Early in her book, White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind, writer Koa Beck describes an experience she had while working as an editor for a mainstream women’s magazine. She and a number of fellow editors and writers were crowding around a box of fresh magazines, excited to see the latest cover. It was November 2016, and the star was Nicki Minaj.
“Another editor came up behind me as I was beholding a representation of the most influential woman in hip-hop and also remarked on how pretty the cover was,” Beck writes. “She liked it too, she said just over my shoulder. And then she added, ‘I love when they make trashy people look good.’”
Beck describes how this incident “seared into a piece of my brain that I never got back” and how, in that moment, she understood that “people like Nicki Minaj, people like me, people very unlike both of us, would never really fit into this self-styled version of feminism.”
“It’s worth noting that at the time I started working professionally in newsrooms, I watched ‘feminism’ become trendy,” Beck tells Broadsheet over Zoom. She spent a decade working in North American women’s media, including as senior features editor at Marieclaire.com and executive editor at Vogue.com, before becoming editor-in-chief at Jezebel, where she remained until 2018. “Suddenly Beyoncé was singing that she’s a feminist and all these other pop stars sang about being feminists, and it really took that middle-class bourgeois feminism and lit a fire under it.”
Beck defines the term “white feminism” as “a very specific approach towards achieving gender equality that pulls considerable strategies from colonialism, imperialism, some key pieces of white supremacy, as well as labour exploitation, and specifically the individual cumulation of wealth and power as indicators of feminist progress”.
“When I pitched stories on trans men weighing their birthing options or teens and tweens partnering with corporate power rather than questioning it, usually over email, my boss would often write back with one word in all-capital letters: ‘NICHE’.” Beck writes in White Feminism. She learned to pitch stories with words like “edgy, fresh, different, shiny, and later, woke”.
Beck will be discussing her book – and how a capitalist, white-centred approach to feminism leaves out women of colour, Indigenous women and trans women (and how to push back) – at the All About Women festival, at the Sydney Opera House this Sunday, March 7, held to mark International Women’s Day on March 8. For non-Sydneysiders and those unable to get tickets, Beck’s talk will be live-streamed and available afterwards on the Opera House website.
As her career progressed and Beck started to speak on more panels, she noticed that there was always a young person in the audience who would raise their hand and ask her about “white feminism”.
“I always wanted to tell them … that these very personal circumstances they were feeling when going to the Women’s March with friends or talking about #MeToo with colleagues and running up against clearly a very white feminist ideology – there’s a long history of that, and I wanted to not only write down what I knew, but also take those personal dynamics and put them against a historical backdrop to show that this has always been about other things. And it’s always been about a very select group of women or those who aspire to be that select group of women.”
One of the most fascinating through lines in White Feminism draws on the similarities between today’s commodified, post-Trump era “feminism-lite” (see: “The Future is Female” T-shirts, or “Nevertheless She Persisted” mugs) and the white feminist branding of the suffragette movement at the turn of the century.
“I was able to find ‘Votes for Women’ sashes and pictures of these pins that you could just put ‘Nasty Woman’ on and [now] sell on Etsy,” Beck says. “It was actually just the same thing … And the encouragement to buy your feminism, to buy your politics, as a woman who wants progressive values? That’s not new either.”
Koa Beck will be discussing White Feminism live via video link at All About Women on Sunday March 7. Buy tickets to the event or livestream here.