Koa Beck is the former editor-in-chief of Jezebel and co-host of “The #MeToo Memos” on WNYC’s The Takeaway. Previously, she was the executive editor of Vogue.com and the senior features editor at MarieClaire.com. For her reporting on gender, LGBTQ rights, culture, and race, she has spoken at Harvard Law School, Columbia Journalism School, The New York Times, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other institutions. She lives in Los Angeles with her wife. More information is available on her website.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SK: For people who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell us how you arrived at the title? What made you want to highlight suffragettes and influencers specifically?
KB: To appropriately answer that, I think would be two parts, in terms of the title and subtitle. I was very clear with my editor, Michelle Herrera Mulligan – who is actually I think a genius, and that’s not really a term I throw around, she’s an incredibly brilliant thinker and editor – I was clear with her, and she agreed with me, that I wanted the term “white feminism” in the title. As I have moved through my own media career and even just “feminist” spaces, whatever that means, whether we’re talking about my women’s college or various newsrooms, “white feminism” is a very polarizing term, but also, I didn’t want to shy away from it, and I wanted to be very direct in terms of defining the ideology and then the history of it and separate and distinguish it from other gendered movements, and to explore all these different corporate politics, and corporate messaging, and then the aspiration to whiteness, and class stuff, and “empowerment” feminism, and “liberal” feminism; and what connects all of these varying ideologies is aspiring to be white and equating that to being white. So we knew from the offset that it would be called White Feminism, and I never got any pushback, which was great. The subtitle, myself and my editor and the marketing team went back and forth quite a bit, because understandably the marketing team really wanted to use the subtitle to explain what it was. The original subtitle that I wanted was “The Lie You Buy.” The marketing team wanted to get more information to people right away . . . I probably wrote up to 40 subtitles, and they all kind of varied; the one we went with speaks to the scope of white feminism, others we worked with pulled out the money, the power, the supremacy . . . different versions that I played with either pulled out the credos of what feminism is, or the history of it. This one was a good middle ground for that . . . it conveys a longevity to this ideology.
SK: Especially for people who are exploring this stuff for the first time, they’re good benchmarkers (although I also love “the lie you buy!”) My second question is, early on in your book you discuss the trend during the ’90s and 2000s especially of young celebrity women always being asked if they consider themselves a feminist, and the fact that most of those women ended up circumventing giving any sort of answer, or gave a flubbing answer that revealed a misunderstanding of the ideology. When do you think that question stopped being asked so often, and why?
KB: I think that what was happening in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and I was in junior high at that time, and so I was reading a lot more, I was reading a lot about these female icons and a lot of these people, like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, all of these people were being positioned to me because of my age, and I feel like what was being sensed at the time, a lot of the narratives about these all underage girls was about their prowess and their power and influence, and somewhere, especially since that industry has a very complicated understanding of women and sexuality, and women and autonomy, when you have a young girl who is like, making even circuitous statements about claiming or asserting a sexuality, it does somewhere culturally push on, “well how autonomous is she.” And so I feel like the question “are you a feminist” was trying to draw parameters around that, when talking to a very young girl who is quite wealthy and in some ways very powerful and visible. That’s what’s trying to be reconciled. I think we moved away from it culturally for a number of reasons, in that one, feminism (and to that I say white feminism actually) just became a lot more trendy and socially acceptable, so it doesn’t really—unless the subject herself has a t-shirt line she wants to promote or a foundation she wants to bring awareness to, it’s not really a headline anymore . . . it doesn’t really land the way it would in 2001 or 2003. But also I think we’re talking about an industry that is extremely ageist, so, these are always very young people very intentionally, so I feel like, for that age group and the audiences that are trying to be captured, their gender politics are not where they were in the abstinence, you know, Christian-George-Bush era of cultivating teens . . . but now, according [to] what I read, over half of Gen Z doesn’t even believe in the gender binary. … I feel like it was also related to that weird virginity question that girls were getting, so. It really says a lot about that environment and that industry.
SK: Early on, you also discuss instances of housewife consumer activism, especially the Jewish housewives of the Lower East Side boycotting a rise in meat prices. Do you think that consumer activism can still plausibly affect change right now, when the idea that there is “no ethical consumption under capitalism” has become such a rallying cry?
KB: I do, actually. I think that while I was familiar with consumer activism before researching this book, really following the threads of it through women’s history underscored for me in a lot of ways since we live in a capitalistic culture and capitalistic framework, consumer activism can be the Achilles heel of capitalism, in that, if you live in an environment as we do where everything has a monetary value and can be bought or sold and there’s a metric on that, challenging what people buy on a mass level – not just an individual level – has the capacity to affect changes higher up, because money is the baseline anyway. I’ll also say that something I find very curious about “cancel culture” right now, a lot is being jammed under this umbrella of “cancel culture,” like it’s a lot of different things, including harassment in some cases, but I feel like what is not always being said, “cancel culture” is consumer activism! Like, people not wanting to buy your book or album or patronize your restaurant or go see your movie because of your politics, that is consumer activism. And there’s a long history of that in this country, especially when it comes to marginalized people.
