In August 2021, the United States celebrated 101 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment and how far American women had come since receiving voting rights. However, that centennial didn’t mark a century since every woman in America could vote, but every white woman. By 1920, women of every other ethnic groups, including indigenous, African-American, Asian-American, and Latina, weren’t privy to such a right. Despite the emphasis placed on the twentieth century suffrage movement and the path it supposedly paved for women’s rights, what exactly did feminism then, and in its all succeeding waves, mean for women of color?
First-wave feminism, from the late nineteenth century to early twentieth, was directly linked to the suffrage of white women. Though many attach all sorts of labels like able-bodied, cisgendered, and middle-to-upper class, it was only white women who benefitted from the 19th Amendment. Sacrificing the rights of their fellow women was a compromise with white male leaders that this group was willing to make, considering that their gender was the one factor hindering them from total privilege. The famous Seneca Falls Convention didn’t even have African-American women present, who were expected to “wait their turn”; this further strengthens how they were viewed as the other and that their needs were deemed as entirely separate from that of white women’s. When it came time for protest, they made the active choice of relying on Cherokee, Haudenosaunee, and Chinese-American women, who they regarded as “less threatening” than the Black women they were sidelining.
However, once the right to vote was received, there was radio silence on the issues concerning women of color, including racism and voter suppression. The repeated usage of the phrase “women’s rights” must have confounded WOC, as they saw themselves belonging to the gender just as equally as their white contemporaries, but didn’t benefit from the strides supposedly made. Sojourner Truth questioned what gender and race meant to her in her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech when she addressed all the rights she never received as a black person, a woman, and a black woman. Truth points out that because of misogynoir, her blackness takes away from her womanhood. The activism of WOC was inherently intersectional; unlike white women, they had to defend all aspects of their identity at once because one aspect could further diminish another. While “women” received voting rights on paper, indigenous and Asian-American women weren’t even given citizenship and the same policies preventing Black men from voting now applied to Black and Latinx women. There was no choice in being either a race activist or a gender activist; first-wave feminism refused to take this into account.
From the 1960s-1980s, second-wave feminism was better able to include WOC. The agenda of middle-class white women had once again been at the forefront and their concerns with being allowed in the workplace and abortion rights didn’t always coincide with the concerns of WOC, who were always required to play subservient roles and were trying to prevent forced sterilizations. These differences in interests stemmed from historical differences in power; white women had the ability to demand entrance into the workforce when service hadn’t been made their entire identity as it had for WOC.
Minority women accepted that they would have to branch off on their own, which led to the founding of the Chicana movement and the National Black Feminist Organization. Both worked toward convincing WOC that they could benefit from feminism that hadn’t been portrayed in white mainstream media. To map out how their compounded oppression, WOC discussed not only how their race and gender affected their role in society, but also their sexualities, whether they’re able-bodied, their class, and their skin color. They were bolder in targeting intersectionality, which was coined by Black professor/critical race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw during this wave. From an engagement standpoint, WOC were broadening the accessibility of feminism and evolving the color of equality. Americans saw the fragmentation of this “monolith with a single unified agenda” that many had seen feminism as.
Third-wave feminism, from the ‘90s to the 2000s, saw women reclaiming femininity, which first and second-wavers had shied away from in order to be taken more seriously by male establishment. However, ferocity, being rebellious, and other stereotypically masculine behaviors were equally important during this time as a test of gender identity. Both these aspects of the third-wave were critical for WOC, who previously had their femininity stripped from them due to their race and were viewed in a more masculine light due to their service roles. They were finally accessing the femininity naturally associated with white women while also fleshing out a form of masculinity that was self-validating rather than societally enforced. The media was extremely important during this period as feminist accomplishments pertained to the social/the cultural rather than the political. This way, third-wave feminism was integrating intersectionality more directly into the movement by working slightly harder to include WOC, while still keeping them at arm’s length.
Though many believe them opposites, exclusionary feminism is inherently misogynistic. When fighting for equality without desiring it in a format that is accessible to all women, you are prejudiced against WOC in order to obtain what men have. It forces feminism to prioritize the power already held by men rather than the power that can be garnered by complete female unity. Feminism then becomes about acquiring privilege, not restructuring society to incorporate justice into its institutions.
As WOC pushed themselves closer to the forefront of each successive wave, less and less definitive legislation can be assigned to those eras. This introduces the assumption that as the undervalued made themselves known, there was suddenly less legislative fervor to rectify their issues. It reinforces that feminism is the empowerment of white women rather than all women. Though the landmarks they have made are highly commendable, achievements supposedly in the name of feminism shouldn’t be spread out for other ethnic groups as if they are meant to wait their turns. We shouldn’t have to wait until 2052, 2062, and 2065 to celebrate a century since Asian-American, indigenous, Black, and Latina women received voting rights. The goal of feminism must mean that when you utter the word “women”, you’re including all of them.
Photo credits: Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, “Vote Baby Vote.” Courtesy of Gabriel Hackett, Getty Images.