Being a woman of a certain age i can remember the embryonic efforts of the modern feminist movement well. Feminism in its early days of defining itself was almost exclusively for white women. This was congruent with the schism that occurred in a once combined coalition to fight for women’s rights, including the vote and for racial justice back in the 19th century. In a nutshell some of the white women leaders of the early fight for women’s rights who had originally partnered with Frederick Douglass and DuBois and other blacks decided that 1) black men had been given the vote, at least theoretically by the 15th Amendment, hopscotching them over white women as far as suffrage was concerned and 2) that linking white women’s rights with black rights was not going to help the white women, so therefore the white women needed to break off and pursue their own interests. This early decision would set the stage for much of the later feminist movement, unfortunately in many ways carrying on to the present day.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Woman’s Movement, in many ways riding the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, began to organize, develop a philosophy, garner media attention and generally try to set the stage for true change in the status of women. In many ways I think it has been a roaring success. If nothing else it has encouraged a variety of individuals and organizations to examine the role or roles of women. In other ways it has been less than successful. In ideological wars feminism has suffered at the hands of right wingers and conservatives. The righties have been successful to some extent in associating feminism with all kinds of bad things, from not shaving to hating men. When I talk to groups of young women I often ask them to raise their hands if they consider themselves feminists. Few hands usually go up. I then begin to list some of the tenets of feminism and ask them to raise their hands if they agree with each one. Almost all hands go up. So, it is the word, not the philosophy that they object to. This is not an accident, but an attempt to marginalize and control women. The recent brouhaha of Rush Limbaugh calling a young woman scholar who wanted her birth control covered by insurance, a “slut” is only one more indication of the right’s attempt to demonize anything that would lead to less control over women.
The early Movement, however, did not resonate with many or even most women of color. One of the primary issues raised was the woman’s right to work outside the home. Since most black women had been working outside of their own homes, many of them in the white women’s homes who were complaining, this did not garner much support in the black community. With the rise of civil rights legislation and with the liberation movements in some other countries that were happening, women of color decided it was time to have our own brand of feminism, or more accurately to have our existing and historic feminism codified and recognized. The linkage of feminism and Critical Race Theory helped expedite this and now there is a great body of scholarship about black feminism and how it is similar and different from white feminism.If there is any doubt that there is a difference a quick review of the literature will dispel any reservations.
The exception that is being taken recently with feminism is its historic elitism. Most of the issues championed by feminists traditionally have been of interest to middle class white women almost exclusively. With the rise of the black middle class following the Civil Rights Movement there were black women who could relate to the difficulty of “having it all.” The fact of the matter is, however, that what has been considered having it all, or what the all is, has been defined primarily by upper and middle class white women. A lucrative, challenging career, intelligent, well-cared for children, a gorgeous home, a loving husband or perhaps wife and a vibrant social life are all elements of having it all. The fact that some of those things are out of the reach of any female from a background that does not include privilege and wealth seems to have been ignored. In the revered American belief in the Myth of the Meritocracy, only this time dressed up in a dress, if you wanted all of these things as long as you were sufficiently driven, confident and savvy you could have them. Like the more pervasive general American Myth of the Meritocracy it is all smoke and mirrors, designed to hide the wizard behind the curtain cloaked in money and privilege.
I have led a privileged life, particularly for a black woman, although I have never been what I considered wealthy I have been what some people would consider wealthy and I certainly have had other privilege, from being light and having “good” hair to having a stable nuclear family both growing up and of my own. We actually have, at one point or another had a three bedroom home, two cars, three kids, two jobs and a cocker spaniel. Because of my privilege, and not without personal effort of course, I have managed to just about have it all, but not at the same time. My husband and I dedicated ourselves to being the best parents we could be. That meant when they were home our kids were the center of the family activities. Their schedules ran our days, from practices to performances to activities. And, fortunately, we enjoyed it. My husband coached, so did I, at least on a couple of occasions, and we were always there when they had games, plays, concerts, whatever.
But, I taught high school, which did not require me to be absent from the family circle. Only when they were grown did I transition to higher education. Almost all of the travel, speaking, conferences,, and publishing I have done happened after they were grown. I did not move more than four miles or so from any of them until I was 55. they moved in some cases, but I kept the home fires burning. Looking back, especially now since I am kind of retiring–leaving one job for a different one, I think I have had it all. I have always had my own interests and friends , have had intellectual stimulation of some kind and have made a mark in several ways from my scholarship at the Library of Congress to my establishment of organizations and development of classes.
So, my response to the cries that feminism has sold a middle class, white woman, view of the possibility of having it all I say, not true. You can have it all, you just may not be able to have it all at the same time. But nobody ever said it was going to be at the same time, or that it was going to be easy. But we can do it all, have it all and be it all, we are women!