by Abigail Spencer
Feminism is for everyone. Or at least, it should be. But I caution against any individual who identifies as a feminist from thinking that this makes them free from exclusionary behavior because…Spoiler Alert: Feminists can be just as exclusive, if not more exclusive, than those who aren’t feminists.
But why, you may be wondering? How can a group that advocates so firmly for inclusion simultaneously be exclusive? In order to answer this question, we’ll need to take a quick glance into the history of femxle (“female,” at the time) rights movements in the United States.
We begin our tale circa 1789, when the U.S. Constitution granted citizens of the United States of America the right to vote…or, something like that anyway. As it was generally interpreted, the right to vote was only extended to property-holding white citizens. Two crucial groups we’re missing here? POC and womxn (largely due to the fact that it was not legal for womxn to own property at the time.) It was only a matter of time before activist groups began rallying in support of voting rights for all, breaking off into two particular movements: voting rights for black Americans, and voting rights for womxn.
What initially started as one movement for voting equality was seen as “too far-fetched,” and forced activists to pick which group to advocate for. Interestingly, following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it finally became “legal” for free black men to vote. However, many Southern governments opposed this, and instituted policies to disenfranchise black voters. Literacy tests were just one of the many regulations put in place to take away the ability of black citizens to vote. One of the most notable advocates for removing barriers to voting for black citizens was Booker T. Washington, who worked to coordinate and fund legal opposition to the disenfranchisement, effectively moving in the direction of suffrage for black Americans.
All the while, another movement sprung up: the womxn’s suffrage movement. Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, activists including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began a seventy-year struggle to secure the right to vote.
The activists in this movement were mostly characterized by middle- to upper-class status, and were predominantly white. Despite initially receiving support for their cause from renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the suffrage movement quickly skyrocketed from a movement for equality and inclusion, into a movement that opposed racial equality and supported race-based exclusion. While spearheads of the movement like Susan B. Anthony continued to support racial equality, many members of the movement grew frustrated at the idea that the movement for black voting rights yielded fruit before their own freedoms. This, in addition to frequent out-of-context quoting of Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists referring to the period as “Negro’s Hour” (in an attempt to suggest that some suffrage was still progress, and women would get the chance to vote at a later time) led to fury amongst angry middle- and upper-class white women.
This “competition” worked both ways; many abolitionists questioned their support for the women’s suffrage movement, due to the perception that it didn’t value black lives.
This isn’t the only instance of social divides between oppressed groups, but it is an important one. Understanding the historical tensions that arose when two oppressed groups wanted equality is telling of our modern-day efforts to promote inclusivity.
How Can I be an Inclusive Feminist?
The question is certainly a loaded one, but the most simple answer is to practice intersectionality in your feminism. Intersectionality, as defined by Merriam-Webster, “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.” Intersectional feminist scholars argue that there opression can vary completely based on not only gender, but only factors. For instance, while a first-wave feminist may support women, they advocate for male and female equality—often leaving no room for consideration of gender identities that fall outside of the “male/female” binary—which is why many second- and third-generation feminists use the terms “womxn” and “femxle”—to account for those outside of the binary. Understanding the implications of gender nonbinary identities in feminism is essential to promote and practice inclusivity. Consider for a moment the different hardships faced by a sixteen-year-old cis girl and a sixteen-year-old trans girl. Without saying one has it “worse than” the other, it is almost certain that the trans girl will face an entirely different set of obstacles related to her identity as not only a femxle, but as a femxle who will likely experience —or has experienced — dysmorphia, as well as the plethora of other oppressions that our society imposes on transgender folk.
And while the fluidity of gender comes with a wide variety of different experiences, also consider the intersectionality of different factors. A black womxn and a white womxn will not have the same experience due to their common gender if they are both in a car when a police officer pulls them over. The black womxn is, in this instance and many more, threatened by the overarching presence of our racism in our society, while the white womxn is most likely unaffected. Even two femxle POC’s may have different experiences based on a difference in class; a lower-class Latinx womxn and an upper-class Latinx womxn share their Latinx and femxle identities, but may be subject to an entirely different types of economic hardships.
The possibilities are endless—and this is exactly what intersectional feminism considers. That we are not all born into equal situations due to our gender, or race, or ability, or class status, but an intricate combination of each of these factors. If you are looking to support inclusion, intersectional feminism is the best practice.
I hope you’ve learned something about history, or the contrasting theories of feminism, but you’re likely wondering why I decided to write this article. Well, quite frankly, I think there’s a growing need for feminists and proponents of femxle-inclusion in the debate community to re-evaluate our approach to inclusivity. We cannot keep celebrating all femxle achievements as one in the same. Recognize POC womxn. Recognize queer womxn. Recognize low-income womxn, or womxn from small-school debate teams. Recognize disabled womxn. Recognize all womxn, and recognize them for every beautiful thing that they are.
Take caution, that you do not include some womxn at the expense of others. Do not claim that the debate space is demonstrating “equality” when five white men get speaker awards, and five white womxn get speaker awards. Instead, question why there are no POC womxn on stage, or why it is only able-bodied womxn represented. Do not sacrifice the inclusion of these groups just to see someone who looks like you on stage, and refuse to settle for the normalization of straight, white, able-bodied women with money to spend on coaching as a representation of “all women.” It. Is. Not.
We compete in round, but we shouldn’t compete for inclusivity. If you support womxn in debate, but you don’t support trans wmxn in debate, you are exclusive. If you support POC in debate, but you don’t support small-school debaters, you are exclusive. Don’t settle for small victories for “femxle rights” that set other causes further behind. Be the best you that you can be, and support all types of social justice.
If you’re interested in further reading about the topics I discussed, here are a few of my favorites that I’d recommend.
Divisive Suffrage Movements:
The Curious Feminist, by Cynthia Enloe
Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, by bell hooks
Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler
Abigail Spencer is the Nevada State Director of BR