White feminism’s problem with ‘positive thinking’

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This essay was first published in 2018 as ‘You can’t “positive-think” your way out of disadvantage’ in Hot Chicks With Big Brains: Issue #6. It was published under my previous name Kaitlyn Plyley and edited by Bri Lee.

Black-and-white photograph of five women wearing white Victorian-era dresses, hats and rosettes, walking in a protest march while holding a banner that says “NEW YORK CITY WOMEN HAVE NO VOTE AT ALL”.
Women’s suffrage march. | Photographer: Bettmann (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Having just heard my account of how my ex-boyfriend psychologically tormented me for years, the woman in front of me congratulated herself on having chosen a ‘good’ boyfriend — she’d “just known” when she met him that he would never hurt her. I pointed out that I’d felt that way about my ex, which had made the abuse all the more traumatic, like I couldn’t trust my own intuition. The friend dismissed this and said of my ex, “Anyone could tell he had issues.”

As a disabled woman, I encounter this dismissive attitude from many sources (for example when religious people say I just need to “pray for a cure” or when men tell me I misread sexism into a situation) but what shocked me about the exchange is that this woman identified as a feminist. We’d actually met through feminist activist circles. Her insinuation that I’d somehow invited abuse by not predicting my ex’s behaviour was textbook victim-blaming. How was I getting this from a young secular progressive?

Thought-as-power is the theory that human thoughts have creative power; negative thoughts can attract negative experiences and positive thoughts attract beneficial experiences.. It’s the idea behind everything from vision boards and any Instagram hashtag ending in “–spo” to Pentecostal Christian tithing and psychologists advising patients with depression to “think happy”. “Pos vibes only” has its roots in a mostly-forgotten movement from the end of the nineteenth century: New Thought. In Victorian-era America, word spread of a new ‘science’ that could cure a man’s fractured leg without touching it. The patient merely needed to be taught to believe that his leg was healed. With the invention of electricity and the telephone bringing science fiction into reality, esoteric healing through thought seemed plausible.

Historian Beryl Satter wrote that the New Thought movement “both drew upon and deeply influenced the ideas of woman movement leaders, early progressive reformers, and turn-of-the-century neurologists and physicians”. One of New Thought’s earliest leaders, Mary Baker Eddy, founded Christian Science, which holds that “sickness and sin” are illusions that can be overcome by a spiritual mind. I had assumed positive thinking was an incidental symptom of capitalism — internalised neo-liberalism — something that crept into feminism from entrepreneurial motivational posters. But Satter points out, “[t]he majority of late-nineteenth-century New Thought authors, healers, teachers, patients, and congregants were white middle-class women.” Many followers of New Thought (including suffragettes) felt that they were on the cusp of a new ‘woman’s era’, one which would be marked by the supposed peace and gentility of the ‘feminine’ spirit.

Researching this, I am reminded of scenes from the historic 2017 Women’s Marches — excited white, middle-class women wearing pussy hats and proclaiming “the future is female”. There was a tenor I recognised from years of International Women’s Day breakfast speeches and white feminist manifestos: the vague assertions that once women are in more positions of authority, ‘things’ will ‘change’. White woman politicians and wealthy famous white women take the stage to celebrate the ‘power’ of womanhood, usually erasing transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people. It’s only a very specific type of woman that Victorians believed would elevate humankind: white, middle-class, cisgender women.

In the late nineteenth century, rather than working to liberate all bodies, the progressive struggle was mainly over who was the human ideal: white middle-class men or white middle-class women. People of colour and working-class white people didn’t really get a look-in. With white, middle-class people being the dominant demographic in the UK, USA and Australia, it’s no surprise that this is the version of feminism that has dominated general knowledge. It’s critical we remember the classist and racist history of thought-as-power, to remember that the leaders most fervently proclaiming that structural barriers didn’t exist were the ones experiencing the fewest.

Feminist women who victim-blame are just reassuring themselves that they have control over their lives and can avoid misogyny through their own superior mental acuity.

A New Thought attitude can breed a disdain for people who haven’t manifested awesome destinies. Minister For Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop stated to a Women In Media group in 2014 that she did not acknowledge a ‘glass ceiling’ in her work, and further commented that gender had not played a role in how former Prime Minister Julia Gillard had been treated. “She turned herself into a victim,” Bishop told the room. She turned herself into a victim. By adopting a mindset of victimhood, goes the argument, Gillard had invented sexism where there was only a fair society waiting to receive meritorious women.

It can be useful to envision the sort of world you want to live in, so that you are better equipped to recognise when it is drawing nearer or slipping away. But at its extreme, ‘positive thinking’ requires you to deny the evidence of your senses and the testimony of others. When you encounter someone whose experience doesn’t tally with your vision of a ‘positive’ world, you might deny their reality by attributing their struggles to a ‘failure’ to manifest that positivity for themselves.

Feminist women who victim-blame are just reassuring themselves that they have control over their lives and can avoid misogyny through their own superior mental acuity. This is the only way I can explain how a woman who identifies as feminist and makes feminism central to her work could dismiss my account of psychological abuse by a man with the implication that it was my own fault. No one can be safe within a patriarchal society. Rather than convince each individual to ‘positive-think’ themselves into a more acceptable body — thin, healthy, white, with no history of trauma, conforming to the gender binary — I believe that any progressive movement seeking to make ethical change should rather develop a framework in which all bodies (and their experiences) can be accepted as ‘real’.