Feminism in the 20th Century

Art and writing by Arizbeth Rojas

This issue of Spare Rib is themed around the word “apparition” which can hold multiple meanings. As a noun, apparition describes a ghost-like figure that haunts an individual and, as a verb, apparition relates to the act of becoming visible. In the case of Spare Rib’s history, both uses of the word are applicable with the former commenting on the magazine’s white-feminist origins and the latter outlining Spare Rib’s continued mission to amplify voices from marginalized communities. In a sense, Spare Rib is haunted by the ghost of White Feminism, but the publication has come a long way to reject that branch of feminism. Instead, Spare Rib’s leadership and staff aim to practice a kind of intersectional feminism that provides more visibility to a diverse array of people on campus.

White Feminism

In order to face the ghosts of the past, we have to know them by name: white feminism. The definition, along with the main criticism that comes with white feminism is greatly explained by Rafia Zakaria, a civil rights attorney born in Pakistan, in her book Against White Feminism. Zakaria starts out her book by acknowledging the specific type of feminist she hopes to critique as “. . . someone who refuses to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns, agendas, and beliefs as being those of all feminism and all feminists.”[1] It is the intersection of white privilege and feminism that maintains white feminism, which ignores the ways women of color experience oppression differently in favor of centering the experiences of women without considering race. Then, even when the experiences of women of color are brought up, it is traditionally through white voices.

Women’s Liberation Movement

Undoubtedly, the face of feminism has evolved dramatically, especially in the 20th century. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, epitomized by the 1968 Miss America Pageant protest, called for a complete rejection of anything relating to femininity, or so said one popular narrative.[2] Images of bra-burning, angry, and white feminists pervaded the cultural conscious of what it meant to be a feminist. The trite phrase “bra-burner” was used to delegitimize feminist demands and reduce them to a trivial matter. As the myth of bra-burning spread, more women in the mainstream were afraid to come forward as feminists lest they be labeled an angry “bra-burner.”

Despite the press’ messaging, no actual bra-burning occurred at the 1969 Miss America Pageant protest; instead, women chucked bras along with Playboy magazines into a “freedom” trash can to symbolize their liberation.[3] Photographs of the protest show that Black and brown faces in the crowd are sparse, if at all present.[4] The brand of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s centralized white women’s liberation with little to no regard to the plight of women of color, thus making the title of “women’s liberation movement” a misnomer.

Choice Feminism

In the aftermath of “bra-burning” feminism came choice feminism as an attempt to mitigate feminism’s political associations. This period of feminism is marked by the staple “Am I a feminist if…?” questions.

Am I a feminist if I wear stiletto heels?

Am I a feminist if I have breast implants?

Am I a feminist if I enjoy baking cookies?

Choice feminism’s answer to all of these questions is: yes, yes, and yes. This paper does not seek to answer whether having breast implants is feminist or not — that is a question for each individual to answer for themselves. On that note, though, it is important to remember that choice feminism refuses to consider the context and socialization of a woman’s decision to act.[5] Instead, choice feminism offers a reductive answer that claims any decision can be feminist inherently if a woman makes that decision. This line of thinking ignores societal pressures and damaging internalized messaging received from a young age. Furthermore, choice feminism perpetuates the idea of a “globalized sisterhood” where women face universal problems and are united in their struggles. Choice feminism assumes that every woman is asking the same questions white women are asking regardless of racial factors and societal implications.

Pop Culture Examples

The limitations of a “globalized sisterhood” can be seen with Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift’s 2015 Twitter interaction. After a snubbed Grammy nomination for video of the year, Minaj took to Twitter to express her frustration that while Black women influence pop, it is slim and white women who are often rewarded.[6] Although not named in the tweet, Swift felt the message was directed at her and replied that it could have been one of the male artists that took Minaj’s nomination. This derailed the conversation from the intersection of race and gender in the music industry to a reductive conversation about men vs. women in the industry. This is what white feminism and idea of a “global sisterhood” do: they conflate the experiences of women and reduce them to a single white perspective. Swift cannot fathom Minaj’s experiences in the music industry, so she reduces her challenges to a male vs. female dichotomy, ignoring racial factors. To be clear, Swift’s intent may not have been malicious, but the impact of her actions was.

