I am white and was raised in large part by my grandparents, my mother’s parents, Mary and Gus, both feminists, both social-justice activists. There was never a question when I was growing up that boys and girls should be treated as equals because they are equals, that men and women should have the same rights. All men and women. My grandparents were fighters for civil rights for all, for the rights of farm workers and all workers, for the disabled, for women and girls, for education, against discrimination based on religion, and against poverty. Long before the term intersectional came into common usage, my grandparents took an intersectional approach to justice and (mostly) lived their values. Activism wasn’t a hobby; it was a way of life. Their children – my mother and aunt and uncles – were all active in these same fights. All of their children – and later all of us grandchildren – lead deeply activist lives in one way or the other, professionally and personally. It never occurred to me that men weren’t expected to be feminists – all the men in my family were and are.
As an adult, all the men I had serious relationships with were, to one extent or another, self-avowed feminists. Liberal, lefty, progressive dudes. Some of them people of color. I didn’t interrogate their feminism too much. When I began dating again last year, after an absence from the scene of many years (long relationship, then a break), I made dating intersectional feminists a priority. I, a lifelong active and intersectional feminist, had become much more steeped in this feminism, and had come to know that if I am going to be happy in partnership with someone, we are both going to be intersectional feminists. That’s not the only thing – not at all – but it’s a pre-requisite for intellectual, sexual, emotional and social compatibility.
So I started screening potential dates, to make sure they do in fact claim intersectional feminism. And what a screening tool that turns out to be! Any number of people – across the gender spectrum – have been eliminated from my potential dating pool because when I ask them the simple question, “Are you an intersectional feminist?”, they tell me some version of “no.” Sometimes that is dressed up in other language or wrapped up in a humanist bow, but their answer is no. I won’t even tell you about these people. About the ones who tell me that feminism is too important to me, that the term intersectional is bunk, that white privilege doesn’t exist. I’ll skip right over telling you about the people who tell me I’m being ridiculous to require potential dates to “subscribe to any ism” or “pass a test of ideology.” When I point out to them – every one of them a self-described liberal – that they expect me to pass at least one “test of ideology”, that they expect me to not to be, for instance, a fascist, they tell me that’s different. That fascism is wrong. When I point out that one is either a feminist – that is, in support of the full rights for all among the genders – or a sexist, and that like fascism, sexism is wrong, they tell me I just don’t get it. I’m wrong. I don’t understand. They aren’t sexists, you see, they just aren’t feminists.
You are either a feminist or you are a sexist. Your feminism is either intersectional or it is not feminism.
It really is that simple.
So, OK, I’ve dated from the winnowed pool. Dated those who, at least when questioned, assert that they are feminists of the intersectional sort. I have, for 10 months on and off, been dating these feminist men and women and one person not on the gender binary, and it has been a disaster with regards to feminism. A disaster!
- The white person not on the binary who told me on our third get together that people of color should be more patient and that they didn’t really get what the problem was with saying “All Lives Matter” instead of “Black Lives Matter.” When I explained the problem to them, they said, “Blacks need to be patient, things don’t change overnight.” Um, that’s all, folkx.
- The male feminist film-scholar who spoke in a baby voice to his 11 year old daughter on the phone and said I was wrong that teen girls should be taught to expect and ask for, sexual pleasure – “That’s not important to girls until they get much, much older – like in their 20’s.” He referred to his child support payments as the money his daughter’s mother “demanded” every month. He complained he “had” to teach useless online classes to pay her. “But it’s support for your child,” I insisted. “Yeah, but I want to write my next book, my ex should cut me some slack. My work is important.” I stopped seeing him – and he started badmouthing Hillary and talking on social media about how great Jill Stein is.
- The very nice “progressive” white preacher who works as an advocate for the homeless who said he couldn’t stand in support of marriage for all, including gay couples, because he’d lose his job. “Don’t you think you have a moral obligation to quit?”, I asked. “Well, no,” he said. “Would you quit if the church didn’t allow blacks to marry?”, I asked. “Of course,” he said, “but that’s not the same as gays.”
