The Urgency of Intersectional Feminism in America

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I am a white woman in America. I move through a world that pushes me forward with a tremendous amount of privilege, while simultaneously keeping me in my place with a tremendous amount of misogyny. If I’m being honest with myself, I hadn’t really explored the depth of my privilege, nor the scale of wholesale acceptance of misogyny until 2015, on the cusp of our presidential election. The U.S. had its first ever female nominee of a major party, and I dove headfirst into our electoral process in ways I never had before – registering voters, participating in get-out-the-vote campaigns, raising money, making my voice loud and political. I brought the experience and passion of all my years working in international development to the domestic, political space. On Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, I woke up hungover with grief. My daughter, five years old at the time, so full of love and hope to live in an era with our first female president, a hero she could aspire to, instead watched me, sobbing uncontrollably, as I told her: not yet, it is not our time, we must wait.

When I was in graduate school, over 15 years ago now, studying International Development Policy and Management, we read a book by Robert Chambers called, Whose Reality Counts: Putting the First Last. That book described a process for “handing over the stick” whereby international development workers actively remove ourselves from positions of decision-making power so that the communities we are serving are positioned to lead their own development. Real development, Chambers asserts, comes when those with historic privilege and power recognize that we cannot know what is best for those without; that we trust and believe in the most marginalized to determine what is needed to shape their own future and follow their lead. This book, which had served as my guiding North Star for my work from Bangladesh to Bulgaria, suddenly took on new meaning as I found myself on the receiving end of being told what was best for women’s development and equality in the U.S. Time after time,  I watched with deep sadness as self-described ‘progressive men’ in America refused to “hand over the stick” to the women around them.

I listened to the excuses as to why I, and the women around me, could not be trusted to shape our future. What struck me hardest – what I had been least prepared for – was how eerily similar these excuses were to the excuses Black Americans had heard about determining their future. “It’s not the right time; it’s too risky right now.” “I don’t think the problem is as bad as you’re making it seem; look how far you’ve come.” “I support your struggle, but this isn’t the right person to lead the change.” The subtext of all these messages is that they knew best and they would still determine whether our equality was worthwhile. I reflected on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s deeply insightful statements in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” (April 16, 1963)

My mind easily replaced the words ‘Negro’ for ‘Woman’; ‘white moderate’’ with ‘white moderate man’. I began to see that our struggles, while not the same, were inextricably linked. The words of the American poet, Emma Lazarus, felt more real and urgent than ever, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

When the 2016 election happened, I couldn’t look away from the comparative numbers of white women who had supported our first female candidate (45%) versus the number of black women who had (98%). It was a wake-up call that forced me to come to terms with the racist history of the feminist movement in America, one that was willing to put our economic superiority through race above our freedom through solidarity.  Was I “handing over the stick” to those more marginalized within our current feminist movement? I knew that, in order to do so, I must incorporate a fight for racial justice in lockstep with our fight for gender justice. I never again wanted to be the cause of pain and disappointment for another woman that progressive men had engendered in me.

I needed to apply an intentionality to my behavior in the U.S. with the same purpose as I had supporting the most marginalized in communities globally. I began to study the impacts and outputs of racism in the U.S. alongside the rich and powerful history of the Civil Rights Movement in a country whose very existence was built on slavery. I now read and elevate the voices of feminists from Black, Latinx, Asian, refugee, LGBTQ and differently-abled communities. I work to maintain awareness of my relative privilege, looking for places where I hold a seat of power and finding ways to bring in more diverse voices or replace myself entirely. I put money behind women of color political candidates and organizations who train and support women of color for political office. I continue to learn from their heroic leadership, fighting against centuries-built systemic racism and misogyny that reveals itself in every social, economic and political indicator, across every state, county and city in America. I trust and respect women of color to lead.

My daughter, now almost 9, recently asked me if I would support her if she wanted to run for president. “Of course!”, I said emphatically, “I will always support you in achieving your dreams.” “What if,” she asked, “there is a woman of color who is also running?” I took a deep sigh. Am I equipped to teach my white daughter about our historic failings and our current responsibility in this moment? More importantly, what happens if I do not? “I think,” I began slowly, “that your life and work will be connected to all kinds of women, from all different backgrounds. I believe that you will respect what they say, and that you will have the wisdom to listen and to know if yours is the right voice to lead or to follow.” Our equity is dependent upon our ability to do so.

 

 

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Zola Maddison

Zola Maddison

Zola Maddison is a Program Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where she supports the U.S. Program’s Postsecondary Success team supporting their scaling strategies to close equity gaps by race in higher education, and with Global Development’s Emergency Response team supporting their influence and capacity building strategies. From 2013-2016, she was Program Officer with the Global Libraries initiative at the Gates Foundation, supporting non-formal education and 21st century skills in humanitarian and development contexts, and led the team’s Middle East Engagement Strategy

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