Before Laverne Cox draped her gorgeous brown legs over a lucky sheet in a nude shoot for Allure, before “feminist” writer Megan Murphy gagged on all that Black girl magic and condemned our praise of Cox’s beauty as “anti-revolutionary,” Sojourner Truth asked White suffragists, “ain’t I a woman?”
Her words still hang over us and as feminism is firmly part of the national discussion, people ask, what is feminism, who is a feminist and who gets to be ‘good’ (or bad) for the movement. As trans women and trans awareness begin to take center stage, these questions become more persistent as the face of womanhood and feminism begins to diversify.
I can’t help thinking of Sojourner’s insistent words as I watch the ideological descendants of White suffragists who supported slavery wrestle with the notion that the face of womanhood and feminism will can no longer be theirs alone.
Black and feminist, it’s very hard for me to miss the similarities between critiques of Caitlin Jenner and the precious few trans women in the public eye and the critiques of Black celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Beyonce. The tone is historical, borne of the idea that White cis womanhood is the only true womanhood. These critiques rest on idea of Black and/or trans bodies being oversexed, grotesque caricatures of womanhood. White women are the only true women, the rest of us are just playing at it.
If the White man’s burden was to bring the “savage” to civilization, then in 2015 the White woman’s burden is to teach the rest of us bumbling half-humans how to be women.
It has become so overt and formulaic that when I opened the most recent “feminist” hot take on Jenner–Elinor Burkett’s maddening “What Makes a Woman?”–it took all of two minutes for me to roll my eyes in exhaustion.
“Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity,” wrote Burkett–a successful, upper middle class White woman, in an attempt to invalidate trans women. These recent articles and comments critiquing Black and trans women for the very things White women have historically and presently celebrate each other for femininity, self-definition and choosing their own paths, isn’t about defending women- it’s about defending White womanhood as the only version of womanhood (see also: Michelle Goldsberg’s “What Is a Woman” for the New Yorker last year.)
In the past, White women have had to fight to be seen as strong and capable of working outside of the home. All while Black women have had to struggle to be seen as human, to be seen as more than sexual workhorses unable to feel pain of any kind. Entire branches of medicine were built on our superhuman ability to feel nothing, entire nations were built on the idea we can toil in hot fields tirelessly, doing work no White man could be expected to. The interests of White and Black feminists could align, we are all fighting for women to be seen as complete human beings but not if the issues of White women are held as women issues, eclipsing and boxing out ours.
Interesting to note Burkett’s White cis middle class womanhood looks nothing like my Black poor cis womanhood, and that her issues are not my issues. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a meeting and have my breasts discussed because I’m not invited to those meetings. With natural hair and a state college education, I’m not let in to make those $0.75 to a man’s dollar. Most Black women do not. She discusses periods and birth control as defining difficulties of womanhood, but the women I know have found their womanhood rooted in deeper, more communal issues. Becoming a Black woman in America means worrying for yourself and your loved ones when they go out, for fear of police.
While White women fight to reclaim the word “slut,” I am fighting for the rights of my younger sisters to be recognized as girls and human. This doesn’t make my womanhood less valid. it is simply different…and harder. There is no cult of girlhood, no monolithic womanhood. And if there was, surely it wouldn’t be defined by a successful White American woman, one who’s privilege transcends the majority of the world’s population.
When she wrote how trans women do not have to fear for their safety, struggled with jobs or anything of the like, it was clear she had never considered trans women of color, specifically Black transwomen who have the highest rates of poverty, murder and suicide than any other group. I know these women fear for their safety, I know that they are afraid of walking down the street and not being strong enough to ward off attackers. Worse, they know no one will come to their aid because of thought processes like this that state that their womanhood and that their femininity is artifice, put on, chosen.
It is because our experiences as women diverge so wildly, not just along lines of assigned gender at birth, but along race and class lines, that White women have to let go of the idea that their feminism or womanhood is prescriptive and universal.
Critiquing marginalized women for embracing femininity is tone deaf as it ignores our history of being denied femininity.
When Megan Murphy wrote that a Black trans woman celebrating her beauty “empowers no one,” she meant it doesn’t empower White cis women, who have never had to fight to be seen as beautiful. When you are Black and/or trans you are more often characterized as a fetish object, good for private trysts or grotesque displays of sexuality. Never soft and demure as both Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox were portrayed in their now highly controversial shoots.
Nicki Minaj took to Instagram when feminists and even conservative Blacks alike slammed her “Anaconda” cover art, positioning her brown body next to slim White women wearing similar clothes. She wrote simply under her photos “unacceptable” and under the White women “acceptable.” It was not praised as the feminist action it was. This was around the same time that a Black college graduate became the center of a firestorm when a picture of her breastfeeding went viral. She was slammed and White feminist were predictably silent; later when a White graduate did the same, it was lauded as a feminist moment.
In one breath we hear cis White women tell each other they shouldn’t/don’t have to operate with the male gaze in mind and in the next they tell Black and trans women to reign ourselves in lest we appeal to the male gaze.
Whenever “public feminists” discuss good and bad feminism, it’s very hard to miss how marginalized women are always examples of bad womanhood. It’s even harder not to notice how White women consider themselves not just gatekeepers of feminism but of womanhood itself. Telling Black and trans women how to be good feminists and women outright suggests cis White women know better than we do, how to be women. It suggests this is their arena that they are graciously letting us into. The sudden concern for how womanhood is presented now that White women aren’t the only public faces of it, isn’t revolution. It is a tradition that needs to be ended.