#FTF: Catharine MacKinnon on what makes a white woman

What makes a white woman? Oh, you mean other than listening to Bon Iver on vinyl, exhibiting a zombie-style attraction to Whole Foods even when the bank account is in the red, and equating oneself with Ghandi during exercise classes? I really couldn’t tell you. (Yes, he does say “bitch” in that video…No, I’m not condoning it and yes, I do have Bon Iver — and Coldplay — on vinyl.)

Catharine MacKinnon
Catharine MacKinnon

I jest, but I’ve decided to turn to Catharine A. MacKinnon, feminist and legal scholar, for her insights on the matter of what makes a white woman.

In MacKinnon’s essay, “From practice to theory, or what is a white woman anyway,” she sets the groundwork by asserting three key points in regards to feminist theory. First, she states that postmodern theory is little more than an elitist practice of “talking heads” where, instead of “theory and practice,” once gets “discourse unto death.” Her point here is that, unlike feminist theory recorded in other eras, postmodern (or poststructuralist) feminist theory does not equip the women’s movement with tried and true tools for resistance. Instead, it creates hierarchy by relegating feminism to the ivory tower (which is overwhelmingly occupied by men of the upper class). I once thought it would be a barrel of monkeys to bring up Foucault at a bachelorette party after a few glasses of wine. Turns out I was painfully wrong because the subject was painfully irrelevant to the lives of women I was sitting in a room with. It’s not that women don’t get it. It’s that most of us don’t care.

Secondly, she poses that the women’s movement is not about putting theory into practice, but instead involves documenting practice that has been in use — by women, successfully — for many years and calling it theory.

Thirdly, she argues that theory that doesn’t work very well in practice is bad theory. MacKinnon also posits that theory or practice that doesn’t work for women of colour, is theory that is not going to work well for white women either, in the long term. This is not to say that white women haven’t benefited materially from pushing women of colour into the margins, because we have, just as men have benefited materially from pushing women to the margins, and those of upper and middle class have benefited materially from oppressing the working class.

Her point is that when we buy into male-projected stereotypes about white women — that we are all “effete, pampered, [economically] privileged, protected, flighty, and self-indulgent,” flipping our hair, primping our nails, not needing to work, revelling in our own “purity,” and fussing about trivial things all day — we obscure realities that we share, the realities of being socialized into material disadvantage by sex (she calls this process “gendering” where some other theorists would say that gender involves a separate line on the “axes of oppression”).

MacKinnon argues that sex-disadvantage means being given unequal pay for the same or equal work, being given less prestigious work opportunities than our male coworkers, being sexually abused at higher rates as children, being battered by our male partners, being deprived of reproductive control (ever notice that most employers will pay for Viagra but not birth control pills under health benefits?), being objectified in pornography (including sexualized racism), and being funnelled into prostitution. For many females, this is a part of what it means to be “women” even without multiple and compounding oppressions. She wants us to ask, “Why is it that the only form of oppression where men are not included is so mocked and trivialized?” Who does this benefit?

MacKinnon’s article is not directed at women or men of colour and the point of mine is not to “tone police.”

There are several ways in which I disagree with the piece. For example, I’m not sure why she says that white women and their children are the largest population of the poor. This is an outrageous claim. I can’t imagine which location she is referring to where this phenomenon exists, but it would have been worth specifying. On the other hand (my yuppie jokes aside), I do think it’s worth analyzing where the stereotype of the “pearl-clutching,” prudish, re-embodiment of the Victorian era originated and whether it reflects reality. Most of all, it’s worth asking who, ultimately, benefits from it.

I would venture to say that the answer to those questions is not “women of colour” but “white men who are unwilling to concede power.”

Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.