Women's March, or skeptical that they will benefit from the efforts. Many women would rather not get involved than to leave empty handed. The idea of an inclusive feminist movement is not completely out of reach, though it will take work to reach the goal where white feminists are able to understand and support other forms of oppression, and women of color feel supported and welcomed enough to get involved in a movement that has pushed them out in the past. White feminists must learn to listen to women of color, and understand that just because the oppression they experience comes in different forms, does not mean it is not a gender cause to support. It is up to current feminists to understand the long past between white women in the movement, and the treatment of women of color. Understanding how feminism has gotten to where it is today will be the first step in repairing the fractions. Feminists shoulder the responsibility of proving that the movement is working towards fighting for intersectionality issues, including forms of racist sexism. They must gain the trust back of other women by showing they understand that no one is free until all women are free. Once this happens, women may be able to join forces to work together towards common goals with and for one another.
Left Behind and Broken Trust: How Feminism Let Down Women of Colour

Chelsea Kiefer

Chelsea Kiefer is an undergraduate senior at Fort Hays State University. She begins her Master’s Degree in Public History in Spring 2024, and has goals to work in a museum in the future. Chelsea lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and three spoiled rescue dogs. She is passionate about volunteering and spends time giving back to local nonprofits, such as Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge and The Produce Project. She is currently interning at the North Carolina Museum of History in the collections department, where she also volunteers as a docent. When not at working, Chelsea enjoys vegan food, baking, hiking with her dogs & husband, and like every historian, she spends much of her time reading.
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