the fifth wave
on white feminism & electoral politics
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Kamala Harris and the Death of Representational Politics
On Saturday, November 7th, Kamala Harris made history as the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian person to hold the title of Vice President of the United States. In her acceptance speech, the former California Senator addressed her female audience specifically: “I may be the first woman to hold this office,” she said. “But I won’t be the last.” Aside from being relieved that Trump lost the election after four days of nail-biting chaos, many Americans and non-white American women in particular are thrilled that Harris has clenched the VP spot. After nearly seven months of non-stop protests against racism and police brutality, seeing a Black woman hold one of the most powerful positions in the US government was a sign of hope and progress to many, who are hoping that a Biden-Harris win will mean enacting anti-racist policies that protect Black people and Black women in particular. This is not how everyone feels however; many Americans are fearful for what a Biden-Harris presidency could mean for Black folks, and are insisting that we must look at Harris’ past policy as a judgement of character or political competence, rather than judging her on race or gender alone.
This tension between these two ideas––that electing a woman into a position of power will help other women, versus gender being irrelevant in political decision making––shows how mainstream feminism is entering a new era, which I like to call the fifth wave. In order to understand the significance of this wave, we need to review the history of the past phases of mainstream feminism. First wave feminism, which took place in America and Europe from the 1830s until about the turn of the century, was primarily focused on gaining the right to vote. Though the suffragist movement coincided with the abolitionist movement in the United States, many suffragettes argued that they didn’t want “inferior” Black men to “rule over” white women. In fact, Susan B. Anthony famously and crudely said in 1866, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Eventually, first wave feminism in America culminated in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, securing the right to vote for white women only. The 1960s and ‘70s brought about the second wave of feminism, which focused on achieving social and economic justice for women workers. This wave of feminism, which was marked by significant victories such as the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the passage of Title IX, and the Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion, also prioritized the rights of white women. The third wave of feminism in America was more concerned with issues of identity and intersectionality than previous iterations, though many voices, particularly those of queer and trans women, were often still not prioritized. This wave took place during the 1990s and early 2000s and was marked by moments such as Anita Hill’s public repudiation of Judge Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg being appointed to the Supreme court. Finally the fourth wave, which began in the 2010s and according to some is ongoing today, was characterized by online activism, such Times Up and the #MeToo movement.
The fifth wave differs from previous iterations of mainstream feminism in a couple important ways. Firstly, while second and third wave feminists fought hard for women to be included in the workplace, many fifth wave feminists today embrace an anti-work framework, believing that people should not have to perform endless meaningless labor in order to be able to afford housing, food, education, health insurance, or other social and essential goods. This anti-work ideology is further translated into a deep distrust of the government: fifth wave feminists do not wish to participate in government as they do not believe any job, even one that is conceived as powerful or “empowering,” can bring about liberation, and further do not trust any politicians, including female ones, to bring about real change. Fifth wave feminism is also invested in several anticapitalist frameworks, such as defunding the police and prison abolition, that are entirely antithetical to the priorities of the US government. The tenets of fifth wave feminism are, of course, not new: ideologies such as abolition, anti-work, and defunding the police have been practiced in feminist and activist spaces in the United States for centuries, and have historically been spearheaded by radical queer Black feminists such as Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Audre Lorde. Where the fifth wave distinguishes itself is in it’s popularity––historically, ideas like abolition or anti-work were only seriously considered in fringe activist and anti-capitalist spaces, while the general public turned a blind or incredulous eye. But the worsening economic and political conditions of the last year have brought these ideas to the mainstream. While the first four waves of feminism in the West attempted to work within the system to bring about political and social change, fifth wave feminism aims to destroy our current systems and build a new world that prioritizes the needs of all marginalized people by recognizing that American politicians, regardless of gender, are by definition antithetical to this work.
Feminism as Loyalty to Whiteness
In college I took a Women’s Studies class where my professor once said, “you don’t have to be white to be a white feminist.” That line had me shook at 19 and I only find it to be even more true today. Though there are a lot of phrases for the type of feminism my professor was referring to––mainstream feminism, pop culture feminism, etc––I find “white feminism” to be a useful label, because most forms of popularized feminism in the West are deeply committed to upholding whiteness, regardless of the race of the person practicing.
