Koa Beck speaks to Vassar about white feminism

Emma Raff/The Miscellany News.

Last Thursday, Feb. 16, acclaimed author, journalist and cultural critic Koa Beck flew across the country to speak before the Vassar community in a presentation sponsored by the Women, Feminist and Queer Studies (WFQS) Program. Beck’s talk, entitled “Unpacking White Feminism: The Knotted History of Racism within Women’s Movements and Feminist Culture, Past and Present,” defined “white feminism” as a specific approach to gender equality that has become the default of the Women’s Rights Movement. This ideology can be advocated by anyone and stems from labor exploitation, imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy. 

The event began with a brief introduction by Professor and Director of the WFQS program Paulina Bren, followed by an overview of Beck’s professional history. Early in her career, Beck channeled her interest in gender identity, race and culture into her work as a renowned journalist, covering prominent movements including The Women’s March, #MeToo and BLM. She eventually worked her way up to Editor-in-Chief of Jezebel, Executive Editor of Vogue and Senior Editor of Marie Claire—all of which led to her book, “White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind.”

Addressing the audience, Beck stated that “White Feminism granted her the freedom to write honestly and without censorship in a way that her job as a reporter never allowed. In many ways, Beck’s journalistic career was persistently frustrating, and this aggravation was not only induced by insensitive colleagues and misogynistic interviewees but also grounded in a long and complex history of white feminist practices. “I started to realize in these newsrooms that when I said the word ‘feminist,’ it was very different from when a lot of other feminist-identifying women whom I worked with said the word, ‘feminist,’” she explained.  

Many students who attended the event, whether it was to earn extra credit in their WFQS class or simply to learn more about feminism, left the talk with a whole new understanding of the women’s movement. Elsie McKendry ’26 wrote, “I realized that so much of the ‘feminism’ I consume/support isn’t actually working towards the change I want to see. Instead of working to dismantle the systems of oppression that constrain women and other marginalized communities, women seek to gain power on the terms of the oppressor… Moving away from white feminism and towards equality for all is the only way to truly be feminist.” 

According to Beck, the suffragists of first-wave feminism—all of whom were white and upper-middle-class—modeled their conception of gender equality after their cis-white husbands, sons and fathers, promoting a feminist ideology that aspires to whiteness. Partly because of this, modern white feminism exports a very specific skill set intended to navigate the patriarchy instead of challenging the structural powers behind it and aligning with disenfranchised genders’ most basic needs. In an interview conducted after the event, first-year Priya Merchant said, “I resonated with Koa Beck’s talk because I felt she was directly addressing me. As a white liberal arts undergraduate, she gave me practical ways to push intersectional feminism within a capitalist structure.”

“You are incentivized to overcome the patriarchy through business, through education, through very individualized ascension,” explained Beck. “You are asked to think beyond your circumstances and your immediate reality to participate and be seen in white feminism.” A working-class mother is useless in the eyes of an ideology that puts the wealthy, conventionally attractive businesswoman on such a high pedestal. And, according to Beck, when a woman or non-binary person does miraculously achieve a higher status, they become the feminist standard that all marginalized genders must aspire to imitate. “The white feminist response to that is ‘How do we all be like her?’”

Of course, the feminist movement is also comprised of groups, initiatives and programs that oppose white feminist practices, many of which are created and run by minorities. These organizations continuously fight against systems of power, refusing to profit off of feminist thought and ensuring that everyone has access to resources. “What I’d like for Vassar students to take away from my talk is that white feminism is not the only feminism and never has been,” said Beck in an email correspondence with The Miscellany News. “There are feminisms, plural, and there is so much to learn from gender-conscious movements that have not relied on white feminist strategies or goals in envisioning gender equality.”

To close her presentation, Beck gave her audience a list of ways to counter white feminism in their own lives. First, by rooting feminism in basic need, we increase outreach to marginalized people who do not see gender equality as a hefty paycheck and a large penthouse office. Next, we must orient ourselves against systems instead of individuals, or, in other words, understand that every sexual predator and workplace harasser is the result of institutionalized structures. Finally, we need to support and work with public institutions such as libraries, parks and public schools—places that a greater number of disenfranchised groups can access. As McKendry stated, “White feminism is everywhere. From mugs and tote bags plastered with feminist slogans to the use of the word ‘girl boss.’ Being a historically women’s college, many Vassar students adhere to this ideology, even if unintentionally.” She continued, “Koa Beck was able to permeate the illusion that white feminism is progress and hopefully make a change in the way Vassar students fight for women’s rights.”

Beck’s complete analysis of white feminism can be found in her book which is available in the Vassar Library, including a special note from the author herself.

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