Angry women and Intersectional Feminism
If you read the New Yorker or have a parent who sends you links, you may recall a 2018 book review called The Perils and Possibilities of Anger. This essay theorized that women might be, at long last, ready to express their rage. Out loud, in politics. And more esoterically, in books. Women's rage had been simmering below the surface since, oh, time immemorial. But now, feminist writers like Brittney Cooper (Eloquent Rage) and Rebecca Traister (Good and Mad) were encouraging women to let it fly.
Of course, the 2016 election cycle was all about rage: White men's rage. America finally had a female Presidential candidate on a major ticket, but all anyone could talk about was the forgotten white men -- along with a complicit majority of suburban and ex-urban white women -- who stampeded out of their private locker rooms and unwashed drum-circle-jerks and declared that the game was rigged (you are invited to hear that in Trump's voice or Bernie's). Never mind that the grievance guys invented this game and still owned controlling shares in this game. They were so done with the Establishment Trifecta -- Black civil rights activists who'd been beaten and bloodied, women's reproductive choice advocates whose rights had been steadily rolled back for decades, and Mexicans who were somehow taking white men's jobs as migrant lettuce farmers in South Dakota.
The New York Times dispatched an army of Maureens to study the Trump voter in his native habitat and ask him probing questions like "Please sir, will you show us on the doll where Hillary hurt you?" The rest of us already knew the answer. Disinformation works like magic against women in an already misogynist society. Caucuses favor angry men. The electoral college favors sparsely-settled white people. And the only people who showed up for Hillary in overwhelmingly convincing numbers were Black women, because they didn't fall for any of this nonsense.
A lot of white women, I believe and I hope, stepped up their efforts to understand their role in this debacle. Personally, I focused attention on the ways in which white feminism -- which was long synonymous with "feminism," but was really the centering of white women in feminist movements and ideas -- had failed all of us. For one thing, white women obviously have too much internalized misogyny to fix this mess. Just look who they voted for. Meanwhile, Black women were out there doing all the work to fix it, while being screwed out of leadership and compensation and recognition. I stepped up my commitment to learning about and being a better intersectional feminist, and as a necessary part of that process, redoubled my efforts at listening to non-white women. Especially their rage.
Within this rubric, I went back to one of the best intersectional feminist sources, Audre Lorde. Brittney Cooper credits Lorde with defining her feminism, too, which I mention explicitly so you don't think I'm just plagiarizing her. I've always myself found it very white feminist-y when people quote Lorde on this: "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own" (1981). Like that's enough intersectional feminism for white feminism. We share a quippy mantra!
What white people forget or don't realize is that Lorde delivered that line at the almost-end of a talk about Black women's anger. The talk was an extended reprimand of white feminists, in fact, in which Lorde explained that she is angry about racism, she is angry at white women. What white women really need to do -- if we want feminism to work, Lorde says -- is to move beyond their consciousness raising sessions that rage only against men, and listen to the rage of other women. I don't think she actually used the word rage, but that's immaterial here. The line that follows her famous line is what most of the talk is really about: "I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you."
I wanted this post to be short, and I'm already getting too chatty, so let me cut to the chase. The novel that I spent most of 2020 working on, Invasive Vines, was largely inspired by my desire to imagine how intersectional feminism might have worked in historical white supremacy culture. The 2016 election and 2018 organizing I did virtually made me write this book. It would be ahistorical to say the words "intersectional feminism" in a 1906 setting. But I didn't write characters who ahistorically claim to be "feminists." They're just female characters, with different struggles, whose lives and struggles intersect, and who figure out a way to work together to resolve their different struggles, against a common foe.
In this excerpt from part three, which I entitled Intersection, I get into some anger. Caddie, the white immigrant girl, has found her way back to Jesamyn's workplace. Jesamyn isn't pleased.
"What did you come here for?" She meant it more as an accusation than a question. A small part of her was tempted to ask Caddie how her new life was going. She fought back the urge, not only because the child looked pathetic, but because starting something up again might get in the way of hearing all the facts.
"I-- I-- know. It's strange. That I've come. And I'm sorry, that when I first arrived, that I wasn't more thankful."
She remembered? Jesamyn would be legitimately shocked if that were true.
"To you. Thankful to you. For trying to warn me."
She did remember.
"Alright, but again," Jesamyn replied, sliding right past the girl's meagre plea of contrition to get the answer she needed, "Why are you here? You can still cause us plenty of trouble."
The "warning" had happened during their first meeting. Jesamyn had snapped at Caddie for being ignorant, and tried to repair it by cautioning her about the ways of the South. Caddie responded with white insolence and arrogance. Thus, her "new life" remark, intended to make Jesamyn feel bad.
One of the editors commented that Jesamyn would not have issued any kind of warning to a white stranger. It would have been too dangerous for her. Caddie could have marched right into the house and told the white secretary what Jesamyn said. This is a good note, and I'm thinking about how to rewrite it to similar emotional effect. Because it's an important moment in their mutual character development. If they are going to work together later in the narrative, Jesamyn has to be able to call Caddie out on her unexamined white privilege. And Caddie has to be able to demonstrate that she understands the difference between their problems. She has to hear Jesamyn's anger.
Please share your thoughts on any and all of this & please pass it around if you can.