- The white (trans) man who told me that he didn’t think “class privilege” was a real thing and that discussions of it were a “distraction” to the “actual important” issues in feminism.
- The extremely liberal white, male, writer – the grandson of Jewish holocaust survivors – who went with me to various political rallies. Who was a staunch Black Lives Matter supporter and held me as I sobbed over Hillary’s loss, weeping himself. Who then told me he’d never thought about his adopted Chinese daughters as being people of color and thought Asian kids who had issues with cross-cultural adoptions were “ungrateful” and “full of shit.” He called me a “cunt” when I told him that I didn’t want to see him anymore.
- The lesbian who told me she couldn’t “get worked up” about disabled rights until “all the other things” were fixed – “there’s not that many of them, the disabled, and other stuff is more important.” Not that many of “them.” “The disabled.”
- The guy who made signs for the women’s march for me and marched with me and wore a pink pussy hat but told me he thought maybe his 17 year old trans kid wasn’t really trans, that maybe it was just a phase, and that the kid had never “acted like a girl.” And, that the kid didn’t need a trans sensitive therapist to help him transition, that maybe a “slightly transphobic” therapist might even be a good idea because maybe that therapist would “push to find out for sure” if the kid was “really trans.”
- The guy who on our first (and only) date called his one son, “the boy” and his two daughters from whom he was estranged “bitches.” Why the estrangement? Turns out the daughters had reported him to the police and child protective services was investigating him for having pornographic Polaroids of his sixteen year old daughter in his room.
- The man who told me he was “willing” to call himself a feminist, now that I had explained what the word meant, but that I was wrong to expect men to educate themselves on feminism, that it was my job, women’s job, to teach men about sexism and that, by the way, I should know he’d only recently “come around” on gays and even more recently on trans people.
Let me be clear: expecting intersectional feminism is not a bar that is set too high for a potential partner. Last summer, before Trump became President, in one of my Salon essays, I suggested that feminist women should stop entering into sexual and romantic partnerships with men who were not active feminists, too. I meant it.
Let me be clear: I am not some perfect specimen of intersectional feminism. But, I am clear that all the oppressions intersect, and one is not more important than the other, and that we’re all in chains until none of us are in chains. I have understood that since I was a small child and if you don’t…well…as Megan Ford wrote in “The Resistance-Era Dating Test” in The Establishment, “If it ain’t woke, don’t fuck it.”
Let’s go back to my family, my deeply activist, deeply engaged in an intersectional approach to social justice, family.
In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, when my grandmother was ten, four years after her mother died, her father paid for Sophie F. to come from Birmingham, Alabama to Washington, D.C. to work as a maid and cook and to care for his children. Her sister, Wilma, worked for another white family in D.C. and he had learned of Sophie’s “availability.” My grandmother and three of her brothers had been living in orphanages since their mother’s death, and Sophie’s hiring made it possible for them to return home. Sophie was 16 – younger than several of my grandmother’s siblings for whom she cooked and cleaned. She could not read or write or tell time. She cared for my great-grandfather and the eight of his nine children who lived at home. (One, my great uncle Frank, had run away to join the circus. Really.)
Sophie “lived-out” – that is the term used for domestic workers who lived in their own homes, rather than with the families that employed them. Sophie lived-out and worked for some branch of my family or the other for 50 years – 50 years – until she died in 1983.
I have gone through thousands of my grandmother’s photographs and can only find one of Sophie F. I call her Sophie F because we are not clear about how to spell her last name. I am ashamed – so ashamed – of this fact. Some people in my family don’t like to talk about Sophie – I do. We are “good whites” and “good whites” don’t like to talk about the black folks whose names they don’t know how to spell, or in many cases, don’t know at all. My mother’s first cousin who wrote a comprehensive family history LEFT HER OUT ENTIRELY. Though his father, two years younger than my gran, was raised by Sophie from the age of 8, and was a devoted civil rights activist.
