Why The Silence: The Erasure of Women of Colour From Narratives of Feminist History | Sophie Zhang

Growing up, stories of feminists of colour and queer feminists were largely absent from mainstream narratives that we were taught by our school and told by the media. Being raised in the West, the narrative we were repeatedly told was a simplified and streamlined one: in the 19th and early 20th century, (white) (middle class) women fought tirelessly for the vote, in the mid and late 20th- century, (white) (middle class) liberal, socialist and radical feminists struggled for various things such as: access to professional careers, equal educational opportunities, equal pay, better media representation, sexual liberation, a more equal share of domestic work in the household, etc. I do not want to undermine how powerful or how important these movements were, nor how hard these women fought for their rights, merely to point out how my history and politics lessons were filled only with pictures and narratives of exclusively white women holding the banners for feminism.

As for women of colour, they were nowhere to be found within this narrative, hidden in the corners of the British curriculum. Yet even as the author of my A Level politics textbook was acknowledging the criticisms that white, Western feminisms had focused too much on white, middle-class women’s interests, he seemed to be again reproducing the same marginalisation by literally confining feminists of colour to the margins of the textbook. I can clearly recall the little box reserved for “Black feminism” and the few lines explaining the concept of “intersectionality” at the chapter on Feminism, as if the intersectional feminisms so passionately and intelligently espoused by women of colour were merely in a footnote in the whole of Western feminist history.

Why do we learn about the suffragettes and suffragists, the Seneca Falls Convention and the Feminine Mystique but not about amazing feminists of colour and queer feminists? Why doesn’t our curriculum teach us about amazing women of colour, such as Sojourner Truth, a former slave who campaigned for equal rights for women and African-Americans? Or what about Sophia Duleep Singh, a prominent suffragette of South East Asian, African and European descent? Why did my politics A Level textbook only talk about socialist feminism when critiquing  how capitalism relied on the domestic labour of (white) women confined to the private sphere in 19th century Britain, but not in relation to the fact contemporary, transnational capitalist corporations rely on the exploitation of the labour of working class women of colour, as feminists such as Nellie Wong point out? Why did it take me so long to see myself in the reflection of other, famous feminists? Why did it take me so long to find out that someone like Merle Woo existed- a Chinese-American lesbian and proud feminist socialist who spend years fighting her discriminatory dismissal from an academic post. There seemed to be a permanent question mark over what women of colour were doing during periods of feminist activism in my history lessons- where were they? Were they living under a rock? Did they participate? Why am I hearing nothing about them? Why did I grow up thinking there were no feminists of colour for the longest stretch in history, somehow as if they had their ears shut, wiping some window as these enlightened white women marched outside and wrote volumes on patriarchal oppression? Because that was the conception of feminist history that the British curriculum and the media taught me time and time again. But only now, at university, staying up late to devour the books on my reading list for an essay on intersectional feminism, fiercely taking in their words as if to fulfil a great thirst  and opening up my eyes to a previously unknown world, a beautiful world of many different, vibrant colours and diverse voices- here’s the feeling of liberation.

But if I had never ever learned about these authors of colour, I would not have realised how stark their silence from mainstream feminist narratives is. Their voices are silent, eerily silent from mainstream portrayals of feminist history in the West. If they are not remembered, not included and depicted in the dominant narratives of feminism which are largely accessible and disseminated through mainstream media and school curriculums, then who will know that they existed?

The absence of feminists of colour, is not mere ‘forgetting’. In writing this article, I have considered what language to use. I initially wanted to use the word ‘forgetting’, it has connotations of being apolitical, an accident. But this silencing of such proud and passionate activism is not an accident, it is not apolitical. It constitutes erasure for mainstream, dominant narratives of history. It has a massive impact of the image of feminism, and how relatable and representative it is to different groups of women and people of various genders. This dominant narrative communicates that it is a movement largely based around the experiences and interests of white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender and able-bodied women. This makes some people feel excluded or unrepresented by contemporary feminist movements. In fact, upon doing my reading for my essay on intersectional feminism, I realized why the current feminist movements had felt so distant from me. I had spent a year in vague dissociation and disillusion regarding contemporary feminism, but now I understood why, such exclusive and monofocal narratives had the effect of making people like me feel marginalized from feminist movements, additionally I had personally experienced that marginalization through harassment on comment sections for being queer or simply being at a sixth form which endlessly spouted a very white, middle-class feminism that refused to discuss questions of ethnicity and class and influencing different women’s experience of the patriarchal system, as well as its own role in reproducing the latter inequality as a private school.

If feminism is truly to liberate all women and people of all genders, it must be intersectional, it must consider and address how the various intersecting aspects of a person’s identity, such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and disability, shapes their experience of patriarchal and other structural disadvantages. And if the feminist movements of today wish to draw in more activists from all backgrounds, then it must be truthful to history, and loudly acknowledge the voices and actions of those feminists who have been painfully silenced from mainstream depictions of feminist history for too long.

And this is why I am so grateful for FLY, as a space where I can both learn more about the ideas of women and non-binary people of colour, and as a space where I feel included as a queer person of colour.


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