Sample: Feminist Thought, 5th Ed.


Sampled below is the Preface, Introduction and Chapter Four from Feminist Thought, Fifth Edition, by Rosemarie Tong and Tina Fernandes Botts.


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Table of Contents




The Diversity of Feminist Thinking

1. Liberal Feminism

Conceptual Roots
Before the “First Wave”: Equal Education
“First Wave” Liberal Feminism: Equal Liberty and the Suffrage
“Second Wave” Liberal Feminism: Equal Rights
Toward “Third-Wave” Liberal Feminism: Sameness Versus Difference and Egalitarianism
“Third-Wave” Liberal Feminism: Intersectionality
Critiques of Liberal Feminism
Questions for Discussion

2. Radical Feminism

Radical-Libertarian Feminism in General
Radical-Cultural Feminism in General
Controversies Between Radical-Libertarian and Radical-Cultural Feminists
Critiques of Radical Feminism
Questions for Discussion

3. Marxist and Socialist Feminisms

Some Traditional Marxist Concepts and Theories
Classical Marxist Feminism: General Reflections
Contemporary Socialist Feminism: General Reflections
Contemporary Women’s Labor Issues
Critiques of Marxist and Socialist Feminisms
Questions for Discussion

4. Women-of-Color Feminism(s) in the United States

Women-of-Color Feminism(s) and the “First Wave”
Women-of-Color Feminism(s) and the “Second Wave”
Women-of-Color Feminism(s) and the “Third Wave”
Distinct Women-of-Color Feminism(s)
Critiques of Women-of-Color Feminism(s) in the United States
Questions for Discussion

5. Women-of-Color Feminism(s) on the World Stage: Global, Postcolonial, and Transnational Feminisms

Global Feminism in General
Postcolonial Feminism in General
Transnational Feminism in General
Critiques of Global, Postcolonial, and Transnational Feminisms
Questions for Discussion

6. Psychoanalytic Feminism

Classical Psychoanalytic Thought: Focus on Sigmund Freud
Anglo-American Critiques and Appropriations of Freud: Focus on Dorothy Dinnerstein, Nancy Chodorow, and Juliet Mitchell
Contemporary Psychoanalytic Thought: Focus on Jacques Lacan
Critique of Jacques Lacan
“French” Psychoanalytic Feminism: Focus on Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva
Critiques of Freudian, Lacanian, and Psychoanalytic Feminist Thought
Questions for Discussion

7. Care-Focused Feminism

The Roots of Care-Focused Feminism
Critiques of Care-Focused Feminism
The Roots of Maternal Ethics
Critiques of Maternal Ethics
Questions for Discussion

8. Ecofeminism

Some Roots of Ecofeminism
Early Conceptions of Ecofeminism
Women, Nature, and Culture: Some Tensions
Nature Ecofeminism
Spiritual Ecofeminism
Transformative Ecofeminism
Global Ecofeminism
Vegetarian Ecofeminism
Environmental Ecofeminism
Critiques of Ecofeminism
Questions for Discussion

9. Existentialist, Poststructural, and Postmodern Feminisms

Existentialism: Focus on Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialist Feminism: Focus on Simone de Beauvoir
Critiques of Existentialist Feminism
Poststructuralism: Focus on Michel Foucault
Poststructural Feminism: Focus on Judith Butler
Critiques of Poststructural Feminism
Postmodernism: Focus on Jacques Derrida
Postmodern Feminism: Focus on Hélène Cixous
Critiques of Postmodern Feminism
Questions for Discussion

10. Third-Wave and Queer Feminisms

Third-Wave Feminism
Critiques of Third-Wave Feminism
Feminist Queer Theory
Critiques of Feminist Queer Theory
Questions for Discussion




The two of us have enjoyed working together on the fifth edition of Feminist Thought—even though one of us was in Charlotte, North Carolina, retired as an emeritus professor of philosophy, and the other was an assistant professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno. Committed to making the fifth edition of the book the best yet, we expanded it from seven to ten chapters. Although Chapter 1 on liberal feminism, Chapter 3 on Marxist and socialist feminisms, Chapter 8 on ecofeminism, and Chapter 9 on existentialist, poststructural, and postmodern feminisms remain somewhat the same, we added better critiques and more recent data. We have recast Chapter 2 on radical feminism to better accommodate some of our most recent ideas about sexuality and particularly reproduction. In addition, we now have two chapters on women-of-color feminism. One focuses on women of color in the United States and the other on women of color worldwide (global, postcolonial, and transnational). We have also split Chapter 6 on psychoanalytic and care-focused feminism into two chapters: Chapter 6 on psychoanalytic feminism and Chapter 7 on care-focused feminism. Finally, we have added Chapter 10 on third-wave feminism and feminist queer theory and significantly updated and reconfigured our bibliography.

This fifth edition of Feminist Thought contains several substantial changes in addition to many cosmetic ones. We believe that nothing currently on the market is more inclusive of the rich diversity and intersectionality of feminist thought.



The Diversity of Feminist Thinking

While working on the fifth edition of Feminist Thought, we have become increasingly convinced that feminist thought resists categorization into tidy schools. “Interdisciplinary,” “intersectional,” and “interlocking” are the kinds of adjectives that best describe feminist thinking. There is an exhilaration in the way we feminists move from one idea to the next, revising our thoughts in midstream. Yet, despite the very real challenges that accompany trying to categorize the thought of an incredibly diverse and large array of feminist thinkers, feminist thought is old enough to have a history complete with a set of labels: liberal, radical, Marxist/socialist, women-of-color, global, postcolonial, transnational, psychoanalytic, care-focused, ecofeminist, existentialist, poststructural, postmodern, third-wave, and queer. To be sure, this list of labels is incomplete and contestable. It probably does not capture the full range of feminism’s intellectual and political commitments to women and society in general. Yet feminist thought’s traditional labels remain serviceable. They signal to the public that feminism is not a monolithic ideology and that all feminists do not think alike. The labels also help mark the number of different approaches, perspectives, frameworks, and standpoints that a variety of feminists have used to shape both their explanations for women’s oppression and their proposed solutions for its elimination.

Because so much of mainstream feminist theory reacts against traditional liberal feminism, liberalism is as good a place as any to begin a survey of feminist thought. This perspective received its classic formulation in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,[1] John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women,”[2]] and the nineteenth-century women’s suffrage movement. Its main thrust, an emphasis still felt in such groups as the National Organization for Women (NOW), is that female subordination is rooted in a set of customary and legal constraints that block women’s entrance to and success in the public sphere. To the extent that society holds the false belief that women are, by nature, less intellectually and physically capable than men, it tends to discriminate against women in the academy, the forum, and the marketplace. As liberal feminists see it, this discrimination against women is unfair. Women should have as much chance to succeed in the public realm as men do. Gender justice, insist liberal feminists, requires us, first, to make the rules of the game fair and, second, to ensure that none of the runners in the race for society’s goods and services are systematically disadvantaged.

But is the liberal feminist program robust enough to undo women’s oppression? Radical feminists think not. They claim that power, dominance, hierarchy, and competition characterize the patriarchal system. It cannot be reformed but only ripped out, root and branch. Radical feminists insist that it is not enough for us to overturn patriarchy’s legal and political structures on the way to women’s liberation; we must also thoroughly transform its social and cultural institutions (especially the family and organized religion).

As in the past, we remain impressed by the diverse modalities of thinking that count as radical feminist thought. Although all radical feminists focus on sex, gender, and reproduction as the loci for the development of feminist thought,[3] some stress the pleasures of sex (be it heterosexual, lesbian, or autoerotic) and view as unalloyed blessings for women not only the old reproduction-­controlling technologies but also the new reproduction-­assisting technologies. In contrast, other radical feminists emphasize the dangers of sex, especially heterosexual sex, and regard as harmful to women the new reproduction-assisting technologies and, in a different way, the old reproduction-­controlling technologies. As in the previous edition of Feminist Thought, we sort this varied array of radical feminist thinkers into two groups: radical-­libertarian and radical-cultural feminists.[4]

With respect to issues related to sexuality, radical-libertarian feminists argue that no specific kind of sexual experience should be prescribed as the best.[5] Every woman should be encouraged to experiment sexually with herself, with other women, and with men. Although heterosexuality can be dangerous for women within a patriarchal society, women must nonetheless feel free to follow their own desires, even if that means embracing men.

Radical-cultural feminists disagree. They stress that through pornography, prostitution, sexual harassment, rape, and woman battering,[6] through foot binding, suttee, purdah, clitoridectomy, witch burning, and gynecology,[7] men have controlled women’s sexuality for male pleasure. Thus, to become liberated, women must escape the confines of heterosexuality and create a distinct female sexuality through celibacy, autoeroticism, or lesbianism.[8] Only alone, or with other women, can women discover the true pleasure of sex.

Radical feminist thought is as diverse on issues related to reproduction as it is on matters related to sexuality. Radical-libertarian feminists claim biological motherhood drains women physically and psychologically.[9] Women should be free, they say, to use the old reproduction-controlling technologies and the new reproduction-assisting technologies on their own terms—to prevent or terminate unwanted pregnancies or, alternatively, to have children when they want them (pre- or postmenopausally), how they want them (from their own womb or that of another woman), and with whom they want them (a man, a woman, or alone). Some radical-libertarian feminists go further than this, however. They look forward to the day when ectogenesis (extracorporeal gestation in an artificial uterus) entirely replaces the natural process of pregnancy.

In contrast to radical-libertarian feminists, radical-cultural feminists claim biological motherhood is the ultimate source of women’s power.[10] Women, in their view, determine whether the human species continues—whether there is life or no life. Women must guard and celebrate this life-giving power, for in its absence, men will have even less respect and use for women than they do now.[11]

Unconvinced by the liberal and radical feminist agendas for women’s liberation, Marxist and socialist feminists claim it is impossible for anyone, especially women, to achieve true freedom in a class-based society, where the wealth produced by the powerless many ends up in the hands of the powerful few. With Friedrich Engels,[12] Marxist and socialist feminists insist that women’s oppression originated with the introduction of private property, an institution that obliterated whatever equality of community humans had previously enjoyed. Private ownership of the means of production by relatively few persons, originally all male, inaugurated a class system whose contemporary manifestations are corporate capitalism and imperialism. Reflection on this state of affairs suggests that capitalism itself, not just the larger social rules that privilege men over women, is the cause of women’s oppression. If all women—rather than just the exceptional ones—are ever to be liberated, a socialist system in which the means of production belong to everyone must replace the capitalist system. No longer economically dependent on men, women will be just as free as men are.