SK: In your chapter about how white feminism got branded, you discuss a lot of feminist merchandise, and then say that “Sanitizing ‘empowerment’ away from radical, deeply historic activism was pivotal for fourth-wave white feminism because it had to become transactional—something you could buy, obtain, and experience as a product rather than an amorphous feeling that rushed in from challenging power.” Do you think that in the next couple of decades, people will still be drawn to pinpointing different “waves” of feminism, or do you think that social justice movements may become so fractured or kaleidoscopic that it won’t be a useful framework anymore?
KB: I think that in a lot of ways they’re not a useful framework now. I, in framing this for the reader, sort of acquiesced to the “wave” framework. I was awarded a fellowship to research white feminism, and part of that fellowship is that I had to write an accompanying paper on white feminism for Harvard that exists in their archives, and I actually explore and cite other thinkers on the wave, and how reductive it is. Also, I think that, especially having gone through so much research to do this book, and other people have spoken to this well before me, “wave” collapses a lot of feminism and gender thinking. There have always been a lot of different simultaneous feminisms that have had very different approaches to thinking about patriarchy, misogyny, racism, all kinds of things. And “wave,” while it can be a good ideological and time benchmark especially for I think like, readers of my book who aren’t as deep in it with historical research, it can be limiting. I think moving away from “wave” terminology will also be more accurate in terms of different movements that are happening simultaneously especially with online activism and online organizing. I think that in a lot of ways it’s happening already.
SK: You mention your time going to a women’s college, and the deep relief you felt at being away from the gaze of cis men, which really resonated with me as I went to an all-girls high school, an experience I’ve always been retroactively grateful for similar reasons, and I’m always sort of startled to hear that some people thought all-girls school were a bad idea, because we wouldn’t be socialized to learn how to essentially “deal with” men. Do you think that there will always, or at least in the next couple decades, be single-sex education options, or do you think that as we move forward in fighting for equity for all genders, the need for these types of spaces (as long as they’re inclusive) might diminish?
KB: I think, at least based on where we are right now, it’ll kind of be a hybrid. When I think about experiences like mine, and yours, and even like, what a lot of women were talking about with the Wing for instance, what is often being danced around is that they just don’t want cis men there. And they can’t say that, because the framework by which we erect single-sex spaces can’t be discriminatory in language. And I feel like at my college, we studied this, right, we say it’s a “women’s college.” We don’t say it’s a place not for cis male students. I feel like a lot of different spaces, whether it’s places where you and I were educated, or coworking spaces, or even like gyms, like single-sex gyms, are always trying to contend with this with a certain amount of tension, because of the language that we have and the anti-discrimination laws that are on the books. So I feel like maybe at some point in the near future, there could be some sort of legislation that addresses this more directly, so that maybe in yours and my lifetime, one day we’ll pass a space that’s like “here’s all the people that can’t be in this space.” And it’s like, you can’t be in this space if you’re a cis man or cis woman, you know, whatever, and the implication is that if you don’t have these identities you can be in this space. I think a lot of clubs and groups kind of already operate through that, whether it’s through, like, gender or race. Like, I remember in my time in Brooklyn, there were a number of community yoga classes that were for trans and gender non-conforming people only, but again it wasn’t like there was a sign on the door or a policy that you signed to get in, it was something that was known in this neighborhood, this class is for these people. And at least during the time I was living there, I didn’t hear about cis people who were like, “Hey, I should be allowed!” So maybe we’re moving towards something like that, especially as I go into in the book, my alma mater, for instance, the idea of a “women’s college” has really evolved, as it should have. A lot of these terms, like women’s only spaces, are being rightfully complicated.
SK: This was one of my favorite chapters, when you discuss the misconception that queer women don’t have buying power …it got me thinking about the extreme commercialization even over the past ten years of pride, especially in New York. And you also discuss instances where consumer visibility is heightened, for example for Muslim women, who now see themselves represented in commercial spaces more than that would have say, 20 years ago, but it’s a very narrow image. Do you think there’s any net positive in “consumer visibility,” or brands slowly realizing they can attract more consumers by appearing queer-friendly or increasingly “diverse,” or do you think the overall capitalist reasons for it removes any positive force it could have?
