Can the subaltern speak? Analyzing Feminist Movements

Feminism. It is a single word in the English language that manages to revolutionize the masses yet causes great angst among those who anticipate the change. It is also a word that has divided women throughout history. As one group fought to bring about the first wave of change, the post-colonial descendants of such women felt their ancestor’s voices no longer represented their needs. New voices rose in prominence and set out to create a new vision of feminism by writing back to their predecessors that times were changing. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin write of feminism, “Central to it has been a continuing debate between Western and post-colonial feminisms in which changing assumptions and agendas, different priorities and concerns suggest that this will remain an area of sharp and productive argument” (219). It has been the voices of feminists that have changed the landscape time and again. As each group gained freedoms, it was up to the next to advance progress. It is often at the expense of past beliefs rather than current dangers that become the basis of a new definition of feminist arguments. Jean Rhys challenged Western narratives that defined women by misconceptions of gender which set the agenda for the necessity of subaltern feminist narratives. Furthermore, this essay will outline the subaltern argument by using feminist authors to define each wave of feminism that still speaks to societies today for the need for activism since equality still eludes women today.

Feminist Perspective Anti-Feminist Perspective
Wave 1: Women’s Suffrage


Women Only Want The Right To Vote. They Destroy Family Values.
Wave 2: Socio-Economic Equality

Minority Rights

Women Want The Right To Kill Their Unborn Children.
Wave 3: Gender


Women Demand Special Laws, Programs, and Services That Men Do Not Qualify.
Wave 4: Sexual Harassment

Violence Against Women

Women Will Join Extremist Groups To Stop Capitalism And Patriarchy.

Image 1: Comparison of Perspectives of Feminist and Anti-Feminist Waves

Colonial v. Post-Colonial Feminism

While the first wave of feminism began in Europe in the 1830s, it was Mary Wollstonecraft who, in 1792, gave birth to feminism with her soul-searching work entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft’s literature set the stage for the first wave of feminism which centered on education, political power, and property rights. Wollstonecraft describes pre-feminist social attitudes with one single line,

“The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove, that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers that are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity” (Introduction).

Women were born and bred to be wives, mothers, and beacons of moral conscience so said the men who ruled the church and society. One can imagine the shock that a solitary woman dared to question male authority. Wollstonecraft writes, “Consequently the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness, must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society” (Ch. 1). Quite ironically, Mrs. Wollstonecraft died young in childbirth, but even death was not strong enough to silence her voice or the women who served as her greatest critics. The opening of Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s book notes, “The work was much reprehended, and as might well be expected, found its greatest enemies in the pretty soft creatures—the spoiled children of her own sex” (A Brief Sketch Of The Life Of Mary Wollstonecraft).  It would take another three decades to realize that she was right in that equality began with the need for political and economic powers. In the 1830s to early 1900s, it was typically White, middle-class women who led the charge because they were the only ones who could do so without significant consequence from male dominance. Early representations of feminism prospered because of feminist authors like Sarah Grimke, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Even then, the idea of feminism offered up their greatest critiques just as the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft experienced: women who believed their places were in the home and anything otherwise was immoral and ungodly. Anti-feminists rallied under the guise of family first values which intended to halt mounting divorce rates which they blamed solely on feminists. Followers of feminism and anti-feminism progressed by using the voices of colonial writers who tried to move the dimensions of power both ways.

Feminists, while trying to gain political and economic standing, pushed for the most critical issues that affected women with no rights, but they ignored the voices who had nothing to gain by these changes. Simply put, if you were not in a state to inherit property or live in a geographic location that built their democracy by votes, you gained nothing while at the same time had lost everything during Imperialist invasions which gave voice to a new generation of feminists. Mohanty writes that post-colonial feminists, “…describe the appropriation of their experiences and struggles by hegemonic white women’s movements, ‘the term ‘colonization’ has been used to characterize everything from the most evident economic and political hierarchies to the production of a particular cultural discourse” (61). It is this criticism of the first wave belonging only to a subset of women that enabled the second wave of women to write back to empire in redefining a new dawning of feminist voices ready to take on social hierarchies of the modern era. With it came to these new feminist authors and critics alike, they were prepared to take on the past and present to create a balance more equitable to class, gender, and race.

