Reading past feminists, I understand how writing things down can be a political act

Koa Beck
·6 min read

In 1969, the Black American feminist Frances Beal published a pamphlet titled Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female. In it, Beal argued that the idea of two separate genders acting in distinctly gendered ways was a concept shaped by commerce, motivated by a need to sell products that enhance or distinguish gender even more. The version of womanhood seen in popular magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal – middle class, affluent, and with disposable income – she pointed out, was not an aspirational reality for Black women, given the arduous and low-paying domestic work that they are often tasked with; such is the nature of the US economy.

I found Beal’s pamphlet in the digital archives of a university library, 50 years after it was published, while researching for my book, White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind. That this pamphlet still existed, preserved through generations of editors, librarians, and readers is a testament to the endurance of the archive.

As a writer, at times I have weighed the validity in writing things down. But committing to record what has happened, no matter how subjective or private, creates an account, a narrative of events, feelings or observations that exceeds you. By writing it down – what happened to you, with you or in front of you – even if you are no longer here, have those beliefs or feel those specific emotions, allows someone else to access the dynamics of that moment.

A record is important. Think of all the same-sex love letters that were relegated to fire kindling, destroying what was a potentially ruinous record at the time. Or, at the height of the #MeToo movement, the emails and Slack messages that helped build so many cases of abusive and predatory behaviour. By writing things down, we can set into motion events and dialogues that we never imagined.

When I started formally researching my book, I knew from the outset that I wanted to engage as much with gender history as I could. White feminism is what Beal was referring to when she wrote of the women in Ladies’ Home Journal: a specific strategy towards achieving gender equality that pulls considerably from colonialism, imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy, one that equates individualistic wealth and the exploitation of labour as “feminist” wins. It can be followed by anyone of any race, background, or class, as it asks supporters to essentially aspire to whiteness, in order to be recognised.

White feminism has always been exclusionary: chasing elite jobs and luxurious commodities over basic needs that many women do not have

To properly tell the story of how white feminist ideology flourished in the US, I needed many voices – Muslim women, Native American women, Black feminists, and more – to explain this with me. I went to a chorus who have helped me understand gender politics across time and space: Sylvia Rivera, Angela Davis, Julia Serano, Barbara Smith and Cherríe Moraga. I went to movements that have, in some ways, been siloed from mainstream feminism despite their deeply feminist origins, like fat activism and disability justice.

White feminism has always been exclusionary: chasing elite jobs, luxurious commodities, prestigious education and exclusive experiences over basic needs that many women do not have, such as food security, affordable housing and wage protections. It has always been deeply exploitative towards other women and non-binary people in the name of “feminism,” recruiting them to take up gendered labour for poor wages, minimal job security and little to no healthcare – whether we are talking about domestic labourers or underpaid white-collar worker at “feminist” companies.

Tracing the many people, across gender, race, class and sexuality who have been harmed by white feminism and its “empowerment” means archival research – seeking those outside the dominant story white feminists tell. After I was awarded a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy school, I was able to manually and digitally dig. I wanted you to hear these voices directly. I didn’t want to tell you what colliding with white feminism was like for a Panamanian feminist in 1928; I wanted you to hear it directly from activist and lawyer Clara González, as she is quoted in Katherine M Marino’s book Feminism for the Americas. I don’t want to just describe to you what confronting deep heterosexism was like for Black American lesbians during and after the civil rights movement; I want to you to read the words of poet and activist Cheryl Clarke in This Bridge Called My Back. I want you to know the tenor of what these experiences sounded like, no matter if they happened in 1928, in 1983 or in 2013.

‘By writing things down, we can set into motion events and dialogues that we never imagined.’
‘By writing things down, we can set into motion events and dialogues that we never imagined.’ Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

And I want you to hear the similarities across decades. If American suffragist Alice Paul had not written to her fellow organisers mandating that they stay silent on Black women participating in their movement in 1913 (because they did not want them there), I could not have found it in 2020. The tone was eerily similar to that of white managers and colleagues I’ve worked with 100 years on, when telling me why we wouldn’t be covering a certain topic or specific racial controversy.

White Feminism is not only a love letter to the archive, but also in active conversation with it. I wrote my experiences down, too, to add to it and continue conversations that started a century before I was born. I feel an intense obligation to carry on what these women and non-binary people started, facing down the same issues again and again: wage gaps, pregnancy discrimination, the erasure of older women. I want people born long after me to have the moments that I did; to see their world mirrored back in something I wrote quickly at my desk in 2021.

My Twitter is a steady digital archive of what I’ve read since 2009. I take screenshots of messages and make sure they are uploaded to the cloud. I email myself notes on articles so that my responses are automatically time-stamped and filed away. I’ve also made a point to continue the handwritten diaries I’ve kept since I was five years old. When it comes to my life, both professionally and personally, I want to ensure that there are ample records of my own account. Now, I try to write down everything.