By Amanda Grigg
Patricia Arquette took on the pay gap and equal rights for women in her best supporting actress acceptance speech last night and the internet went wild.
“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!”
Twitter was all abuzz (atwitter?). Vulture called it a “Badass, feminist” speech and The Daily Beast praised it similarly as a “Badass” call for “equality for women.” It was also responsible for a Meryl Streep/Jennifer Lopez reaction that launched a thousand gifs. Some people (myself included) were a bit put-off by a white woman saying “we fought for everybody else/it’s our time” but overall the speech was a hit. The Washington Post was particularly impressed by Arquette’s emphasis on mothers, for whom the wage gap is especially prominent (more on this later). Unfortunately when Arquette elaborated on her thoughts in the press room things went downhill. She went on to say “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” Bitch Magazine lamented that Arquette went on to undermine her earlier statements and Rh Reality Check called the press room comments “a spectacular intersectionality fail.” She has since clarified via twitter, noting that women of color are most harmed by the pay gap and that she advocates for the equal rights of all women, and LGBT people. Of course she had already ignited yet another in a series of debates about the failures of mainstream white/celebrity feminism. Which is as good an excuse as any for a stroll through feminist history and intersectionality theory.
When we talk about intersectionality we’re talking about how oppression works and specifically, people whose identities place them at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression. So, for example, a white woman might be discriminated against because she’s a woman, and a Black man might be discriminated against because he’s Black. A Black woman, on the other hand, will experience discrimination as a result of her race AND gender. In her work coining the term intersectionality Kimberlé Crenshaw uses the imagery of an actual traffic intersection. As she explains, some accidents (oppression) might be the result of cars coming from one direction (i.e. discrimination against white women based on sexism) but some might result from cars coming from multiple directions and colliding at the intersection (i.e. discrimination against Black women as a result of their race and gender).
Equally important, the oppression that Black women experiences does not just look like a combination of sexism faced by white women and racism faced by Black men. Here we can think back to campaigns for reproductive rights in the 1960s and 70s. White women were largely fighting for their right to choose not to have children, in the form of access to safe birth control methods and abortion. At the same time women of color were experiencing forced and coerced sterilization at alarming rates, though this was largely ignored by mainstream feminist groups fighting for reproductive rights. Women of color were thus calling for greater attention to their
right to choose to have children, including freedom from forced sterilization and the material conditions necessary to reasonably choose motherhood (including calls for access to child care). So while both white women and women of color experienced oppression targeting their ability to reproduce the form that oppression took looked very different depending on a woman’s race.
As evidence of the extent to which the experiences of white women (and demands of white feminists) obscure those of women of color, consider this. You’re probably familiar with Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. You might even remember learning about it in high school history. What about the establishment of federal regulations for sterilization? They came just a few years after Roe v. Wade, represented an equally important victory for reproductive justice, and resulted from an equally impressive grass roots campaign. But you’re far less likely to have heard about them, let alone seem them in a high school history book.
And now, a history lesson (bear with me).
Consider the ideal of the female homemaker popularized around the time of the industrial revolution. Scholars might refer to this set of ideals as the “cult of domesticity” or “true womanhood” or as part of the ideology of “public and private spheres” but put simply, women were seen as too pure and delicate for the harsh working world, and as naturally suited to creating a warm, welcoming home to which working men could retreat. Though women’s work was understood to be necessary, it was not valued socially or economically to the extent that remunerative work in the public sphere was valued. Today women are still far more likely remain at home with children than men, and to perform a larger portion of housework and child care duties even if both partners are employed .
So of course feminists have critiqued this model and worked to both open up opportunities for women outside of the home and to gain recognition for the immense value of work historically performed by women in the home.
So far so good? Well, no. Because this ideal applied (and to the extent that it still exists, applies) to a very select group of upper and middle-class white women. Black women have never been seen as too frail for work and since slavery have been forced, expected, or relegated to performing manual labor. Black women haven’t been expected to act as full time homemakers, nor have economic conditions – including formal and informal barriers and inequalities that made earning a stable family wage nearly impossible for Black men – historically permitted it. Further, where white women might be pressured to devote more time to mothering, the mothering of Black women has consistently been devalued in the United.
