In a rousing speech at the Women’s March #PowertothePolls rally in Las Vegas on Sunday, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards implored her comrades—white women—to “do better.”
According to CNN, Richards credited the 2017 Women’s March for providing much-needed momentum and awakening the activist within “doctors and teachers and mothers” across the country. Inspired and outraged by the various political horrors of the past year, including the Muslim ban and the current reckoning against sexual predators in Hollywood and beyond, women have united in the face of a deeply sexist society to do the hard work of attempting to right some of history’s wrongs. A lot of that work has fallen on the backs of women of color, Richards argued.
“From Virginia to Alabama and to last week in Wisconsin, women have beaten the odds to elect our own to office. ... Women of color, transgender women, rural and urban women,” she said. “These victories were led and made possible by women of color.”
Indeed, the tradition of white women bolstering racist, sexist or otherwise deplorable political candidates runs deep throughout this country’s history. Consider the astonishing 63 percent of white women who voted for Alabama Senate candidate and accused sexual predator Roy Moore. Moore’s defeat—which he refused to concede—allowed for Doug Jones to be the first Democratic senator in the state in 25 years and was thanks in large part to the overwhelming 96 percent of black voters who turned out to the polls in support of Jones—98 percent of whom were women.
Richards urged consistent action but didn’t elaborate on any particular strategies for white women looking to do better—a tactic that essentially comes off as an empty platitude. Recall the galling statistic bandied about after the election that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump and the panicked insistence that spread throughout “good” white women who insisted that they weren’t part of the problem. Recognizing white women’s complicity is one thing, but actually taking steps to fix it is quite another.
Instead of trumpeting praise for black women sporadically only when their efforts have achieved victory that is beneficial to everyone, white women should not just acknowledge but uproot their political tendency to prioritize their own immediate needs over the realities and struggles of other women. In the case of the recent election in Alabama, they could also stand to evolve their thinking on criminal justice reform, access to civil services, and—more broadly—the inherent bias within our reckoning for sexual predators in power. The pain of white women, as Gabrielle Union noted in an interview with the New York Times, has been regarded with a full consideration that might not have been paid to a woman of color speaking out initially. “If they hadn’t been people who have had access to parts and roles and true inclusion in Hollywood, would we have believed?” she said of the women who first spoke out against Harvey Weinstein. It’s a sobering thought, which shouldn’t shame white women into feeling badly about their own biases, but instead spur them to action. We’re beyond the notion that a drop of self-awareness is sufficient—we need more than that.
As Doreen St. Félix wrote so eloquently in The New Yorker the day after Moore’s defeat, “The recent expression of awe for the black woman voter is particularly troubling, because it feels like a kind of disclosure: you’d have to be truly isolated from the day-to-day realities of black existence to be shaken by the racial and gendered dimension of Jones’s win. You’d have to be convinced that the mammy is real.”