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Racist Feminism at the National Women’s Studies Association

Date: June 28, 2008

In March, I was invited to speak at the “tribute panel” dedicated to Black feminist thought, especially the work and life of Audre Lorde during the National Women’s Studies Association. I felt honored, and more than slightly intimidated, to be selected to address the importance of Audre Lorde’s work in my own life as well as in the feminist movement at large. Other panelists were Kaila Adia Story (University of Louisville) and Melinda L. de Jesus (California College of the Arts).

It was during my second year of college I was first introduced to the writings of Audre in a Women’s Studies course. Throughout the academic term, students read several articles each week, discussed them in the class, and wrote journal entries that reflect on the week’s readings. Week after week, most of the assigned materials were those written by white, middle-class, straight (or sometimes “political lesbian”) women, and I was having difficulty relating to much of what was being discussed. I kept writing in my journal how I didn’t relate to the reading, but I did not realize it had anything to do with the selection of the materials. I felt bad about being so “negative” about feminism and feminists.

Toward the end of the term, one week was dedicated to the work of “women of color” (yes, a whole week–woo hoo!). If I remember correctly, it consisted of selections from the anthology “This Bridge Called My Back” (Combahee River Collective statement, and I think one of the Cherrie Moraga’s pieces) and Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider.” For the first time, these articles spoke to me. They gave voice to my feelings of alienation and frustration that I could not point a finger on. And even though it was just a week out of the entire term, and it is possibly the worst form of tokenism within the discipline, they anchored me to feminism and Women’s Studies to this date. Without “Sister Outsider,” I may not have been a feminist today.

But one week was not enough for me to gain the confidence and strength it took to speak out when I find myself surrounded by white middle-class feminists who seemed oblivious to the emotional pain and sadness their racist or classist statements and actions caused. It was not enough to just read things written by Audre and others like her; I needed to actually construct a support system around me, people of all races and genders who are passionately committed to justice in all aspects of society and to empathically holding each other accountable.

In summer of 2000, I moved to Portland, Oregon–the first large city I lived as an adult. On my second day in Portland, I met Diana Courvant, a white transsexual woman who founded Survivor Project to address the needs of trans and intersex survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Also a survivor with a complex history around gender and sexual identities, I immediately became involved with Survivor Project. It also helped that Diana was a veteran of multi-issue social justice organizing, and I learned a lot from her.

But as I got to know Diana, I also learned that not all feminists embraced trans people. In fact, she was at the time trapped in the middle of the worst nightmare of controversy within Portland’s lesbian/feminist community, which she later wrote about (see “Speaking of Privilege” in “This Bridge We Call Home,” edited by Gloria Anzaldua and AnaLouise Keating). To put it short: Diana was invited to a women’s retreat in the Oregon forest, which after she accepted the invitation instituted a “no penis” policy banning transsexual women who had not have sex reassignment surgery from attending. She declined to participate, but held a workshop on trans issues outside with the help of non-trans allies. The workshop was successful, but a rumor was spread shortly thereafter alleging that she trespassed on the women-only retreat and exposed herself. It was obviously false, but extremely hurtful.

It was in response to this climate I wrote the piece “The Transfeminist Manifesto,” which was later published in the anthology “Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century” edited by Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier. The manifesto addressed various feminist concerns, such as reproductive choice and health and violence against women, and discussed how transsexual women share many of the concerns of other women. I wanted to write a feminist theory that counter the argument that transsexual women were so different from all other women that there is no place for transsexual women within feminism (or that feminism has no use for transsexual women). I wanted to provide easy-to-repeat arguments that pro-trans feminists can use to confront blatant bigotry and falsehoods against transsexual women. And to these ends, I think “Manifesto” was successful.

But there was something unsettling about the “Manifesto.” In an effort to forge an alliance between transsexual and non-transsexual women, the piece neglected the struggles of transsexual men and other transgender or genderqueer people who do not identify as “women” unless it was convenient to include them. The piece was also weak on intersectional analysis–that is, how anti-trans sentiments and oppressions compound and complicate oppressions other than sexism, including and especially racism and classism. It borrowed from the work of women of color when it was useful–for example, to point out that transsexual women’s unique experiences should not be the basis for their exclusion because to do so would presuppose a singular universal female experience, which is obviously false–without contributing any insights as to how the inclusion of trans sensibility helps to fight racism and other oppressions.

The fact is, I had only been living in my new home town for three months or so when I wrote this piece, and I was not fully in touch with my own discomfort with the white feminism that filled nine out of ten weeks of the Introduction to Women’s Studies, nor did I feel confident enough to challenge the view that feminism is simply about advocating for women and fighting sexism–and nothing more. In short, what I had written was a version of white feminism that was modified just enough to include transsexual women. At the time, I felt that it was the only safe way to write a feminist theory that advanced transsexual women’s place within feminism. I spent next couple of years meeting more people with a common commitment for justice for all, slowly building the self-confidence it takes to “transform silence into language and action,” as Audre famously stated.

