BOOK REVIEW: “The Problem with White Women: A Counter-History of Feminism” By Kyla Schuller | 2021 | Hardcover, $30 | Non-fiction, history | Available at the Seattle Public Library
“SISTER! Your foot is smaller, but it’s still on my neck.
– “Have You Ever Tried to Hide” by Pat Parker
The problem with “The Trouble with White Women” is that you might think it’s about white women in general when the book is actually about the feminist movement in the United States. One could also think that Kyla Schuller’s book is a dry analysis of the history of feminism in the United States. It’s a much more interesting story than that.
In fact, “Trouble” is a cleverly crafted series of seven side stories, each illustrating a chapter in what Schuller calls the counter-history of feminism. Schuller connects the stories of white feminists with those of their intersectional contemporaries. She shows how the white feminist movement has consistently dispossessed the most marginalized people in order to liberate upper and middle class white women.
Schuller writes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that stalwart of the struggle for women’s suffrage, who spoke out against the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, saying at an 1869 event, “I don’t believe it should be allow ignorant blacks and ignorant and debased Chinese to make laws for me. Obey.” At that same rally, Schuller reveals, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper also spoke: “When it comes to race, I drop any question of sex.”
Harper was a freeborn black woman whose intersectional feminist politics emphasized the fight for an entirely new society based on broad social justice. Although now far less famous than Stanton, in her day Harper was a well-known intellectual and prolific lecturer, traveling the Reconstruction South for three years lecturing on “Literacy, Land and Liberation”. Her philosophy lost, as the white feminist movement built its political case on the idea that white women’s votes would outweigh those of black people. In the words of white suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, as she wrote in a 1917 essay to convince Southern men of the benefits of female suffrage, “white supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by female suffrage.” .
Schuller also links the stories of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose bestselling novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped many Americans realize that slavery was not the civilizing influence that many white people claimed it was. he was, with that of Harriet Jacobs. Stowe was white, wealthy, and part of a very well-known family, and the story she wrote was not hers. Jacobs, meanwhile, had only escaped slavery after years of hiding under the floorboards of a sympathizer’s house. In her book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave”, she writes: “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is much more terrible for women. Jacobs invited alliance with white women but rejected the idea that white women’s experiences would be equated with slavery.
White feminism was not the first or only social movement to reject the contributions of people of lower status. The attitude that “we’re not with these other people” has stymied the labor movement, which has sometimes restricted itself mainly to skilled workers or white men only, to its ultimate detriment. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s pushed back important gay and lesbian organizers, like Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington, and Pauli Murray, whom Schuller profiles.
Murray is paired with Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique” and mainstay of feminism of the 60s and 70s. The global movement focused on the privilege of white men, but not white women, while seemingly never seeing the many privileges that white women had. White feminism failed to address inequalities caused by race, color and poverty. Murray, while still a student, had written about the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which supported racial segregation, saying facilities could be “separate but equal”. Her argument that the separation is inherently unequal was an important basis for overthrowing Plessy, although she was unaware of it for years. Schuller points out that in the mid-1950s, although Murray had two law degrees and had published a major book on state segregation laws, no law firm would hire him. She had published an autobiography, but she could not support herself as a writer and poet. She worked as a typist, preparing manuscripts for other authors. In 1955 and 1956, she tapped for Friedan of all.
The comparisons are not all white versus black. Schuller deals with the damage done by white women to indigenous culture, alongside the stories of writer and activist Yankton Dakota Zitkála-Šá and white anthropologist Alice Fletcher. She writes about the bitter battles between trans women and radical trans exclusionary feminists, who insist that trans women are not women at all.
Schuller even writes of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, queen of surveillance capitalism and author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”: “Sandberg’s corporate brand of white feminism has long helped to cover up Facebook’s exploitative practices, giving it a palatable sheen. poverty capitalism” and which pushes critics of capitalism to focus on racial, gender and social injustice, not just economic.
Schuller writes that liberal white feminism now embraces inclusion as a brand, believing that a new inclusive feminism will result without the hard work of fundamental change. She doesn’t think that will be the case. She writes, “Inclusion does not eradicate white feminism, it simply expands its reach. The problem with white feminism is not that it ignores and leaves out many women. Its harm is far more fundamental than a lack of conscience: white feminism perpetuates a pattern of dispossession. The politics of white feminism is fundamentally at odds with the survival of women of color, trans people, people with disabilities, and the poor.
The hope she sees is that intersectional feminism is gaining momentum. Intersectionality is not a war, she writes, but a creation of practices in which we can all thrive.
If you’re looking to learn more about this topic, a good place to start is the topics of each of these side stories. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs is available through the Seattle Public Library and the King County Library system, as is “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family” by Pauli Murray. (That’s his American family.) His autobiography, “Song in a Weary Throat,” is widely available for purchase and is also in the King County Library System. Zitkála-Šá’s “American Indian Stories” is also found in both systems.
If you’re white and just want to develop some racial literacy, Robin DiAngelo’s book “What Does It Mean to Be White?” has become a classic, particularly pleasant to read for discussion groups. “Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm,” which was released last year and is also by DiAngelo, is available via Beacon Press. Both books are in the Seattle and King County library systems.