The image and failure of white feminism

When you work as a writer in various media, you learn to develop your content with a visual element in mind: you hire an illustrator to depict your thesis in full color, commission a graphic designer to create an infographic, or resign yourself to falling down the rabbit hole of online stock photography. Knowing that the lattermost option is the most cost effective, I’ve spent many an afternoon scrolling in search of the “perfect” visual depiction of feminism and female flourishing—themes I often return to in my writing. 

Invariably the image on offer has been that of a lone female figure, conventionally feminine, thin, and white, sitting behind a laptop accented with some tasteful desk accessories. Visually, the message was clear: Feminism is about a woman’s individual gains, her white-collar job, and her accumulation of beautiful things. In other words, she is only one “smash the patriarchy” coffee mug purchase away from living her best life. Mainstream women’s media has supported this view for decades with a steady stream of stories celebrating lady bosses, girl bosses, “nasty women,” and the material goods they are able to purchase and consume thanks to their own individual ascents to power. 

Even International Women’s Day, despite its socialist roots, has not escaped the individualistic, capitalistic reach. In March 2020, for example, Harper’s Bazaar UK published a photo gallery titled, “The best feminist pieces to wear on International Women’s Day and beyond.” A subtitle urged: “Make sure you look the part for the annual celebration of women.” And in recent years major brands including Starbucks, American Express, and the Gap have made use of International Women’s Day hashtags on their social media accounts. 

Fourth-wave feminism

Thankfully, a diverse generation of fourth-wave feminists in recent years has asserted that, if women are truly to flourish, the dominant profile of feminism can no longer be an individual, white woman accumulating wealth. Fourth-wave feminism is inherently intersectional, digitally driven, and prioritizes women of color and other marginalized groups. This movement follows the first-wave campaign for women’s right to vote; the second wave that began with the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, and the third wave that was heralded by Rebecca Walker, the daughter of American novelist Alice Walker, and galvanized by Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee. Fourth-wave feminism activism often takes place online, in the form of #MeToo or #YesAllWomen hashtags, for example, but can also take form in the streets, such as the 2017 Women’s March.

In her new book White Feminism, Koa Beck documents the discouraging record of how mainstream feminism—from the suffragettes to today’s Instagram influencers—has adhered to a political strategy that cashes in on struggle, prioritizes individual productivity, and bolsters white supremacy. “White feminism is a specific way of viewing gender equality that is anchored in the accumulation of individual power rather than redistribution of it,” says Beck, “It can be practiced by anyone, of any race, background, allegiance, identity, or affiliation. It is a state of mind.”

Feminism must incorporate more fully into its demands for equality the crucial dimensions of race and class.

White feminism, Beck writes, “takes up the politics of power without questioning them—by replicating patterns of white supremacy, capitalist greed, corporate ascension, inhumane labor labor practices, and exploitation,” declaring them to be “empowering for women to practice. The mindset “is seductive, as it positions the singular you as the agent of change, making your individual needs the touchpoint for all revolutionary disruption.” 

The pandemic has laid bare the insufficiency of this brand of feminism. Mainstream media has detailed the struggles of women during COVID, but offer solutions which prioritize middle-class concerns. (See, for example, the oft-quoted New York Times article “Pandemic could scar a generation of working mothers”) To put a fine point on it, your spouse or partner who helps with the laundry is not a structural solution to gender inequality. This is especially true if you are a domestic worker such as a house cleaner or nanny who has lost substantial income in the pandemic.

Catholic feminism

Though the advancement of feminism has been largely a secular enterprise, I find myself yearning for the insights of the Catholic feminist theologians I read as an undergraduate and graduate student in theology. Scholars such as Elizabeth Johnson, Catherine Hilkert, M. Shawn Copeland, Diana Hayes, and Catherine LaCugna asked crucial questions such as “Whose experience counts?” and “What does it mean to be in right relationship with one another?” These theologians launched a broad inquiry into the multiplicity of women’s experience accompanied by a necessary nuancing of the category of women’s experience itself. 

For example, in the book The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue, published in 2002, Diana Hayes pointed out, “Today, women of color are fighting several battles at once . . . Theirs is not and never has been a struggle simply against sexism but one waged against the multiplicative oppressions of gender, race, and class united in one single body.” Equally relevant as a corrective to the commercialization and commodification of white feminism is feminists’ exercise of a hermeneutic of suspicion, which authorized and advanced a healthy skepticism of institutions, structures, narratives, and texts. 

A crucial question is ‘Whose experience counts?’

Catholic feminism also has traditionally prized the connectedness and relationality that is needed at this moment. Though rooted in the Christian doctrine of the triune God as inherently relational, their prioritization of relationality makes a valuable contribution to the broader feminist conversation. As Danielle Nussberger writes in the Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology, citing the work of feminist theologians Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Ann Hinsdale, “Human relations . . . merit feminist theology’s urgent response because their breakdown equally threatens the wholesome unity of God’s entire creation.” And in her book Friends of God and Prophets, theologian Elizabeth Johnson describes relationships as compassionate and challenging engagement.

If relationships rather than individual gains are prioritized, then collective gains can trump individual progress. Grassroots efforts to provide a community with access to clean water, high-quality public education, and vibrant public spaces, for example, are valued over a single person’s success.

Failure and moving forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on white feminism’s failure to come down from its pedestal. Not only have women of color experienced higher rates of job loss and economic stress, but they’re also more likely to be essential workers and thus to put their health and lives on the line. As Jennifer Mason McAward has pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, there have been massive disparities in how COVID-19 has affected people of color.

White feminism’s failure goes beyond image to imagination: we have too often failed fully to imagine and transform the experience of women of color without economic privilege. The best way to mark International Women’s Day, to celebrate Women’s History Month, and to foster integral human development is to incorporate more fully into our demands for equality the crucial dimensions of race and class. A comfortable, consumerist approach will not survive this new expression of solidarity. Women who seek fulfilling lives come from every race and socioeconomic background, and will benefit from a feminism that is grounded in solidarity rather than individual success.

Renée LaReau is the senior writer and digital program manager for the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development. 


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