Inclusive Feminist Characterization

The second wave of feminism rose to acclaim after World War II which centered on the rights of socio-economic equality and minority rights. These women, however, were born with all the gains of the first wave of feminist rights to education and voting, so they centered their argument on the lack of representation of class, race, and gender. Simply put, White, middle-class women could never understand the needs of poor White or minority women which was why the first wave was not useful to the new generation of women who wanted equality. It was time for these voices to write back to Empire a new message, a new perspective, and a new vision of feminism. Post-colonial authors had something to reclaim: their identities that those in power silenced during colonial invasions. While there was a more significant argument placed on socio-economic conditions in the present, it also focused on the past feminists whom they believed contributed to the current political and social oppression because of the narrow scope of their arguments. Suleri writes, “The coupling of postcolonial with woman, however, almost inevitably leads to the simplicities that underlie unthinking celebrations of oppression, elevating the racially female voice into a metaphor for ‘the good” (Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition 756). Suleri is wrong in her assertions as authors like Jean Rhys boldly and unapologetically took on first-wave feminists and anti-feminists alike in demanding all voices be heard on social and gender binaries. It is through Rhys’s work, Voyage In The Dark, that readers see a vision of the lifestyles that binaries created for women because of poverty and race which did not create a ‘good’ voice but rather a powerful one that put the world on notice that two sides of history existed. To understand one, you had to hear the other which captured multicultural narratives of lessons learned from forced, oppressive policies and practices.

Every woman has a story which might explain why there are supporters and detractors in every movement. Imagine if you were a biracial woman raised in one culture only to find yourself far from home in another with no money or name. There were only two options for women: work or die. Jean Rhys’s character, Anna, is just such a woman who ends up in such circumstances as a chorus girl traveling England without support from family or community. Her friend, Maude, initially travels with her which, together, defines two types of women who find themselves working with the only thing they had left to sell: their bodies. One held on to her virtue because that is what she was raised to believe based on Western social and religious values while the other used her sexuality to her advantage for financial gain. Anna’s islander characterization, as well as Maude’s poor White presence, represents women caught between the need to be free and the wants of society to bind them to ladylike qualities and activities. When one is starving, there is little choice even when labeled a tart, prostitute, or morally corrupt which speaks to the need for the second wave of feminism. Women were forced to choose to die a lady or live with the only asset society allowed them: their sexuality. So, the stage became a lifeline to many women who chose to live among the vultures who publicly ridiculed then in the day yet offered to buy their services in the dark. In so doing, these strong women were labeled by their gender rather than their determination which forced women long denied the right to correct the narrative. Power is the force behind all evils, and colonialism explains much about the need to dominate be it a woman or a foreign nation. In Imperialism and Social Classes, Schumpeter writes, “When two tribes come into conflict over essential salt deposits or hunting grounds; or when a state, hemmed in on all sides by customs and communication barriers, resorts to aggression in order to gain access to the sea, we have a case in which aggression is explained by interests” (3). Self-interests is the force behind human nature which is why opposing narratives provide insight into oppressive conditions aimed at subverting power.

Jean Rhys takes on universal binaries, gender inequality, racial disparities, classism, and religion to define the struggles of women from different social backgrounds to redefine feminism as more than just one class, gender, or racial perspective. Classism is one of the first feminist arguments Rhys makes when she addresses women who use social power against women to create a subaltern circumstance as they serve as the voices of Western morality. The female landlords devalued women of the theater as immoral and loose with their sexually favors. These women generally sound off the loudest critics in Voyage In The Dark. Rhys writes, “…after Maudie had talked for a while, making her voice sound as ladylike as possible, she said, ‘Well, I might make an exception for this time” (8). After Anna and Maudie move in, the landlady criticizes their every action including their attire, their company, and their reputations for the sole purpose of protecting their self-interests of moral and social standing within their community. It is the dynamics that Rhys creates between these two groups that represent post-colonial feminism well. One group wanted to progress, and the other wanted things to stay as they were since they were perfectly content in their current situations. This essay would be remiss if it did not address the fact that these female landlords had financial stability because of the first feminists who fought for their property rights. These women had gained power, and their self-interests gave them authority over the other women which they were content while unconcerned with other women’s needs.

