Who is Women: Patricia Arquette Speech Raises Questions

Patricia Arquette accepting the Oscar for Best Performance by an actress in a supporting role, for her role in 'Boyhood.'
Patricia Arquette accepting the Oscar for Best Performance by an actress in a supporting role, for her role in 'Boyhood.' –EPA

There were plenty of newsworthy moments packed into last night’s 87th annual Academy Awards. Host Neil Patrick Harris gave us plenty. So did a little-known director. The musical numbers ranged from deeply touching to fancifully busy, and a few speeches were very, very heartfelt.

One of those speeches was the speech made by Patricia Arquette, who took home Best Supporting Actress honors for her role in Boyhood. She took the stage, accepted the award, brought out her glasses, and rattled off thank-yous. When she took the time to lobby for “wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America,’’ people were surprised. Not because Patricia Arquette hasn’t shown a propensity to care about serious issues, but because it was tacked onto the end of a speech full of personal thank-yous.

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Still, she was right, we do need equal pay for equal work between men and women. It was met with an outpouring of praise on social media, and resulted in one of the most popular vines of the night:

But then, she did what we’ve all been tempted to do after making a salient point: She kept talking.

She went on to say, in the press room:

“It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t,’’ she said. “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.’’

One step forward, two steps back. The first part of this quote is relatively bulletproof. The second portion is, sadly, par for the course.

Women tend to make less money. Period. That needs to change. Not for its impact on the economy, but for its inherent immorality. But Arquette’s comments in the press room expose a deep flaw in mainstream feminist thinking. Rather, they ask an important question: Who is “Women?’’

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The fissures between mainstream feminism and women of color was explored in earnest thanks to the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag in 2013. Blogger Mikki Kendall told The Guardian that she began the exploration into the idea that feminism, “as a global movement meant to unite all women’’ with “global responsibilities’ had “failed at one of the most basic: it has not been welcoming to all women, or even their communities.’’

Whether or not feminist theory calls for such thinking explicitly, Arquette’s backstage comments highlighted the gulf between mainstream feminism and the needs of non-white women.

Live footage of Patricia Arquette asking gays & people of color to help her get better pay. pic.twitter.com/oDcIyqbknM

— BlackBroDude (@CraigSJ) February 23, 2015

Arquette made a blanket point on stage, one that ignored the fact that women of color earn even less than their white female counterparts, who earn less than their male counterparts. This isn’t ideal, but it’s not indefensible: she didn’t have all day. But she made that comment for all Women. In the press room, however, she called out groups in which women are subsumed, like the LGBTQ community, and non-whites, to fight for who she referred to as “us.’’

If gay women aren’t “us,’’ and black, hispanic, asian, and native American women aren’t “us,’’ then who is “us’’ to Patricia Arquette?

And, more importantly, what right does Arquette’s “us’’ have to demand that “they’’ run to the aide of “us?’’

We only work, in this society, to reap some reward. Money is chief among them. Women of color know they are valued for their bodies and labor: history tells us so, with names like Sally Hemings and Pocahontas. But what they haven’t had, historically, is a voice. This isn’t to say that white women always had one, just that whiteness got them a voice first.

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And mainstream feminism, throughout its history until today, has overwhelmingly put white women first, while calling on other women to rally in support of all women.

That’s why Arquette’s defense sounds so familiar.

The bones of what Arquette said above are absolutely correct. All women need better pay, women of color suffer most, and a fight against equal pay is a fight against women.

If mainstream feminism recognizes these truths, it should think outside the box. It should rally its “us’’ to fight for “them,’’ free of ulterior motive. Such a show of true solidarity would remove all need for clarification and day-after Twitter backpedaling.

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