Lana Del Rey serves as another example of the ignorance that comes with white feminism. On May 21st, 2020, she came under fire for a statement made on her Instagram account complaining about being accused of glamorizing abuse through her music. She claimed that the media “crucified” her while other artists such as Beyoncé, Cardi B, and Nicki Minaj were able to get away with singing about “being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating, etc…”[7] In this moment, Del Rey had the ability to legitimately discuss the lack of agency women have in the music industry, but instead Del Rey chose to compare her own experiences being criticized for her sexuality as a white woman in the music industry to the supposed freedom that Black women have to be sexual. While women should have the freedom to present themselves how they want to, by mentioning Black artists in her criticism, Del Ray ignores the barriers that women of color in the industry have had to overcome. It is a very narrow view of feminism that displays the exact type of victim complex shown by white women at the expense of women of color.

While “bra-burning” feminists and choice feminists have come and gone, one subsect of feminism underlies them both: white feminism. Where “bra-burners” featured white women at the forefront of the women’s liberation movement, choice feminism asked questions from a white perspective, ignoring questions like, “Can I be a feminist and wear a hijab?”

Intersectional Feminism

The answer to many of feminism’s historical limitations is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s book On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. Crenshaw defines intersectionality as follows:

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”[9]

The goal of intersectionality is to acknowledge the ways in which people experience multiple oppressions, rather imagining oppressions as additive. For example, intersectional feminism acknowledges the experiences of an Asian American woman can not be divided into her experiences as an Asian American and her experiences as a woman. Intersectionality is a lens that prevents the experiences of people from being generalized or simplified by people who can not understand the multidimensional experiences of women of color. The goal of this is not to erase or deny the experiences of white women, but to acknowledge the complexity and diversity within the feminist movement. Misogyny impacts women of all races, classes, sexual orientations, and a litany of other factors. As such, feminist publications such as Spare Rib should reflect that.

Spare Rib’s History and Future

At its inception in the spring of 1992, Spare Rib was made up of mostly white women, who could only speak to their experiences as white women. That is not to say that white women on campus did not face challenges. These women banded together between 1992 and 1995 to speak out against rampant sexism present on campus. In the 1970s, after Dartmouth first began to admit women, college President John Kemeny said in an interview with The Dartmouth:

“Women weren’t treated as people, they were treated as women. They were sex objects and were typecast as either prudes or prostitutes.”[8]

Twenty years later came the first Spare Rib issue, which discussed gender inequality, sexual assault, and discrimination. These topics are still integral to the content of Spare Rib today; however, the magazine now views them with an intersectional lens to center voices that have long been silenced by a sect of feminism dominated by white women.

According to general manager Maanasi Shyno, Spare Rib was revived by women of color, queer people, and radical feminists who wanted to create a space on campus where they could write and make art about social issues and their experiences. Because of the current members' diverse set of experiences, they believed the new Spare Rib needed to embrace intersectionality to truly reflect their goals and experiences as feminists.

Feminism’s goal cannot be to make enemies of women, but it also cannot be to unite them under a collective identity that erases the experiences of women of color. It is true that women everywhere can be vulnerable to exploitation, assault, and discrimination, but it is their respective identities that shape the way they experience these events. Intersectionality looks to make space to people of all backgrounds at the proverbial table of feminism. Today, Spare Rib fosters an inclusive space to align itself with the goals of intersectional feminism.


[1] Rafia Zakaria, “Against White Feminism : Notes on Disruption,” WorldCat, https://www.worldcat.org/title/against-white-feminism-notes-on-disruption/oclc/1196174978.

[2] Roxane Gay,“Fifty Years Ago, Protesters Took on the Miss America Pageant and Electrified the Feminist Movement,” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, January 1, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fifty-years-ago-protestors-took-on-miss-america-pageant-electrified-feminist-movement-180967504/.

[3] “100 Women: The Truth behind the 'Bra-Burning' Feminists,” BBC News, September 6, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-45303069.

[4] “100 Women,” BBC News.

[5] Michaele L. Ferguson, “Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics,” Perspectives on Politics 8, no. 1 (2010): 247–53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25698532.

[6] Zeba Blay, “Taylor Swift's Tweets to Nicki Minaj Are Peak 'White Feminism',” HuffPost, July 23, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/taylor-swift-minaj-white-feminism_n_55afa165e4b08f57d5d30d1e.

[7] Kally Compton, “Lana Questions Culture & Culture Questions Lana,” The Lexington Line, June 5, 2020, https://www.thelexingtonline.com/blog/2020/5/31/lana-questions-culture-amp-culture-questions-lana.

[8] Siobhan Gorman, “Women at Dartmouth: A history filled with controversy,” The Dartmouth, February 28, 1995.

[9] “Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, more than two decades later,” Columbia Law School, June 8, 2017, https://www.law.columbia.edu/news/archive/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality-more-two-decades-later.