The mainstream women’s movement has centered whiteness. The anti-ageism movement cannot.

Last fall, as I wrote about here, the Old School Clearinghouse hosted the inaugural meet-up of a women’s group called Biddies, a name I came up with and thought was hilarious. It turned out to be not just our first meeting, but our last.       

We created the group to take advantage of two things: the launch of Ageist? Sexist? Who Me?, Old School’s guide to starting a consciousness-raising group around the intersection of ageism and sexism; and the fact that so many conversations have emerged in recent years around women and aging—whether about bringing menopause out in the open, or going gray, or refusing to become invisible and shuffle offstage. Some of these conversations are ageism-aware. Others center “staying young,” or “still sexy,” or doing better than those women . . .

We thought, “How about using our network to tap into those networks in order to introduce ageism into those conversations?” I loved this idea, so did a lot of others. Almost 150 people showed up to that first Biddies meeting in September.

The consciousness-raising guide contains a section I’m especially pleased with, called Learning from the Women’s Movement. It’s about how the mainstream movement has centered whiteness and failed to address issues faced by more marginalized women, and how middle-class white women need do to better.

At that meet-up I invoked it at length.

The attendees were overwhelmingly white, cis, older women—like me.

I didn’t even notice it until a Black friend said “Where’s the diversity?”

One thing I know, which I’ve been writing about for years, is that you can’t retrofit diversity.  It can’t be an add-on. I realized, with a gulp, that the Biddies couldn’t go ahead like this. To do so would reinforce the behavior I was preaching about putting an end to. The realization felt right and felt awful.

I spent the fall listening to a small group of women of color who generously advised us on next steps, reading, and reflecting. I dug into how and why the mainstream women’s movement has centered whiteness. Much of what follows is addressed to white women; if you don’t identify that way, I hope you’ll still find it compelling.

* * *

            Being white women isn’t a problem. It’s a problem when white women fail to acknowledge the privilege that comes with being white. It’s also a problem if we fail to recognize that our causes and concerns are not universal—that women who don’t share our racial and class privilege may not share our priorities.

It’s harder to see privilege if we’re born into it, and it’s easy to get stuff wrong. My failure to think these things through before announcing the Biddies is a pretty glaring example, and I’ve made plenty of other missteps. I’m not saying this to beat myself up, or to feel virtuous. Those feelings aren’t useful, or helpful. They’re beside the point. The point, as I see it—and believe me this is a work in progress—is to:

• become more aware of our history;

• learn to collaborate in ways that don’t center whiteness; and

• build an anti-ageism movement that includes all women. Because if it’s valuable to women of color—including women who are poor or queer or trans or disabled—it’s good for everyone. That’s the movement I want to be part of.

* * *

Here’s some of the history I’ve come to understand better:

• One reason so many prosperous white women supported abolition was because they wanted access to education and to careers outside the home—to be more than wives and mothers, the only roles they were permitted. They couldn’t imagine challenging sexism within their marriages. But they learned how to do it within the anti-slavery movement, and the experience soon proved invaluable in the emerging struggle for women’s rights. But many white women firmly opposed Black men getting the vote, because it would make those men superior. And many supported suffrage for women as a way to offset the Black vote and bolster white supremacy.

            • Despite their contributions to the fight for women’s rights, not a single Black woman attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which is widely regarded as the birth of the women’s movement in the US. Even the most radical white abolitionists failed to see that the oppression of Black people under slavery and the oppression of women under patriarchy (white supremacy and male supremacy) were related. This failure on the part of abolitionists to be explicitly anti-racist carried over into the nascent movement for women’s rights.

• Many of the suffragists we honor when we celebrate the passage of 19th amendment every August held racist views. Leading figures, including Susan B. Anthony, justified indifference to the cause of racial equality on the catch-all grounds of “expediency.” When it came time to woo Southern support, even though lynchings and mob murders were on the rise after the betrayal of Reconstruction, Black women proved expendable. Once Black women won the right to vote, they were violently prevented from exercising it until after the Civil Rights movement led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. These rights are again in jeopardy.

• Historically white women, feminists included, have been reluctant to acknowledge the struggles of household workers, who are predominantly Black women and immigrants. Why? Because so many depend on this easily exploitable labor to clean our houses and look after our children.

• Historically, white feminism has valued credentials and expertise over stories and lived experience. For any number of reasons, it’s easier for white women to acquire those credentials. This leads to what author Rafia Zakaria calls “a kind of gatekeeping.”[i] We use our credentials to delegitimize projects or priorities that are different from ours, and tend to perceive them as misguided or inferior.

            • By 1967 a majority of Black Americans supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Opposition focused on traditional gender roles and the belief that the ERA would eliminate laws designed to protect women. That protection is tainted, because it requires us to agree that women are weaker than men and require their protection. I call this the “shelter of patriarchy.” Phyllis Schafley a white lawyer and doctor’s wife, organized the “STOP ERA” campaign. STOP was an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”. That kind of says it all.

            Over half a century later, the ERA remains bogged down in a procedural quagmire. The U.S. Constitution still does not formally recognize the full equality of more than half the people in this country.

