The Shocking Reason Women’s Rights Continue to Disappear
By Cindy Gomez-Schempp
Last edited July 4, 2014
No movement where people demanded their rights has ever been successful without the oppressed rising up. And usually, a critical mass of the target group must rise up before a shift in ideas or behaviors begins to take place. It was how the civil rights movement was won. Today, however, we hear there is a war on women’s rights and women are losing the battle. States are rolling back abortion rights, guaranteed decades ago in Roe. vs. Wade. 1 out of 4 are sexually assaulted before age 18, the statistics are higher for brown and black women. 1 out of 5 college women are raped on campus and yet congress narrowly reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act. Women still can’t earn equal pay with men or gain access to the same quality education or jobs. Women in America are furious at politicians and lawmakers, most of whom are white males, for their adversarial policies and they vow to rise up together and unleash the voting power of women to fight back! I’m not that optimistic for the women’s movement.
Unfortunately for women in America, racial divisions deeply rooted in the life, institutions, and history have kept women divided against each other, unable to organize together for the well being and benefit of us all. This may seem like a shocking statement, but it is also true. And it stems from a misogynist system that sustains patriarchy and white supremacy for white males. White women act against their own self interest as women when they support conservative policies which restrict women’s rights to exercise free will over their sexual and reproductive organs and progeny. Whatever their stated ulterior motives may be: religious or moral values for example, the outcome is that women’s access as a whole to medical reproductive care will be limited or lost. Conservative women understand this. But, who are the women affected most?
We all know that the women who are most affected by the loss of access to medical care of any sort, but especially when discussing reproductive care, are women of color. Black and Latina women’s sexuality and reproductive care has never been respected in the same way as white women. Black, Latina, and Native women were all historically subjected to rape and forced sterilization in a way white women have never been targeted. This is because of the Eugenics movement in America which reinforced Jim Crow ideology and policy. It was considered a scientific necessity to reduce the fertility of women of less desirable races, like Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans. Forced sterilization of women of color continues today but is rarely discussed in media and America’s history has been sterilized by conveniently omitting the teaching or discussion of these easily verifiable facts.
White women organized together for women’s suffrage when there was yet no equality between people of color and whites. White women knew that, so they also knew the voting rights they were really securing were those of white women, not all women. This too is never discussed. Women of color are not supposed to notice these holes in the feminist movement’s net, which conveniently let all women of color slip through. We’re just supposed to join in and support the fight for “women’s rights” as if the concerns of the inhumane and cruel treatment of women of color will be included in the feminist agenda when we clearly know it is not. But, we are still expected to join and support the feminist cause. And most of us do, willingly or half heartedly. Why? For the feeble hope that what we ask in the name of all women will finally trickle down to black and brown women.
So the problem within the feminist movement is not rooted merely in gender issues, but instead in racial ones. We are not united and allied across racial lines with one another in the women’s movement. Anyone who is an anti-racist will tell you that if you are a white anti-racist then you must learn how to be a good ally. Like the ally of any movement, silent support from the sidelines is not considered “being a good ally”. The whole point of an ally is that the people from the oppressed group have a hand up from those who are part of the dominant group. The reason why these allies are useful is because being part of the dominant group they have power, influence and privilege that can help bring more visibility to an issue that might otherwise continue to be ignored by their peers in the dominant group. For the purposes of this discussion I will identify the three groups that women fall into: White conservative women, white progressive women, and women of color. Therefore, it is white women who must take on the role of being the good ally to women of color. After all, they share being women with us and they know what we face as women collectively and individually as women of color. Yet, this sisterhood of women has not, and is not taking place. But why? You have to dig through history to find out.
As unfortunate as the reality may be, the United States of America was founded through the systematic land theft, rape, and genocide of the Indigenous First Nation people living here. In order to justify the genocide caused by “Manifest Destiny”, and slavery of both the Indigenous body as well as the African American one, the United States also established a system of white supremacy which it institutionalized into its government, policies and laws, educational system and medical/scientific system. The rape of black women at the hands of slave owners, was well known by the slave owner’s white wives. The consequences of these contentious relationships created by rape and slavery and repeated with impunity for centuries, pitted white women against the black or brown women who were the objects of their husbands’ desires. The laws put into place by white men reinforced and upheld their rights to control women, their ability to reproduce with them, and the treatment that white women and children versus black and brown women and children could receive.
The impetus for the feminist movement, in many ways, stems from white women’s desire to escape the economic and sexual prison imposed on them by white men. They endeavored to gain economic independence by acquiring political power and the ability, like their male counterparts, to vote and own land. But when white women gained these rights, they did so with the help and influence of allies who were white men. Without those white allies pleading their cause in a white man’s world, they may never have achieved their goals. White men, at least some of them, had to believe white women when they spoke of their oppression and understood why they deserved the rights to vote, own property, or get an abortion. The laws guaranteeing these rights for white women came later. Yet, acceptance and enforcement of those laws, supposedly giving us our sought out equality, still elude women to this day. To hear men today tell it, we live in a post-gender unequal society. To most men, gender inequality is a figment of the collective imagination of women and we are told to ignore the wage gap or the lack of equal access medical care, careers or education.
