Feminism, What is it Good For?

By: LaShonda Katrice Barnett Ph.D | October 31, 2014

Prolific writer Roxane Gay, who in 2014 released the novel “An Untamed State” (Grove) and New York Times bestselling essay collection “Bad Feminist” (Harper Per.) is frustrated by not bein

Prolific writer Roxane Gay, who in 2014 released the novel “An Untamed State” (Grove) and New York Times bestselling essay collection “Bad Feminist” (Harper Per.) is frustrated by not being able to work, rehabilitating from an ankle surgery, and now feeling quite hurt. Yesterday was not an easy day in the life of Roxane Gay. Her twitter feed within the last 24 hours revealed racist ideology from the last people she’d expect to receive it from, feminists.

I have long-held memories of commiseration firing away on all pistons.

Years ago, in my first graduate survey course on women’s history, the professor of that course, a Jewish woman, asked me what I thought about her syllabus. She posed this question in the middle of class, during her tenure review with 2 or 3 other colleagues in the room evaluating her teaching.  Uncharacteristically, I tried to deflect the question. But she would not let up until I offered my opinion which was that I felt disappointed by a survey course on American women with every book on the syllabus by or about Jewish women.

I said that such a course was absolutely fine, that I would no doubt be interested but that course should be called “Jewish American Women’s History” and not a survey course on U.S. Women’s History. Her face reddened and she countered by citing a couple of articles that she had assigned on Latina, Native American and black women. I rebutted with, “We do not devote the same rigor nor length of time on article discussions as we do with the books.”

Her face purpled and she asked me, the first-semester graduate student, to recommend books by black women that she should teach. I didn’t know anything about black women’s history which is why I was in the course. I mentioned one book and was told, “…But [redacted] is a journalist, not a historian… I have not found books written by black women to be researched solidly enough to include on my syllabus.”

(One of her colleagues dropped his notepad to the floor.) Now, as someone who has taught yearlong seminars on black women’s history, I look back on that year and am all the more appalled by that statement and the professor’s willful, or thoughtless, exclusion.

So many aspects were painful about that moment but two stand out: I was the only black student in the class asked to provide a veteran professor with guidance on how to improve her syllabus–on the spot. Only one other student in the class came to my defense with, “… this syllabus is very uneven” (a Haitian-Jewish woman, who was also my house mate and remains a very close friend). I wondered why the other women around the seminar table didn’t speak up when they held the same syllabus. In that moment I learned that Privilege is often silent. My saving grace was that I was invited (along with other students from the seminar) to share my experience over wine and cheese with the Dean of the College. I still had to face that professor for the rest of the semester in that class and another class I took with her on Citizenship, Identity and Democracy in America. I was grateful when her tenure was denied the following spring.  I graduated without incident and love this alma mater deeply, and I grieve for the students of color who had similar incidents that didn’t turn out well, and who left their chosen degree programs and campuses because they felt alienated or discriminated against.

At another institution, again in a women’s history course, the syllabus was egregiously solipsistic. One lecture out of twenty was earmarked for a black woman, journalist and early Civil Rights activist and suffragist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. On the day of that lecture, students were upset about the religious right’s attack on Tinky Winky, the purple teletubby thought to be gay.

I still find this unbelievable–that a lecture on Ida B. Wells was derailed by a train of comments on the teletubbies that the professor could not or would not shut down. When I voiced my concerns to her in private, she told me that one of her challenges with teaching was learning how to negotiate student responses and that she thought it had been a fruitful exchange because students had made good comments about queer identity politics. (The Ida lecture was truncated to 20 minutes and condensed with another lecture at the start of the next class.)

I have known and rubbed elbows with white feminists in the academy for 16 years whose syllabi didn’t contain one book by a woman of color, or a journal article, or short story. These women identify as “feminists.”

More recently and beyond the walls of academe:

Feminist Ani DiFranco elected to hold an artist retreat (later canceled) on a former slave plantation.