Socialist feminists agree with Marxist feminists that capitalism is the source of women’s oppression and with radical feminists that patriarchy is the origin. Therefore, the way to end women’s oppression, in socialist feminists’ estimation, is to kill the two-headed beast of capitalist patriarchy or patriarchal capitalism (take your pick). Motivated by this goal, socialist feminists seek to develop theories that explain the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy.

During the first stage of theory development, socialist feminists offered several so-called two-system explanations of women’s oppression. These two-system theories included those forwarded by Juliet Mitchell and Alison Jaggar. In Woman’s Estate, Mitchell claimed that women’s condition is determined not only by the structures of production (as Marxist feminists think) but also by the structures of reproduction and sexuality (as radical feminists believe) and the socialization of children (as liberal feminists argue).[13] She stressed that women’s status and function in all these structures must change if women are to achieve full liberation. Still, Mitchell ultimately gave the edge to capitalism over patriarchy as women’s worst enemy.

Like Mitchell, Alison Jaggar attempted to achieve a synthesis between Marxist and radical feminist thought. Acknowledging that all feminist perspectives recognize the conflicting demands made on women as wives, mothers, daughters, lovers, and workers,[14] Jaggar insisted that socialist feminism is unique because of its concerted effort to interrelate the myriad forms of women’s oppression. She used the unifying concept of alienation to explain how, under capitalism, everything (work, sex, play) and everyone (fellow workers, family members, and friends) that could engender women’s integration as persons becomes instead a cause of their disintegration. Together with Mitchell, Jaggar insisted there are only complex explanations for women’s subordination. Yet, in contrast to Mitchell, she named patriarchy rather than capitalism as the worst evil visited on women.

After Mitchell and Jaggar, another group of socialist feminists aimed to develop new explanations of women’s oppression that pinpointed neither capitalism nor patriarchy alone as the primary source of women’s limited well-being and freedom. Iris Marion Young[15] and Heidi Hartmann[16] constructed explanations for women’s oppression that viewed capitalism and patriarchy as interacting to the point of full symbiosis. To a greater or lesser extent, these thinkers addressed the question of whether capitalism could survive the death of patriarchy, or vice versa. Although the nuances of their theories were difficult to grasp, Young and Hartmann—like their predecessors Mitchell and Jaggar—pushed feminists to address issues related to women’s unpaid, underpaid, or disvalued work.

We need to point out that for all their insights into women’s condition(s), pre-[1980]s feminists, especially in the Anglo-American world, were almost entirely white, bourgeois, heterosexual, and oriented toward events in the Western, now so-called Northern, world. In this fifth edition of Feminist Thought, we try to devote adequate attention to the ways in which women of color, working-class women, lesbian women, and, most recently, trans­women in the United States and elsewhere have shaped a variety of feminisms that have helped women everywhere become freer and more equal to men in their rights and responsibilities. Owing to the addition of Tina Fernandes Botts (a woman-of-color feminist) as an author of this text, we believe that we have better articulated some of the concerns, issues, and ideas of women of color in this edition.

Specifically, in this edition, we have enhanced Chapters [4] and [5] to reflect the contemporary centrality of women-of-color feminisms in feminist thought and to highlight the concept of intersectionality. In Chapter [4], we focus on women of color in the United States, specifically Black/African American, Latin American/Latina/Chicana, Asian American, and Indigenous women. Although there certainly exist many more varieties of women of color in the United States, we use our representative units of analysis to provide a sampling of the unique experiences of oppression of each of these groups of women and to highlight their distinct vantage points. At the same time, we understand that these different groups of women share the common experience of having been racialized (assigned a nonwhite race) inside the history and ongoing presence of racial hierarchy in the culture of the United States. At least in this sense, the experiences of oppression and patriarchy of women of color in the United States differ importantly from those of nonracialized (white) women, and we think it is important to continue to interrogate this state of affairs for as long as it continues.

Moving from the United States to the world stage, in Chapter [5] we discuss global, postcolonial, and transnational feminism, all of which we understand as related but distinct approaches to worldwide feminist concerns. As we observe a continuum beginning with global feminism and moving into postcolonial and then transnational feminism, the ideological vantage point shifts from emphasis on such notions as universal human rights and women’s rights (global feminism), to the situated needs of different groups of women of color in developing countries (postcolonial feminism), to full-blown critiques of the possibility of women from different countries coalescing to address problems of mutual concern (transnational feminism).[17]

To the degree that most of the feminists considered up to this point focus on the macrocosm (patriarchy, capitalism, nationalism) in their respective explanations of women’s oppression, psychoanalytic and care-focused feminists analyze the microcosm of the individual. They claim the roots of women’s oppression are embedded deeply in the female psyche. Initially, psychoanalytic feminists focused on Sigmund Freud’s work, looking within it for a better understanding of sexuality’s role in the oppression of women. According to Freud, in the so-called pre-Oedipal stage, all infants are symbiotically attached to their mothers, whom they perceive as omnipotent. The mother-infant relationship is an ambivalent one, however: sometimes mothers give too much (their presence is overwhelming), whereas other times they give too little (their absence disappoints).[18]

The pre-Oedipal stage ends with resolution of the so-called Oedipus complex, the process by which the boy gives up his first love object, the mother, to escape (symbolic) castration at the hands of the father. According to some psychoanalytic feminists, the Oedipus complex is the root of male rule, or patriarchy, and nothing more than the product of men’s ­imagination—a psychic trap that everyone, especially women, should try to escape. Other psychoanalytic feminists object that unless we are prepared for reentry into a chaotic state of nature, we must accept some version of the Oedipus complex as the experience that integrates the individual into society. In accepting some version of the Oedipus complex, Sherry Ortner noted, we need not accept the Freudian version, which labels the qualities of authority, autonomy, and universalism as male and those of love, dependence, and particularism as female.[19] These labels, meant to privilege the male over the female, are not essential to the Oedipus complex. Rather, they are simply the consequences of a child’s actual experience with men and women. As Ortner saw it, dual parenting (as recommended also by Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow) and dual participation in the workforce would change the gender valences of the Oedipus complex.[20] Authority, autonomy, and universalism would no longer be the exclusive property of men; love, dependence, and particularism would no longer be the exclusive property of women, an insight shared by even Lacanian-rooted[21] psychoanalytic feminists Julia Kristeva[22] and Luce Irigaray.[23]

The fourth edition of Feminist Thought discussed such thinkers as Carol Gilligan[24] and Nel Noddings[25] in the chapter on psychoanalytic feminism. We have now decided it is more appropriate to devote a separate chapter to care-focused feminism. Unlike psychoanalytic feminists, care-focused feminists do not emphasize boys’ and girls’ psychosexual development. Instead, they stress boys’ and girls’ psychomoral development. And also unlike psychoanalytic feminists, care-focused feminists are not necessarily burdened by some of the more sexist features of (traditional) psychoanalytic theory.

Also distinguishing care-focused feminists from psychoanalytic feminists is (obviously) their focus on the nature and practice of care. More than any other group of feminist thinkers, care-focused feminists investigate why, to a greater or lesser degree, women are usually associated with emotions and the body and men with reason and the mind. On a related note, care-focused feminists seek to understand why women as a group are usually linked with interdependence, community, and connection, whereas men as a group are usually linked with independence, selfhood, and autonomy. These thinkers offer a variety of explanations for why societies divide realities into things feminine and things masculine. But whatever their explanation for men’s and women’s differing gender identities and behaviors, care-focused feminists regard women’s hypothetically greater capacities for care as a human strength, so much so that they privilege an ethics of care over the reigning ethics of justice in the Western world. In addition, care-focused feminists provide insightful explanations for why women as a group disproportionately shoulder the burden of care in virtually all societies and why men as a group do not routinely engage in caring practices. Finally, care-focused feminists provide plans and policies for reducing women’s burden of care so that they have as much time and energy as men to develop themselves as full persons.[26]

Related to care-focused feminism, ecofeminism offers a particularly demanding conception of the self’s relationship to the other. According to ecofeminism, we human beings are connected not only to one another but also to the nonhuman world: animal and even vegetative. Thus, ecofeminism entails the view that we do not sufficiently acknowledge our responsibilities to the nonhuman, albeit living, world. As a result, we do things like deplete the world’s natural resources, pollute the environment, and stockpile arms centers with tools of mass destruction. In so doing, we delude ourselves that we are controlling nature and enhancing ourselves, when, as ecofeminist Ynestra King observed, nature is already rebelling.[27] Ecofeminists insist that the only way not to destroy ourselves is to strengthen our relationships with the nonhuman world.[28]

In this fifth edition of Feminist Thought, we continue to treat existentialist feminism together with poststructural and postmodern feminism. Looking into women’s psyches more deeply even than psychoanalytic and care­focused feminists, Simone de Beauvoir provided an ontological­existential explanation for women’s oppression. In The Second Sex, a key theoretical text of twentieth-century feminism,[29] she argued that women are oppressed by virtue of their otherness from men. Woman is the other because she is not-man. While man is the free, self-determining being who defines the meaning of his existence, woman is the other, the object whose meaning is determined for her. To become a self, a subject, woman must, like man, transcend the definitions, labels, and essences limiting her existence. She must make herself be whomever she wants to be.

Poststructural and postmodern feminists turn de Beauvoir’s understanding of otherness on its head. Woman is still the other; however, rather than interpreting this condition as something to reject, poststructural and postmodern feminists embrace it. They claim woman’s otherness enables individual women to stand back and criticize the norms, values, and practices that the dominant male culture (patriarchy) seeks to impose on everyone, particularly those who live on its periphery. Thus, otherness, for all its associations with being excluded, shunned, unwanted, abandoned, and marginalized, has its advantages. It is a way of existing that allows for change and difference. Women are not unitary selves, essences to be defined and then ossified. On the contrary, women are free spirits, capable of “performing” their own way of being gendered, as Judith Butler, among others, has said.[30]

In Chapter [10] we discuss third-wave and queer feminisms. Third-wave feminists understand themselves as responding to the concerns of as many different kinds of women as possible. In other words, they strive to include the plurality of available feminist vantage points. They desire to shape a new kind of feminism that is not so much interested in getting women to want what they should want as in responding to what women of all varieties say they do want. Third-wave feminists describe the context in which they practice feminism as one of “lived messiness.” Rebecca Walker speculates, for example, that third-wave feminists are not as judgmental as their second-wave feminist predecessors. She stresses that because “the lines between Us and Them are often blurred,” third-wave feminists seek to create identities that “accommodate ambiguity” and “multiple positionalities.”[31]

Queer feminism offers a rich and dynamic way of questioning gender and sexuality. Queer feminists put particular pressure on how our society tries to fit everyone into a male/female binary and also on the ways people self-­identify as men, women, both, or neither. The future of queer feminism promises to raise new aspects of the already contested concept of woman. According to queer feminism, for example, transmen and transwomen help every­one better appreciate how gender appears in increasingly diverse societies.