Sophie’s work – and the work of far too many women of color – goes unsung too much. I’m going to sing more. I’m ashamed at how quiet I’ve been. I hope we all will talk much more about the women we erase by not speaking of their work because we feel shame or guilt for employing them. Or because can’t own our privilege or, worse, because we don’t even think to acknowledge them. The history of women is erased, women of color are erased, when we erase the labor of domestic workers. “We aren’t like those women in that movie The Help for goodness sake,” some people in my family have said to me. Aren’t we? Others in my family have said, “What’s wrong with that movie, anyway?” So much. So much, as Roxane Gay and so many others have eloquently pointed out in searing critiques.
But my family, we are “good whites” with the black maid whose last name we don’t know how to spell, whom we never helped learn how to read or write or tell time. What’s the difference from these people I date who are “good feminists” who think some other people’s rights aren’t the same priority as theirs?
I was 14 when Sophie died – so my own culpability might be curtailed a bit. But I was nearly 40 before I began asking about her in earnest, well into my 40’s before I was willing to call out the inherent racism in how my family does – and does not – tell the story of Sophie, let alone how we treated her. So maybe not so much curtailed, if at all.
I sometimes use the metaphor of dividing people I date into groups of either chocolate cake or lemon cake – chocolate cake are the people I might be interested in having a long term relationship with. Lemon cake are the people who I’m not, but might be fun to date for a bit. I like lemon cake just fine, but I adore chocolate cake, chocolate cake is woke. Chocolate cakes say, “I’m absolutely an intersectional feminist, of course,” and then demonstrates that. I playfully tell my dates about this metaphor, one I’ve been using since I was 30. Sometimes my dates buy me chocolate cakes or lemon cakes, or send me photos of such. There is only one chocolate cake I make, Sophie F.’s chocolate cake. The recipe came from her grandmother, who was a slave. When I was a child Sophie made this cake in my grandmother, her employer’s, kitchen.
At some point my grandmother wrote the recipe down – since Sophie herself could not write. Since, as my grandmother later told me, she had never tired to teach Sophie to read and write and tell time, because she didn’t want to embarrass Sophie, or, I assume, to make herself uncomfortable. My gran felt guilty about this and later went on to teach lots of people to read and write, but that’s another story. She told me she wished she’d done it differently with Sophie.
So what does Sophie have to do with my insistence on an intersectional feminist for a potential partner? Well, everything. Because this granddaughter needs to try to get it right, to live those intersectional values better. To not accept less than intersectional feminism. For the world, for Sophie, for my late grandmother.
So here’s the recipe for Sophie’s chocolate cake….perhaps I’ll eat some myself, since there’s no other chocolate cake in my life. I’d rather have Sophie’s grandmother’s recipe out in the world instead of just sitting on my shelf. This is not a redemptive act, there are no redemptive acts for the way white people have treated and do treat African-Americans. A legacy that includes, among other horrors, slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, exploitation, erasure, police brutality, mass incarceration and Donald Trump. No redemption, none.
We can’t make it right, all the wrong we’ve done. But we can do it right now, and insist on the same from others. And doing it right means not just working to repair our collective damage inasmuch as we can, but also fighting for justice as we move forward and demanding that others do the same. Doing it right means intersectional feminism.
It means say her name, Sandra Bland.
It means say her name, Sophie F____.
It means filling in the blank.
Sophie F.’s Chocolate Cake, passed down from her grandmother, a slave, to her mother, to her. (As dictated to my grandmother, slightly streamlined by me in consultation with modern recipes.)
(I assume this was adapted through the generations based on available ingredients -– this is the cake Sophie made for three generations of my family.)
1-3/4 cups sugar
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup softened butter
1/2 cup cocoa
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
- Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and dust two 9-inch round baking pans.
- Beat butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla in large bowl until fluffy.
- Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt; add alternately with buttermilk to butter mixture, beating JUST until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pans.
- Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.
- Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks.
- Cool completely.
- Frost with your favorite homemade icing.
- Slice into eight slices.