Black feminist scholar Ayesha Khan defines white feminism broadly as a “white supremacist ideology in disguise” that “tackles sexism and patriarchy while failing to address structural racism.” I find this description to be extremely apt, and further think we can divide white feminism into a couple important categories. First we have pro-capitalist or “girl boss” feminism, an image which was popularized during the third wave in America but still remains common language in many women’s spaces today, particularly among wealthy women. This sort of feminism iconizes the working woman, and believes making and spending money to be a form of empowerment. Pro-capitalist feminism is also intricately tied to what I like to call “feel good feminism,” which is committed to making feminism, or the overall experience of being a woman, seem fun and nonthreatening. Feel good feminism often uses social media to make powerful women seem chill and relatable, such as viral videos of Kamala Harris dancing or AOC live streaming her experience playing Among Us. It also garners audiences through merchandise and advertising campaigns, such as “notorious RBG” mugs or shirts that read “girls just want to have fun-damental rights.” White feminism can be cultural, but it's often also structural. For instance, carceral feminism is a much more insidious form of white feminism that, according to Khan, “relies on policing, prosecution, and imprisonment to resolve gendered or sexual violence.” Though Black women and other women of color are statistically most at risk for gendered violence, carceral feminism does not seek to address this harm, and instead has historically been weaponized by white women to purposefully and maliciously ensure that Black people are jailed or killed by the state. In 1955, Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, alleged that Emmett Till, a 14 year old Black boy, had sexually assaulted her. Less than a month later he was brutally murdered, and Bryant later admitted that she had entirely made up the sexual assault claim. This sort of carceral violence continues today: earlier this year, Amy Cooper, a white woman in Central Park called the police alleging that Christian Cooper, a Black man, was trying to assault her. The incident was caught on video and concretely proved that Christian Cooper, a birder, was in the park to do nothing other than watch birds and mind his business. Women like Amy Cooper have inspired a meme called “Karen,” a white woman who will yell at you, who will talk to your manager, or who will even call the cops on low-income or Black people, just because she knows she can. Though these incidents are separated by over seventy years, Bryant and Cooper engage in almost exactly the same carceral violence by using white supremacist authority figures to intimidate or even kill a non-threatening Black person, illustrating how white feminism was predicated on and is still deeply invested in carceral logics.
The last variation of white feminism is political feminism, or the belief that putting women in positions of political power is uplifting and will benefit other women across the country. In reality, women politicians, regardless of party, often embody every form of white feminism: as working women, they are considered girl bosses. As prominent female figures, they are often used to make mainstream feminism seem glamorous or relatable: this summer, Kamala Harris and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot graced the covers of Elle Magazine, while Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recreated her makeup routine on YouTube for Vogue. Finally, female politicians, like all politicians, are deeply committed to carceral logics and police violence that harm Black folks and other marginalized groups across the country and across the world. Ultimately what these politicians are committed to protecting is not women, but whiteness, which is a shared priority among white feminists outside of government as well. For example, in the 2020 election, 55% of white women voted for Donald Trump, a number that is even higher than the percentage of white women who voted for him in 2016. These statistics further the fifth wave feminist ideology that political feminism, as a form of white feminism, is an inadequate mechanism for delivering real change.
Women Politicians and Rethinking Female Empowerment
Many white feminists believe that putting women in power, or giving female politicians the ability to write and enact laws, automatically benefits women politically, economically, and socially. However, a look at recent decisions made by several prominent female politicians in America as of late shows that this is not always the case. Kamala Harris is a key example of a woman with huge political power who has not used it to benefit women, and in several cases, has actively harmed women or other marginalized communities. In 2018, for example, Senator Harris cosponsored the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which put many sex workers, a group which is overwhelmingly made up of queer and trans women of color, in a socially and economically disadvantaged position. Harris also has a history of transphobic policy––in 2015, she defended a California prison’s decision to deny giving Michelle Norsworthy, a transgender woman incarcerated in a men’s prison, medically necessary surgery for her diagnosed gender dysphoria. And in 2011, then-Attorney General Harris personally championed California state legislature which made it a criminal misdemeanor for parents to allow kids in kindergarten through eighth grade to miss more than 10 percent of school days without a “valid excuse,” a policy which disproportionately sent low-income Black mothers to jail. This history clearly demonstrates Harris to be a white feminist: though her pre-election image was concerned with gaining the sympathy of Black female voters, in reality, her policies only champion the rights of wealthy, college educated women like herself while actively harming black women, poor women, and LGBTQ women, who are most vulnerable to the US government.
Harris is not the only female politician whose policies or actions have been misogynistic or racist. Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s newest Supreme Court judge, is famously pro-life and has voiced hatred for the Affordable Care Act. Beloved “feminist” judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg historically fought to deny indigenous Americans the right to protest and control over their own land, and mocked Colin Kapernick and other Black Lives Matter protestors for refusing to stand during the national anthem. Nancy Pelosi has been accused of racist remarks towards several of her non-white colleagues, and, incidentally, was mocked egregiously for wearing a traditionally West African kente cloth to a memorial for George Floyd in June, which many viewed as culturally insensitive. Even more progressive female politicians have come under similar controversy: Stacey Abrams, who has recently received huge praise for her efforts in organizing low-income Black people to vote in Georgia, remarked earlier this year that she thought Tara Reade, one of the woman accusing Joe Biden of sexual assault, was lying about her experiences. This track record shows that clearly, engaging in US politics only allows for white feminism, proving fifth wave feminists cannot rely on Harris or any of her peers to truly protect the interests of women, Black folks, or other vulnerable groups.