Rhys then addresses gender issues through beauty standards. She says, “People laugh at girls who are dressed badly” (Rhys). She then gets $ 25.00 from Mr. Jeffries which she buys clothes. Her landlady sees the new clothes and says to her, “I don’t want no tarts in my house” (Rhys 29). Anna’s character also delves into her sexuality when Rhys writes, “The other man looked at me sideways once or twice – very quickly up and down, in that way they have” (Rhys 11). At first glance, she was sexually valued based on a man’s perspective of a woman’s worth. Anna’s upbringing taught her it was her duty to marry, so she struggled with her sexuality. After meeting Walter and giving him what he wanted, she became his temporary, exotic plaything. She, on the other hand, falls in love with the idea of being loved by a man who had no intentions of falling for a woman like Anna. Rhys defined Anna as a woman of two worlds who struggled with love and life when she writes, “And how do you know what it’s like to try to speak from underwater when your drowned” (98). It speaks to the detractors in that they could never know what it is like to try to voice concerns while the world around women actively try to drown out the voice of the ones being oppressed. Rhys uses Miss Morgan’s character to pass judgment on women like Anna when she writes, “There you are. I always knew this would happen” (100). How could women like Miss Morgan know? Well, women like here were the voices of morality in deciding that this was the story ending of all women without moral and religious character. So sets the trap for all the Annas in the world as their lives became repetitive by becoming what she thought her lot in life was destined for; a new boarding home, a new Miss Morgan, and a new day to struggle through her turmoil. It is through Anna’s song that Rhys speaks of imperialist powers. Rhys writes, “The Caribs indigenous to this island were a warlike tribe and their resistance to white domination, though sporadic, was here” (105). It is an interesting song as it seems to speak of Anna’s self-identification with indigenous people while also using her voice to reclaim history. At the same time, she seems to be saying she needs to give up fighting as she had already been dominated by White society.

Rhys uses her female characters to define a new representation of feminism. Ethyl hates men and proudly boasts that she can care for herself financially (110). Ethyl also hates foreigners which shows the power struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Laurie is the smart feminist who wears her hair short and prefers PJs over nightgowns. She is also a businesswoman who exploits men and then puts half of her financial gains away for the future. She also is quite unladylike in her manners when she says things like, “Look out you bloody fool, don’t spill it” (119). Joe, the visiting American, calls out women when he says, “Oh, women. How you love each other” (119). You said it, Joe! Laurie is a realist and lets everyone know she can handle her own because of her peasant bloodline. One by one, the women disappoint Anna in their expectations but also teach her about the realities found in Western civilizations. Rhys seems to sum up the subaltern of women quite cleverly when she writes, “The damned way they look at you, and their damned voices, like high, smooth, unclimbable walls all around you, closing in on you” (147). Anna then experiences the reality of her gender and class when she becomes pregnant and undergoes an abortion at a seedy establishment which further defines the dangers of being a woman, unmarried and alone. She begins to bleed heavily when the fetus passes, and no one wants to summon a doctor for fear of legal repercussions. Eventually, Anna makes a turn for the worst, and Laurie calls the doctor and blames her state on a fall. He sees right through the lie and speaks of female naivety as well as her being well enough soon to get back on her feet. The book ends with Anna thinking about starting over and doing it all over again which suggests she will once again fall for a man, be naïve to their love and lies, and then ultimately suffer the worst fate for a woman: an unwanted pregnancy to hide the shame of being an unwed mother. Rhys’s work represents post-colonial literature because it identifies with a feminist protagonist coming up against the dangers the world represents to a young, naïve woman who must make her way in the world. The men and women in her life prey upon her naivety and then judge her for her stupidity in believing their lies. Men offered money for her beauty, and women wanted her beauty to make money. So goes the life for those with and those without. Experience is a good teacher, but the post-colonial voices of feminist writers like Rhys served to remind women why there was the need for progress in the first place. These authors enabled women to gain their voices and define their identities, but power always managed to win during the mid-twentieth century which led to a third feminist wave because of such issues as equality, racism, and rights over female bodies.