White feminists took to social and print media in an uproar when Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos were leaked yet were strangely silent when Jill Scott was victimized in the same manner a few days later.

New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley used one of the most tired and offensive tropes of black womanhood when describing television mogul Shonda Rimes as “an angry black woman.” (And none of her colleagues saw this as problematic.)

Actress Martha Plimpton penned a poorly written response for Dame Magazine (10/13/2014) to Roxane Gay’s Guardian article, “Emma Watson? Jennifer Lawrence? These Aren’t the Feminists You’re Looking For.” Understand that in and of itself, the article is not bad but as a response to Gay’s piece (how it bills itself) it fails because it takes Gay’s words out of context and Plimpton appears not to have understood the major thrust of the article. Unlike a journalist or academic or any person committed to a rigorous engagement with a contestable idea, Plimpton read the article with every defense in check, not with the requisite distance for analysis which is why her thesis is weak, redundant, and reads like the thoughts of a whiney playground kid defending her friends. I might’ve suggested Plimpton spin her article as a stand alone piece, create arguments OF HER OWN that suggest why celebrity feminists may be just what the “movement” needs (and to leave Gay out of it, which is what she does anyway by misconstruing her words).  Academy Award-winning actress and activist Geena Davis springs to mind for establishing, “the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence the need to dramatically improve gender balance,”–the Geena Davis Institue on Gender in Media.  

I am still waiting for one of Beyonce’s white feminist fans––they number tens of  thousands––to write a piece responding to Annie Lennox’s indictment that Beyonce’s brand of feminism is “lite feminism” (this is essentially what Gay said about certain Hollywood actresses who trot out the term feminism, without contextualizing it in real forms of work and activism).

In a nutshell, Ms. Lennox said Bey’s “twerking” wasn’t feminist. An attempt to improve your relevance by indicting another woman performer’s personal choices is also not feminist.  Ms. Lennox said “twerking” wasn’t empowerment. I’m sure that made Bey laugh. She can hold the world in her thrall by making it clap, and that’s not empowering? Ms. Lennox, go get your life and good luck on sales with your new album.

Stevie Wonder could see that popular feminism is derailing the “movement.”  And isn’t it high-time we all accept that though it is 2014, the “movement” is anything but post-racial?  And call out these bogus “feminists” for posturing on themes of ‘inclusion for all women’ when their thoughts and deeds source grief and pain for non-white women.

But right now…right now mostly I feel bad that Roxane Gay is sad because her tireless efforts to bring truth and understanding to her readers speaks for itself and is not in vain, unlike the responses she, and many of us, often contend with.

I know what feminism is good for in the academy; it is a fantastic framework for scholarly arguments, an easily-accessible lens with which to view paradigm shifts in women’s roles in society over time. Feminism as theory has spawned thousands of essays, dissertation chapters (including a sixty-page chapter in my own dissertation on black women jazz singers), books and documentaries.

But I remain curious, beyond the worthwhile projects that grow out of feminist theory, what does feminist praxis look like for today’s non-academic, feminist? What are the myriad pockets of the feminist movement actually doing?

I’m aware of the keyboard courage that thousands of feminists claim when they take to social media to rescue each other from media bullying (I was amazed by the number of women who, in the name of feminism, came to Lena Dunham’s defense when Dunham was ridiculed for wearing a loud, floral dress many felt was unattractive to an awards ceremony. So, this is what the “feminists” are up to, I thought, listening for Audre Lorde to turn over in her grave.) But surely even the most watered-down version of feminism is bigger than this?

When I listen for the voice of present-day feminist movements and their (explicit) agenda, it is largely silent; too blaring is the noise of pop culture concerns (an evening gown, twerking) which won’t advance the movement.



LaShonda Katrice Barnett is the author of debut novel Jam on the Vine (Feb. 2015, Grove/Atlantic) and editor of two volumes on women musicians and creative process: I Got Thunder (2007) and Off the Record (2015). Recent short fiction appears in The Chicago Tribune, Guernica Magazine, New Orleans Review, and numerous journals and anthologies.