How have ideas about white women figured in the history of racism? This is the main question that Vron Ware poses in her book Beyond The Pale: White Women, Racism and History.
Beyond The Pale: White Women, Racism and History is an extensive analysis of race, gender and class from a British perspective. Divided into five parts the author uses relevant historical examples to explore white women’s connection to non-white people and racism throughout history, focusing mainly on white women’s roles in feminist and anti-slavery movements during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Fittingly, the book opens with a foreword by American writer and creator of the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, Mikki Kendall. Part One sets the tone by discussing contemporary images of white womanhood and the ways they are used to reinforce racist tropes and thinking. The next three sections are arguably the most interesting and complex. They explore English women’s involvement in abolitionist campaigns, the connections between white femininity and lynchings in the US towards the end of the 19th century, and how ideas about gender and race impacted the lives of white and non-white women under the Empire.
The second part focuses on white women’s involvement in British abolitionist movements during the 19th century. The connections that some white women drew between anti-slavery movements and women’s movements at the time enabled them to empathise with enslaved black people. Consequently, they started to further understand and become more vocal about their subordination within society.
Part Three discusses white women’s relationships with non-white women and people during the British Empire. It features case studies of two prominent Victorian feminists and their connections to social reform in India. Ware excellently explores the notion of Empire’s so-called “Civilising Mission” and the position of white English women within it.
In contrast to earlier sections of the book, Part Four is more concerned with American history. Its main point of discussion is the widespread practice of lynching, particularly among southern US states, from the late 1800s. At that time, lynchings were a form of racial terror used to control black people. In several cases, as Ware notes, lynchings were also supposed to protect white women from the dangers of black male lust. This theory played a huge part in 14-year-old Emmett Till’s savage murder in 1955. In 2017, the New York Times reported that the white woman who accused Till of grabbing and verbally harassing her – an accusation that led to his lynching – admitted that these allegations were false in 2008.
This section of the book highlights the extent to which white women can actively perpetuate racism, and the ways white womanhood has historically been used to incite racial violence against non-white people. Ware discusses the significance of writer and activist Ida B Wells’ work and explores the similarities and differences between anti-lynching groups in Britain and the US.
The idea that white women are inherently pure, virtuous and innocent is a common theme that runs throughout the book. White womanhood being something that must be protected at all times and all costs is a trope that is alive as ever. Moving forward, Ware suggests that white women who engage in feminism should reject racist ideas of white femininity. Such ideas undeniably benefit white women while harming and further oppressing non-white women and men.
Overall, Beyond The Pale: White Women, Racism and History was an illuminating read for me. I learned the most from Part Two and Part Three. The book explores in detail how white women have historically been complicit in white supremacy and actively perpetuated racism. Even though white women are oppressed by white men, white women can, and do, oppress non-white people.
The book is quite academic but it didn’t feel laborious or difficult to read. Ware’s analysis of race and gender is thorough and brilliantly researched. She questions the meanings of womanhood and femininity, particularly in regards to whiteness. I love that it addresses race and gender from a predominantly British perspective. It offers a very good insight into the ways race and gender can intersect and how they both impact the oppression and discrimination that some women experience.
Reading this book made me realise that issues of race and class within women’s movements and feminism aren’t new. These issues have existed for centuries and the discussions surrounding them have been happening for a long time. However, the language that feminists and women have used to talk about these issues have changed and evolved.
Ware stresses the necessity of talking about race and class when we talk about gender. It is simply not enough to rely on the bonds between women alone while ignoring others. In the author’s own words, “…political unity between women across race and class is potentially one of the greatest forces for change in the world, but that there is nothing about being a woman which necessarily guarantees that unity.”
If you’re interested in topics like feminism, gender, race and/or class, you need to pick up this book. I’d say it’s essential reading for white women and anyone who calls themselves a feminist or intersectional feminist.
My rating: 8/10
Beyond The Pale: White Women, Racism and History is published by Verso Books. Order your copy here.