Taking On Western Powers

The third wave of feminism took on sexuality, reproduction, and worker rights. This wave, however, brought about new feminist voices like Gloria Steinem who proudly defined herself as a feminist in every sense of the word. Audre Lorde was also a prominent feminist described herself as a Black lesbian who boldly wrote an essay entitled, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.” It is a curious statement that takes on Western powers in that even when the oppressed use White ‘tools,’ it will never change a thing for some people because White culture is much too dominant in society. Lorde writes of the master’s tools, “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change” (27). What is the point in trying if you take the perspective of feminists like Lorde? The ignorance of some of the modern feminists has bastardized the movement as they were born with freedoms that past feminists were not. This essayist would also ask Lorde if those women who fought for her right to vote or her ability to speak her opinion was the definition of genuine change. Perhaps someone should ask her how she enjoys her freedom because feminists fought for those rights, too. Unlike Lorde, feminists who brought about change not only used the master tools, but they caused a storm so strong that it brought down the socially constructed houses built around such subaltern binaries. Therein lies the issue. While this essayist does not agree with Lorde’s viewpoints, this essay recognizes that race and gender often define one’s existence and applaud her in determining her voice.

Lorde also wrote that there were no hierarchies in oppression which this essay could not disagree more. Just listen to the oppressed women in history. Whether it was because of gender, class, or geographic location, subsets of oppression existed and each defined a social value based on one’s worth to others in power. You could be the most beautiful slave and your lot would have been better than the homely-looking slaves in the field because men defined you had value to their needs. Poor White women had no economic value and were worse off than those without freedoms in a middle or higher economic class. You could be a weak, White girl from the hills who had no opportunities for advancement, or you could be the one from a large city who could at least do womanly chores for room and board.  Hierarchies exist even when everyone is the same gender, same race, and same class. Someone had to live on the other side of the tracks. It was all tied to economics. Add in race, it became even more comfortable for the people on the right side of the tracks to demean and subordinate the others in subclasses. Even then, poor Whites were one thing, but poor Blacks subordinated to The Quarters were another. Of course, hierarchies exist in oppression. What would politicians use to get people to vote unless they exploited those differences? It is all about perception, and politicians are masters at classifying ‘others’ into classes so that one group feels more valued than another while also planting fears that their votes are the only thing that determines their worth. If the “other” gets power, the fear implanted in subordinated classes is that they will lose value and another will take their places in society. If it were not for the great equalizer of education in which many a feminist fought for the right, women today would still be like all the poor protagonists in literature. Depending on how society valued a woman’s worth, you would be a wife, a nun, or a whore. You would not have had much choice either way. It is human nature to either be strong or weak. The strong rise in station, and the weak perish well before their times. Perhaps Lorde, as a lesbian and Black woman, felt based on her experiences that one oppression was no different when oppressed. It is quite easy to dismantle her beliefs. Even in 2018, society values a wife with a husband and children much better than a gay woman because there is still a belief that women’s purposes in this world are to breed. If you are gay, there is a belief you have little worth. That is the danger in women like Lorde who think that oppression is equal. She is wrong in her assertion when she overshadows feminist theories by claiming, “…the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered” (26). Just as she criticized past feminists, she too chose to speak for all women in thinking that the need to nurture is part of female qualities. If anything, women are harsher on other females who do not fit into the same standards or belief systems. She is also wrong in her assertions that the ‘others’ are equal because of their otherness. Even when you are among the “other,” you give yourself a value and then set about to devalue those around you to increase your worth socially. Lorde’s argument that one can only temporarily dismantle hierarchies demeans the very existence of feminism in that the point of its existence is because of a need to balance powers.

Modern Socio-Cultural Identity Of Feminism

Who is a modern feminist? According to the fourth wave that society now finds itself in, these feminists fight against socio-cultural causes like sexual assault and violence against women. According to RAINN, a woman is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds in America (Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics). The site also states:

  • Since 1998, 17.7 million women have been victimized sexually.
  • Since 1998, 2.78 million men have been sexual assault victims.  (RAINN).

In third-world countries, it is often underreported and socially accepted which means that there is still work to be done by feminists globally. Domestic violence also became a dominant factor to feminists. According to NCADV, more than twenty people each minute suffer abuse at the hands of partners including one in three women and one in four men (National Statistics). Feminism no longer represents the needs of women so much as the need of society in general as more focus defines the need for change for both genders.