The reproductive labor of white women was so valued that in 1935 the federal government created a federal assistance program to allow single mothers to provide for their children while remaining in the home . The program, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, included a number of measures that had the effect of excluding or discouraging the participation poor women of color. The wide discretion of caseworkers to grant, deny, and revoke benefits, the race-based standards of “suitability” for aid, including living arrangements and cooking styles, the frequent absence of case workers who spoke Spanish, and the regular denial of black women because they were deemed to be employable and therefore not deserving, resulted in the systematic mistreatment and exclusion of Black and Latina women.
In the 1960s civil rights and welfare rights organizers were successful in their efforts to end features of AFDC policy that denied assistance to poor women of color. With the end of race-based access to benefits, the generosity of benefits began to be determined by race, resulting in in uneven levels of support for white and black mothers. Quantitative research on AFDC benefits following expansion of access has found that states with higher proportions of black single mothers systematically provided less generous benefits than states with higher proportions of white single mothers. As the racial makeup of the AFDC program changed, critics began arguing that the program encouraged unwed motherhood, and that it did so among the least productive members of society. By the 1990s, AFDC was much-maligned, and notably associated with black single mothers who were often assumed to be taking advantage of welfare. In response to critiques the 1996 welfare reform replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Unlike AFDC, the TANF program required single mothers receiving aid to work outside of the home. Critics of TANF have suggested that it clearly demonstrates the devaluation of black women’ reproductive labor. In her criticism of TANF’s work requirements, Gwendolyn Mink argues that social approval and value of reproductive labor “does not exist for the care-giving work of poor single mothers, in part because they are poor and single, and in part because the poor single mother of popular imagination is Black.” Similarly Dorothy Roberts has argued that “Forcing low-skilled mothers into the workforce regardless of the type or conditions of employment available to them assumes that any job is more beneficial to their families than the care they provide at home.”
In light of all of this, my initial description of sexist work/family ideals appears to be woefully incomplete. More importantly, it generalizes about the experiences of “women” in a way that reinforces the notion that white women set the standard for womanhood even as it rejects that standard. In so doing it makes it far more difficult to/less likely that we will work to combat all forms of oppression as part of our fight against our specific experience of oppression. White feminists might, for example, fight to get women out of the home, but do so without challenging the division of labor in the home or the structure of the modern workplace, thus reinforcing a system in which domestic work is still undervalued but one in which poor women/women of color/migrant women perform the domestic work abdicated by privileged women for little pay, with few benefits, and in positions of immense vulnerability. Just as an example.
The same thing happens when white feminists speak about the problems facing “women” when the content of their argument is specific to middle and upper-income white women. Or, when someone speaks about the problems facing women in opposition to or as separate from the problems facing the poor, women of color, the disabled, immigrants, or any other group to which a woman could belong (enter Patricia Arquette). This doesn’t mean that women can’t work together to address a problem like the wage gap – just that we can’t assume that all women experience that problem in the same way, or that a solution that combats the problem for women positioned in one way will address it for all women and won’t actually make it worse for some women. It also doesn’t mean that women, and men, and LGBT activists, and civil rights advocates can’t work together. In fact, an intersectional understanding of oppressions as fundamentally linked would suggest that it’s vital that we do so. But it does mean that instead of telling groups who also continue to experience and combat serious discrimination on multiple fronts (and which include women) that it’s “our time” and presuming that this isn’t “their issue” we should ask, how does this issue affect you? What do you think needs to be done? How can we work together on this? And then – this part is key – we listen.
 See Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement
 See: google.
 Gwendolyn Mink goes so far as to say “Economic provision for mothers’ care of children was once the primary purpose of welfare.” (Mink, Welfare’s End, 105)
 Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors; Mink Welfare’s End; Mimi Abramovitz Regulating the Lives of Women
 Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare
 Stephanir Moller, 2002 “Gender and Race in the U.S. Welfare State
 Moller 2002
 Mink, Welfares end. P. 120