Although reconciling the pressures for diversity and difference with those for integration and commonality poses a major challenge, contemporary feminists seem up to the task. Each year, we better understand the reasons why women worldwide continue to be the “second sex” and how to change this state of affairs. In this fifth edition of Feminist Thought, we have tried to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each of the feminist perspectives presented here. In so doing, we have aimed to respect what each feminist perspective has contributed to the shaping of feminist thought. At the end of this book, readers looking for one winning view will be disappointed. Although all feminist perspectives cannot be equally correct, there is no need here for a definitive final say. Instead there is always room for growth, improvement, reconsideration, and expansion for true feminist thinkers. This breathing space helps keep us from falling into the authoritarian trap of having to know it all.


[1] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975).
[2] John Stuart Mill, “The Subjection of Women,” in Essays on Sex Equality, ed. Alice S. Rossi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 184–185.
[3] Catharine A. MacKinnon elaborated upon the sex/gender system in “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7, no. 3 (spring 1982): 515–516.
[4] Linda Alcoff, “Cultural Feminism Versus Poststructuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13, no. 3 (spring 1988): 408; Ann Ferguson, “The Sex Debate in the Women’s Movement: A Socialist-Feminist View,” Against the Current (September/October 1983): 10–16; Alice Echols, “The New Feminism of Yin and Yang,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 445.
[5] Carole S. Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984).
[6] Rosemarie Tong, Women, Sex, and the Law (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1984).
[7] Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978).
[8] Charlotte Bunch, “Lesbians in Revolt,” in Women and Values, ed. Marilyn Pearsall (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1986), 128–132.
[9] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 1970).
[10] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979); Sara Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking,” in Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, ed. Joyce Trebilcot (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984).
[11] See, for example, Gena Corea, The Mother Machine: Reproductive Technologies from Artificial Insemination to Artificial Wombs (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).
[12] Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 103.
[13] Juliet Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971).
[14] Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983), 316–317.
[15] Iris Marion Young, “Socialist Feminism and the Limits of Dual Systems Theory,” Social Review 10, nos. 2–3 (March–June 1980): 174.
[16] Heidi I. Hartmann, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union,” in Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, ed. Lydia Sergeant (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 1–14.
[17] Ella Shohat, “Area Studies, Transnationalism, and the Feminist Production of Knowledge,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26, no. 4 (2001): 1269–1272.
[18] Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” in The Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), 542.
[19] Sherry B. Ortner, “Oedipal Father, Mother’s Brother, and the Penis: A Review of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism,” Feminist Studies 2, nos. 2–3 (1975): 179.
[20] Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1977).
[21] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977).
[22] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 28.
[23] Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 205–206.
[24] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).
[25] Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
[26] Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
[27] Ynestra King, “Healing the Wounds: Feminism, Ecology, and Nature/Culture Dualism,” in Feminism and Philosophy, ed. Nancy Tuana and Rosemarie Tong (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995).
[28] Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory, 3rd. ed. (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010).
[29] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, ed. and trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).
[30] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).
[31] Rebecca Walker, ed., To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (New York: Anchor Books, 1995).

Chapter Four

Women-of-Color Feminism(s) in the United States

The term “of color” is ambiguous. For some, it simply means “nonwhite.”[1] For others, it has important sociological, historical, and political implications. For this second group, the term stresses the common experience of groups of persons (across a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds) who have been racialized (that is, assigned a nonwhite race) inside white cultural hegemony. The experience of being racialized includes, among other things, (1) having one’s non-Western culture devalued, (2) having what W. E. B. DuBois called “double consciousness,”[2] (3) being pressured to assimilate to the dominant (white) culture, (4) being denied access to “white privilege,”[3] and (5) being expected to be more competent than nonracialized persons. Being a person of color, in other words, entails living in a constant state of vigilance regarding when and where the fact of one’s having been racialized as nonwhite might pop up and operate as a barrier to the liberal ideal of the autonomous self. It also entails, however, claiming one’s unique cultural heritage and opposing white cultural hegemony when it presents itself as operating in opposition to that cultural heritage, or to one’s autonomy.

Women of color are persons who have had the female experience within this group of persons, an experience understood as consisting of oppression both as a woman and as a person of color. For many women of color, mainstream feminism (in all its forms, but particularly first- and second-wave feminism) fails to take the experiences of women of color seriously. Operating as if every woman’s experience mirrors that of women who have benefited from birth from white privilege, mainstream feminism fails to adequately acknowledge and address the concerns of women of color.

For women of color, the female experience is constituted by encounters not only with patriarchy but also with racial oppression. In the lived experience of women of color, on this view, the point at which patriarchy ends and racial oppression begins is altogether unclear. Instead, each woman of color is a site of multiple forms of oppression that operate upon her simultaneously, creating a new form of oppression such that the whole experience is an entirely different animal than the sum of its parts. The idea that women of color are living sites of multiple forms of oppression (i.e., at a minimum, discrimination on the bases of race and gender) is a key theme in women-of-color feminisms.

Feminism has only just recently reappropriated the term “women of color” to capture the similarity of experience attendant to being racialized within Eurocentric cultural imperialism (no matter what the nonwhite race ascribed). Of course, it would be nearly impossible to create an exhaustive list of these individual group experiences, particularly because many women of color belong to not one but multiple historically oppressed subgroups. Still, we can discuss some of the main groups of women-of-color feminisms, as well as some of the major works of prominent women-of-color feminists.

Women-of-Color Feminism(s) and the “First Wave”

In the same way that the abolitionist movement focused on the rights of African American[4] men to the exclusion of the rights of African American women, first-wave feminism focused on the rights of white women to the exclusion of the concerns of women from other racioethnic backgrounds. Nonetheless, many women of color made significant contributions to the nineteenth-century women’s rights and suffrage movements. These included Sojourner Truth (briefly mentioned in Chapter 1), Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Amy Jacques Garvey, Harriet Ann Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, Harriet Tubman, Maria W. Stewart, Jarena Lee, and Mary Ellen Pleasant. Importantly, these women-of-color feminists were “first wave” in the sense of the era in which they worked: they were primarily concerned with women’s suffrage. But they were also nonliberal in that they did not share with first-wave liberal feminists the idea that women could be understood as a demographic monolith; instead, they concerned themselves primarily with suffrage for women of color and understood that the problems faced by women of color differed from those faced by their white sisters.

Women-of-Color Feminism(s) and the “Second Wave”

Most feminist consciousness-raising groups of the second wave were sorely lacking in raciocultural diversity, most often being compromised almost entirely of white women. In response to this, many second-wave women-­of-color feminists formed their own groups. These included the Combahee River Collective (CRC), the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional (CFMN), and the North American Indian Women’s Association. Founded by Black feminist lesbians in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1974, the Combahee River Collective, whose name refers to an act of resistance by Harriet Tubman in South Carolina in 1863, originally met less formally at the 1973 regional conference of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), from which they split a year later.[5] These feminists experienced much disillusionment with second-wave liberal feminism and also had concerns about the civil rights for minorities, Black nationalism, and the Black Panther movements.[6] The CRC created a platform that took issue with various forms of oppression, including racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression.[7] Similarly, the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional, a group of Chicana feminists, was instrumental in building bilingual schools for children and obtaining a ban on the compulsory sterilization of Hispanic women.[8] Yet another women-of-color group, the North American Indian Women’s Association, the first national Native American women’s group, was founded in 1970 and shared many of the same concerns as the CRC and CFMN.[9]

In contrast to many white feminists, most second-wave feminists of color denied that the most fundamental oppression is that based on gender. They leaned more toward the view that multiple and interlocking systems of oppression (including racism, homophobia, and class oppression) impact women’s lives negatively and significantly. In fact, many women-of-color feminists (who have more to worry about than men’s “sexism” per se) understand the distinction made in Chapter 2 between radical-libertarian and radical­cultural feminism as hair-splitting. For example, the CRC indicated that its members’ collective task as Black feminists was to develop an “integrated analysis and practice” of grappling with oppression based on “the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”[10] For these Black feminists, then, sexism was neither the prototypical nor the most problematic form of oppression. Instead, all forms of oppression were co­constitutive, such that the proper concern of Black feminism was to untangle and dismantle oppression itself, not just the oppression of women qua women.[11] Moreover, for these feminists, racism in the white feminist movement was a matter of concern and deep hurt.[12]

During the six years of its existence (1974–1980), the CRC expressed the thought that US African American women had more in common with “Third World” people and the US white working-class (male as well as female) than with privileged, “First World” US white feminists. Among the issues that concerned the CRC most were not only women’s reproductive rights[13] but also general social matters like universal health care, school desegregation, police brutality against African American men in particular, and construction jobs for African American people.[14]

Women-of-Color Feminism(s) and the “Third Wave”

The heyday of multiculturalism in the United States occurred between the early 1970s and the late 1990s. During this period, multiculturalism was understood, generally, as a political and intellectual movement that called for public institutions to better recognize the unique collective social identities of certain historically oppressed groups in the United States. Depending on how the term “multiculturalism” was used, the term “women of color” fell in and out of favor with feminists. Originally, the term had a unifying effect, but later it took on negative connotations. It began to represent an attempt on the part of white feminists to lump all nonwhite women together, as if the differences between various groups of nonwhite women and their respective experiences of oppression and patriarchy were inconsequential. Importantly, the term has come back into favor as an acknowledgment that the experiences of racialized women as nonwhite differ from those of non­racialized (white) women in the United States.

