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White Feminism in the Eyes of an Afro-Latina

What is protofeminism and how do modern day feminist's push the agenda of white supremacy, or white feminism, drowning out women of color voices?
Photograph of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

By definition, feminism is the act of promoting the equality of women through different forms of advocacy such as petitions, marches, protests, and more. Throughout the United States, the earliest known instance of feminism traces back to the mid-19th century during the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Notable feminist figures during this period are Elizabeth Cady Stanton, curator of an ideology that ties into today’s definition of feminism; Susan B. Anthony, an advocate of women’s suffrage — or right to vote; Jane Addams, co-founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF); Alice Constance Austin; radical apologist of women’s suffrage, and many more remarkable women. Despite these women being well-known for the notable feats they committed throughout their lives towards women’s rights, feminism traces back to a period labeled as “protofeminism” in a more worldwide perspective view.

Protofeminism, although having no confirmed origin date, is labeled as a philosophy — parallel to contemporary feminism — inaugurated before the first wave of feminism during the 19th century. Dating back to Ancient Greece and Rome, there are discourses among many well-known philosophers, such as Plato, discussing that women should be able to learn alongside men in the study of philosophy and education as a whole. As time went on, the gender hierarchy was heavily pushed in European countries; however, there were several conspicuous women during the medieval ages such as Marie de France, a 12th-century poet, all the way to Laura Cereta, a 15th-century writer.

Illustration of Laura Cereta

Time and time again throughout Europe, feminist figures rose to the throne, enticing women of diverse backgrounds to speak up and become a pioneer for their rights to a voice, their rights to an education, and their rights to an equal life. Although these women are undeniably exceptional for proving that women have always had the desire for equality long before the mid-19th century events, they only cater to women who have only experienced a lack of equality due to their gender, being short of the sorts of experiences women of color speak of.

Coming from a mixed family and growing up in areas surrounded by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color), I have witnessed the effects of mainly learning white figures for their great acts towards society. It instills the idea that BIPOC cannot be prestigious, or that there can only be a select few BIPOC who fit the white man’s preference, refusing to educate children — preponderantly children of color — on figures, diminishing the belief within those children that there have been and are BIPOC instrumental figures.

An instance of (proto)feminism with a non-White advocate is the 12th-century Muslim scholar, Ibn Asakir — a Sunni Islamic historian — who discussed that women should be allowed to write and share religious texts, going on to claim that over 80 women have taught him what he knew. There were even families during this period who wanted their daughters and wives to receive a high education in the hopes of educating their future children. Islamic feminism, despite not being as practiced as in the Western world, has shown throughout the years that people of color have been advocating for women’s rights.

Photograph of Zitkala-Sa

Looking back at the United States, women of color had to wait for two amendments (15th, allowing people of color to vote, and the 19th, allowing women to vote) to be allowed to vote without discrimination. During the women’s suffrage movement, many women of color fought towards feminism such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black abolitionist and suffragette; Zitkala-Sa, a Native American founder of the Society of American Indians; Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a suffragette for Chinese-Americans; Maria Guadalupe Evangelina López de Lowther, a Latina advocate for women’s suffrage; and many more distinguished women of color. Not only were there women of color fighting in the name of feminism during the women’s suffrage movement, but later on during the late 20th century and even to this day in the 21st century.

Photograph of Audre Lorde

Angela Davis, a Black leader during the Civil Rights movement, went to Brandeis University, received a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy, moving on to receive her graduates at the University of California, joining the Black Panthers — a revolutionary party for Black Americans — before attending the Humboldt University in East Berlin for her doctorates, inspiring many women of color that they too can pursue an education and be part of revolutionary movements. Audre Lorde, a Black essayist and poet, attended Hunter College and Columbia University, receiving a master’s degree for library science, publishing several pieces of poetry and essays speaking of lesbian feminism and race. Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim women’s advocate towards education, spoke out against the education system’s lack of attention towards Islamic girls and women. This led to an attempted assassinations which she survived, using that anecdote as a driving force to receive a higher education at the University of Oxford, studying topics like philosophy and politics, encouraging Muslim women to step away from the societal expectations and advocate for a better education and more equal rights. Winona LaDuke, a Jewish-Native American Ojibwe who founded the Indigenous Women’s Network (IWN), attended Antioch University and Harvard University, writing several articles after her graduation focusing on the aspects of feminism within Indigenous tribes. These individuals are just a few of many women of color who have gone against the system, furthering their education to standards that women of color were not expected to reach.

Photograph of Winona LaDuke

Feminism is taught with the intention of raising awareness of the social and gender issues women face compared to men, showcasing the inequalities and advocating for the system to begin recognizing it’s faults and fixing them. However, race has played a vital part in feminism due to its lack of representation in mainstream feminism teachings. As an Afro-Latina, I’ve struggled understanding the concept of feminism in the past since I rarely saw any representation of Hispanic women speaking up against the system or Black women fighting for their equality as much as a white women, resulting in me stepping back from addressing that there are ethnic issues that need to be addressed that white feminism does not shed any light on. In perspective, white feminism supports solely white supremacy and the undying cycle of racism, defending and advocating for the rights of middle-class and wealthy white women without any acknowledgement that women of color are being actively discriminated against, assaulted, harassed, and even killed for the color of their skin and their gender identity. While the 19th amendment in the United States was in itself a great step forward for women and their voices to be heard, women of colored were still excluded due to the color of their skin and lack of advocacy from the white feminists whose parties began to disband soon after the Suffrage movement’s accomplishment of passing the 19th amendment. To this day, white feminism excludes women of color, and only through educating on the past of feminism and learning the ways feminism could begin to recognize women of color issues, will people begin to work on getting the gap between women and men to be more level — no matter the color of their skin.




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