            • Feminism’s next wave introduced the need for reproductive rights, but abortion-rights activists never addressed the nightmarish fact that for centuries Black women have been forcibly sterilized. Consequently the movement was lily-white. Sterilizations continue to be federally funded and free, to poor women, on demand. But not abortions. This is overtly racist.  As activist Angela Davis explains, “While women of color are urged, at every turn, to become permanently infertile, white women enjoying prosperous economic conditions are urged, by the same forces, to reproduce themselves.”[ii]

• Third wave feminism did a great deal to increase the number of women in positions of power. But when white women land jobs once held only by white men, and celebrate breaking them as feminist milestones, it’s not a victory for all women. I’m lookin’ at you, Sheryl Sandberg. No amount of leaning in will enable the millions of women juggling low-wage jobs without healthcare or childcare to “have it all.”  Corporate feminism is inherently conservative. It maintains the status quo and helps white men get richer.

• Fourth wave feminism is more consciously intersectional—progress! A hallmark was the #MeToo movement to raise awareness of sexual harassment. However, discussions of #MeToo typically focused on white celebrities and overlooked the fact that a Black woman named Tarana Burke launched the movement in 2006 to assist survivors of sexual violence, especially women of color.

• Organizing feminist history into waves, as I have just done, itself centers whiteness. The struggles of feminists of color and in the majority world don’t fit that framework.

* * *

Enough history. I raise these points as what scholar Joy Carillo calls an “act of love” in the context of women criticizing each other: “It is an act of love to take someone at her word, to expect the most out of woman who calls herself a feminist—to challenge her as you yourself wish to be challenged.”[iii] I hope that feels right to you. This is the work of a lifetime. We have to support and challenge each other.

It’s uncomfortable to explore how white privilege has shaped Western feminism.

It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge our complicity: the fact that failing to act protects our privilege in a racist world, and ensures our second-class status in a sexist world.

 Relinquishing the advantages of being white and the shelter of patriarchy involves risk  and loss. It breaks white women’s historic alliance with white men, who may withdraw their support. Other white women may distance themselves. It may be safer or easier for women of color to do the same instead of collaborating. In comparison to what they risk, what we white women have to lose is a drop in the bucket. Be prepared to feel rejected, tired, foolish, embarrassed.

Be prepared to let go of the outcome. That’s one point that came through loud and clear from the women of color who met with Old School last fall. If you actually cede voice and authority, you can’t pursue the exact same agenda. Outcomes will change. Those outcomes will be harder to arrive at, and they will be better ones.

Another lesson was the importance of supporting work by more marginalized people, becoming better allies. In the context of Old School, this means prioritizing showing up for others over launching Shiny New Things (like Biddies Take Two) . Honoring the second part of Old School’s mission statement, which was originally “to raise awareness of ageism and how to dismantle it”. After we’d been going for a while, we added, “To educate others about the intersectional nature of age bias and the need to ally explicitly with other social justice movements.”

Being anti-ageist means supporting every struggle for equal rights—especially being anti-racist because of the uniquely ugly way racism is embedded in American history, including the women’s liberation movement.

Aging is the one universal human experience and ageism the one bias everyone encounters. The movement to dismantle it must represent us all. Otherwise it will perpetuate hierarchies of human value, as the Biddies would have.

            As of now white people are overrepresented in anti-ageism advocacy, especially straight, middle-class, white women. Yes, that’s a problem. It’s also an an opportunity. Because we white women are uniquely positioned to maintain white male power or to shake things up. To quote professor Sarah Brazaitis: “Were White women to disrupt the system, change their position, renounce unearned White privilege, and refuse the role White men have prescribed for them of being a complicit partner in maintaining the status quo, the entire structure of race relations might be altered.”[iv]

            I find that a very exciting idea. I hope you do too.

Co-creating a genuinely diverse and inclusive anti-ageism movement is going to take longer, and it’s going to be messier and harder. Here are a just a few of the ways it will benefit us all:

• People of color won’t have to be the “diversity expert” any more, and can do stuff they’d almost certainly rather be doing.

• White women will gain agency on our own terms, and white men be freed of toxic roles.

• We can bring our full, authentic, creative selves to the table, instead of being constrained by hierarchies of age, race, gender, and class.

• We will all be liberated.

To paraphrase “A Black  Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective,[v]  achieving freedom for Black women means destroying all systems of oppression. In other words, if Black women were free, everyone else would be too. It’s time for their white sisters to puppy up. (A feminist friend came up with that phrase as an alternative to “man up,” and I recommend it.)

[i] Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition, p. 9.

[ii] Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class, (New York: Vintage Books, 1983) p. 127

[iii] Joy Carrillo, “And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 4thEd. Edited by Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua. (Albany: State University of NY Press, 2015), p. 58.

[iv] Sarah J. Brazaitis, “White women—Protectors of the Status Quo; Positioned to Disrupt It” in Group Dynamics, Organizational Irrationality and Social Complexity: Group Relations Reader 3, Edited by Solomon Cytrynbaum and Debra A Noumair. Portland, OR: A.K. Rice Institute, 2004

[v] Combahee River Collective, “A Black  Feminist Statement” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, op cit, p. 215.

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