In her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, Patricia Arquette called attention to America’s gender inequality and demanded equal wages for men and women: “We have fought for everybody else’s rights. It is our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for the women in the United States of America.” Backstage, when asked to clarify her speech, she said that “it’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” Although well- intentioned, Arquette’s comments reflect a pattern common in mainstream feminism: they exclude the experiences of people of color and the LGBTQ community.
First, Arquette’s comment that all women of America have always supported people of color and the LGBTQ community is historically incorrect. Starting from early women’s suffrage movements to third- wave feminism, feminism has always been coded as a white, upper-middle class movement, and only very recently have mainstream feminists started taking the experiences of other marginalized groups into account. Second, white women have always had an advantage over people of color in terms of not only wage inequality, but also education, job opportunities and basic human rights. While white, upper-middle class women like Arquette are fighting for wage equality, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community are fighting to live. In the light of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and disturbing news of increased violence against transgender people, Arquette’s good intentions are not harmless; by demanding that other marginalized groups fight for her wage equality, Arquette reinforces a system in which the experiences of people of color and the LGBTQ community are ignored to create opportunities for white women.
Arquette’s claim that American women have always fought for people of color is also misleading. Early women’s suffrage movements were closely tied to white supremacy, and many early feminists condoned and even encouraged racial discrimination to support their own agenda for “equal rights.” The most well- known of suffragettes, Susan B. Anthony, infamously abandoned the movement to grant black people equal rights in favor of arguing that white women would make “better voters” than “black or immigrant men.” Anna Howard Shaw, former president of the National Woman Suffragette Association, lamented that the government “made former slaves the political masters of the former mistresses.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard and Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton echoed similar sentiments. Laura Clay, the founder of Kentucky’s first suffragette group, even went so far as to argue that giving white women the right to vote could uphold white supremacy. Even today, a white, upper-middle class woman represents feminism. Ironically, we only need to look at the Academy Awards to understand how feminists like Arquette ignore the fact that many black women are snubbed during Oscar nominations.
In fact, the black feminists contemporary to the suffragettes listed above were already fighting for equal wages. When white suffragettes were demanding their voting rights, black feminists like Nannie Helen Burroughs and Fannie Barrier Williams were already founding and organizing support groups and training resources for working-class black women. It was Fannie Barrier Williams who gave a speech in 1893 urging equal wages for black women. As Brittney Cooper of Salon magazine puts it, “Black women have a long history of advocating for fair wages and access to decent employment opportunities for African-American communities.” Arquette talks about shifting the public’s focus on equal wages, when feminists of color in the United States have always fought for equal wages and working rights. This is specifically because black women always had to work since days of slavery to support their families in a highly racist environment, whereas most white women started receiving the privileges of working several decades later. To ignore the fact that the fight for equal wages began with black women is a misstep on Arquette’s part, because it reinforces a type of feminism in which white women are idolized and upheld as martyrs of equal rights.
Furthermore, Arquette oversimplifies the wage gap problem as one between men and women, when in fact racial barriers result in black and Latina people earning even less than white women. The problem of wage gap is multifaceted, and one cannot simply reduce it to sexism. The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2013 that white women earn 78 percent of what white men earn. Black men, on the other hand, earn only 71 percent of what white men earn. For black and Latina women, sexism and racism compound to create even more barriers in terms of the wage gap. The American Association of University Women reports that black women were paid only 64 percent of what white men earned in 2013, whereas Latina and Hispanic women were paid a mere 54 percent. The evident wage discrepancy results from discriminatory practices in the workplace. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the unemployment rate for black college graduates was twice that of college graduates overall in 2013. Arquette addresses none of these issues in her speech. The mainstream media already emphasizes the wage gap between white men and white women while blatantly ignoring the wider wage gaps between ethnicities. One can argue that she was simply making the case for women, but asking those who are further marginalized then she is to put aside their own wage gap concerns for hers borders on insidious arrogance and entitlement.
In light of the Ferguson protests and increasing social media attention on rights for transgender people, Arquette’s speech on how people of color and the LGBTQ community should fight for women’s equal wage rights falls rather flat. Simply put, Arquette fights for more economic privileges, while people of color and transgender people fight for their own lives. In a country where police officers can shoot unarmed black minors without indictment, and where hate crimes against the LGBTQ community have increased by 21 percent since 2011 according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, women of Arquette’s ilk still have a long way to go before they can confidently say that they have achieved parity for every taxpaying citizen in the United States.
Photo Courtesy of the Associated Press