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When people claim that feminism isn’t needed anymore or that women have it better now than ever, I have to wonder if they actually understand anything about the global plight of women and girls in the 21st century. Yes, women have made tremendous political, economic, and social achievements, and are largely better positioned to be successful, healthy, and happy in our individual journeys through womanhood. With every “The First Woman to…” headline, we see how women continue to shatter glass ceilings, blaze trails, and move us all forward. But to deny the pressing struggles of women and girls around the globe is incredibly ignorant and complicit with the perpetual oppression of female populations.
In the United States, for example, abortion access is under violent attack, with several states enacting the most restrictive laws since the Roe v. Wade decision that “unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional” in 1973. At the southern border, children are currently being separated from their parents, detained in cages, and pregnant teens are being denied reproductive health services. Black maternal mortality has gone largely ignored for decades and Black women continue to be denied fair and equitable health care. Each year, an estimated 12 million girls are married in childhood around the world. In South Africa, a woman is killed every eight hours and the femicide rate there is five times the global rate. Across South Asia, 47% of people justify domestic violence against women, many being women who have internalized patriarchal misogyny. And in South American countries, up to 53% of women report having experienced intimate partner violence ranging from emotional abuse to injuries requiring hospitalization.
With statistics like these, we can’t deny that women and girls continue to face devastating gender-based oppression, and it’s clear the world needs feminism and feminist activism as much as it ever did. It may seem that feminism is more popular than it is though, with feminist discourse gaining traction and greater exposure, particularly online. One might even make the assumption that most people are feminists or feminist-leaning. The truth is that feminists are still a minority of the general population, with only 38% of women and 22% of men saying they identify as feminist. While these numbers actually reflect an increase in recent years, most people remain reluctant to align themselves with feminism or call themselves feminists, and it’s largely due to misconceptions and harmful negative stereotypes about feminist women and the feminist movement itself.
Also important is that certain groups have felt excluded from the mainstream feminist movement, with feminist women of color being among the most vocal about their erasure. It’s difficult to feel respected as women deserving of feminist support when many mainstream feminist narratives erase our historical contributions or ignore the unique experiences of women of color, trans women, disabled women, and poor women. Without a doubt, feminism remains vital to liberation for all people, and being a feminist activist in the age of social media means being a torchbearer for critical liberation work being done, especially in marginalized communities. So how do feminist women of color, particularly, navigate feminist spaces and their cultural and ethnic communities, both online and off, to make the case that we still need feminism in the 21st century? And what are some of the most important issues affecting women of color today that motivate them to become involved in the feminist movement?
Women of all races and ethnicities are facing legislative attacks on reproductive freedoms, economic disenfranchisement, continued disregard for victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, and shameful underrepresentation in politics and government. For women of color, these issues can have a deeper impact on their lives. As I see it, the more women building intergenerational community around womanhood and femme identity, racial consciousness, queer identity, and disability matters, the better off we in these tumultuous times. I spoke with several women and femmes of color who identify as feminists or womanists about modern feminism and why they believe it’s important to embrace it today.
Marcela Poveda, a Gen X Latina from New York City, knew she was a feminist as early as fifth grade. She looked up to her principal, who was also a Latina, and she knew even then that her being in that position wasn’t common. Inspired by her leadership, she began to embrace what she understood about feminism in elementary school. As she got older, she became more involved in cultural organizations, women’s groups, and politics during and after college. “Unfortunately, the [feminist] movement has skewed towards White women which, although relevant, tends to ignore unique issues within Black and Latinx women’s communities, like colorism and our relationships with men of color,” she says, speaking to why some women of color feel left out. For her, the key to shifting the focus of the movement toward a more inclusive ideology is more women of color embracing feminism to promote the necessary inclusivity and priority of our issues. Poveda notes that “a lot of Latina American women have bicultural identities that conflict in terms of cultural norms and expectations they were raised with versus those they have learned in the U.S.”
She points out that there is a great deal of tension between religious beliefs and feminist values, which impacts voting choices for a lot of Latinas. “If they are strongly religious, voting for a party that supports abortion and a woman’s right to choose may be an issue,” she says. When it comes to immigration, a key issue for Latinas, in her opinion, is that “some feel that if their families got here ‘legally’ or the ‘right way,’ others should do the same, and they have little to no empathy for the current crisis at the border.” Immigration is very much a feminist issue, and at the U.S. southern border, children are being separated from their parents, and pregnant teens are being denied reproductive health services. The more Latinx and Chicanx feminists involved in the advocacy work to help migrant families, the greater the likelihood that matters of sexual violence, teen pregnancy, and maternal health will be centered in immigration advocacy and policy reform.