What I will discuss below is one such silence that was turned into language and action.

The invitation to speak at the panel honoring the legacy of Audre Lorde stated: “NWSA would be please to offer you complimentary conference registration as a way of thanking you for your time and expertise. Regrettably, however, NWSA has a limited budget and cannot cover your travel expenses.” But I am not a career academic, and without regular employment I cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars just to speak at an academic conference. I wrote back explaining my situation and asking for financial assistance to attend the conference, to which the executive director of NWSA repeated, “NWSA would be able to offer complimentary membership and registration; I certainly wish we could do more.”

I began talking to some members of Governing Council (board of directors of NWSA) I happen to know, and asked them to advocate on my behalf; they emailed the director, but the response was the same. I also learned that another long-time queer social justice activist I respect was invited by NWSA last year, but she had to turn down the invitation due to the organization’s unwillingness to cover her travel expense. I could decline the invitation too, but then NWSA could go on every year attempting to exploit activists while pretending to honor and support their work without anyone challenging them on it, so I decided to do something different: I wrote to WMST-L, an international Women’s Studies email list with thousands of subscribers, explaining the circumstance and asking people to write to the NWSA to protest its practice, and to donate some money for me to attend the conference.

Within days, I received a dozen or so offers of contributions, and just as many apparently wrote to the executive director of NWSA, including members of Governing Council. Lesbian Caucus chair Lisa Burke, Women of Color Caucus co-chair Pat Washington, and Bisexual/Transgender Interest Group rep Joelle Ruby Ryan were among the most supportive. But that was when things began turning bizarre. The executive director apparently told some of my supporters that I was already being provided a hotel room on NWSA’s money, implicitly suggesting that I was being dishonest or possibly running a scheme to defraud well-intentioned feminist scholars. Thinking that the director perhaps changed her mind and decided to fund at least some of my expenses, I contacted NWSA again–only to be told that nothing had changed and I was still on my own (albeit with the help of many supporters).

I received enough donations to cover most of my expenses, so I flew to Cincinnati to take part in the tribute panel. In my speech, I talked about how I discovered the work of Audre Lorde, how important it was, and yet how reading her books was not enough to genuinely feel empowered. I read from a postscript I wrote for “The Transfeminist Manifesto” and how that piece reflects a period in my life in which I was cautiously negotiating my place within feminism. Then I spoke about the panel itself, and how I seriously struggled whether or not I should participate in this celebration of Audre Lorde and her work, when the very structure of the forum betrayed her legacy.

I have to wonder, I said, if Audre were still around, she would accept the invitation to speak at this conference under such humiliating circumstances. Audre does not deserve this. And this “tribute panel” was not the proper way to honor and memorialize Audre’s contribution to Women’s Studies. And part of the reason I felt ambivalent about speaking on this panel was due to the fear that my presence at the conference might help legitimatize what is fundamentally illegitimate.

Audre herself faced similar circumstance in 1979, when she was invited to speak in the “only panel at [Second Sex Conference, held at New York University] where the input of Black feminists and lesbians is represented,” despite the fact that she accepted the invitation “with the understanding that [Lorde] would be commenting upon papers dealing with the role of difference within the lives of american women,” which would not be possible “without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.” Her talk, titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” which is included in “Sister Outsider,” is not nearly as well understood as the title is known.

When Audre said “master’s tools,” what she was referring to was white, middle-class, straight feminists’ unwillingness to recognize the differences among women along the lines of race, class, sexuality, etc. By failing to seize the strength that could come from the acknowledgement of differences, not just between white and Black women, but also among Black women–why did the organizers fail to involve more Black women, as if expecting Audre to represent all Black women?–she alleges that many white feminists are complicit in maintaining the racist, homophobic patriarchy.

In a different text, also part of “Sister Outsider,” Audre once declared that she would never talk to white women about racism again. Obviously that was not the last time she did, but I have no doubt that she frequently struggled with the urge to give up. Part of the reason I decided finally to attend the conference and to speak at the tribute was the recognition that I stand on the shoulders of Audre Lorde and her contemporaries, many of whom are still alive but many are gone. The panel was successful, and the discussion involving three panelists and the audience lasted almost three hours even though it was originally scheduled for only 75 minutes.

During the delegate assembly on the next day, Lisa Burke from the lesbian caucus spoke out. The executive director had promised her that she would “take care of” my situation, which was understood to mean that NWSA would at the least provide my housing for the conference, and yet somehow it did not happen. The director responded that NWSA did in fact booked a room for me and paid for it out of its account, and blamed her assistant, a Black woman who was not present in the room, for the “miscommunication.” Lisa protested this act of scapegoating and called for the organization to reimburse me for the lodging expense and to issue an official apology. Every delegate voted in favor of the motion. The resolution almost made me feel guilty, partly because another woman of color is pitted against me and blamed for the whole ordeal, and partly because the thought of a $170/night room sitting empty for me is too wasteful for me to think about.