As the third wave of feminism progressed, the conviction that women-of-color feminism(s) were essential to feminist theorizing grew in popularity. Gradually, the idea that forms, modes, or axes of oppression (such as race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability status) overlap and fuse in the lives of oppressed people came to the fore. In many ways, this insight was a phenomenon looking for a name. Then, in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to highlight the ways in which existing institutional structures fail to address the unique needs of women of color.[15] Her point was that these institutions acknowledge gender discrimination against white women but not the unique kind of discrimination experienced by women of color as a consequence of how racial and gender discrimination intersect in their lived experience.

Crenshaw noted that “women of color are situated within at least two subordinated groups that frequently pursue conflicting political agendas.”[16] Specifically, antiracist discourse has failed to address the intersections of race and gender discrimination, resulting in the reinforcement of the subordination of women of color. In addition, mainstream feminist discourse has failed women of color because its resistance strategies often replicate and reinforce (or, at a minimum, simply neglect) the subordination of people of color. For example, while mainstream feminism gives a great deal of attention to the general problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, it usually overlooks the particular problem of the racialized sexual harassment experienced by women of color in the workplace. When a white male boss sexually harasses an African American, female worker, his action evokes memories of the slave period in US history, when white masters, if they had the desire, raped their African American, female slaves. Through the concept of intersectionality, then, women-of-color feminisms highlight that oppression is sociohistorically situated and multidimensional. To be effective, the solutions to the problems taken up by feminism must resist simplistic analysis and instead reflect the complexity of the historicity of the women who experience them.

Distinct Women-of-Color Feminism(s)

As already stressed, mainstream feminist thought tends to lump the thinking of all women of color together, as if feminist thought can be divided between white (official, central, universal) feminism and all other (outlaw, peripheral, particular) feminisms. In the process, it tends to gloss over the unique experiences and viewpoints of different groups of feminists of color, such as Black feminists, Latin American/Latina/Chicana feminists, Asian American feminists, and Indigenous feminists, thereby weakening the power and message of each group. In what follows, we attempt to address this problem by treating each unique area of women-of-color feminism individually and on its own terms.

Black Feminism

As a distinct feminist presence, Black feminism goes as far back as first-wave feminism. Women like Sojourner Truth were at the center of the demand for female equality in America from the start. Truth articulated the key idea in Black feminism that the experiences of African American women are both the same as and different from those of white American women. Later, in her 1892 book, A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South, Anna Julia Cooper voiced the related view that African American women should be self-determining and act as moral leaders for the purpose of uplifting the African American community.[17] Similarly, Ida Wells-Barnett, a newspaper editor who published several writings of her own, was a member with W. E. B. DuBois of the Niagara Movement (an African American civil rights organization founded in 1905). She also was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a lifelong activist in the antilynching crusade.[18] Each of these women (and countless others) articulated and exemplified the distinctively Black feminist mind-set that being a woman and being powerless are not necessarily coextensive. Through the way they lived their lives, these women problematized the idea of what it meant to be a woman (white, powerless, frail, irrational, ineffectual). In other words, Black feminism has from the beginning sought to accomplish one of mainstream (white) feminism’s ostensible goals—namely, the deconstruction of stereotypical notions of womanhood.

Sojourner Truth

Importantly, we can understand Black feminism to begin with Sojourner Truth (née Isabella Baumfree). Born into slavery in approximately 1797, Truth planted the seeds of distinctively Black feminist thought when she famously asked during the height of first-wave feminism, “Ain’t I a woman?”[19] Truth escaped from slavery in 1826 and ultimately became a noted abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Taking the stage to speak at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, just three years after the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Truth articulated the complex nature of what it meant to be a nineteenth-century African American woman. She highlighted two cornerstones of Black feminism of the era: (1) lest anyone forget, African American women are women, and (2) the experiences of African American female slaves differ from those of free and well-treated, bourgeois white women.[20] Forcefully, Truth called attention to the unique womanhood of African American women.[21] Her enigmatic words “Ain’t I a woman?” engaged what became a core issue in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century feminism—namely, how to understand the female experience and feminism in such a way as to generate solidarity (universality of vision) and therefore power, while accommodating the wide variety of experiences of women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, sexualities, and histories of oppression.

Key to Truth’s distinctively Black feminism was her experience of herself as powerful, not powerless. Women should seize their rights, emphasized Truth, not beg for them. Action was the path to women’s liberation, not talk. Articulating a similar sentiment at a convention in 1878, Truth stated, “If women would live as they ought to, they would get their rights as they went along.”[22]

Truth’s statements emphasized again and again her view that white women’s barriers to true power and equality lay not outside but inside themselves. To her, white women seemed to think that to become powerful, they needed the acquiescence of white men. But from Truth’s perspective, if you want power, you take it. You don’t ask permission.[23]

The willingness of Sojourner Truth to alienate the affections of those in power (white men) in pursuit of equality, as compared to the seeming unwillingness of white women to do so, arguably gets to the heart of the difference between the African American and white female experiences even in contemporary times. From the perspective of many Black feminists, white women access power in large part through their association with white men. If white women alienate white men, they lose the “white privilege” they enjoy as a consequence of marrying or working with white men.[24] This reality creates a political barrier between Black feminists and white women in two ways. First, many Black feminists perceive white women as less committed to true equality, causing the former to break off from mainstream (white) feminism to create their own movement(s).[25] Second, many Black feminists perceive white women as untrustworthy, due to their seeming indifference to women of color’s particular concerns. Indeed, many commentators root the divide between white feminists and feminists of color in how white women’s silence on issues unique to women of color increases the power of white men.[26]

Truth also articulated early on another theme in Black feminism, one that Crenshaw later called “intersectionality,” or the view that oppression operates simultaneously along a variety of avenues with the result that the oppression associated with being female is inseparable, at least for women of color, from that associated with being ascribed a socially inferior race.[27] Truth’s work as both an abolitionist and a women’s rights activist often gave her opportunities to express versions of this view. Just after the Civil War, for example, it appeared that African American men would get the vote but women would not. Interestingly, African American supporters of women’s rights predominately deemed it more important for African American men, rather than women of any skin color, to get the vote. Truth choose not to take sides, claiming that all African American people, male or female, deserved the vote.

Audre Lorde

Building on Truth, twentieth-century feminist Audre Lorde introduced other lines of thought crucial to understanding the viewpoint of Black feminists in the United States. She stressed that African American women should regard their otherness from white women as a strength not a weakness. Alluding to the days of slavery, Lorde said, “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference . . . know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometime reviled. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[28]

Lorde’s point was that mere tolerance of the differences in experience that African American women bring to the table of feminism is insufficient to overcome the oppression that they face. Rather, for real change to occur, difference must be respected, affirmatively valued, and “seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”[29] Indeed, for Lorde, “difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.”[30] Weary of explaining her African American woman’s experience to white audiences, Lorde urged other African American women to stop doing so as well and to start asking white women to explain their differences from women of color. Difference, after all, is necessarily judged from a particular vantage point.

Clearly Lorde was used to the role of outsider. She experienced racism, heterosexism, poverty/classism, ageism, and ableism and expressed her sufferings and pains in and through her writings, especially her poetry. As many of Lorde’s reviewers have said, “Anyone who has ever been in love can respond to the straightforward passion and pain, sometimes one and the same in Lorde’s poems,”[31] which she began writing when only in high school. Among Lorde’s best-known poetry books is Coal.[32] Insisting on communicating her authentic self to others, she often used the metaphor of coal to articulate her blackness and to explain how extreme pressure (i.e., experiences of adversity) can transform coal into diamonds. She further elaborated on her African American identity in “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” where Lorde claimed that her power—which is also women’s power—is “neither white nor surface” but instead “dark . . . ancient . . . and deep.”[33] She also insisted in this same work that poetry is “a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”[34]

For Lorde, black is literally beautiful. She embraced the blackness of her West Indian heritage as well as of her skin. Refusing to buy into white society’s white/black binary, according to which everything that is good is white and everything that is bad is black, Lorde insisted instead that the patriarchal world, which resists warrior women, has gotten it wrong. It is very good to be African American and not so good to be white, especially if one suffers from the disease of the oppressor, racism. Throughout Lorde’s work one feels her anger toward racists and racism. Indeed, feeling is vital to Lorde and should be celebrated as welcome relief from the kind of abstract reason that seems to rule white society. Commented Lorde, “When we view living, in the European mode, only as a problem to be solved, we then rely solely upon our ideas to make us free, for these were what the white fathers told us were precious. But as we become more in touch with our own ancient, [African], non-European view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes.”[35]

In one of her most moving works, The Cancer Journals, Lorde recorded her battle with breast cancer. When she expressed disinterest in being fitted for a prosthesis, a nurse commented to Lorde that her appearance would damage the morale of the other postmastectomy women in the doctor’s office. Lorde wrote that she “couldn’t believe her ears.”

Here we were, in the offices of one of the top breast cancer surgeons in New York City. Every woman there either had a breast removed, might have to have a breast removed, or was afraid of having to have a breast removed. And every woman there could have used a reminder that having one breast did not mean her life was over, nor that she was less a woman, nor that she was condemned to the use of a placebo in order to feel good about herself and the way she looked. . . . Yet a woman who has one breast and refuses to hide that fact behind a pathetic puff of lambs wool which has no relationship nor likeness to her own breasts, a woman who is attempting to come to terms with her own changed landscape and changed timetable of life and with her own body and pain and beauty and strength, that woman is seen as a threat to the “morale” of a breast surgeon’s office.[36]

Authenticity was all important to Lorde, who spoke cogently, creatively, and confidently about her black American lesbian sexuality as one of the main sources of her power. Just because she no longer had her right breast, she said, did not mean she was no longer beautiful or incapable of fighting racism everywhere, including in white feminist circles.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Lorde’s work was her insistence that people learn to accept the role of contradiction in their lives. In an interview with Carla M. Hammond, Lorde said,

There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself—whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc.—because that’s the piece that they need to key into. They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat. You know how fighting fish do it? They blow bubbles and in each one of those bubbles is an egg and they float the egg up to the surface. They keep this whole heavy nest of eggs floating, and they’re consistently repairing it. It’s as if they live in both elements. That’s something that we have to do, too, in our own lives—keep it all afloat.[37]

bell hooks

Underlining Lorde’s point that sexism, racism, and classism feed on each other, bell hooks provided a definition of feminism that is profound in its simplicity. She stated, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation and oppression.”[38] hooks preferred this definition of feminism to others as it makes clear that feminism is not about being antimale. Rather it is about both men and women getting rid of the sexist thinking they have been steeped in since they were little children. According to hooks, men can be feminists so long as they are fighting together with women, black as well as white, against capitalist patriarchy. She declared that “to ensure the continued relevance of feminist movement in our lives, visionary feminist theory must be constantly made and re-made so that it addresses us where we live, in our present. Women and men have made great strides in the direction of gender equality. And those strides toward freedom must give us the strength to go further. . . . Feminism is for everybody.”[39]

hooks took a complex position on lesbians. She distinguished between “women-identified” and “male-identified” women. Of these two types of women, male-identified women were more likely to fall into the trap of desiring the high status and wealth of successful white men. Even though hooks criticized those lesbians who mimicked bad heterosexual relations of domination and subordination, she firmly believed that “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.”[40] For hooks, lesbian women must be at the center and not the periphery of the feminist movement.

hooks started writing her first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, when she was only nineteen years old, but it took her a total of six years to finalize and two more years to get published.[41] Her refusal to use footnotes led some critics to dismiss her work as not worth reading. Fortunately, other critics found her books both refreshing and groundbreaking. Indeed, in 1992 Publishers Weekly proclaimed Ain’t I a Woman “one of the twenty most influential women’s books in the last 20 years.”

