Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about elitism in feminism. Need a primer? Catch up here.
The first time I can remember hearing the word “feminist” in any capacity was in middle school, back when we had to complete presentations on suffragists during Women’s History Month. However, it wasn’t my book report on Susan B. Anthony (or whomever it was) that served as my introduction to feminism.
My relationship with feminism has never been merely a distillation of theory in exclusively academic or intellectual spaces. It has always been informed by my lived experiences as a black woman, as well as the experiences of the women who have surrounded me over my lifetime.
Those experiences have served to ground me time and time again with the fundamental truth that when it comes to feminism, the praxis can veer significantly from the theory — especially when the figureheads can be middle-class, educated white women whose day-to-day realities diverge from that of the low-income immigrant black women who molded me.
I was raised by a woman whose life course was initially dictated by men, but who ended up having to learn a new language and raise two children nearly alone. The struggles she experienced while obtaining her own autonomy in a foreign country served as the bedrock of her approach in raising me, her oldest daughter. For my mother, being able to put money in her own bank account and survive on her own merit gave her both the means and the confidence to be able to make choices for herself and her children, ultimately separating herself from a toxic and abusive marriage centered on a lack of financial independence.
Every life lesson she taught me was predicated upon making sure I had my own independence so that my choices weren’t limited by what a man was willing to offer me — that pursuing financial liberation from men was most fundamental. Feminism, for my mother, is about survival — trying to take it day by day in a system that is wholly disinterested in your success or failure. Her experience may not merit a paragraph in a textbook, but it is just as essential to my self-determination as anything that happened at the Seneca Falls Convention.
It is that perspective that continues to counterbalance any discussions in feminism that seem devoid of nuance or context. Beyond my mother, the realities of the black women I grew up with at the Colonial Houses in Harlem, or my aunts and cousins who are forging their own paths back in the Comoro Islands, are all voices that serve to frame my viewpoint right along with bell hooks and Audre Lorde and Kimberlé Crenshaw.
When Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” took over book clubs of professional women across the nation, it was my mother who reminded me that many black women didn’t have the luxury of throwing caution to the wind and “seizing the day” in corporate environments without fear of significant obstruction or retaliation — working-class workers even less so. My mother was frankly more focused on initiatives to raise the minimum wage and what those would mean for the quality of life of lower-class communities as a whole.
Her grim outlook was colored by her decades-long work experience, trying to beat a game that was already designed to keep us out. By her mark, employing this “inside baseball” approach without lobbying to tumble the constructs that keep it in place was a method that rarely, if ever, trickled down to poor black women or addressed the majority of concerns that black women faced in the workplace. Intersectionality may not be the default word in my mom’s vocabulary, but she has long been aware of the impact of the multiple layers of oppression currently afforded to her.
Whenever I think about the mainstream’s relationships with feminism, I think back to that moment when “leaning in” took over the zeitgeist and the world lauded the genius of a women who could dedicate everything to corporate achievement. Dissent emanated not just from my mother, but from many women who didn’t check the boxes of “white, educated, married.” Feminism may indeed be truly for everybody, but as it currently stands, many narratives still tend to cater to a very specific voice. It does a disservice to the conversation to ignore this reality.
The good news? It doesn’t have to be that way. We are blessed to have access to critical thinkers from all walks of life who are able to provide incisive commentary on their own realities — women of color, different income levels and sexualities who have carved out spaces to lend their voice to detail how the multiple layers of their identities have shaped their feminism as praxis. My hope is that the coming years reflect an increased effort to amplify those voices so that their perspectives are no longer disregarded, submerged or co-opted but are instead given credit in their own regard.