Still, as women, we are the pilots of our own ship. The fact that we’ve been out to sea for so long, wandering around like a ghost ship unable to find its way out of the fog, is a testament to how far away we are from being united as a women in expressing our collective needs or fighting to demand collective rights for all women. The problem with our approach is that in order to for all women to come together to fight for our common good, the women among us who have the most privilege and power have to 1) care about, 2) understand and 3) believe women of color’s issues, and put them at the forefront of the women’s movement.
Both historically and in the present day, black and brown women in America are much more likely than white women to get paid less, drop out of high school, become a pregnant teen, be unemployed, get raped, have children out of wedlock, be forcibly sterilized, die in childbirth, die of a preventable disease due to lack of access to medical care, have their children put in foster care, lived in poverty, become the victims of domestic violence, and the list goes on and on. These are not random unknown facts. These are well known tropes that all white women (and white men) are familiar with, yet these are not the top tenants of the American feminist movement, nor have they ever been. Women of color have noticed.
Women of color may be active and supportive of what we know is really a white women’s movement which tokenizes women of color for ‘numbers’ and ‘statistics’, but ignores our issues as unimportant or secondary to white womens’ agenda. But, women of color know that in fact our issues are some of the most egregious examples of America’s present day moral obscenities and that the feminist groups most responsible for defending the rights of women remain silent when it comes to defending women of color. But our full throated or lukewarm support of the women’s movement is just the tip of the iceberg when examining why the women’s movement is moving backwards instead of forward. As women we must examine what would make any woman act against her own self interest and that of all of womankind. The reason is that both patriarchy and white supremacy (frequently wrapped in religion and law) have trained white women to accept that white men know best and that although they have seen the fate of black and brown women all throughout history and have clearly recognized the injustices and lack of equality between them, they know they themselves will be spared that same fate by white males.
The fact that white women have been given an advantage over women of color has been a dirty trick played on all women; a cruel trick which leaves both white and brown women fooled and empty handed. White men cannot continue to maintain either patriarchy or gender inequality without the explicit or implicit complicity of one half of those who hold sway and power in this country: white women. White women have known, ignored (or benignly ‘stayed out’ of) the discriminatory and brutal treatment of women of color, and they have tolerated it because they are exempt from the worst treatment, the most horrible conditions, or the greatest loss of freedom that women of color face. Both white men and women know regardless of whether they are conservatives or progressives know that the worst outcomes and consequence in society are reserved for women of color.
Call it apathy, fear or confusion, at the end of the day women of color know they cannot ever trust that white women are fighting for their cause because white women never show that they care about the most egregious problems facing women today: the issues facing women of color. How can the women’s movement be taken seriously by women of color, or men when white progressives refuse to readily acknowledge or address the most horrible societal problems in America which disproportionately affect black and brown women: physical and sexual assault, homelessness, hunger, and extreme poverty. The answer is, they can’t. Conservative white women can’t trust it either. They know it is a white man’s world. If I was going to have to choose between putting the fate of securing my future freedoms in the hands of a progressive white woman within the women’s movement or a white man, I’d probably hedge my bets and stick with the guys that have been in power for the past 500 years: white males.
They say that the measure of a great society is made by evaluating how it treats its most vulnerable members. I think that can be said as well of any great movement or group. By not putting the issues of women of color front and center in the women’s movement, white progressive women are missing the mark and reinforcing their inability to defend the rights of any woman. The message to all women witnessing the lukewarm or absent defense of women of color is that ‘If you can’t defend brown women, you can’t defend any woman effectively’. White conservative women and women of color noticed. That’s why we’re all divided against each other.
As long as the three groups are stuck in this stand-off, all women are suffering the consequences. White women are the ones with the least to lose, and therefore they may feel safe in their white privilege relative to brown women, thinking white men will always respect white women’s freedoms and rights despite the laws which are disproportionately taking freedoms from and harming black and brown women. After all, that’s how things have worked up until now. But, the fact that the majority of white women, be they conservative or progressive, are currently shielded from feeling the effects of restricted or lost rights, that does not mean they will be safe forever.
Besides, white women should be very wary of blindly trusting in the promises coming from the group that poses the greatest threat to the survival of ALL women: white men. It’s true. The number one threat to women is men. And white men do not have a good track record of keeping their promises when it comes to the treatment of those they oppress. So, although more and more freedoms and rights women have fought hard to gain seem to be shrinking or disappearing I am not as optimistic that white women will rise up together, or unite with women of color to take back our collective freedoms. We’ve never risin up together for anything. Women of color can’t even get white women to acknowledge our issues, much less stand up for them.
If women really want to change the dynamics of how women are treated, respected, paid, cared for, and honored in our society, they must learn how to acknowledge and care about the weakest, poorest, and most maligned amongst us first. We must meet the errors of our past head on and form new alliances to move forward together. We must see how men have divided and confused our relationships pitting us against each other as rivals and competitors rather than peers and supporters. We have to break the stereotypes of women by first breaking the stereotypes of black and brown women and working our way up from the bottom. It’s time we figured this out, before it’s too late. And, the trickle down feminism we’ve been recruiting women into so far, doesn’t work.