If one acknowledges that the category ‘woman’ is neither homogenous nor static, one is necessarily speaking to the issue of hegemony in the feminist discourse. Current consensus within the theory of non-white and ‘third world’ feminism is that dominance has been exercised by ‘white, mainstream feminist theory which does not speak to the experiences of black women and where it attempts to do so it is often from a racist perspective (Amos & Parmar)’. To unpack this statement one must put it in a broader context. Historically, the global South and therefore people of colour have been disadvantaged and marginalized economically as well as socially. Eurocentric, Western superiority has been established and perpetuated through means of imperialism and colonialism over centuries and even today, after most former colonies have gained independence decades ago, similar power structures still exist and are frequently reproduced, exemplified in the distribution of wealth in post-Apartheid South Africa where up to this day capital is accumulated within the white population.
Feminism does not exist in a vacuum but is itself a part of the global power structure and even actively reproducing it. The gains in the struggle for women’s rights and equality, be it in Europe or the United States, have been presented as universal but do in fact mostly cater to white, middle-class and heterosexual women. The global hegemony of the white middle class is therefore perpetuated in dominant feminism.
The above photo, which has been circulating around social media since the 2018 Women’s March, sparked anger amongst many women of colour. The critique is that white women are protesting against a misogynistic president who directly interferes with their own lives as women, however not acknowledging that those specific issues have been present in the lives of women of colour prior to the latest US elections. Secondly, the fact that the majority of white women voted for Trump begs the question of whether there should not rather be a focus on concsientising their own kind.
The glorification of Hillary Clinton in this context is no less controversial. Clinton has been portrayed as a symbol of ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ during her presidential campaign and while the advancement of women to the highest ranks in corporate and government positions is a goal of undeniable legitimacy, it arguably concerns privileged women more than those which are marginalized. This does not mean that poor, oppressed women of colour do not aspire to such, on the contrary. What it means is that for underprivileged, lower class women career options are not the most pressing concern. Many women of colour are burdened by poverty and the lack of job skills, says Kimberlé Crenshaw, therefore becoming a CEO does not play a role in the everyday struggle and is therefore to a certain extent removed from the reality the majority of women are living. In other words, if one had to sustain oneself with low-wage jobs from an early age, is there time to dream of ‘breaking the glass ceiling’? The photo and the idea that everything would have been fine if Clinton won the presidential race is therefore an idea white liberal women may be able to agree to but not necessarily women of colour.
This phenomenon resonates in the global South as well. Women’s Marches were held in Kenya, Nigeria, Togo and Iraq with limited media coverage in the West. The debate has long been about the prominent notion of feminism being a universal movement while in fact it does not cater to the need of women who experience oppression across multiple axes.
That being said, women of colour are subjected to partaking in a feminism which is neither made for them nor focussed on their inclusion and are subsequently made responsible for its failures. Women of colour calling for an intersectional approach regarding the Women’s march, to have race, class and other dimensions of oppression acknowledged, were seen as being divisive and essentially shut down in their constructive criticism.
A shared History of male dominance – Denying past realities
The issue is not limited to this example of recent underrepresentation. Gender equality or the lack thereof has been portrayed as a monolithic shared experience amongst women globally and throughout history. The public narrative often includes a universally oppressed category of women which then, thanks to European enlightenment, slowly gained agency and fought against male dominance. Equality subsequently spread from Europe and the United States to the global South.
To put things into perspective, universal suffrage was introduced in Sierra Leone in 1930, while some cantons in Switzerland only started to respect the right to vote for women in the 1990s. Until 1977, it was technically illegal in Germany for married women to work without their husbands’ approval.
On the other hand societies like the Òyó in today’s Nigeria were to a certain degree oblivious to the male/female binary which has been intrinsic to Western culture. Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí claims in her book ‘The Invention Of Women’ that it was only after colonization that gender became a determinant of social position and power.
Her thesis about the perceived universality of Western concepts is an important one. Oyěwùmí’s diagnosis of the origins of gender inequality in African societies is essential as it dethrones notions of the West as being the bearer of female liberation and turning it into the root of female subordination and victimization in colonized Africa (see also Dahomey’s Woman Warriors).
Hence, the critique of hegemonic feminism is that it fails to identify itself as such, claiming to speak for and to all women without acknowledging its limits and representational shortcomings. Jane Bennett and Michelle Friedmann speak to these issues of admitting one’s privilege. They propose the acknowledgement of ‘complicity with structural systems of racism’ and a process of unlearning and uncovering of racist attitudes one is socialised into having. Consequently, hegemonic or dominant feminism is asked to ‘undo’ itself by interrogating its very core.
There is no essential need for a completely unified feminist movement, rather the goal should be a kind of feminism that acknowledges different dimensions and layers of oppression. There must be a questioning of perceived universality in the discourse around feminism and gender equality. A ‘one size fits all’ approach with the hope for a trickle down effect is not suitable in a time where women of the global South demand to have their voice heard and provide an approach to a solution that fits their own lived reality and circumstances.
Positionality is key in such discussions. As a white European man, I have to acknowledge my complicity in given power structures, the way I benefit from them and how I, by virtue of birth, am a beneficiary and not a victim in this discourse. I am attempting to analyse the structures and systems in place that perpetuate my position of privilege and subsequently trying to propose possible ways forward, without claiming to connect or to understand the various lived experiences of women.
Amos, V. & Parmar, P. (1984). ‘Challenging Imperial Feminism’. Feminist Review. 17, pp. 3-19
Bennet, J. & Friedmann, M. (1997). ‘White Women and Racial Autobiography’. Agenda, No. 32. Race, Identity and Change. pp. 49-55.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Colour. Stanford Law Review, July. Vol. 43. pp. 1241-1229
Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónke (2013). The invention of women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.