In her acceptance speech for best supporting actress at the Oscars Sunday night, "Boyhood" star Patricia Arquette followed the traditional thank-yous with a statement on wage inequality. “To every woman who gave birth to every citizen and taxpayer of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” Her speech was swiftly and heartily applauded by Oscars attendees and at-home viewers -- until it sank in, along with her subsequent comments backstage, that she seemed to be saying those who benefited from equal rights should fight for the rights of women.
“Who is she speaking to? Is it women who have given birth? Just women who are taxpayers? Is just women who are citizens? Why not just say all women?” posited writer and activist Feminista Jones. “By specifically highlighting citizens, Arquette is dismissing the low-wage, non-citizen women's labor that drives this economy and makes life easier for white folks like Arquette herself. That alone signals that Arquette's not including all women when she's speaking,” Colorlines News Editor Aura Bogado said. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mused, “Of course she spoke out about something that mainstream white feminism feels comfortable with.”
The hashtags #whitefeminism and #feminismisforwhitewomen and its original #solidarityisforwhitewomen grew out of awareness campaigns in 2013 when white feminists championed a problematic male feminist who contributed to several prominent feminist sites. His downfall and exit from the feminist scene was swift, but the damage was done and many feminists of color became skeptical of subsequent events. Arquette’s comments served as a reminder that not all feminism recognizes all women equally.
“It’s time for all … the gay people and people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now,” Arquette said backstage while fielding questions from the media.
Intersectional Feminism is recognition that there is no universal “women’s experience.” It acknowledges that race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, ability, class and religion can affect how women live in their society, what discrimination they may or may not encounter and so on. Something like #whitefeminism preaches a universality that invariably erases the experience and stories of women of color and non-heterosexual women. As Feminista Jones explained, “I think that was exemplified with her comments when she said every man, gay person and person of color need to fight in the way that women have always fought for them. Well, I am a person of color, I am a woman and I am also a queer woman. These three identities have long been in the fight for equal rights in particular when it comes to women.”
Others also took exception to Arquette's comments. “She actually suggested that white women had been fighting for people of color and now it was time for us to stand up for them. Is she referring to the convention on women where Sojourner Truth was compelled to ask, ‘Ain't I a woman?’” said Prescod-Weinstein on the topic of erasure of women of color from the narrative. “What about the white colleague who told me not to mention women of color issues during a meeting at the White House because while ‘that stuff’ mattered to me, we had to talk about stuff that mattered to all of us?”
Nyasha Junior, assistant professor at Howard University School of Divinity, remarked on the lack of historical awareness in Arquette’s speech. “African-American women have helped to lead the charge in the development of Black feminist, womanist, and intersectional thought. This type of erasure seems all too typical of White women's historical and contemporary focus on White women's experiences and their activism on behalf of White women.”
Bogado pointed to Arquette’s problematic phrasing. “Arquette then went on to add that ‘We have fought for everybody else's equal rights,’ saying it was time for women to get wage equality. When saying this, Arquette not only places the struggle for social justice in the past; her words also indicate that social justice has somehow already been achieved.”
“Two Brown Girls” podcast co-host Zeba Blay similarly took issue with the backstage comments. “I wasn't going to begrudge her that moment when she had 30 seconds to make a statement -- you can't really unpack a statement like ‘Equal wages and equality for all!’ but her follow-up comment backstage was pretty disappointing, and it definitely cast her on-stage speech in a new light. You want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but she just doesn't sound very informed at all,” Blay added.
With the furor over the Academy Awards’ lack of diversity in the nominees in #OscarsSoWhite, Arquette’s erasure seemed painfully apparent. “Hollywood is consistently praising white actors for playing people less abled than themselves or for playing white saviors, but when people of color tell their very real and current struggles, they are pushed aside or given a perfunctory nod,” Suzi Garcia, a poet and a Master of Fine Art candidate, said.
“We want our feminism to be more inclusive and more intersectional in their conversation, but how is that even possible in a country like this? In a country that is so individualistic and so polarizing, so damning of those who try to cross those boundaries? How do we get to that place?” Feminista Jones said. “She probably intended to be inclusive, did not intend to slight queer women, women of color, trans women, but she did. And she did because that’s the American way.”
There's a gender pay gap for white women measured at about 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes. In comparison, black women earn 64 cents and Latinas earn 53 cents for that same dollar. Trans and queer youth are the most at-risk population for homelessness. “If we want to have a conversation about inequality, it makes most sense to put the people who are most disadvantaged at the center of it -- doing so isn't even that difficult. I'm disappointed that Arquette failed to do that, given that she had time to choose to her words for millions of people to hear,” Bogado said.
Still, some good could come of Arquette's statement.“I will say that it's always interesting when black, Latina, Asian and brown women call out racism and sexism in the industry and no one cares," said Blay, "but white women can just whisper ‘feminism’ and there's raucous applause. The Tina Feys, the Lena Dunhams, Emma Watsons, the Taylor Swifts -- all problematic in their approach to feminism -- and yet celebs like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj have their feminism constantly policed and doubted. I hope the conversation around Patricia Arquette continues to push the importance of intersectionality.”
Arquette responded to the criticism Monday on her Twitter account.
Guess which women are the most negatively effected in wage inequality? Women of color. #Equalpay for ALL women. Women stand together in this
â€” Patricia Arquette (@PattyArquette) February 23, 2015
As freelance writer Hilary Christian succinctly put it, “We should ALL stand in solidarity to support ALL who are marginalized and discriminated against. To single out other marginalized groups and demand that they now support another marginalized group only further discriminates against us and marginalizes us.”