When even “white girl tears” couldn’t stop Brett Kavanaugh from reaching the Supreme Court bench, feminist scholar Brittney Cooper knew at that moment that women’s rights in America were at a nadir.
“Being a black woman, I was relying on the power of white girl tears to actually compel this nation to do something,” she told the audience at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit. But what she discovered instead was that even the “humble white damsel-in-distress femininity” that she already found so problematic held no power in the face of privileged patriarchy.
“White women often weaponize their tears against folks,” she explained. “Look, when we all call you out for racism and you all start crying that’s weaponizing your tears. You’re the perpetrators, we’re the victims and y’all start crying and everyone starts going, ‘What’s wrong?’ Stop doing that,” Professor Cooper said to cheers from the audience.
But, as she wrote on Twitter during Kavanaugh’s hearings: “If a white women’s tears can’t compel white men to do better, nothing will. And for the rest of us — that shit is apocalyptic in its implications.”
But what Black feminism and being a Black girl for 37 years has taught me is that if a white women’s tears can’t compel white men to do better, nothing will. And for the rest of us — that shit is apocalyptic in its implications. I need a drink.
— Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk) September 28, 2018
Professor Cooper (in a fabulous green pantsuit, it must be said) stole the show at the event on Thursday. On a panel of four self-proclaimed “loudmouths” — that included actress and humanitarian Ashley Judd, writer and author Rebecca Traister and Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Sarah McBride — Cooper did not take a backward step in saying it’s about time middle-aged white women “woke up” and joined women of color and the LGBTQ community in the fight for equal rights.
She pointed to the Black Lives Matter uprising after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson as a precursor to the current feminist movement. “History tells us the women’s movement will always follow a movement for racial justice.”
Sarah McBride, the first transgender person to address the Democratic National Convention in 2016, concurred.
“I think there’s been an evolution over the past few years, but when it bubbled up in 2017 [after Trump] one of the things we saw because of this organic bubbling up was that people sort of assumed that there’d be this natural space for everyone and equal opportunities to share stories. But I think women of color, LGBTQ voices, women living in poverty didn’t feel the same ability to share their stories.”
Traister said the turmoil of the Kavanaugh hearings had left “people feeling defeated” and poured a “bucket of cold water” on the buoyancy felt after the Women’s March, and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
“In order to think clearly about why people have awakened, we have to look at who was asleep,” added Traister, who wrote extensively about women’s anger in her brilliant book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.
“We haven’t solved the errors and inhumanity of the past and we have to look at the people who have benefited from it.”
For her part, Judd weighed in on the newest assault on abortion rights — so-called “heartbeat bills,” which prohibit abortion when a heartbeat can be heard at six weeks, are effectively banning abortions at the state level. Moderator Katie Couric chimed in to describe the current climate as “becoming like The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Judd also spoke of her own personal experience with sexual assault. To a hushed audience, she said she had been raped three times, and became pregnant as a result of one of the attacks. “Thankfully, I was able to access a safe abortion in Kentucky, where I am from.” In Tennessee, however, where Judd lives now, her rapist would have had legal paternal rights to the child. “I would have had to co-parent with a rapist,” she said.
Looking ahead to 2020, discussion turned to whether Joe Biden could still be the key to the Democrats’ presidential dreams.
“The future is female,” said Cooper, getting in the final word. “It is not an old white man.”
Additional reporting by Nicole Savini.