KB: I think because capitalism is determining this, there will be “wins,” but they will only be for wealthy people. So the Muslim woman who does have a lot of money, and who is from a middle to upper-class economic background, she will likely be very affirmed by these advertisements and like the public perception of her will change, but that won’t be for all Muslim women. And I see in some ways parallels for queer women as well. Queer women who go to college, who are economically comfortable, who believe in marriage and want to have big weddings, images of them are changing and have changed especially in my lifetime. But you know, if you’re one of the gay girls who lives on the Chelsea piers and relies on the Center . . . then no, these perceptions aren’t changing.
SK: You talk a lot about how boundaries are compromised by company culture in which bosses are “friends” and coworkers are “family,” which seems to happen a lot in tech start-ups and parts of the media industry especially. How do you think people can go about reasserting boundaries in the workplace without defaulting to antiquated systems of hierarchies?
KB: I think unions. Especially because for the beginning of my career, and even the middle of my career, I had never worked with a union, I didn’t work with a union until I was at Jez, and it was a very different experience in terms of being part of a collective and asserting something together … in the exact climate I describe in my book, you can and it is available to you, depending on your temperament, be that really quiet employee who doesn’t go to company drinks or karaoke, or whatever the thing is that you all are supposed to do together to bond, and the person who is very quiet on slack, and I’ve been that person, and you don’t want to blur boundaries with a boss or people you manage or whatever the thing is. But in my experience, you’re penalized for that. You’re penalized for not being a team player and not putting the company before everything else, and I feel like working with a union has the capacity at least to set boundaries for everyone in a way that is healthy and protects your floor salary and makes sure that you get yearly reviews, and mark the metrics you have done for the company, and those are filed away, and so if you don’t get a raise regardless of not being chatty on slack or not going to somebody’s baby shower, you’re able to pull forth a record and say “look, I’ve grown this metric by 60% in 6 months, and I don’t have a raise, why is that?” And I learned through researching for this book that for the first time in a long time, union support is on a rise in our country . . . It’s been down since Reagan, actually, unsurprisingly, but in the last 10-ish years, it’s starting to go up.
SK: This is sort of related to that: I was curious about how young women who are interested in media should go about negotiating the fact that many of these magazines and content-based platforms are so brand and advertising-based? Do you think it’s possible to break into the media industry and be able to support yourself without compromising a set of morals?
KB: I think that’s a really pertinent question, and something I think about a lot because I’ve mentored a lot of people and even though I’m effectively retired from leadership positions in media, I’m still mentoring a lot of people who are still in it, people who are in that exact position or are also trying to get unions off the ground . . . I will say this. I think that media specifically—which has always changed, it’s always been a very volatile industry, with all kinds of changes and disruptions, however you want to categorize them—it has been long overdue for a very big change, for the junior people, the freelancers, part-timers, also the people who aren’t senior, and a big place this got stunted is, that there just wasn’t a good comprehension of digital media as well as digital metrics. So, for a lot of places that I worked and unfortunately from what I hear it’s still a thing, digital media is still treated without as many resources, without as big a staff, where you put the interns and people who haven’t proven themselves to the magazine yet, and that is not forward-thinking, and at this point, I mean it’s 2021, that would be a really limited understanding of media in 2015. I will say though that for people your age and a lot of your peers, because so much is falling apart and being challenged, like in the Hearst unions, and the New Yorker just unionized with a work stoppage recently, that I actually think it’s a really good time for you guys. So much is being changed that with working with these different bodies, whether it’s unions or other colleagues, you’re really in a position now to change what the performance metrics are in a way that I didn’t really have. I mean I graduated and started working in the recession, and it was kind of similar, it was 2010 and a lot of outlets shuttered, and then a lot of people my age got jobs at the time through social media because they understood it. So that was kind of our way in, explaining what would now be deemed “branding” and engaging with readership and that sort of thing. And that’s similar to what’s happening right now, where a lot of these institutional voices in media are being challenged on really baseline things, like pay equity and stuff like that. And this has been so long overdue, and they’ve had to reconcile with and change a lot of these things for a really long time. So wherever corporations come in, you’re always going to have to make concessions on some things, it just depends on how much you’re able to do, and what you’re being asked to publish, or run. I mean, I’ve published (because it was my job), not my byline, but a lot of things that I don’t think are good narratives for women, many of them were white feminist narratives, but that was my job description. I also published a lot of other things, whether under my own name or solicited from somebody else, that challenged those narratives. So I think that’s always going to be the case, but I think in terms of your actual workers; rights and sustainability and being able to afford doing this career and then paying your rent and student loans, I think that’s really changing in a better way.
