“Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and “Bad Feminism,” Less Antithetical than They Appear But Still Mismatched

By Mannion McGinley (’23)

“The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Audre Lorde. 

“I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all,” Roxanne Gay.

At first glance and out of context from their readings, these two quotes seem to only be at odds with each other. Lorde’s titular claim implies that working within the system never works. Gay’s quote suggests she tries to claim she’s a feminist but slips up sometimes and does not actively try to do the work, resulting in her doing the bare minimum and not at all challenging the “master’s house,” just saying she supports women (1). In the context of their readings, however, both statements are much more complex and are not as antithetical as they appear. 

To be a “bad feminist” in one sense would actually be beneficial to Lorde because “mainstream feminism” according to Gay is problematic (2). She says, “I reject the mainstream feminism that has historically ignored or deflected the needs of women of color, working-class women, queer women, and transgender women, in favor of supporting white, middle- and upper-class straight women. Listen, if that’s good feminism — I am a very bad feminist” (2). In this definition of “bad feminist” Gay does exactly what Lorde asks. Lorde says “the absence of any consideration of lesbian consciousness or the consciousness of third world women leaves a serious gap within” feminist thinking and a conference on such topics. Both Gay and Lorde share similar views on modern feminist philosophy. Lorde explains how important difference is and how much we need to celebrate it and understand it; Gay’s initial defintion and ultimate rejection of “bad feminism” both does that work and challenges the “master’s house.” 

There are other ways, earlier on in the reading that Gay does describe bad feminism in a way that’s closer to how one might first understand the quote. Mainstream feminism has a piece that challenges stay-at-home mothers to ask for more. It argues they shouldn’t have to do that work for free because choosing that life makes them “economically vulnerable” (2). Gay still believes they should have the choice of that lifestyle, regardless of payment. Lorde, however, disagrees with that idea. She says, “​​the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (1). Women choosing to be stay-at-home mothers is their own prerogative, but they do not challenge the fact that they aren’t paid for it or that those who cannot afford to stay home have to pay for care. Making the choice empowers women but only to a certain extent and only benefits women who have the opportunity of choice. It does not make the option holistically available. Here, Gay’s “bad feminism” of letting women decide—even if only for themselves—is at odds with Lorde. Lorde argues, if we find ways to grow around the system, what does the system learn? How can it grow and be better moving forward? The system needs to change, Lorde says, and we cannot do that if we are living within the confines society gave us. 

References

  1. Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.
  2. Gay, Roxanne. “Confessions of a Bad Feminist.” TedTalk. TedTalk: Roxanne Gay: Confessions of a Bad Feminist, 12 Mar. 2022.

Mannion McGinley is an American Studies and Sociology major with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy. Her article was originally written for Professor Perin Gürel’s American Studies course ‘Gender and Popular Culture.’

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