Important in hooks’s work is her frequently articulated distinction between faux (fake) and real feminism. She was especially exercised by successful businessperson Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.[42] Sandberg claimed that merely by strength of will and staying power, any US woman so inclined can climb the corporate ladder to its ozone regions. Sandberg failed to realize that although it may be relatively easy for an extremely wealthy, happily married, white woman to become a Fortune 500 CEO, a poor woman of color in a bad relationship and with only a high school education would almost never be able to equal that accomplishment. Moreover, said hooks, it is one matter to become equal to a privileged white man and quite another to become equal to a disadvantaged African American man. For hooks, as long as classism and racism exist, sexism will thrive.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Although Lorde, hooks, and many other feminists addressed the reality of intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw highlighted its importance in a particularly forceful way. A lawyer by trade, Crenshaw focused on how antidiscrimination laws look at issues of gender and race separately. Oftentimes she brought up the case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, in which African American women protested that they were the victims of “compound discrimination” because only white women, white men, and African American men were hired and retained for desirable jobs. This objection notwithstanding, the Supreme Court ruled that (1) because it hired African American men, General Motors’ hiring policies were not racist, and (2) because it hired white women, its policies were not sexist. In other words, because the court treated matters of race and gender separately rather than together (intersectionally), African American women lost their case.

Crenshaw also described other ways the law fails women, so much so that African American women turn on each other. She cited the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case as an example. Lawyer Anita Hill alleged that African American judge Clarence Thomas, then a candidate for the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her. Not wanting to deny Thomas a seat on the Supreme Court (usually entirely white), many African American women protested on his behalf. In doing so, they robbed Anita Hill of her voice. Had the Senate Judiciary Committee viewed the case intersectionally, Hill would probably have won the day. As it turned out, she did not get to talk much about the way African American women experience sexual harassment from African American as well as white men.

In an interview with Bim Adewunmi, Crenshaw emphatically stated, “In every generation and in every intellectual sphere and in every political movement, there have been African American women who have articulated the need to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race.”[43] Crenshaw thought that at this stage of the struggle for equality, African American women should take the lead, even if doing so required them to explain and/or justify themselves to African American men as well as white men and women. She said, “It’s up to us [African American women]. Granted, the space has to be open and there has to be a sense of receptivity among the sisterhood, but I really don’t want other women to feel that it’s their responsibility to theorize what’s happening to us. It’s up to us to consistently tell those stories, articulate what difference the difference makes, so it’s incorporated within feminism and within anti-racism. I think it’s important that we do that apart because we don’t want to be susceptible to the idea that this is just about the politics of recognition.”[44]

Later Crenshaw expressed reservations about US President Barack Obama’s five-year, $200 million program aimed at giving African American boys and young men of color summer jobs, mentorships, and some other benefits. Although government support for African American girls and women of color was also made available, the level was small compared to Obama’s 2014 “My Brother’s Keeper” program, said Crenshaw.[45] To be sure, African American boys and young men of color are noticeably poorer and unhealthier than a preponderance of white women and white men. Yet they are well-off compared to African American women. Therefore, in Crenshaw’s estimation, President Obama should have developed something like a “My Sister’s Keeper” program in conjunction with his program for boys.[46]

Patricia Hill Collins

Furthering the thoughts of Lorde, hooks, and Crenshaw, philosopher Patricia Hill Collins wrote that in the United States, African American women’s oppression is systematized and structured along three interdependent dimensions. First, the economic dimension of [African American] women’s oppression relegates them to “ghettoization in service occupations.”[47] Second, the political dimension denies them the rights and privileges routinely extended to all white men and many white women, including the very important right to an equal education. Third, the ideological dimension imposes a freedom-restricting set of “controlling images” on African American women, serving to justify as well as explain whites’ treatment of them.[48]

Reiterating some of hooks’s observations, Collins said, “From the mammies, Jezebels, and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, and the ubiquitous [African American] prostitutes, and ever-present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, the nexus of negative stereotypical images applied to African-American women has been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.”[49] Collins theorized that the ideological dimension was more powerful in maintaining African American women’s oppression than either the economic or political dimensions. She emphasized that “race, class, and gender oppression could not continue without powerful ideological justification for their existence.”[50] For this very reason, Collins urged Black feminists to release themselves from demeaning and degrading stereotypes imposed on them by whites.

Perhaps Collins is best known for her feminist epistemology. According to Eve Browning Cole, Collins’s theory of knowledge has four components. First, “it adheres to concrete experience as a criterion of meaning, making knowledge and subjective wisdom the arbiters of epistemic significance.”[51] With respect to situated knowledge, subjugated knowledge, and partial perspectives, Collins claimed that Lorraine Hansberry was on the right track when she wrote, “I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very close attention to the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from the truthful identity of what is.”[52] Rather than abstract, objective, and impartial, knowledge should be concrete, subjective, and partial. Any knowledge we have is the product of our personal experiences filtered through the lens of our society, in Collins’s estimation.

The second component of knowledge for Collins, said Cole, is dialogue as “a method of validating knowledge claims.”[53] Eschewing both the “ostensibly objective norms of science” and “relativism’s claims that groups with competing knowledge claims are equal,” Collins applauded Elsa Barkley Brown for saying that “all people can learn to center in another experience, validate it, and judge it by its own standards without need of comparison or need to adopt that framework as their own.”[54] Collins hearkened back to the “Afrocentric call-and-response tradition whereby power dynamics are fluid, everyone has a voice, but everyone must listen and respond in order to be allowed to remain in the community.”[55] One can have one’s own position without viewing it as the absolute norm for everybody.

Collins made a third point about Black feminist epistemology, said Cole, that it goes hand in hand with an ethic of caring that cherishes each person’s contribution to the community.[56] The word “cherish” is important here because it conveys an affectionate affirmation of the so-called other. Relationships, particularly the mother-daughter relationship, are pivotal in Black feminist thought, as any reading of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose shows.

According to Cole, the final feature of Collins’s Black feminist epistemology is an ethic of personal accountability that holds one responsible for one’s knowledge claims. Repeatedly, Collins theorized that “African-­Americans [should] reject the Eurocentric, masculinist belief that probing into an individual’s personal viewpoint is outside the boundaries of discussion.”[57] A person is literally as good as his or her word, provided that it expresses his or her authentic self. Accountable people actually do what they say they will do. Thus, political activism flows from one’s knowledge claims, argued Collins.

In short, words really count for Collins. She explained that the arcane style of writing used by some contemporary feminists freezes out women (and men) who lack the education privileged people have. Even though she risked not being taken seriously by the mostly white and male guardians of the so-called canon of knowledge, Collins wrote in a personal way and from her heart. She deliberately chose the language of ordinary people to express her ideas. Unlike those who have traditionally filled the “core curriculum” with the works of so-called dead white men, Collins used personal anecdotes, hip-hop music, and folklore to serve the best interests of her readers, particularly those marginalized by mainstream society.

Latin American/Latina/Chicana Feminism

Overlapping to a considerable degree with Black feminism, Latin American/Latina/Chicana feminism nevertheless has distinct themes and insights. Like Black feminism, it calls for recognition of the alterity (otherness) and uniqueness of the experiences of women of color, particularly as distinct from the experiences of mainstream (white, Western, Eurocentric) feminists. On its own terms, Latin American/Latina/Chicana feminism is primarily concerned with cross-cultural dialogue and the extent to which it is limited by differing levels of power among the parties to the conversation.

The term “Chicano” began as a slur against Mexican immigrants but evolved into a symbol of self-determination and ethnic pride for Mexican Americans. Built upon the Mexican American civil rights movement of the 1940s, the 1960s Chicano movement demanded equal civil rights for people classified as “Hispanic.” Chicana feminism began as a critique of the gender inequalities many Chicana feminists saw within the Chicano movement, dominated as it was by Chicano men. Over time, it developed a piercing critique of the traditional submissive role of Mexican American women in Chicano culture.[58] Established in 1973, the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional was one of the first Chicana feminist organizations to press for Chicana women’s rights.

Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga

Chicana feminists Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga challenged the racism of second-wave feminists of European descent in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, a collection of essays and poems focused on, as they put it, “a positive affirmation of the commitment of women of color to [their] own feminism.”[59] Described at the time of its publication as having the “profoundest implications for radical theory and practice,”[60] This Bridge Called My Back is currently understood as a classic in early intersectionality theory, highlighting the intimate links between sexism and the wide array of other forms of oppression, especially racism and homophobia.

