White Feminists Have Been Poor Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice

In the wake of the devastating, but not unexpected, news that several states passed incredibly restrictive, punitive abortion bills that function as bans, women across the country took to social media to express their horror and disbelief. Activists immediately set to work organizing and trying to come up with solutions for those most affected by these new laws — poor and working-class women. Given America’s disastrous combination of the racial wealth gap and an unabashedly racist criminal justice system, Black women undoubtedly will be the most vulnerable, at-risk group in these anti-abortion states.

Amid many positive campaigns to help women in these states, tens of thousands of women joined up with actress and activist Alyssa Milano in a sex strike: “until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy. JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back. I’m calling for a #SexStrike.” Feminists from all backgrounds rightfully called out Milano for a range of hypocrisies, from women being allowed to desire — and even enjoy — sex, to the fact that lesbians and men who voted for Democrats should not have to suffer, too.

While Milano would later pay lip service to the fact that these laws would disproportionately affect poor women and women of color, there was no single moment when she — or the other white women who immediately and blindly followed her — actually reflected upon the role that white women played in bringing about these de facto abortion bans.

By focusing all of their righteous indignation at Republican men, whether as politicians or voters, Milano and her supporters, consciously or not, removed white women from the equation of blame.

To be clear: A sex strike is absurd because this fight is not about men versus women. It’s about the people of the United States against all white Republicans. Even if the vast majority of politicians passing anti-abortion laws are white men, white women helped vote them into office.

White women stumped as their wives, mothers, sisters, and friends. White women appeared in their ads, helped run their campaigns, helped ensure their political success. White women deserve some of this blame.

In Georgia — the first state to pass (at that time) the nation’s most restrictive anti-abortion bill last week — limited abortions to before a fetus’ heartbeat can be detected, which is generally before a woman realizes she’s pregnant. And while the state’s last election was riddled with voter suppression in a very close race, we need to remember that Republican Governor Brian Kemp won the votes of 73 percent of white men, but also 75 percent of all white women. Perhaps even more interestingly, child-bearing-age white women primarily voted for Democrat Stacey Abrams; only white women over 40 voted in majorities for Kemp. In Ohio, another anti-abortion state, exit polls showed that Republican Mike DeWine won the votes of 62 percent of voting white men and 49 percent of white women.

Following all of the changes to the judiciary during the last few cancerous years of the Trump presidency, women can all but assume that the courts will offer them no recourse. Given the increasing number of anti-abortion Supreme Court justices, it seems necessary to remind some white feminists that a Trump presidency was made possible by 62 percent of white male voters, and a majority — 52 percent — of white female voters.

Meanwhile, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, and Louisiana lead the rest of the South in anti-abortion solidarity. As states with Republican governments begin to topple reproductive rights like dominoes, white women have not apologized, or even acknowledged, our role in all of this. We have not asked for forgiveness, nor have we humbled ourselves enough to ask how we can best help Black women and other women of color throughout this nightmarish process.

As Angela Y. Davis wrote nearly four decades ago, white women enjoyed enough freedoms and protections within society that they ultimately had no need to overthrow the existing hierarchy. These white feminists were not truly radical, and thus, offered no substance to the broader movement. In a quote that seems apropos for some white allies right now, Dr. Davis reminded us that white feminists’ “defense of their own interests as white middle-class women — in a frequently egotistical and elitist fashion — exposed the tenuous and superficial nature of their relationship to the… campaign for Black equality.”

It is increasingly apparent that white women — especially those of us who identify as allies, accomplices, or fellow freedom-fighters — need to have a much-overdue conversation.

There seems to be a widening disconnect between what many self-proclaimed white feminists say and do to protect their own privileges as white women and what they need to do to advance any kind of racial justice.

It’s high time for white feminists to clean out our own houses; to have those dreaded but intensely necessary conversations with mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and co-workers. It’s time to boycott things that matter, from companies who support anti-abortion candidates to vapid day-time TV talk shows featuring white supremacist women. It’s time to put ourselves in positions of discomfort and even pain, and still know with surety that no matter how much we lose in this fight, Black women have lost, and continue to lose, more.

Unless and until white women are willing to put in the hard work — including reeducating our peers, engaging in difficult conversations, ending friendships, breaking family ties, doing whatever it takes to protect the rights and freedoms of all women — we will never be true allies in feminism. For as long as we are able to continue to hide behind the comforts of our own privileges, we are nothing short of cowardly and complicit.

As of May 14, feminists have turned their attention to Alabama, where the legislature passed the most restrictive bill yet, completely banning all abortions, even those sought in cases of rape or incest. Fittingly, the first post-Roe law to completely prohibit abortion will be signed by Governor Kay Ivey — a white woman.

About the Author

Keri Leigh Merritt works as a historian and writer in Atlanta, Georgia. Her award-winning first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2017. She is co-editor, with Matthew Hild, of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power (University Press of Florida, 2018), and also writes shorter pieces for publications like the Washington Post, Bill Moyers and Company, Aeon, and Smithsonian Magazine.