Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
March 2, 2017

White Privilege and the Pussy Hat

  Women's March on Washington. 1/21/17. Photo: Kevin Banatte, afroCHuBBZ

The global circulation of the pink pussy hat as a symbol of feminism took on an increasingly commodified tone recently when it walked down Angela Missoni’s fashion runway in Milan, Italy on the heads of glamorous, super-thin, female-presenting models. Since commodification often accompanies mass social movements, this is not an unexpected development. Beyond popular appropriations of social justice advocacy, though, it is worth thinking about how this spectacle of pink normativity once again imposes a radicalized claim of gender universalism that has long haunted feminism movements.

Missoni

White supremacy has plagued feminism since well before Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony denounced the 15th Amendment for according African American men the right to vote before women. Well within the mainstream of racial sentiment in 1869, they wrote in the women’s suffrage journal, The Revolution:

What reason have we to suppose the African would be more just and generous than the Saxon has been?…how insulting to put every shade and type of manhood above our heads, to make laws for educated refined, wealthy women….

Divisions that split the woman’s suffrage movement for most of the late 19th century appeared to heal by the early years of the next century as advocates came together to fight for the passage of the 19th Amendment. Subsequent struggles for civil rights led to further activism for gender, sexuality and disability equality. Judicial and legislative actions have secured legal rights for marginalized people in ways that were unimaginable in the first decades after the failed dream of Reconstruction. The failure of legal rights to secure social, cultural and political justice, however, has compelled people to once again take to the streets to march for reproductive justice, pay equity, health care, climate change and other pressing concerns. And yet something remains amiss in the unifying symbol of the pussy hat.

Among the myriad photographs of January 21st Women’s Marches from around the world, one powerfully captures the contradictory forces that have haunted feminist movements since the 19thcentury. In the center of the composition leading this post, three blond white women in pussy hats stand with their backs to the Capitol, one taking a selfie while the other two check their phones. In front of them, a black woman eats a lollipop while holding a sign: “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Seemingly unaware of the women behind her, the black woman gazes towards something beyond the photographic frame. Just as she remains isolated from the white women protesters, they appear unaware of her critique. Herein lies the dilemma captured by the camera’s gaze – even as feminisms have (often successfully) promoted the possibilities of change through collective action, intractable racial divisions continue to plague the very ideal of unity.

Sign reading: White Women: we have a lot to make up for. Women's March on Washington. 1/21/17. Photo: Ellie Hall‏

January 21 signaled an important moment of possibility sparked by the outrage against the violent misogyny associated with the election of Donald Trump. This photograph, however, asks viewers to grapple with the historical persistence of white privilege in the feminist movement. Re-appropriating the color pink as a symbol of unity, the color of princess culture made popular by Disney and Mattel, resonates with now-discredited 1970s claims of “sisterhood is powerful.” Intended to call attention to patriarchal oppression, other feminists quickly pointed out that this universalizing slogan excluded women of color, gender non-conforming people and queers. But, the slogan struck, evident in the posters, tee shirts, and bumper stickers that helped to popularize and commodify mainstream feminism. Like “sisterhood is powerful” and like the pussy hat, the title, “The Women’s March,” seems tone-deaf to its universalizing assumptions. Why “women” in an era when transgender people are gaining greater visibility and more rights, even as they face vicious pushback as with the so-called bathroom bill passed in North Carolina in 2016?

Of course, no protest movement has ever been pure and uncontaminated. Even as marginalized people call on those with privilege to be inclusive, not all white participants in women’s marches are tone deaf to the racism associated with the pussy hat. Photographs of the January 21 march also depict signs carried by white women, along with those of marginalized folks, which acknowledge and denounce this feminist history of privilege and exploitation. One photograph features a white woman wearing a pink tee shirt holding a sign in front of her face that says: “White Women: we have a lot to make up for.” Smaller letters state: “voted for a racist, ableist, jingoist, misogynist con man” among other language about cultural appropriation and erasing women of color from feminist histories.

As this last image demands, gender advocacy needs to reckon with, rather than ignore or deny, the racism that has been built into the fabric of feminist movements. And, this in turn should also remind us to acknowledge how ethnocentrism, heteronormativity, ableism, and classism have likewise structured this and other movements for social justice. The challenge for feminist activists is to reconcile histories of oppression with strategizing for change in ways that resist the seductions of popular slogans and commodified symbols.

— Wendy Kozol

(photo 1: Kevin Banatte/afroCHuBBZ; photo 2: Valerio Mezzanotti for the New York Times  caption: Missoni, Fall 2017 ; photo 3: @ellevhall via Twitter.)

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