I called the hotel next morning to find out how much NWSA had paid for the room that I did not know was reserved for me, but the clerk informed me that there was no record of reservation for any nights this past week. There is still a remote possibility that NWSA made a reservation at another hotel nearby because the conference hotel was sold out. But that seems unlikely, especially since the organization had no idea which date I was planning to come to Cincinnati or to go home. It is too depressing to think that the executive director of a national feminist, scholarly institution would engage in such pattern of dishonesty and racism in the process of organizing and hosting a tribute to the legacy of Audre Lorde.

In a sense, the tribute panel turned out to be the perfect commemoration of Audre’s legacy. It exposed the ugly reality of what Audre calls “racist feminism,” which was lurking behind the superficial public rhetoric of anti-racism. It brought up intense emotions, including anger, and we sought to channel them for constructive uses. We paid tribute to Audre the best way we could, which was not by reading some academic papers about her, but by being passionately engaged in the struggle against the oppression of all people. I hope that I did my part to make her proud.


  1. Dear Emi,

    I truly loved this essay. Thank you so much. I have, for a long time now, loved the works of Audre Lorde, Combahee River Collective, Cherrie Moraga, Sojourner Truth and, most especially, bel hooks. As a woman with a transsexual history I have many times appreciated your own “The Transfeminist Manifesto.”

    I feel, in many ways, a sense of shared experience with women-of-color in that I, too, am often excluded or relegated to a position of “one who speaks for all” in feminist circles. In my own graduate Women’s Issues class recently I was left cold by the fact that women of color were only given one week of the 16 week course and lesbian/queer women one week. Transsexual women were not represented at all.

    I’m sorry to discover that academics stillfeel a need to protect their own neglect and tendencies to make rigid and blind distinctions and then try to hand the ‘blame’ off to others. How can one come to truth when deceit is her tactic of choice for self-exonerration? “By being passionately engaged in the struggle against the oppression of all people,” I believ you do, indeed, make Audre proud. You are also someone “on whose shoulders we can stand.”

    Thank you.

    Comment by Nichole Weberring — June 29, 2008 @ 12:14 am

  2. After 25 years of involvement with NWSA (starting with the 1977 founding conference) I finally gave up and quit because no matter how hard I tried to bring the issues you mention plus the issues of women with disabilities and chronic illnesses and the issues of fat women and the issues of women living in poverty and the issues of women with children to the attention of the ever changing governing bodies of the organization, I finally gave up, in despair and defeat. What started out to be the organization you and I would have wished for grew steadily farther and farther from it. Women’s studies, which was originally feminist studies back in the late ’60s, was once envisioned as the revolutionary arm in the world of education of the women’s liberation movement and has since compromised itself into an academic field with all the problems of every academic field. Depressing. Depressing. Disappointing. Nothing you write in here surprises me — but it does continue to sadden me to read about the failings — the conscious intentional failings of the organization that for so long I considered my organizational home and on which I pinned such noble hopes. But you sure do write about it well! Makes my nightmares come back.

    Comment by Susan Koppelman — June 29, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

  3. Thanks for documenting some of what went down there, Emi. I was in the audience, along with a few friends and colleagues, and in the moment I commented to them about how it felt like a big dysfunctional family dinner where the panelists started brining up the family secrets and mom & dad / mom & mom / mom & mom & dad were nowhere to be found. It was an amazingly uncomfortable and necessary conversation. I’m still trying to hope that people don’t forget it and that we see some tangible, authentic change–versus one or more symbolic token (literally AND figuratively) gestures.

    The event was telling in lots of ways. A panel featuring women of color scheduled last at the end of a long day… the fact that no one in an official capacity was in the room that night (or at least willing to speak up)… and that most people stayed through to the end… that speaks volumes.

    Comment by Brian — July 3, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  4. Wow… And just from reading the blogosphere, the same conversations about race are happening over and over again, and the status quo never really changes from the white side.

    I actually read The Transfeminist Manifesto not too long after you wrote it – and was on Technodyke while you were posting there occasionally. I wasn’t comfortable with it at the time because I felt (at the time) that it clashed at points with my own understanding of myself as a trans woman – or perhaps, my understanding of myself in relation to radical feminism. That is, not the same reasons you mention above. I do, however, really appreciate reading about your mindset at the time, especially knowing now that my own approach to race, class, and disability at that time was pretty messed up.

    Anyway, thank you for writing this.

    Comment by Lisa Harney — August 25, 2008 @ 12:36 am

  5. […] I am sending you a printer-ready PDF file, because my purpose for instituting the licensing fee is not to prevent someone from using my article. I am granting you the permission to print and distribute copies of the article in the class, though not the PDF file itself. This file also includes a “bonus” that explains some of the backgrounds of the Manifesto. […]

    Pingback by » Academic parasitism on activists must change. — April 21, 2011 @ 2:40 am

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