In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa presented herself as a mestiza, or a woman of mixed Spanish and Indigenous background, living between two cultures, Anglo and Mexican. She used both prose and poetry to convey a central theme—namely that the Western belief “in objectivity with its habit of separating the self from others in order to make objects of them is the root of all violence.”[61] Latin American women in Latin American culture, Latina/Chicana women in white American culture, and lesbians in heterosexual culture all experience themselves as “the other” in their respective mainstream (male, white, and/or heterosexual) societies, said Anzaldúa. Describing these women as living a life of alienation or isolation, Anzaldúa portrayed them as prisoners inside cultural narratives not of their own making. To highlight the sense of disconnection and internal conflict experienced by such women, she wrote in many different forms of the Spanish and English languages, creating a sense in the reader of the kind of disjunction and disharmony that, for her, characterizes the Latin American/Latina/Chicana feminist experience.[62]

Although both Anzaldúa and Moraga frequently expressed anger about how whites treat Latin American/Latina/Chicana women, their overall message was inclusive of all people, including white, bourgeois, heterosexual women. It became almost mandatory for traditional white feminists to use their work in their own course syllabi and writings. Arguably, Latin American/Latina/Chicana feminism will become even more central to feminist discourse in the United States as the Hispanic population continues to grow at fast rates.[63]

Cristina Herrera

Following Anzaldúa and Moraga’s lead, Latin American/Latina/Chicana feminist Cristina Herrera wrote about what she saw as the central task of contemporary Chicana feminism—namely, the rewriting of female and maternal archetypes that hold Chicanas back from gender equality. These archetypes include La Virgen de Guadalupe (the Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary), La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), and La Malinche (Doña Marina).[64] For Herrera, the dominant, patriarchal Chicano culture has traditionally portrayed the mother-daughter relationship negatively. The bond between these “three mothers” and Chicana women, for Herrera, should be reclaimed and reinterpreted so as to heal the mother-daughter bond and facilitate Chicana empowerment.[65] Mothers should protect their daughters from abusive men who would quash their spirit.

Ofelia Schutte

Adding to Herrera’s work, Ofelia Schutte elaborated on the concept of otherness that all women of color experience in the United States. For Schutte, the confrontation with alterity that occurs in cross-cultural exchanges involves a decentering of the self that “allows us to reach new ethical, aesthetic, and political ground.”[66] But when differentials of power mark these supposed dialogues (as in attempts at dialogue between dominant and subaltern cultures), the result can be “cross-cultural incommensurability.”[67] Listeners and speakers simply cannot understand each other’s perspectives.

Chela Sandoval

Chela Sandoval, yet another Latin American/Latina/Chicana feminist, made several unique points. Inspired by Donna Haraway’s “cyborg feminism,” she rejected binary thinking in favor of an “ideology-praxis”[68] rooted in the experience of women of color. According to Sandoval, oppositional consciousness poses five challenges to the dominant order of power: “equal rights,” “revolutionary,” “supremacist,” “separatist,” and “differential.”[69] Of these, the fifth, “differential,” is the most important. Gaining a so-called oppositional consciousness that separates different groups of women from each other requires alienation, perseverance, and reformation on the part of both feminist theorists and feminist activists. As Sandoval saw it, disadvantaged US and “Third World” feminists are particularly good at challenging white, bourgeois, heterosexual thinking, thereby freeing themselves from the clutches of old colonialist thinkers.

Maria Lugones

Furthering the thinking other Latin American/Latina/Chicana feminists, Maria Lugones also captured how it feels to be a woman of color in the United States. In a dialogue with white feminist Elizabeth Spelman, Lugones, who immigrated to the United States from Argentina, pointed out that although Latin American women in the United States must participate in the Anglo world, Anglo US women do not have to participate in the Latin American world. An Anglo woman can go to a Latin American neighborhood for a church festival, for example, and if she finds the rituals and music overwhelming, she can simply get into her car, drive home, and forget the evening. A Latin American woman cannot escape the dominant Anglo culture so easily, however, for it sets the basic parameters of her survival as a member of one of its minority groups. Still, Lugones’s work highlights the agency of Latin American women, pointing out that although Western society views the Latin American woman as a woman of color, in her own home, among her family and friends, she perceives herself as herself instead of an-other.[70]

Asian American Feminism

Asian American feminism shares with other women-of-color feminisms a sense of the experience of having been racialized as nonwhite within the broader culture of the United States. However, it has distinct features. Specifically, Asian American feminism often condemns both white and women-of-color feminisms for ignoring the experiences of Asian women. According to one Asian American feminist, Chen Chao-ju, “Asian American feminists condemn mainstream feminist scholarship, as well as feminist discourses on women of color, for marginalizing and for ignoring Asian American women’s experiences and call for attention to the difference that Asian American women’s difference makes.”[71] In addition, Asian American feminism often allies itself with postcolonialist critiques of Western imperialism.[72] Arguing that white feminist discourse grants visibility to Asian women only by labeling them as different and categorizing them according to a series of cultural stereotypes such as submissive, timid, unenlightened, exotic, seductive, available, and bound in ahistorical Asian traditions, Chen stresses that mainstream (white) feminists stigmatize Asian women’s experiences, which in turn fosters unequal relationships of power between and among women. On this view, within mainstream white feminism, Asian women exist as the perennial other.

Grace Lee Boggs

Asian American feminists have a long history in the United States. Born to Chinese immigrants in 1915, Grace Lee (later Grace Lee Boggs) won a regent’s scholarship to Barnard College and earned a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. She founded many community organizations and political movements and spent her life fighting against racism and for human rights.[73] Boggs translated works by Karl Marx and collaborated with revolutionaries C. L. R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and others in critiques of the Soviet Union.[74] Upon her marriage to James Boggs, an African American autoworker, writer, and radical activist, she began an effort to combat racism and effect social change that lasted for the rest of her life. “What we tried to do is explain that rebellion is righteous, because it’s the protest of a people against injustice,” Boggs told Bill Moyers during a PBS interview in 2007.[75] According to Moyers, Boggs dedicated her life to trying to “make America work for everyone,” stating often, “If we stick to [the] categories of race, class, and gender, we’re stuck,” meaning that solutions to the problem of oppression were beyond such categorization.

Yuri Kochiyama

Born Mary Yuriko Nakahara, Yuri Kochiyama was another lifelong champion of civil rights causes in the African American, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian American communities.[76] After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, her family was moved to a California internment camp set up to isolate Japanese Americans from the rest of the US population. After World War II Kochiyama moved to New York City, where she became involved in the civil rights movement. A friend of Malcom X, Kochiyama became a Black nationalist, worked to end the war in Vietnam, and in the 1980s pushed for a formal government apology and reparations for Japanese American internees.[77] Kochiyama was present when a group of Puerto Rican independentistas seized the Statue of Liberty in 1977, and she played a key role in black radical activism in New York during the same period.[78] Her dedication to social causes continued throughout her lifetime, inspiring many generations of activists, especially within the Asian American community.[79]

Leslie Bow

Following in Kochiyama’s footsteps, Leslie Bow wrote of the Asian American experience in the segregated South and of how the legal segregation of African Americans framed the Asian experience of oppression during the Jim Crow era.[80] The legacy of segregation (of African Americans), wrote Bow, to this day frames race relations in the United States, both as a matter of differential access to rights and as a struggle between black and white. Since Asian Americans, during the Jim Crow era, were construed as a “third race” inside America’s black/white binary, they were neither white nor nonwhite but “situated in between” US racial categories, a kind of other’s other, “partly colored,” very much like Indigenous Americans and mestizas.

Bow identified Asian Americans (as well as Indigenous Americans and mestizas) as “interstitial populations,” or populations between the primary racial categories understood to exist in the United States (black and white).According to Bow, the legacy of the segregated South and the “racial anomalies” it produced within its entrenched black/white binary is a “productive site for understanding the investments that underlie a given system of relations; what is unaccommodated becomes a site of contested interpretation.”[81] In this way, the Asian American experience can be understood as a force for the destruction of hierarchy. Said Bow, “The interstices between black and white forces established perspectives and definitions into disorientation. The racially interstitial can represent the physical manifestation of the law’s instability, its epistemological limit, the point of interpellation’s excess.”[82]

According to Bow, the Asian American immigration experience often serves as a way to reproduce a dominant narrative of post–civil rights movements and racial representations—a “progressive chronology of racial uplift that buttresses a liberal vision of ethnic incorporation”—rather than as a way to destroy oppressive hierarchies.[83] Examining the question of whether the interstitial racial status of Asian Americans was sustained within the binary caste system containing only “Negroes” and “whites” in the segregated South, Bow noted that it did not withstand the test of time. Instead, Asian Americans underwent a “shift in status from colored to white, in the course of one generation.”[84]

Citing an influential study conducted on Chinese people in Mississippi in the mid-twentieth century, Bow pointed out that in Glum v. Rice, a 1927 case, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Chinese people were colored. By 1967, however, the Chinese had become “card-carrying white people.”[85] Among other proof, there was the “W” on their driver’s licenses. So, in response to the black/white binary of the segregated South, rather than its destroying racial hierarchy, the racial status of Asian Americans can be understood to have become productive of that hierarchy, in Bow’s estimation. Asian Americans became a part of what has been called the “colonial sandwich”: Europeans at the top, Asians in the middle, and Africans at the bottom.[86] The lessons for feminism are clear, said Bow: “The space between the social enactment of identity and its idealization reveals the structures that consolidate social power in its multiple manifestations.”[87] Although racial interstitiality can theoretically operate in the service of dismantling hierarchy, in practice it often does not, the Asian American experience being a case in point.

Mitsuye Yamada

Mitsuye Yamada made a similar point about the gap between theory and practice, this time as regards the feminist ideal and its reality. While noting that Asian American women need white feminist leaders (“the women who coordinate programs, direct women’s buildings, and edit women’s publications throughout the country”)[88] to accomplish political objectives that are important to them, she was dismayed to find her white feminist audiences often responding to her as though they had “never known an Asian Pacific woman who [was] other than the passive, sweet, etc., stereotype of the Oriental ‘woman.’”[89] White feminists want to believe that all women—white or nonwhite—are equal to white men. In reality historical and psychological forces have made it easier for white women to achieve equality with white men than for women of color to accomplish the same feat. White women enjoy perks not available to women of color. The browner a woman’s skin color, the less likely she will achieve parity with white men.

