Race and Gender: An optional conversation for feminists?

By Joanna Shenk

Joanna Shenk is co-coordinator of the Women in Leadership Project, as well as communication coordinator and interchurch relations associate for Mennonite Church USA

First, I realize that many Mennonites have been skeptical of the feminist movement in previous generations and even today. Although I identify as a feminist I donot believe that the movement, and even the definition of the term, are without problems. I think at times the movement has been an excuse to demonize men rather than think about the ways men are also diminished by sexism. I think the term “feminist” has also been a source of division among women who are committed to gender justice, but can’t see past their own blind spots due to race, class and other privileges. I think that feminism, in its truest form means working for the transformation of any situation where people are kept from being their authentic, God-given selves.

And that’s why I find bell hooks’ writing so riveting on the topic. For anyone who is interested in learning about feminism, she is a must-read, beginning with Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism (South End Press, 1981). Since this publication bell hooks (who intentionally uses lower case letters in her name) has gone on to write 30 books, including her most recent Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (Routledge, 2010). She is an educator, poet, cultural critic and currently, Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Studies at Berea College in Kentucky.

Given the focus of this blog, I will focus on her thoughts in Ain’t I A Woman, now a feminist classic.

In Ain’t I A Woman, a book of analysis and story, she claims a definition of feminism that frees it from the narrow purview of white, middle-class, educated women. At the same time she does not discount the experiences of these women (a group of which I am a part). Rather she challenges me and others to live up to the title feminist. She writes, “…feminism is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure women will have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels–sex, race, and class, to name a few–and a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”

Throughout Ain’t I A Woman she explicitly names the reasons why black women particularly have been reticent to join the feminist movement, led by white, middle-class women. Her analysis is foundational for those seeking to understanding the history and current shape of feminism in Western culture.

Beginning with the black female slave experience, she vividly outlines the oppressive treatment of black women by white women who were set on upholding the power of white men. These accounts are astoundingly traumatic as they recount a perverse reality that continues to shape the Western psyche.

Then hooks goes on to highlight the work of black women in the 19th century who called for feminism to encompass the liberation of all who are oppressed. In 1892 Anna Cooper, a black woman advocate for social equality voiced her definition of feminism. “The colored woman feels that woman’s cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as accidents, and not the substance of life… not till then the woman’s cause won–not the white woman’s, nor the black woman’s, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a might wrong. Woman’s wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with all undefended woe…” (193)

Had white women at that time been able to see past their racism, the feminist movement could have become a transformative force in society, reaching beyond white women’s concerns to the concerns of all who are oppressed. Instead black women were barred from participation with white women and hence began their own groups, and opposed using the term “feminism” due to its association with white women. The legacy of this divide continues today.

“Oftentimes I am asked by black women,” hooks writes, “to explain why I would call myself a feminist and by using that term ally myself with a movement that is racist. I say, ‘The question we must ask again and again is how can racist women call themselves feminists.’”

This is a powerful challenge that reaches even beyond the term “feminist” into any group that is working for transformation across historic divides. How often have I as a white woman forgotten to recognize race as inextricably linked to the work for gender justice? It’s easy for me to think of myself as only a woman working on “women’s issues”, whereas women of color cannot separate gender from race in their lived experience.

It is my hope that we can continue to wrestle with these realities, in this conversation space, and also in our congregations. Our history in the United States divides us for many reasons, but with the Holy Spirit’s guidance division does not need to be our future. As we continue to work as women and men in Mennonite Church USA for healing and justice, may we carry on the vision that bell hooks articulates—feminism that cares for the liberation of all who are oppressed.

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One thought on “Race and Gender: An optional conversation for feminists?

  1. Wish my father had lived to see this one ~ M. Morrow-Farrell, Philadelphia, PA.

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