It is toward the third and fourth wave of the feminist movement that socio-cultural identify of the feminist came under attack. Butler writes, “Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism” (viii). The modernist feminist voices, however, have changed to include male, female, gay, straight, and anyone in between who does not find his or her voice yet represented in society. The above statistics speak to the need for feminism, but it also serves as a reminder as to why feminism is not one condition, one landscape, or one identity. The socio-economic and cultural issues define the feminist movements of the women who live them and fight for change so that future generations have such freedoms.

Can The Subaltern Speak?

Can the subaltern speak? The feminist writers who have written their truths during each movement stand in history as testaments to the subaltern not only talking but constructing such persuasive arguments that their voices brought about significant change. Ashcroft et al. write, “Women in many societies have been relegated to the position of ‘Other’, marginalized and, in a metaphorical sense, ‘colonized’, forced to pursue guerrilla warfare against imperial domination from positions deeply embedded in, yet fundamentally alienated from, that imperium” (172). Each group of women was forced to write back to empire to stand as the voices for the current society’s need for change. Post-colonial subaltern studies also represent feminists as the voices of change which can take those beliefs back into their communities to inspire change. Even when the anti-feminist voices grow louder in voicing disparities against those fighting for change, the subaltern speaks in repositioning the power because of experience and the strength to express it. Is feminism dead? Has quality been achieved? Some say yes while others argue that men are now oppressed because women took their power. Feminists also take the time to write back to those voices to set the record straight in that women fought for equality for all genders, races, or geographic locations without discrimination which is more than what many women in history were given because of their gender.

Until true equality exists for all, the wounds continue to lay bare the cruelties of oppression that still exists in society today. Wollstonecraft wrote, “The most cruel wounds will of course soon heal, and they may still people the world, and dress to please man—all the purposes which certain celebrated writers have allowed that they were created to fill” (Ch 13.3). If the subaltern did not speak, perhaps authors like Mary Wollstonecraft would not have voiced her truths while also inspiring the masses to take up arms against oppressive hierarchies that put women in their places and forced upon them the rights that men allowed them. Moreover, women today would not be the head of corporations, high-ranking politicians, scholars, or the familial breadwinners without the many feminists who fought for the rights that some modern women take for granted. The subaltern speaks even when you do not care to listen because women today have the right to own property, vote, seek an education, and retain control over their bodies because of the women who did not.  Each feminist movement offered a glimpse into their lives, but more importantly, it defines why feminism evolves. The prior movements provide freedoms while also speaking to future generations to take on social dictates and force change. It just so happens that the social issues that define women also now have unmasked the sexualization of men because women have for a long time fought against the oppressive stereotypes of sexual assault.

Through all the changes, the voices of feminism have changed significantly. The economic, political, and social landscapes changed identities and self-representation as well which caused some women to shy away from the feminist label. Without a doubt, women in each movement brought about change. What is also at issue is the passive nature that some modern women take toward feminism. That said, change will come because of the voices that dictate the need for it because of oppressive policies, practices, and procedures that still exist in society today. It is up to modern feminist writers to continue to identify causes and work to overcome them so that future generations will listen to the subaltern speak and find reasons to add to the conversation. It is empowering when listening to feminists speak in knowing that the highest power exists when women learn to use their voices to pick up the gauntlet where others in the past have left off.


Works Cited
Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, Tiffin, Helen. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature. Routledge N.Y 2nd Edition. 2002.
Berry, John W. Immigration, Acculturation, and Adaptation. Applied Psychology. An International Review, 1997.46 (1). 5-68
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge New and York London. 1990.
Funny Junk. Four Waves Of Feminism. Image. (n.d.). Acc 3 Jun 2018.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.” New York; Kitchen Table Press. 1983.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Feminist Review, no. 30, 1988, pp. 61–88.
NCADV. “National Statistics.” (n.d.).  Acc 3 Jun 2018.
RAINN. “Victims of Sexual Assault: Statistics.” 2018. Acc 3 Jun 2018.
Rhys, Jean. Voyage in the Dark. Norton. New York, New York. 1982.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. Imperialism and Social Classes: Two Essays. Vol. 4. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1955.
Suleri, Sara. “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 4, 1992, pp. 756–769.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Deidre Shauna Lynch. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009.

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