Where is ‘race’ and ethnicity within the history of feminism?: a response to Vote100 by Sheila Quaid

Gemma Mitchell, University of Leicester wrote:

When I read Sheila Quaid’s Vote 100 blog post, I did what I always do when reading about feminism: I checked who was visible and who was rendered invisible in the discussion. I was, therefore, disappointed to see no mention of ‘race’ and racism, which was particularly frustrating considering the author is a sociologist. I emailed Quaid with my reservations, albeit with the disclaimers that I am not an ‘expert’ on feminism and that I recognised the blog post format is short. Quaid responded promptly, immediately admitting the error and suggested we write this post. As an ‘early career researcher’ it was encouraging to see a senior academic being honest about a mistake and resolving to rectify it.

Quaid’s post prompted me to reflect on 1) the white privilege of omitting the centrality of ‘race’ and racism when summarising the history of feminism; and 2) how this links to who is considered an ‘expert’ in sociology. For example, regarding all my ‘disclaimers’ in my email to Quaid – why was I so quick to say I’m not an expert? Did I need to say that? Why did I minimise my argument by pointing out the short length of a blog post? The recent BSA Early Career Forum event on Imposter Syndrome as a Public Feeling in Higher Education (including who attaches the label to themselves and who is labelled an imposter by others) seems relevant here. Further, what are the consequences of two white women discussing the relationship between ‘race’ and feminism? Whose expertise is being drawn upon, and who is being paid or not paid for their knowledge? Finally, what is the relationship between the practice of self-defined activists and writers on social media who both embrace and challenge traditional academic feminist practice, and to what extent can these be considered separate spaces? I look forward to the continued debate.

In response to Gemma, Sheila Quaid wrote:

Gemma’s response to my blog in the Vote 100 series was important to me and she was absolutely right. I could have kicked myself with self-frustration about the omission she identified.  I reflected on my failure to embed the uncomfortable relationship between suffrage and ‘race’ politics and racism in the suffrage movement.  My frustration with self was not least because my s/heroes at the top of my reading lists in teaching are bell hooks (2000), Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins (1992) to name but a few and more recently the huge impact of Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) defines my teaching of feminism and intersections.  

The interconnections of ‘race’ and gender evident in the current era and during the Anita Hill vs Clarence Thomas case in the 1990s are not new. Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) as a frame gives us a lens and complexity for understanding these moments.  When we consider the earlier idea of our ‘politics of location’ from Brah (1996) we are enabled to be mindful of our location and out relationship to others in gendered, raced and sexed hierarchies.  Some feminist historians talk about a rumoured rallying cry of the suffragettes which went something like ‘Not black men before White women’.  Whether this was ever really on a banner or not it reflects historical evidence that white suffragists courted the white southern women at the expense of black Americans.  Frances E Willard, for example (Temperance leader), appealed to white Southern women, at the expense of black Americans, ‘Better whiskey and more of it' is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs," Willard said in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice. "The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities." (2)  Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the Senate, pushed this dangerous message: “I do not want to see a Negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all,” she said. “When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor justice in the court house to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue — if it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts — then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.”(3). Black women were mobilising in America and formed in 1896 the National Federation of Afro American Women.  Later merged with the national league of Coloured Women NACW and they formed a suffrage department.  In 1916 they passed a resolution to support suffrage.  Conflict and differing interests were not first identified in the 20th century but as these examples, and as bell hooks explained, during slavery white women were subjugated by patriarchy but privileged by slavery.  These complexities are touched on here but these difficult, conflictual and complex historical moments and hierarchies of privilege inform my feminism and my teaching of feminism to students.

So why did I omit?

Was it because, as Avtar Brah (1996) has shown us, that we are positioned in and out of privilege at different times and in different relationships and I assumed too much? Was it an unconscious taken for granted assumption that ‘race’ would obviously be there even if not mentioned? Gemma’s response opens a dialogue where we can share an understanding that it ALWAYS needs to be mentioned. This is what we can do with each other as colleagues, allow each other to remind, point out, reflect on our positioning and then discuss and understand from each other. 

Brah, A. (1996). Cartographies of diaspora; contesting identities. London: Routledge.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), p.1241.

Davis, A. Y. (1981). Women, race, & class. New York : Vintage Books, 1983, ©1981

hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

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