This is a problem for feminism, according to Yamada, because “a movement that fights sexism in the social structure must deal with racism.”[90] In response, many Asian Pacific women involved in radical politics have moved not into the upper echelons of women’s organizations but into groups active in promoting ethnic identity. These women can be found in ethnic studies programs in universities, ethnic theater groups, or ethnic community agencies. However, “this doesn’t mean,” stressed Yamada, that “[Asian Pacific women] have placed [their] loyalties on the side of ethnicity over womanhood.”[91] She continued, “The two are not at war with one another; we shouldn’t have to sign a ‘loyalty oath’ favoring one over the other.”[92] Invoking a central problem of women-of-color feminisms (that women of color are intersectional sites of multiple forms of oppression), Yamada noted, “women of color are often made to feel that we must make a choice between [loyalty to race/ethnicity and loyalty to womanhood].”[93] Pointedly, Yamada explained, “As a woman of color in a white society and as a woman in a patriarchal society, what is personal to me is political.”[94] Furthermore, Yamada expressed the frustration experienced by many women-of-color feminists when she stated, “These [connections between different forms of oppression] are connections we expected our white sisters to see. . . . They should be able to see that political views held by women of color are often misconstrued as being personal rather than ideological. Views critical of the system held by an ‘out group’ are often seen as expressions of personal angers against the dominant society. (If they hate it so much here, why don’t they go back?)”[95]

Indigenous Feminism

Reasoning like many of their African American, Latin American/Latina/Chicana, and Asian American sisters, many Indigenous or Native women distance themselves from the label “feminist” for the reason that, within Indigenous communities and academic circles, feminism carries a stigma because of its association with whiteness.[96] According to Indigenous feminists, the concerns of other women of color, as well as those of white women, often differ and conflict.[97] Moreover, for these women, Indigenous feminism rests on the idea that the United States is a settler colonial nation-state and that settler colonialism is a gendered process.[98] Maile Arvin, Even Tuck, and Angie Morrill, three Indigenous, women-identified scholars, have expanded on these ideas and laid out five challenges that Indigenous feminisms offer to mainstream feminist discourse: (1) a problematization of settler colonialism and its intersections, (2) a refusal to be erased and wanting more than to be (merely) included, (3) an active seeking of alliances that directly address differences, (4) a recognition of Indigenous ways of knowing, and (5) a stress on sovereignty.[99]

Paula Gunn Allen

Addressing all five of the challenges listed above, the Women of All Red Nations (WARN) formed in the mid-1970s as a spin-off of the American Indian Movement (AIM).[100] Unhappy with the mostly supporting roles offered to women in AIM, Indigenous women formed WARN to address issues facing them, such as reproductive rights, land treaties, and the Native American Rights Fund.[101] Thinkers such as Paula Gunn Allen concretized WARN’s philosophy. In “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale,” Allen analyzed the female-centered Yellow Woman (“Kochinnenako”) stories of the Keres of the Laguna and Acoma Pueblos in New Mexico. The women paint their faces yellow—the color of women and of corn—on certain ceremonial occasions.[102] Allen compared three different interpretations of the Kochinnenako story “Sha-ah-cock and Miochin or the Battle of the Seasons”: (1) a traditional Keres interpretation, (2) a “modern feminist”/mainstream/Eurocentric interpretation with a “radical feminist” variant, and (3) a “feminist-tribal” interpretation. In the process, Allen highlighted some key components of the theoretical divide between mainstream (white) and Indigenous feminists.

One key component is the different assumptions about what it means to be a woman. In the traditional Keres interpretation, the power of the female is central to the story. In the “modern feminist”/mainstream/Eurocentric interpretation (which entails “the Western romantic view of the Indian, and the usual anti­patriarchal bias that characterizes the feminist analysis”), the woman has low status in the culture, is unhappy in her marriage, and thinks her husband is “cold and disagreeable, and she cannot love him.”[103] Tacked on to the “modern feminist” (“liberal feminist”) account of the story, said Allen, is a “radical feminist” one, which reads the story as one of women’s resistance to racism and oppression. Allen summarized the “modern feminist,” “radical feminist” interpretations as containing two claims: that women are essentially powerless and that conflict is basic to human existence. But Keres thought contains neither of these assumptions, said Allen. Whereas “modern feminism” sees marriage in the story as an institution developed to establish and maintain male supremacy, from the Keres perspective, Yellow Woman’s agency is central both to her marriage and to the story. Allen wrote, “The contexts of Anglo-European and Keres Indian life differ so greatly in virtually every assumption about the nature of reality, society, ethics, female roles, and the sacred importance of seasonal change that simply telling a Keres tale within an Anglo-European narrative context creates a dizzying series of false impressions and unanswerable (perhaps even unposable) questions.”[104] Western (technological, industrialized) minds cannot adequately interpret tribal materials, said Allen, because they “see the world in ways that are alien to tribal understandings.”[105] Whereas tribal peoples see their world in a “unified-field fashion” and write their literature in an “accretive and fluid” style, mainstream (white) perception and literature are masculinist, “single­focused,” linear, and fixed. Most importantly, whereas from a mainstream perspective (whether “modern” or “radical”) woman is a victim, from a tribal perspective she is both an agent and an empowerer of change. Allen argued, then, that Indigenous feminism exists outside the continuum (in Eurocentric feminism) between the “modern” and “radical forms,” offering instead a third alternative that dramatically challenges the very concept of what it means to be a woman.

In the traditional Indigenous culture undiluted by Western influences, woman is not powerless but powerful, according to Allen. “Agency is Kochinnenako’s ritual role [in the story]; it is through her ritual agency that the orderly, harmonious transfer of primacy between Summer and Winter people is accomplished.”[106] Also, because the “modern feminist” version of the story reads the Yellow Woman in a Eurocentric light (as a powerless victim), the very act of interpreting Yellow Women stories through Eurocentric eyes “will provide a tribally conscious feminist with an interesting example of how colonization works, however consciously or unconsciously, to misinform both the colonized and the colonizer” in ways that negatively alter the self-perception of the Indigenous woman.”[107] Allen hinted that the relationships between Indigenous men and women became “severely disordered” as a result, leading to “frightening” levels of wife abuse, rape, and battery of women in recent years.[108]

Luana Ross

Although the relationship between feminism and Indigenous women has been historically rocky, recent years have produced a flurry of feminist scholarship on the topic of Indigenous feminism. All recent works emphasize the necessity of recognizing the feminism of Indigenous women as unique and as a phenomenon entirely separate from mainstream, Eurocentric feminism. A representative piece is “From the ‘F’ Word to Indigenous/Feminisms” by Luana Ross, which opens as follows (quoting Kate Shanley): “Just as sovereignty cannot be granted but must be recognized as an inherent right to self-determination, so Indian feminism must also be recognized as powerful in its own terms, in its own right.”[109]

Ross’s piece provides a succinct account of recent thinking in Indigenous feminism, highlighting the work of key thinkers such as anthropologist Beatrice Medicine, who was a charter member of the American Indian Women’s Service League in Seattle in 1954, and Kate Shanley. Although Medicine did not specifically define her work as feminist, it nonetheless provided some of the earliest studies of Indigenous women seen through the eyes of an Indigenous woman and presented a new image of Indigenous women as strong and capable.[110] In contrast to Medicine, Shanley was one of the first Indigenous women to identify herself publicly as “feminist,” according to Ross. Shanley worked on issues that all women face, such as equal pay, children’s health and welfare, reproductive rights, and domestic violence. But, argued Ross, her promotion of the cause of tribal sovereignty made her work uniquely Indigenous.[111] In an interesting twist on the presumed relationship between white and Indigenous women (one of oppressor and oppressed), Paula Gunn Allen noted in “Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism” that, according to Ross, all Indigenous peoples are traditionally feminist. If feminists were to acknowledge this fact, said Allen, they could make great strides toward the desirable goal of giving equal civil rights and respect to Indigenous people.[112]

Critiques of Women-of-Color Feminism(s) in the United States

Critique One: “Of Color” Is an Objectifying Label

For some US feminists, the idea of a feminism designed especially for a group of persons called “women of color”—let alone multiple feminisms designed especially for different subsets of women of color—is problematic. Many argue, for example, that to identify a group of persons set apart from others on the basis of color or race reifies the concept of biological race and thereby undermines the third-wave project of moving past restrictive, limiting categories regarding race or gender. But we can also view the appropriation of the term “of color” as a mechanism to identify those who have been on the receiving end of racially motivated oppression. Additionally, it can reveal a commonality among a multiplicity of women, on the basis of which they might collectively generate political power. In recent years, these two positions have reached a compromise, so that a feminist identifying herself as “of color” can be understood not as reifying the concept of biological race but as acknowledging that one of the axes of oppression she faces is racialized oppression.

Critique Two: “Of Color” Increases Feminists’ Difficulty in Banding Together to Achieve Economic, Social, and Political Goals

Many white feminists find it hard to understand why women of color don’t just join with them to fight sexism. In particular, many white feminists fault those feminists who prefer to call themselves womanist. According to noted novelist Alice Walker, however, African American women and other women of color experience a different and more intense form of oppression than white women do.[113] Among other things, she said a womanist is

a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”[114]

Arguably, a womanist is the best type of feminist a woman can be because her view of life and love transcends all divisive categories.

Critique Three: Intersectionality Is a Limited Concept

Since intersectionality came into being roughly in the early 1990s, the axes of oppression identified at that time have multiplied. Whereas race, gender, class, and sexuality were the primary axes of oppression initially understood to intersect and shape particular women’s experiences, recently such factors as religion, nationality, and citizenship status have joined the list. Some levy the critique that the concept of intersectionality itself pertains to a bygone era. The implication is that the categories of race, gender, class, sexuality, and even religion or nationality are problematically based in second-wave notions about clearly defined races, genders, and so on. Race and gender cannot “intersect,” on this view, unless the theoretical (and actual) boundaries between different races and genders are fairly clearly defined in the first place.

As noted above, interstitiality has recently been offered in place of intersectionality as an organizing concept to explain the complex web of sociohistorical and sociolegal forces at work in the creation of identity, particularly as it is shaped by oppression. Interstitiality means different things for different feminists. For some, the concept invokes the ill-defined but nevertheless existent space between the existing identity categories of race, gender, and so on. For others, it highlights the unlimited number of identity categories that can overlap and interact in the formation of identity. Perhaps, however, intersectionality and interstitiality are not incompatible concepts and can be understood as different names for the same phenomenon. Interstitiality seems to add to intersectionality, however, an emphasis on the nonessential nature of any singular group identity marker.


