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Feminism and Race - THEORETICAL ISSUES IN FEMINISM AFTER 1970

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The term feminism means advocacy for the well-being of women in both theoretical and practical ways. In the United States, feminist scholarship and practice in the nineteenth century was dominated by white middle- and upper-class heterosexual Anglo-American women, and the same was true in the twentieth century up until the 1960s. But from about 1970 onward, the concerns of women of color, poor women, and lesbians have become more prominent in feminist discourse, and they have also been explicitly recognized by traditional white feminists, both in the academy and in mainstream organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Among the women at the forefront of this movement, bell hooks has insisted on a distinct identity for black women, Patricia Hill Collins has argued that black women need to bring their own life knowledge into the field of sociology, and Paula Gunn Allen has shown that women were respected leaders in many indigenous societies before European contact.

Still, at the turn of the twenty-first century, establishment American feminism continued to be mostly white and middle class, although not exclusively heterosexual. However, lesbian feminism has certainly grown as a field of inquiry, particularly through the work of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys, and Monique Wittig. Also, some academic feminist scholars during the late twentieth century took up the postmodern theories of French feminists, such as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, who provided literary critiques of male-dominated Western culture by criticizing its canonical texts. As Cynthia Willett indicates in The Soul of Justice (2001), however, addressing women’s problems via such criticism is usually restricted to privileged educated women.

At the same time, women’s studies scholars have increased their recognition of feminism and women’s problems and social movements in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The twenty-first century challenge for feminism is to include all women’s voices, and to support and generate social movements that do not divide women by race. When feminism, in both theory and practice, does not include the concerns of women of color, then women of color may view feminism itself as one of the causes of their social disadvantages.

THEORETICAL ISSUES IN FEMINISM AFTER 1970

Throughout the second wave, American women gained unprecedented access to employment and higher education. Colleges and universities supported programs in women’s studies, ethnic studies, and Afro-American studies. As a result, feminism developed a theoretical foundation across the humanities, with a strong focus on issues of racial and cultural difference. Supporting such diversity in feminism was an implicit and explicit realization that the capabilities of women and the social roles they occupied were not determined by their female biology, but by historical events, cultural circumstances, and male rule. Indeed, it was on the issue of patriarchy that women of color began to protest that the concerns of white women did not mirror their own. They argued that for women of color, racism was as much or more of a problem than sexism. The questioning of the ability of white feminists to speak for women of color raised wider questions about whether there was one essence that all women shared, which made them women . Elizabeth Spelman, in her 1988 book Inessential Woman , brought the question of women’s commonality to the forefront of feminist theory. However, as Linda Alcoff pointed out in 1989, both the lack of a biological essence and the emphasis on culture could also lead to new oppressive assumptions that the lives of women of color were completely defined and shaped by their cultures. From the perspective of women of color, a new branch of feminism, known as intersectionality , developed. Proponents of intersectionality—such as Kimberle Crenshaw, in legal studies, and Irene Browne and Joya Misra, writing about labor markets in 2003—have held that women’s “genders,”or their social and economic roles and experiences, are a result of both racism and economic factors. Out of this perspective came the well-known equation, “race + class = gender.”This means that women of color have different “genders”than white women. Insofar as theorists such as Judith Butler have viewed biological sex as an effect of social factors and beliefs, or as a social construction, feminism itself has become very divided according to racial divisions. It would likely be further divided according to class, except that poor women rarely have a direct voice in theoretical discourse.

Feminist Scholarship and Communication - Language, Media, Voice, Organizational Communication, Conclusion [next] [back] Felony Disenfranchisement - CURRENT PRACTICE, RACE AND DISENFRANCHISEMENT, POLITICAL IMPACT, THE RATIONALE, CRITICISM, INTERNATIONAL COMPARISON AND REFORM

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