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Exclusive Feminism: Leaning In and On White Privilege

This piece was originally written in December 2015 and never published on my blog. Since penning this in 2015, I’ve spent time exploring Womanism and find that it is a far better explanation for my views on womanhood, sisterhood, and what it means to be supported and loved while remaining free to make the choices best suited for our individual and collective lives. The issues addressed below are still relevant almost eight years later in what is now aptly named White Feminism.



Leaning in, it gets mentioned in every article, book, or motivational speech geared toward women. It’s not always worded in the same way, but the same theory holds true. This notion of women leaning in, or that women can and should put their careers first, has always left a sour taste in my mouth. And not for the reasons you might expect. My beef is this, it packages itself as this attainable goal every woman can reach if she works hard enough, goes to the right school, takes the right chances, and -here’s the kicker- marries the right man. At the end of the day, leaning in falls back on the same practices white men have relied on for generations. That is the practice of having someone else there to do what you aren’t capable of doing.


The person is either your spouse or the people you and your spouse are able to afford to do these things. At the end of the day, your ability to lean in is determined by the privilege of having someone to lean on which makes the practice, heavily supported by the mainstream -easily consumable- feminism, an exclusive club whose entry hinges on the notion that life is depended on making the “right choices”. However, none of these books, articles, or speeches ever address the 12 million single-family homes, 83% of which are headed by women. Half of them live at or below the poverty line despite working more hours than their leaning in counterparts. These women put career first out of necessity and have been doing so long before Sandberg coined the phrase ‘Lean In’. Yet mainstream feminism has ignored these women and their struggles.


When Sandberg’s chart-topping book became mainstream feminism’s bible I couldn’t help but ask myself “what about the other working mothers”? What about the women holding down two or even three jobs because none of those jobs pay a living wage or grant her a full work week? What about the women who are juggling children, work, and school? Where do women with disabilities factor in? What about the women cleaning the homes and raising the children of the women who are leaning in? Where do minority women, who are making between 50–64 cents on the dollar, and their families factor in? It’s easy to tell women to lean in and to say “it’s possible” when your spouse brings home all the benefits of white male privilege, but what about the women whose spouses don’t enjoy this privilege either due to race, class, education, ability, or a combination of all of the above? Where do those women factor in? And what about the women partnered with other women? Not only does this notion of leaning in, or as I like to say, leaning on white privilege, completely ignore single mothers and the struggles of women of color, but it also alienates LGBTQ women by operating on the notion that a woman must pick the right -white- man and this will be one of the greatest things she will ever do. This brings me to my next point…


This notion that all is possible if a woman makes the “right choices” also ignores, as bell hooks pointed out, the choices made by her husband. A woman has no control over what her spouse ultimately decides to do in any facet of his life be it a career, family, or life choices that impact his health and well-being. Those are individualized choices. Making the “right choice” on your wedding day doesn’t guarantee that, that will still be the right choice years later. To tout the notion that a woman simply needs to marry the “right” man diminishes the work and struggles of all the women who didn’t make the magical “right choice”. This makes ‘leaning in’ white heteronormative middle-class feminism with a catchphrase. It ignores anything outside of the white heteronormative bubble and places any failure to reach these supposedly attainable goals squarely on the shoulders of the women it actively excludes.


While who we chose to partner with is important, should we choose to partner at all, it should not be what defines a woman on her road to success. What should define a woman, and her road, should be her and her alone.


As I’ve said before feminism is supposed to be about respecting every woman’s right to make the choices she feels compelled to make. It’s also about giving women the freedom to make these choices. A woman who doesn’t fit into the white heteronormative middle-class bubble shouldn’t be excluded or limited in her ability to reach whatever goals she has personally chosen for herself.


Feminism should be about lifting every woman up so no matter her circumstances she is free to choose if and when she wants to lean in, out, or somewhere in the middle. None of these options should be seen as the ultimate mark of a woman’s worth, nor should her choices in life be used as a weapon against her especially when options and choices are impacted by things outside of her control such as her race, class, education level, if she’s disabled or not, if she’s cisgender or trans, the list can and does literally go on.


Did your choices work out for you? Hoo-fucking-ray. Not every woman has that privilege. The important thing is to see that, recognize it, and then get to work building up your fellow women. The goal shouldn’t be to force them into a neat consumable box of acceptable feminism, but instead to help them break down the motherfucking walls so every woman can be herself in whatever form that takes. Anything else is exclusive feminism and that isn’t helping any damn body.


To read more about the impact of choices and why a sustainable movement for women needs to support ALL women, check this out!

Copyright(c) 2015 Rayven Holmes

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