The PEN Pod: Challenging and Critiquing White Feminism with Koa Beck
Koa Beck is the author of White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind, and she is the former editor-in-chief of Jezebel. Previously, she was the executive editor at Vogue and cohost of “The #MeToo Memos” on WNYC’s The Takeaway. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Observer, The Guardian, and Esquire, among others. Koa joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss the ways in which white feminism has both changed and stayed the same throughout history, how the contributions of women of color have been consistently neglected by the media, as well as the initiatives that educational institutions have to undertake to expand our understanding of the spectrum of gender and whose voices are being marginalized. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Koa begins at the 13-minute mark).
This might seem to be a fairly obvious question, but I think it’s still very important—why do you think it’s important to name the phenomenon of white feminism?
I think it’s deeply important for the advancement of gender rights to draw a perimeter around this ideology, to show that it is an ideology—meaning anyone from any racial background or any gender, any class, can adhere to this ideology and practice it, but also to show its profound limitations. I think that, in studying white feminism—particularly through the lens of history—I’ve gained much more of a deeper understanding for what white feminism can accomplish, but more specifically what it cannot accomplish, mostly because it’s designed that way.
I think it’s really interesting that you’ve specifically used the word “ideology” there which, of course, you go into in the book. The book presents the history of women’s movements, as well as racism and white supremacy that’s really been inherent to many of them. They’re not side effects or hiccups of them—they really prop it up in a lot of ways, as you show in the book. In what ways do you think the conversation around white feminism has changed in the last few years or, perhaps, stayed the same?
I think the way in which it has stayed the same is that white feminism has always been very good at optics. This originates with the suffrage movement in the United States—the more modern suffrage movement that we think of, in like 1917 or 1918. Designing images either of what a suffragette or what a feminist is, through who you’re supposed to think of when you think of women’s rights, feminism, gender advancement or gender progress, has stayed the same through now. I draw many intentional parallels between a lot of imagery that existed during the fight for white women’s vote during 1920 and Instagram, where you have branding that is a very big part of telling the story of who women’s rights are for and who we’re supposed to be thinking of. White feminism as a practice has always shown a very keen understanding of imagery and how to use it—marketing and what we would now think of as branding.
“I draw many intentional parallels between a lot of imagery that existed during the fight for white women’s vote during 1920 and Instagram, where you have branding that is a very big part of telling the story of who women’s rights are for and who we’re supposed to be thinking of. White feminism as a practice has always shown a very keen understanding of imagery and how to use it—marketing and what we would now think of as branding.”
In terms of how it has changed: White feminism has always been really good at partnering with entities like powerful companies and brand stores, but I think where it’s changed in the last few years is that it has really been successful at partnering with huge corporations. I mean this with regards to not only “feminist enterprises,” but even think of a company like Facebook that has the amount of reach, the money that they have, and how Sheryl Sandberg was a big part of that image. So I think that the resources that white feminism has been able to accrue in the last few years are—even if you look through history and what the goals always were for white feminism—pretty amazing.
It’s so interesting that you mentioned what we think of now as branding. In some ways, obviously, the idea of a personal brand has become really important for so many people who consider themselves leaders in this space. I’m interested, too, in the ways in which you track how media and social media, in particular, have really changed that movement—and perhaps accelerated some of it. I’m curious: As a journalist who’s been reporting on gender, LGBTQIA+ rights, culture, and race for some time now, what have you observed over the years about how feminist movements in general are portrayed in the media? How has social media changed the way we understand them, too?
With regards to more traditional journalism, I was awarded the Joan Shorenstein Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School to ground this book in historical research. So I spent a lot of time in the archives doing a firsthand look at newspapers that covered feminism, suffrage, and the second wave. Obviously, I’ve been in a lot of newsrooms that have contributed to that archive in the present day. A real challenge that I did have in researching this book is that it was commonplace for me to get to, say, some sort of policy like during the Civil Rights Movement or slightly after, and there would be a more generalized reporting from a big publication like Newsweek or TIME, and it would often cover whatever the policy was and then there would always be a graf that would say: “Feminists responded by TK TK.”
Sitting on the other side of that 40 years later, I would be thinking, “Okay, but who? Angela Davis or Gloria Steinem? Who are we even talking about when that word is used?” I find that, in some ways, it continues through now, where there is this assessment that feminism is either a white feminism or that it’s just this monolithic, pro-woman enterprise. I find that a lot of media that exists from back then in our archives—but also the contemporary media—doesn’t have a lot of nuance for this movement, in terms of Native American women, what Chicanas have contributed to the movement, Black lesbian feminism, which to be honest, has really pioneered a lot of what we think of now as the defund-the-police initiatives. Angela Davis has been talking about this for over 30 years, and that has very much been part of feminists’ discourse, but it hasn’t been a part of white feminists’ discourse.