We can understand women-of-color feminisms as a way of conceptualizing feminist work outside the white mainstream. Women of color and their work have been present in each wave of feminist theorizing in the United States. In the first wave, their work focused primarily on suffrage for women of color, understood as a different project with a different set of concerns than the problem of suffrage for white women. In the second wave, their work offered a form of radical feminism, focusing on a desire to change the system itself in a way that unpacked and addressed the problem of racism and how that problem affected women. In the third wave, the work of women of color is central to the feminist project, encompassing, as it always has, the idea (sometimes known as intersectionality) that the oppression of women does not occur in a vacuum. Women come in a variety of colors and from a variety of sociocultural backgrounds; women’s oppression is not monolithic, and white women’s experiences are no more important than those of women of color in understanding the problems women face as a group. Of particular concern in the third wave is treating each kind of women-of-color feminism on its own, with an explicit acknowledgment of its own terms, thereby valuing the importance of difference in the greater feminist project of addressing the needs of all women.

Most forms of mainstream (white) feminism attempt to extrapolate historically Western feminist concerns onto women color, motivated by the universalist belief that the concerns of US bourgeois, white women mirror those of all other women. But there may be an insurmountable barrier between feminist experience and the problem of racial oppression. So, while the feminist of color can fairly concede that there is some overlap among the concerns of women worldwide (e.g., general concerns about safety or reproductive issues), as the section on Indigenous feminism highlights, membership in the one or more specific racial or ethnic groups of which each woman is a part may significantly affect each embodied experience of patriarchy. This “particularity” may exist especially where the racial or ethnic group in question has a specific history of having been oppressed. And how can this not be the case? To the extent that a woman has been racialized, she has been oppressed in a way that is both unique to the particular racial classification(s) assigned to her and common to the experience of being female. In other words, patriarchal oppression as experienced by each group of women of color in the United States has its own features and challenges.

Although part of the point of writing a separate chapter on women-of-color feminisms in the United States was simply to highlight the unique experiences of oppression and patriarchy of various groups of women of color, another was to express an increasingly felt need to let women of color speak for themselves, to identify their agency as well as their right to define their own concerns and to work among themselves to find feasible solutions to them. The contemporary feminist project is no longer respectably conceivable from the standpoint of the Anglo-European feminists who styled themselves as solely responsible for the first and second waves of feminism. Although the efforts, challenges, and theoretical schemas of these brave and trailblazing women certainly played a key role in conceptualizing the feminist project, the new project—the project for the future—includes all women in all their varied and beautiful and powerful forms. It must necessarily be conceived from and examined from a vantage that opens panoramically onto the situated and distinct perspectives of women of all colors—that is, onto women-of-color feminisms in all their situated complexities.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Explain why the idea that women of color should participate in the mainstream world necesarily infringes upon their interests and rights.
  2. Explain the notion that some women are more equal than others. Is it possible for some women to remain affluent and privileged—at the expense of other, marginalized women (or men, for that ­matter)—and still consider themselves true feminists? Why or why not?
  3. What importance, if any, do you see in identifying multiple forms of women-of-color feminism?
  4. Why is the rejection, inherent in women-of-color feminisms, of a universal female identity significant?


[1] Naomi Zack indicated that her preference for the term “nonwhite” over “of color” to describe the organizing quality that defines the groups of people these phrases mean to reference on the theory that “of color” implies the existence of biological races, which she famously and appropriately rejects. See Naomi Zack, Women of Color and Philosophy: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 2.
[2] For a definition of “double consciousness,” see note 21.
[3] For a good discussion of “white privilege,” see Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” in Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, eds. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997).
[4] In this chapter, we capitalize the word “Black” unless an author uses a lower-case b.
[5] Tisa M. Anders, “Combahee River Collective (1974–1980),” Online Encyclopedia of Significant People and Places in African American History,
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] For general information about the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional, see “Comision Femenil Mexicana Nacional, Inc,” UC Santa Barbara Library, (accessed March 5, 2016).
[9] Kristin Olsen, Chronology of Women’s History (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994).
[10] Anders, “Combahee River Collective (1974–1980).”
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, eds. Kimberlé Crenshaw et al. (New York: New Press, 1995), 357–383.
[16] Ibid, 360.
[17] Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
[18] Ibid.
[19] From a speech delivered at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in [1851] For Sojourner Truth’s dictated autobiography, see The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (Boston: J. B. Yerrinton & Son, 1850).
[20] Ibid.
[21] In the realm of race theory, “double consciousness,” a term originated by W. E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Gramercy Books, 1994), refers to the idea that Black persons in the United States (regardless of gender) have (at least) two different phenomenological identity experiences. DuBois describes the experience of “double-consciousness” as a constant feeling of two-ness—an American, a person of color.
[22] Quoted in Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Sojourner Truth,” Rochester Evening Express, December 13, 1866.
[23] The perception of woman as powerful later gets reflected, for example, in Alice Walker’s definition of “womanism” (her substitute term for Black/African American feminism). See Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 1983).
[24] For example, during the formative years of the United States, white men enacted laws whereby white women who married men of color would lose their citizenship rights. See Nancy Leong, “Judicial Erasure of Mixed Race Discrimination,” American University Law Review 59, no. 3 (February 2010): 469.
[25] See, for example, Aida Hurtado, The Color of Privilege: Three Blasphemies on Race and Feminism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).
[26] Ibid., 58.
[27] See, for example, Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1242–[1243] Crenshaw said, “Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. . . . Contemporary feminist and antiracist discourses have failed to consider intersectional identities such as women of color.”
[28] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1984), 112.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Joan Martin, “The Unicorn Is Black: Audre Lorde in Retrospect,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Examination, ed. Mari Evans (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 277–291.
[32] Audre Lorde, Coal (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1976).
[33] Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press 1984), 36–39.
[34] Ibid., 39.
[35] Ibid., 59.
[36] Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1980), 59–60.
[37] Carla M. Hammond, “Audre Lorde: Interview,” Denver Quarterly 16, no.1 (1981): 10–27.
[38] bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984).
[39] bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Boston: South End Press, 2000), 97–99.
[40] Ibid., 87.
[41] bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1987).
[42] Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013).
[43] “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw in an April 12, 2014, interview on intersectionality with Bim Adewunmi. See
[44] Ibid., 7.
[45] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “The Girls Obama Forgot,” New York Times, July 29, 2014, 1.
[46] Ibid., 3.
[47] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 6.
[48] Ibid., 7.
[49] Ibid., 67.
[50] Ibid., 218.
[51] Eve Browning Cole, Philosophy and Feminist Criticism: An Introduction (New York: Paragon House, 1913), 260.
[52] Quoted in Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 234.
[53] Cole, Philosophy and Feminist Criticism, 29–30.
[54] Quoted in Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 236.
[55] Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 237.
[56] Cole, Philosophy and Feminist Criticism, 29–30.
[57] Patricia Hill Collins, Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), xvii.
[58] K. Leon, “La Hermandad and Chicanas Organizing: The Community Rhetoric of the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional,” Community Literacy Journal 7, no. 2 (1973): 1–20.
[59] Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999).
[60] Tania Modleski, “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” Minnesota Review (New Series) 23 (fall 1984): 199–200.
[61] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999).
[62] Ibid.
[63] Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Norten, “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014–2060,” US Census Bureau, March 2015,
[64] Cristina Herrera, Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script (Amherst, MA: Cambria Press, 2014).
[65] Ibid.
[66] Ofelia Schutte, “Cultural Alterity,” in Women and Color and Philosophy, ed. Naomi Zack (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 2000), 46.
[67] Ibid., 49.
[68] Chela Sandoval, “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World,” Genders 10 (spring 1991): 2–3, 10.
[69] Ibid.
[70] Maria Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman, “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism, and the Demand for the Woman’s Voice,” in Feminist Philosophies, eds. Janet A. Kourany, James Sterba, and Rosemarie Tong (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992), 388.
[71] Chen Chao-ju, “The Difference That Differences Make: Asian Feminism and the Politics of Difference,” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 13, no. 3 (2007): 7–36, 146.
[72] Ibid.
[73] Grace Lee, dir., American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (Lee Lee Films, 2013).
[74] Robert D. McFadden, “Grace Lee Boggs, Human Rights Advocate for 7 Decades, Dies at 100,” New York Times, October 5, 2015,
[75] “Bill Moyers Talks with Grace Lee Boggs, Bill Moyers Journal, June 15, 2007,
[76] Hansi Lo Wang, “Yuri Kochiyama, Activist and Former World War II Internee, Dies at 93,” NPR, June 2, 2014,
[77] Ibid.
[78] Diane Fujino, Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
[79] Wang, “Yuri Kochiyama, Activist and Former World War II Internee, Dies at 93.”
[80] Leslie Bow, Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anxiety in the Segregated South (New York: New York University Press, 2010).
[81] Leslie Bow, “Racial Interstitiality and the Anomalies of the ‘Partly Colored’: Representations of Asians Under Jim Crow,” Journal of Asian American Studies 10, no. 1 (February 2007): 1.
[82] Ibid., 4.
[83] Ibid.
[84] Ibid.
[85] Ibid., 3.
[86] Ibid., [4] See James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1988).
[87] Bow, “Racial Interstitiality and the Anomalies of the ‘Partly Colored,’” 26.
[88] Mitsuye Yamada, “Asian Pacific American Women and Feminism,” in Feminist Theory: A Reader, eds. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski (Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013), 366.
[89] Ibid.
[90] Ibid., 367.
[91] Ibid.
[92] Ibid.
[93] Ibid.
[94] Ibid.
[95] Ibid.
[96] See Luana Ross, “From the ‘F’ Word to Indigenous/Feminisms.” Wicazo Sa Review 24, no. 2 (2009): 39–52.
[97] See “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections Between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy,” Feminist Formations 25, no. 1 (spring 2013): 8–34, 10.
[98] Ibid.
[99] Ibid.
[100] Donna Hightower Langston, The Native American World (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 430.
[101] Ibid.
[102] Paula Gunn Allen, “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale,” in Feminist Theory: A Reader, eds. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013), 395–404.
[103] Ibid.
[104] Ibid.
[105] Ibid., 401.
[106] Ibid.
[107] Ibid., 402.
[108] Ibid.
[109] Ross, “From the ‘F’ Word to Indigenous/Feminisms.”
[110] Ibid. (our emphasis).
[111] Ibid.
[112] Ibid., citing Paula Gunn Allen, “Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism,” Sinister Wisdom 25 (winter 1984): 34–46.
[113] Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.
[114] Ibid.

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