Crossposted from DemocraticDiva.com
I cheered right along with Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez when Patricia Arquette made an impassioned demand for women’s rights and, specifically, pay equity in her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress last Sunday. And then she was interviewed backstage and said some other things:
“So the truth is, even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that are applied that really do affect women. And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
The part in bold is what several people took to social media to express their offense over at what they perceived as the erasure of women from “gay people” and “people of color”. Others immediately came to Arquette’s defense, claiming that the hysterical PC police were bashing her unfairly over words perhaps poorly chosen in the midst of an exhilarating and emotional moment. I agree that it was most likely not Arquette’s intention to exclude non-cis/straight and non-white women in her comments but the women in those groups have a lot of experience having their identities and concerns ignored, even by well-intentioned white women. And when they point out that you’re doing that, it’s rude (to say the least) to become defensive and double-down on the denials, as Arquette and her defenders have done since Sunday.
But set that aside for a minute and examine the problem, on its merits, with her “call to action”, as more than one of the people defending her to me described it to me. And that is that her claim was wrong. Factually wrong. Gobsmackingly so.
It reflected an all-too-common lack of historical knowledge of how feminism has played out in this country since the 19th century. More on that from Imani Gandy:
Furthermore, I need to disabuse everyone of the notion that white women have spent centuries fighting for the rights of everyone. That’s simply not the case. The truth is far more complicated than that. Yes, there are white women who were staunch abolitionists. And then those same white women turned and found common cause with white supremacists in order to advance their own interests.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, for example, fought long and hard against slavery only to about-face and join forces with George Frances Train to campaign for women’s suffrage under the slogan “Woman first and negro last.” It was Stanton and Anthony who sought the aid of unabashed white supremacists in their struggle for (white) women’s suffrage. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, “some of the most ardent suffrage activists were outright racists like Rebecca Felton, who fervently supported lynching, and Kate Gordon who eventually abandoned the suffrage movement because a national amendment would threaten white supremacy.”
Does that mean that Stanton and Anthony were bad people? Maybe, maybe not. The history of feminism, women’s suffrage, and Black women’s place within those movements is long and complicated, and a discussion far outside the scope of this blog post.
What about the situation today? Let’s ponder this image, shall we?
“But Donna, that’s so unfair!! I’m a white feminist who never votes Republican! I volunteer on Dem campaigns! #NOTALLWHITEVOTERS!!!” Okay, but can you also now understand how any white person, even a well-intentioned white feminist, looks like kind of an ass lecturing people of color on how they need to do more to fight for women’s rights? CNN doesn’t poll for LGBT status but other polling shows strong Dem – 70% and higher – support from them.
And if you think that voting doesn’t have the utmost relevance on an issue like equal pay for women, think again. Pay equity will only be achieved through legislation and court action. It will not be crowdsourced, occupied, or leaned into. There is no magical lofty solution to this outside the bounds of icky partisan politics. Therefore, voting is everything. The same is true of many other issues and it seems that every other group of voters besides white voters gets that. Lord knows no one has leaned into voting more than African American voters have. I promise you that Mitch McConnell will not be persuaded to take up the cause of pay equity for women, instead of consistently voting against it, because a bunch of PoC and LGBT activists show up at his office to demand it. He’ll have them arrested.
We white people pretty much own the gender wage gap (as well as the race one), due to our own demo’s shitty voting habits that keep the status quo in place. As white feminists, confronting our white counterparts who undermine women’s rights by voting for Republicans can be a scary proposition. I have explained to white male Republican voters – in person, and online and politely, and not so politely – that, no, that fact that they have daughters they love does not absolve them of supporting institutionalized misogyny via voting for anti-choice politicians. I have similarly pointed out to conservative white anti-feminist women how they benefit, perhaps the most, from the gains of feminism while actively working to yank them from other women. And that this not only makes them hypocrites, but freeloaders. Needless to say, these exchanges have not gone well, despite my speaking the truth as I know it. It tends to be viewed as the height of “incivility” and gets me unfriended on Facebook and shunned in my real social life. It has caused me to throw up my hands and declaim, “fuck it, whatever, I am NOT the Wingnut Whisperer.”
That’s not the bravest way to deal with all of that, admittedly, but I honestly don’t know what to do about the problem of the majority of my fellow white people voting like assholes. It feels like a damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t conundrum. If I get in their faces, they get the vapors. If I’m decorous and deferential they pat me on the head and do whatever they were going to do anyway. Which is a bummer and all but I’m still not getting teargassed because of it. What I won’t do is point fingers at marginalized people who are voting the right way, often against immeasurable odds, and who often face murderous violence merely for asking to be able to breathe.
Patricia Arquette should just apologize and vow to do better. It’s the least she can do. And trust me, most of us white feminists are doing the same, at best, sadly.