SK: One of my favorite lines in your book is “White feminism isn’t just built on a foundation of white supremacy, meritocracy, and money. It’s also erected by a fundamental lack of imagination.” I was wondering if you could explain why you feel this to be true, and what you think is the biggest danger posed by this lack of imagination, and also its relationship to people who are “white feminists” now who are sort of waking up to the idea that like, “freeing the nipple” is not as important as making sure everyone can eat, you know, and how we can sort of get people to start approaching things from a place of recognizing this lack of imagination specifically?
KB: Well, I think that with regards to that line you just cited, what I was really trying to evoke and was thinking about in many of these newsrooms that I’ve sat in and also like interviewing a lot of white feminists, a lot of times the thread between all of them is that they advocate excelling in the system that was erected. Whether that was directly capitalism, even if that’s not really a conscious framework, just like, here’s the box in which we all live, and here’s how to get to the top of the box. And that’s very limiting, a lot of research that I’ve done—and I don’t mean just formally for the book, just reading that I do in my own life—of like, Black feminism, and the way that a lot of different speakers in that movement have a vision to completely re-envision the police force, completely re-envisioning incarceration, childcare, completely re-envisioning not just paid parental leave or things like that, but even like resources for kids… So many movements by other people have been so much more inventive in the way that they’re able to see need, and then what systems could do to support and furnish that need. And white feminism has never been that. It’s never been about systemic critique, it’s never been about changing certain avenues. It’s usually about taking essentially patriarchal tenets and then refashioning them into skillsets for other women . . . I think that is a real difference between the ideology of white feminism, and really anything else. Even consumer activism, which is still very much operating under capitalism, is still looking at like, the taxes for meat, and then the government taxes, and they know that that money isn’t going to like, workers, right, it’s not going to the people who actually raise these animals and then slaughter them, they just don’t think meat should cost that much, based on the fact that their wages have not increased. And even that’s, like, more inventive and creative.
SK: And my last question, which is sort of related, just to round it out: what are some of the main ideas you want your readers to be left with when they finish your book? What are some other books or writers you would recommend to readers who become interested in exploring the issues with white feminism more?
KB: Both very good questions. A few takeaways that I really want people to have for these books, and because I’m doing book tours from my house basically, I’ve been hearing a lot of this on social, a lot of people all over the world have actually been messaging with me about this which makes me really happy: that there has never been one singular feminism, which I feel like is a lie that has been substantiated a lot through historical narratives, how we teach gender history, you know even really collegiate like “women’s studies” programs have been complicit in this. There are many many feminisms, there are many gendered movements, there always have been. There is no default feminism, all of these different movements have very exciting and exhilarating ways of thinking about combating oppression, and I’m hoping and I’m seeing that readers are being left with that, that, like, Native women, view “feminism”—although that’s a fraught word, even across native communities because they’re matrilineal societies so in a lot of ways they don’t need feminism—very differently, or like Black lesbian feminists, or Chicanas, or a number of people. So that’s one. The other thing, and this kind of speaks to your last question, is that white feminism, like, so much is possible if you are able to get beyond it, and that white feminism is very limiting in the way that it both envisions but also sells you equality for women and nonbinary people. It’s just a very limiting construction. And then the other thing I hope people are left with is that you keep reading! I took great pains in my book to do a really robust bibliography, I spent a lot of time on it even under a book deadline, and I wanted to make sure that I cited very robustly and that I had a lot back there, so if you read something by Cheryl Clarke or Barbara Smith, you can find a whole piece and engage with it further and maybe think about it more if you wanted to. I feel like a major trick I was able to pull off with this book is that I have drawn you in with exploring the ideology of white feminism, that’s on the cover, but I have left you with all these other movements. In terms of other books that explore white feminism, or just explore I would say like, non-white feminism . . . many of these are cited; I love Common Sense And a Little Fire about the industrial feminists, so these are women who worked in factories and laundries, and they tried—many of them are immigrant women, and they occupy a really interesting space I feel like in our country, because I feel like in some ways they are post suffrage—they tried to work with the white feminist suffragists for a minute, but it really fell apart because of the white feminist ideologies and practices. So they peeled off and made their own movement, which makes a lot of sense. And another book I really love, also cited in my book, is How We Get Free, which is an oral history of the Combahee River Collective, which is a Black feminist collective. That book is really incredible and not very long, and also, this book is a lot more academic, but if you’re like me and are very interested in marketing and branding and gender, another book I cite is Selling Suffrage by Margaret Finnegan, and she’s who I quote pretty extensively to explain the marketing that white feminist suffragists in the modern suffrage movement, how they envisioned both a political identity and then a commodified identity. It’s more academic, it’s more dense, but it’s very fascinating.
Koa Beck’s book, White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind is out from Atria Books and available at your local independent bookstores across the country.
SOPHIA KAUFMAN is a reader and editor living in New York. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @skmadeleine.