In terms of social media, one of the things that I am very impressed by and see a through line is that a lot of women’s movements in the United States—specifically working-class women’s movements and immigrant women’s movements—have relied on what we would now think of as a Twitter hashtag to get people involved. That same method of, “I feel this way. I have been disenfranchised, I can’t feed my children, I’m being abused at work. I will go find and recruit other women who I also know have felt this way, and I will globalize what we are all feeling”—it originated in the turn of the century.
“I find that a lot of media that exists from back then in our archives—but also the contemporary media—doesn’t have a lot of nuance for this movement, in terms of Native American women, what Chicanas have contributed to the movement, Black lesbian feminism, which to be honest, has really pioneered a lot of what we think of now as the defund-the-police initiatives. Angela Davis has been talking about this for over 30 years, and that has very much been part of feminists’ discourse, but it hasn’t been a part of white feminists’ discourse.”
I include a lot of research about these very fascinating Jewish housewives who were protesting the insanely high cost of meat that they couldn’t keep up with, and so they made flyers that they distributed everywhere. That progressed to, if you do a follow-through, later that century, there were a lot of meat protests where women would do elaborate phone trees. They would literally tear out pages from the phone book and assign them to different women in their neighborhood, and they would all call each other and say, “Can you believe that meat costs this much money? How are we going to feed our babies? This is absurd. We’re protesting.” I see a through line through that—through me a hundred years later sitting on Twitter and seeing #MeToo explode. It’s very much the same impetus, and in some ways, the same strategy.
It’s so important to connect that with movements that we typically don’t think of as being equivalent to that hashtag raising awareness in that way—I found that just really interesting in reading your book. In thinking, too, about my own first encounters with even just the idea of feminism and a feminist history, a lot of what people are dealing with now is unlearning the things that they’ve been taught to think were true—the monolithic idea of feminism and only focusing on a few, predominantly white female historical figures. What do you think our educational institutions can do in improving their job of teaching a feminist history that is more intersectional?
Well, I think there’s quite a few things that you can do from the onset—from the ground up, when presenting gender rights. If we’re talking on the collegiate level, assuming that you go to college, I think that a good initiative that a number of schools have started to do is they have dropped the title of “women’s studies,” which I think is really important. They’re doing more of gender studies, which just presents a much broader lens, I think, for understanding gender oppression, rather than just focusing on cis women or people who were born with uteruses. It really expands from the ground how gender operates, beyond being a woman and whatever that necessarily means.
I think that the whole study of gender—and specifically cis women—needs to be analyzed along a spectrum of gender, and I actually get into this in the book, because I’m a graduate of a women’s college. My personal history: I was at my alma mater, Mills College, before they started admitting transgender women. It was a very big topic on campus, and I explore a lot about what myself and my peers were thinking about in being incubated in what was essentially a feminist school—my school used that word to describe a lot of their practices—yet trans women could not sit with us there by mandate of the college. What does that mean to tell a bunch of young, cis women that trans women cannot be in their feminist school? That’s a very damaging message. So I think that a broader initiative that needs to be taken—hopefully, in high school and even younger—is teaching marginalized genders. Across that spectrum, we have cis women, trans women, nonbinary people, trans men, gender-variant people, two-spirit, and so on. I think that it’s been a long time coming, especially for places like my alma mater—very single-sex spaces have had to rethink that.
One of the things that I get into, specifically with the history of my school, is that my school was founded on the idea that women were the only marginalized gender. So that’s why it was made for women—this idea that women were disadvantaged in society. Now, there’s so much history available and so much outward public discussion about how women are not the only marginalized gender. That needs to be interpreted. I also think that something that could happen more on the high-school or middle-school level that would help is teaching queer history and LGBTQIA+ history. California, I think, became the first state to formally do that. When that history is not explored or presented as part of gender history or women’s history, you’re leaving out so much incredible organizing by women and other marginalized genders.
“I think that a broader initiative that needs to be taken—hopefully, in high school and even younger—is teaching marginalized genders. Across that spectrum, we have cis women, trans women, nonbinary people, trans men, gender-variant people, two-spirit, and so on. I think that it’s been a long time coming. . . very single-sex spaces have had to rethink that.”
Absolutely. One of the most engaging things about your book is just how you present a lot of the information—it’s such a comprehensive, but at the same time very specific, history of these movements. You present research alongside pop culture examples, as well as a look at your own personal narrative. I’m curious: Was there anything that really surprised or struck you during the process of researching, or even just writing, the book and putting it all together?
I love history, I am a great reader of history, and I learned a lot while formally researching white feminism and tracing this ideology from its origins. The thing that really took me aback—I went spinning internally about this as I was writing—is just how consistent white feminism has always been. It has been very explicit from its origins that it is for white, straight, upper- to middle-class cis women, and for those who aspire to be like those women. There have been multigenerational attempts to try and change that. So much of what I explore in the book intentionally shows a lot of organizing that is white feminist in its construction. You always have in these historical moments subgroups or other members, or other groups who want to join—you realize that this does not include any platforms for Black women. Essentially, the organizers of fourth wave, third wave, second wave, and first wave say, “Well, we don’t care.” That’s very consistent. In some ways, I wasn’t entirely prepared for that, as a researcher.
White feminism, I learned, is very good at adapting with the time, co-opting whatever radical language exists, sanitizing it from its radical roots, and using it in a more—what we would think of—as a capitalistic sense. But I was not prepared to see that, in a lot of ways, the talking points are even the same. I pulled a lot of archival materials from suffrage meetings, and they’re very similar to the meetings that I sat in a hundred years later, as an editor at some of these mainstream publications for women that prided themselves on feminist content.
It’s clear that the book is such a labor of love, and it’s just an extraordinary read, so thank you so much for the work that you’ve put into it. Now that the book is out in the world, I wonder: What are you turning to? Whether it’s reading material, watching material, music, or podcasts, what sort of things are you turning to now that are providing some context or clarity for you during our current moment of extended quarantining?
I’ve always been a big patron of libraries: My grandfather took me to get a library card when I was in, I think, the first grade, and my love of libraries has continued. Now, obviously, it’s very hard because we’re not supposed to physically go to libraries, and where I live all of the libraries are not available. I’ve always been a big Kindle person, so the whole ability to check out books via Kindle has really just continued my life in quarantine, because I’m such a voracious reader—I read all the time. Being able to have that access to e-books in a library capacity has been amazing for me. Depending on where you live and where you are when you’re listening to this, I do deeply encourage you to look at getting an e-card for whatever library you currently belong to. If you do not have a library card, many libraries—from what I understand—are eager to give you one. There are lots of audiobooks that you can listen to.
Like a lot of women right now, I am cleaning nonstop in my house—no one in my house is particularly slovenly, it’s just what it is, we’re always here. So I’m not only reading library books constantly on my Kindle, but I’m also listening to audiobooks constantly while I do dishes, clean my kitchen, and do laundry. I’m a very solitary person, but I think—even just through audiobooks—being able to hear different voices has been really helpful for me and for my mental health.
“The thing that really took me aback—I went spinning internally about this as I was writing—is just how consistent white feminism has always been. It has been very explicit from its origins that it is for white, straight, upper- to middle-class cis women, and for those who aspire to be like those women. . . You always have in these historical moments subgroups or other members, or other groups who want to join—you realize that this does not include any platforms for Black women. Essentially, the organizers of fourth wave, third wave, second wave, and first wave say, ‘Well, we don’t care.’”
I think I first got into audiobooks and podcasts precisely because of that—I was suddenly spending so much time on my own and cleaning, as you said, which is weirdly cathartic, and it feels like you’re getting something done. So that’s always helpful to hear. Are there any books or audiobooks, in particular, that you’d recommend?
I was recently listening to an audiobook, the new biography about Janis Joplin called Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren. I love biographies, especially as someone who is very interested in gendered history and feminist history. I feel like understanding women’s lives, and that of other marginalized genders and nonbinary people, is very important. Every time I pick up a biography of a woman, I feel like it’s so indicative of what history has not included generally, in the standard archive. I really loved this book, primarily because the voice actress who was cast really sounds like Janis Joplin.
We just finished doing the audiobook for White Feminism, which I did the narrative for, and I’ve never done anything like that before—I’ve done radio work and participated in segments, but I am not a voice actress. In listening to Janis and the voice actress who worked on that, it’s really incredible to hear somebody sound so much like Janis, and then read her diary entries and letters. It’s very transformative, almost, in terms of the intimacy of listening anyway, but also feeling like this particular woman is reading you these very intimate details from her personal archive. So I loved that book on audio.
I have also recently found a podcast called “Something Was Wrong.” It is a very enterprising, fascinating podcast that explores psychologically and emotionally abusive relationships. The host has switched up the format a little bit in more recent seasons, but traditionally she spends a season interviewing somebody who has endured extreme, prolonged psychological or emotional abuse. She is not a doctor, she is not a therapist, and she is very upfront about that. I think of it more as a journalistic practice, rather than a mental health podcast, but I find it to be important in terms of expanding our understanding of abuse, how it functions, how it’s inflicted on other people. Especially with so many white-collar workers now being remote or working from home, rethinking the ways that these companies silo us, pit us against each other with very manipulative—and at times abusive—behavior is something that is of deep merit.
Once we clear this monstrous hurdle of distributing this vaccine in this healthcare system to people who actually need it, if we’re looking ahead at potentially going back into some of these institutions and corporations—as some white-collar workers in their companies mandate—I hope they remake them, and I hope they reconsider how they operate. I think that this particular podcast has me thinking about that a lot.