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8 May 2024

Demonising white women is not feminist

Casual misogyny is flooding the mainstream under the guise of anti-racism.

By Finn McRedmond

Cast your mind back to June 2016 and the Trump Hotel in SoHo, Manhattan. “She believes she is entitled to the office,” Donald Trump told the room about his opponent for the White House. “Her campaign slogan is: ‘I’m with her.’ You know what my response to that is? I’m with you.” This was a moment of rhetorical brilliance from someone who had until then appeared little more than a malign buffoon. It was also the exact point in time that, for Hillary Clinton, all was lost.

America is now a nakedly different country. In her new book Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History, the American journalist Nellie Bowles traces the path taken by the contemporary left in the denouement of the Obama years, through Trump’s turbulent term as president, to the present. One provocative section of the book, recently extracted in the Atlantic, asks: “Are white women better now?”

In the months following Clinton’s shock defeat to Trump, the inexorable march to a better world still seemed durable enough. But the progressive left is no stranger to total self-destruction. And so, as is perennially the case, the broad movement for women’s rights in the 2010s turned on itself.

Splinters emerged within the Women’s March set: abortion, Palestine, trans rights were all among the fault lines. Meanwhile, #MeToo was overcome by factional bickering (older feminists argued their younger counterparts ought to buck up and drop the victimhood; LGBTQ activists contended the movement was too narrowly cast). And in the headiness of such infighting one group emerged as the ultimate villains: white women.

White feminism was hardly a new concept at the time, but it took hold in the media with renewed fervour. “Hillary Clinton and the problem of white feminism” one headline read in the Huffington Post in 2015. “I refuse to listen to white women cry” proclaimed a headline in the Washington Post in 2019. Perhaps the most memorable of all was BuzzFeed’s viral 2017 essay “How Taylor Swift played the victim for a decade and made her entire career”. It accused her of exploiting her “white fragility” and “capitalising on the stereotype of the ‘angry black man’” to catapult her “into mainstream consciousness”. 

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Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing summer of Black Lives Matter protests, correcting white fragility in general – and white women, in particular – became a cottage industry. In 2021 Bowles attended a four-day-long seminar, “The Toxic Trends of Whiteness”, to investigate the phenomenon.

She encountered a lot of tears. One woman admitted to thinking it would be better if she ceased to exist: “It would at least be one less person perpetuating these things.” Mostly, it seems, Bowles encountered a movement that had ceded the importance of structural change and active policymaking in favour of “a confessional process [that] didn’t require doing anything tangible at all”. Could one defeat white supremacy from one’s living room?

This workshop was not Bowles’s only option: she could have paid up to $625 to attend a dinner to discuss her whiteness; or a workshop called “What’s Up with White Women? Unpacking Sexism and White Privilege over Lunch”. The commodification of the anxieties of white women seemed endless.

There may be criticisms of so-called white feminism that are warranted, but this particular backlash cloaked many of its own ills in woke clothing. Men – many of whom had begun to feel culturally disenfranchised by #MeToo – could reclaim lost power while maintaining the patina of progressive politics: “White women, eh!” was the knowing refrain. It was a licence for casual misogyny under the banner of anti-racism.

It was also politically incoherent. That Trump’s accession to the White House was apparently the fault of both Hillary Clinton and – as the New York Times and others suggested – the white women who did not vote for her speaks to an intractable inconsistency. Clinton failed because of her self-centredness and entitlement. Those women who did not vote for her failed because of their… self-centredness and entitlement? 

The picture Nellie Bowles paints is of a politics in which sense is sacrificed at the altar of ideological purity – a country whose institutions are under the thumb of progressive zealotry. Eight years on from the reckoning of 2016, the American left is as divided as ever. On one side sits a progressive cohort with a tendency for total self-destruction: chastising mistakes, ostracising the ideologically impure, martyring themselves at the expense of material improvement. And on the other side, there is a hopelessly out of touch liberal establishment that believed simply electing a woman president was synonymous with good governance.

As abortion rights are rolled back across the United States and Trump might be once again headed for the White House, the picture for American women – of any race – is bleak. The demonisation of “white feminism” seems symptomatic of the worst excesses of the progressive left, enabled by the hollowness of the liberal centre. That the revolution eats its own is as banal as it is true.

[See also: Ireland can’t blame its anti-immigrant problem on Rishi Sunak]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll