We Are Once Again Going to Have to Discuss White Feminism (You Can Blame Bette Midler)

Between Midler and E. Jean Carroll, I am all out of patience for privileged white women who don’t understand the concept of intersectionality.


Stacy Lee Kong

Jul 08 2022

11 mins read


Image: Shutterstock

Content warning: this newsletter contains references to transphobia and child sexual assault.

Until this week, I only thought of Bette Midler as a Hollywood legend, though obviously her most iconic role is (sorry, not sorry) Winifred Sanderson in the early 90s Disney classic Hocus Pocus. I never really thought about her politics beyond vaguely knowing that she’s liberal, but as it turns out, they’re… a mess.

‎On July 4, Midler marked American Independence Day with an extremely ill-advised tweet linking the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade to inclusive language around menstruation and childbirth, saying, “WOMEN OF THE WORLD! We are being stripped of our rights over our bodies, our lives and even of our name! They don’t call us ‘women’ anymore; they call us ‘birthing people’ or ‘menstruators,’ and even ‘people with vaginas’! Don’t let them erase you! Every human on earth owes you!”

Let’s just get a few things out of the way off the top: intentionally or not, this is absolutely a transphobic take. Midler’s tweet lumps an innocuous movement toward more inclusive language with state attacks on bodily autonomy. (Attacks that are already leading to horrifying stories of people, especially poor and racialized people, facing jail time because their pregnancies ended, chronically ill people being denied necessary medication because it can be used as an abortifacient, 10-year-old children having to cross state lines to access abortion after being raped, not to mention millions of dreams now deferred, btw.) It implies that ‘their’ rights are infringing on ‘our’ rights, as if a) trans and non-binary people don’t also need abortion care and b) this language is being used for cis women when it’s only being used in situations where multiple genders may be affected. (Trans men and non-binary people menstruate and give birth, too.) 

‎It’s also so, so stupid, for the record. Why in the world would the existence of trans women impact the legitimacy of my womanhood?

But beyond acknowledging how deeply bone-headed Midler’s take is, I think it’s important to think about what led her to this place—and to understand that her tweet is part of a larger phenomenon of cisgender white women responding to infringements on their rights by turning on groups with less institutional power.

Midler’s tweet is a direct reaction to a transphobic NYT op-ed

Even before she confirmed this on Tuesday, Midler was clearly referencing a TERF-y weekend column by New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul that trotted out the same boring points that a particular brand of ‘feminist’ (like, yes, J.K. Rowling) has been spewing for decades. Paul’s embarrassingly flimsy thesis is that the left’s focus on inclusive language and the right’s attempts to control cis women’s bodies leads to the same result: the erasure of women.

“Planned Parenthood, once a stalwart defender of women’s rights, omits the word ‘women’ from its home page. NARAL Pro-Choice America has used ‘birthing people’ in lieu of ‘women,’” Paul wrote. “The American Civil Liberties Union, a longtime defender of women’s rights, last month tweeted its outrage over the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade as a threat to several groups: ‘Black, Indigenous and other people of color [sic], the L.G.B.T.Q. community, immigrants, young people.’ It left out those threatened most of all: women.”

‎I mean… it did not, since women are, in fact, people. But for feminists like Paul, ‘womanhood’ means white, cis womanhood, so when the ACLU talked about racialized, queer, immigrant and young people, she just… didn’t see herself represented.

Paul’s argument is both derivative and inaccurate, but it’s still dangerous because it introduces these anti-trans talking points under the guise of feminism, thus sanitizing them for the Times’ large and liberal-leaning audience. As journalist Melissa Gira Grant argued in The New Republic this week, “Paul is now laying the groundwork for a mainstream case for trans exclusion… [she] sees the end of Roe as the ideal moment to take her megaphone—one far more sizable than anti-trans feminists’—and direct it at trans people. This is a notable turning point: when roughly half the people in America, many of them reeling from being robbed of something they were told was their birthright, were told by one rarefied columnist at the country’s most powerful newspaper that trans women are set to replace them. Some may call that fascist. I do.”

It’s not a coincidence that white cis women are turning on trans people in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade‎

This despite years of conversations—often driven by racialized feminists—about the need for solidarity between marginalized groups. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: what the fuck? Well, I think the explanation lies in this great thread by writer David Dennis Jr., who links director Jane Campion’s bizarre comments about Venus and Serena Williams earlier this year to our current news cycle. In March, actor Sam Elliot insulted Campion’s Power of the Dog, implying that she had no right to tell stories about the American West—especially if she was going to include “allusions of homosexuality.” The internet rallied behind her, understandably, hailing her a feminist hero for the epic clapback she delivered in a red carpet interview. But when she won the Critic’s Choice Award shortly after, she did something bizarre: she used her acceptance speech to call out the Williams sisters, saying they might be ‘marvels,’ but their accomplishments aren’t as meaningful as hers because they don’t have to compete against men as she does. (Reminder: the Williams sisters had literally nothing to do with Campion or her movie. Also, this is not true.)

“At this moment that Campion felt attacked by a white man and separated from her place in white excellence, she displayed solidarity with white men by lashing out at two Black women,” Dennis Jr. explains. “It's such a common thread in history: she begged for her place back with white men by proclaiming loudly, ‘I can bash people lower than me too! Take me back!’”  

And, he says, this is exactly what Midler, Rowling and Paul are doing when they signal-boost anti-trans rhetoric. “The promise of that white power is too intoxicating. Reaching for that ring is more valuable than standing together with people who are feeling the grip of oppression.”

And btw, trans people aren’t the only ones white feminists feel comfortable throwing under the proverbial bus

Dennis Jr.’s thread also applies to another cis white feminist, I think: E. Jean Carroll, the former Elle magazine advice columnist and journalist who accused former U.S. President Donald Trump of raping her in her 2019 memoir, What Do We Need Men For?

‎In a series of now-deleted tweets, Carroll proposed a cruel and shortsighted method of punishing southern lawmakers who don’t support reproductive rights this week: boycotting their states. “Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi. Do not go to their colleges. Do not visit their tourist attractions. Do not buy their products. Do not attend their athletic events,” she wrote. “Many of these states are already poor. So our single goal should be to BANKRUPT them. I am looking at you, Alabama.”

Carroll later deleted her tweets and replied to one critic—writer Jeanna Kelley—to say she apologized and now understood that she was wrong, but it’s wild to me that it took a Twitter backlash before she realized her idea would not change Republican politicians’ minds, but would disproportionately impact the poor Black and racialized people who live in these states. I am, however, totally unsurprised that Carroll’s apology was to a cis white woman and that she chose to respond in that way versus publicly stating why she was deleting her tweets and what she’d learned.

‎None of this is new. American suffrage was built on the uncredited work of Black women, and when agitating for women’s rights in the mid-1800s, the movement’s major players were very quick to “acquiesce[e] to white supremacy—and [sell] out the interests of African-American women—when it became politically expedient to do so,” as New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples pointed out in a 2018 op-ed. In fact, many feminists of the time saw abolition and women's rights as completely separate causes, a dynamic that has shaped the way feminism works ever since. In the 60s and 70s, when feminism became a potent political movement, Black women were largely sidelined, which helps to explain why they, and other racialized women, often opted not to identify as feminists, period. In 2013, feminist author Mikki Kendall started a hashtag (#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen) to highlight how mainstream feminism prioritized the interests of white, cisgender, able-bodied, middle- to upper-class women over everyone else while simultaneously holding Black and racialized women to a sometimes impossible-to-meet standard. In 2017, the Women's March brought this conversation back into the mainstream. And, we just saw a slew of white celebrity feminists decide there was nothing to celebrate on the Fourth of July because their freedoms had been curtailed post-Roe v. Wade, though they didn't have the same energy when it was just racialized, poor, disabled and queer people who were calling out oppression.

No, I didn’t forget about Macy Gray

Of course, cis white women aren’t the only ones experiencing a colossal failure of empathy right now. On July 4, singer Macy Gray appeared on noted transphobe Piers Morgan’s show, where she declared that “just because you go change your parts, doesn’t make you a woman.” Again, wrong—a person’s ‘parts’ don’t actually determine their gender (that’s sex). But also particularly disappointing because Gray is a Black woman, so she understands what it is like to belong to a marginalized group herself.

As Refinery29’s Wisdom Iheanyichukwu wrote this week, “Black trans women are being murdered at alarming rates around the world, and we’re coming off of the deadliest year for trans people on record. The womanhood of Black women is constantly called into question, and Black trans women are dying because of this ignorance… Black women should be supporting trans women because we’re fighting the same fight against the same oppressors. Our respective struggle[s] for rights amidst the patriarchy are actually not mutually exclusive; they’re intertwined, and freedom for cis Black women isn’t possible without freedom for Black trans women. In a world where we’re constantly fighting against the patriarchy, we need to be banding together, not spewing divisive narratives that tear us apart.”

‎That’s because these causes are connected, as actor Mae Martin pointed out on their Instagram Stories. Just… not the way Gray or Midler seems to think. “The effort to stop trans people from having bodily autonomy and receiving the healthcare they need is of course connected to the organised effort to restrict people with uteruses from having bodily autonomy and access to life saving abortions,” they wrote. “We all have the same goal and common enemy. We don’t want to be reduced to our anatomy, we want to be whole people with equal rights—a goal that should be familiar to older generations of feminists who fought for the same thing.”

It may be comforting for some cis feminists to believe they can save themselves at the expense of everyone else's rights, but they’re actually behaving this way because punching down is easier than punching up. It’s classic respectability politics: instead of demanding equality for everyone who is oppressed, they're reinforcing that oppression by arguing the issue is not bigotry but rather their inclusion in it. Unfortunately for them, the aphorism is absolutely correct: none of us are free if all of us aren’t free.

And Did You Hear About…

The truly bizarre discourse around “scromiting.” (Listen, if I have to know about this, so do you.)

Jude Ellison Doyle’s excellent essay about softboys—a.k.a. cis, straight men with a smidgen of emotional intelligence—and why they’re not actually dismantling toxic masculinity.

Nicole, a 22-year-old who’s spending the summer in Greece with her grandma and making TikToks about what they eat in a day. V. wholesome and delightful, tbh.

The (white) feminist-approved plan to convert a New York jail into a ‘feminist’ women’s prison—and why that is actually impossible.

This entire Twitter feed devoted to cute romcom moments.

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Bette Midler
Macy gray
E. Jean Carroll