Despite Harris’ many questionable past policies and political decisions, in the days after her election, the internet exploded with articles and memes celebrating her win, with some images comparing Harris to other famous Black women such as Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth. I found these memes––and the general thought process behind them––faulty and offensive for two reasons. Firstly, given Kamala’s track record, I find we have no reason to believe her serving as Vice President will help Black women; if anything, we have much reason to believe the opposite. Further, women like Parks and Truth were radical feminists who believed in abolition and anti-capitalism; a comparison between these trailblazers and Harris fell extremely flat for me. The comparison to Sojourner Truth in particular struck me, given that in 1851, while enslaved, Truth delivered her iconic speech proclaiming, “And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?” Given Harris’ track record, it seems her answer to this question would be no: because of Sojourner Truth’s race and slave status, Harris would not have fought to protect her like she fights to protect the needs and interests of wealthy white women. It is interesting that Democrats have successfully pushed the image of Kamala Harris as a feminist, given that she is the second in command to Joe Biden, who has allegedly sexually assaulted eight women. Yet despite all of this, the Democratic party wants us to believe, desperately and against all logic, that because Harris is Black and a woman, she will automatically have the best interests of those communities at heart. This discrepancy illustrates the empty promises of race or gender-based “representation” in government, a tactic which usually benefits the establishment more than any other citizens––Harris, as a Black woman, can push forth a centrist agenda and policies that may hurt female or Black communities with more ease and less push back than Joe Biden can.
This points to another strength of the fifth wave, which is a rejection of “representation” ideologies in politics. When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, women of all races used the hashtag #I’mwithher to show their support for a female candidate. In contrast, 2020 has brought about a much more public and fraught debate about whether or not women and Black women in particular should support Harris just based on her race and gender. While there are many Black women who are ecstatic that Harris will be the new Vice President, either because they support her policies or because they are excited to have a Black woman in power, fifth wave feminists recognize that Harris’ race and gender do not automatically define her agenda. Further, while previous iterations of mainstream feminism automatically viewed electing a woman into government as “empowering,” the fifth wave is invested in questioning what female empowerment even means. Why is a woman Vice President empowering, if it just means that Harris now has the power to oppress women and Black people? What does power look like for women as we move away from electoral politics? And is it even possible for Black women to be empowered in the US government, when this simply means laboring under institutions that were designed to oppress and kill us?
On Being A Feminist Killjoy
I often find myself returning to the work of Sarah Ahmed, who, among other things, writes a blog called Feminist Killjoys. The title has long made me feel uniquely seen––being a Black radical feminist, particularly in this moment, often means being a bit of a bummer. When we refuse to celebrate the wins of centrist Democrats, or push for policy that both parties deem unrealistic and impossible, we are often seen as cynical, or impediments to progress. Rather, I feel confident that radicalism is not only a framework entrenched in optimism, but one that is necessary for progress.
Mainstream feminism often categories the phases of its movement as “waves.” According to The Gender Press, the metaphor is meant to describe the surge of activity at the beginning of a particular feminist phase, which then reaches its peak in the form of a concrete accomplishment––for example, during first wave feminism, the wave crested when white women were given the right to vote. Afterwards, the wave crashes, and there’s a lull until a new wave forms. This imagery contrasts sharply with the demands and desires of radical Black feminism––such as abolition and the death of capitalism––which have remained the exact same for centuries. In 1851, Sojourner Truth demanded that white folks understand her humanity and her womanhood despite her enslaved status. A few decades later abolitionist activist Frances Harper proclaimed, “Slavery is dead, but the spirit which animated it still lives.” In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a group of radical Black feminist lesbians, wrote a set of principles that still ring true to this day: “We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy.” White feminists labor in short bursts in pursuit of specific, short term goals. In contrast, for as long as Black women have been in the United States, Black feminists have fought for intersectional liberation along gender, race, and class lines by recognizing and dismantling structural oppression. The contemporary feminist fifth wave aims to uplift this work and bring it into the mainstream.
While Black feminism is focused on liberation, white feminism is consumed entirely by power. White feminists, Kamala Harris included, are only interested in securing political power for themselves and bestowing it on those they deem worthy and equally powerful, a category consisting overwhelmingly of wealthy white women. Which is why I don’t feel excited or “represented” by the prospect of Harris as the Vice President; if anything, I feel betrayed. But where white feminism is about asking for a seat at the table, Black feminists are committed to destroying the table all together. As a fifth wave feminist, I recognize that Harris’ election as Vice President has not brought us any closer to liberation, and in order to truly make progress, the radical Black feminist tradition is our only path forward.
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*Art by Yume Murphy.