White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind

Image of White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind
Release Date: 
January 5, 2021
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

Koa Beck’s book, White Feminism: From Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind, comes with a rather double- or even triple-edged endorsement from Gloria Steinem; “Don’t judge this book by its cover. Koa Beck knows that feminism includes all women and girls by definition, and is writing to overcome anti-feminist divisions that divide and defeat us.” Beck later states in a not entirely flattering context “that the image of Gloria Steinem has functioned . . . as a shorthand for a lot of gendered issues” . . . so maybe, as they say, there is “history” and hence Steinem’s qualified praise.

In her first very brief chapter The Making of a “Feminist,” which jumps around in both time and geography, Beck starts to delineate her primary target of elite white feminists, who focused on getting the vote for themselves the “same as men.” This chapter also takes an inconclusive detour through the words and actions of non-white Beyoncé and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who both lay claim to the feminist label. In Beyonce’s case Beck asks “But when you see ‘FEMINIST’ as a set prop during the VMAs (Video Musical Awards) what does that even mean? What does a feminist stand for?”

Beck seems throughout to be setting up and attacking a series of rather familiar straw-dogs, which sometimes come to bite her back. Elite white (American) feminism is a rather easy target, as was recognized in 1851 by Sojourner Truth, the Black former slave, in her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. Curiously Truth’s intervention is absent from foundational chapters on Who Gets to Be a Feminist? and Separate but Unequal: How Feminism Officially Became White, though she rates a passing mention on page 187 between Harriet Tubman and Audre Lorde.

The real key to the shape and tone of the book may lie in Beck’s exposure to the “ideology” of white feminism in the offices of Marie Claire and Glamour. She has many interesting observations of the essence of this particular feminism as being not only white and elite, but also thin, capitalistic, individualistic, and exclusive. But this obliges her to find other labels for non-white, working class, collective movements of women (and non-women) activists; or to appear to contradict her own very limited characterization of feminism. (Steinem was right about the title of this book, but her assertion that feminism includes all women and girls by definition is more questionable. Many women eschew the label, and some men embrace it.)

There have always been many feminisms, and multiple interests among women who self-identified as feminists, even in the early Waves. Although the suffragettes, as the name suggests were focussed on suffrage, others championed, to take but two examples, the importance of maternalism, or women’s superior moral strength buttressed by their Christian faith.

This book is probably best seen as a series of essays in the course of which Beck’s thinking evolves and matures. In Chapter Sixteen, A New Era of Feminism, she seems to abandon her earlier limited and didactic approach; “We need to build a more holistic and ambitious approach to inequality that doesn’t just isolate a single issue as definitive feminism, or ask that we aspire to that single issue.” Many would recognize that this has already happened, though feminism, including white feminism has not gone away.

Perhaps the single label, feminism, so heavy with baggage, preconceptions, and contradictions has served its purpose and does not deserve further refurbishment and elaboration. This may be why so many people who espouse equality, collective action, “intersectionality,” and non-discrimination of all kinds can be heard to say “I’m not a feminist but . . .”