Collectivist feminist attitudes will save us but only if those most privileged among us make it a duty to amplify the voices of the women who are most affected by racial capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism.
“For so long these women’s voices have been repressed even within feminist spaces,” agrees Shevisia Taliska, a Black millennial woman currently living in the Netherlands. “I truly believe that collectivist feminist attitudes will save us but only if those most privileged among us make it a duty to amplify the voices of the women who are most affected by racial capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism.” Taliska, who identifies as a queer asexual, says that she finally began to openly embrace womanism and Black feminism after engaging with #YouOkSis, a campaign I created in 2014 to draw attention to women of color’s experiences with street harassment and other gender-based violence. She’s learned that it’s important to highlight the ways in which feminist consciousness has benefitted communities and the importance of elevating women for the sake of everyone’s forward progress.
For Taliska, embracing feminism is “necessary to continue the work that our foremothers started.” She believes that “we now have the tools to cause a meaningful cultural shift for future generations of women and girls in our communities and improve the lives of those of us surviving patriarchy right now.” As for why she believes feminism is critically important for women of color today, Taliska says, “There is almost no statistical data one can cite to know how Black women in particular are affected by issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and work inequality. Unfortunately, this invisibility of specific marginalized groups creates a lack of urgency and isolation” in the Netherlands.
Asa Todd, a queer Black woman from New Jersey, says she realized she was a feminist shortly after graduating from college. Being active on social media introduced her to outspoken feminist women and their tweets and posts helped her better understand feminism. “My desire to be open and public about it came from witnessing the harassment of Black women who were open about their feminist/womanist ideologies online and watching them have to confront the abuse and harassment alone,” she says of why she decided to come forward as a feminist.
Todd, a mental health advocate and certified presenter with NAMI, admits that it has taken a toll on her mental health, but finding community has been important. “As someone who lives with a mental illness, feminism has helped me in both advocating for myself and reducing how often I fall victim to gaslighting by medical professionals,” she says. “As someone that lives at many intersections, race hasn’t been the sole barrier I’ve had in receiving appropriate treatment. I’ve still faced accusations of over-exaggeration, being manipulative, and my emotional states being due to ‘that time of the month.’ Trying to explain to doctors that I couldn’t remain on medications because the side effects were too severe was often waved away as hypochondria,’ being melodramatic, and refusal to be compliant.” Todd has since been empowered by her feminist community to speak up for herself more and call out doctors who she feels dismiss her complaints because she is a woman.
“Because White feminism still acts in service of White supremacy,” Tina Zafreen Alam, a nonbinary femme living between Toronto and Brooklyn, believes “that in order to enact large-scale change to pervasive systems and ways of thinking, [we] require imagination and a collective.” Alam, who is Bengali, grew up with feminist influences in her life, namely her grandmother, who is a feminist and a bioethicist who has done extensive work around reproductive rights for women in the Global South. “For women/femmes of color specifically,” Alam says, “it’s important to prioritize our safety and freedom. To me, this also includes considering what safety looks like for us outside of the justice system and carceral system, which are ongoing sites of abuse as well.”
Despite being a minority group, outspoken feminists dominate a significant portion of online discourse, and it’s women of color who are pushing the progressive needle forward when it comes to advocacy and activism. In Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World From the Tweets to the Streets, I wrote about the powerful ways in which Black feminist women use online spaces for digital activism that has off-line, “real-world” applications. My research and personal experiences taught me that Black women have been at the forefront of 21st-century digital feminist activism, despite getting little to no credit for our work. For example, our use of hashtags to create culture-shifting conversations and change-making campaigns are the gold standard of modern feminist activism. Our work recognizes the need for feminism for all people, and centering our racial identity in our writing and on our platforms is vital to making feminism more intersectional and inclusive in its work.
The 21st-century wave of feminism will not be collectively successful in its fight for gender equality if we do not embrace intersectionality as praxis and create space and support for all girls and women to become actively engaged in the work. Women of color, queer and trans women, disabled women, immigrant women, and poor women must all be called in and allowed space at the table to contribute their wisdom and experiences to the modern feminist movement. To those of us fighting for gender equality, it too often feels that we are losing battles we simply can’t afford to lose and for women of color, the urgent need for feminism becomes clearer with every assault on our womanhood and femme identities. We continue the fight started by women generations before us and recognize that our work is part of a continuum of activism that must carry on until we are all liberated from gender-based oppression. Unless we galvanize more people who believe in fighting patriarchy and protecting women and girls, future generations will continue to face tremendous obstacles and suffer simply for existing as female. We can do it, though, by continuing to affirm feminism, by embracing feminist ideology as a blueprint for liberation for all people, and by amplifying the voices and narratives of feminist women of color.