White Feminism

The Master’s Tools: White Feminism According to Audre Lorde

I don’t like when people invoke quotes from bodies of text they’ve never read to defend a point. I admit I’ve had to step back and investigate the source of popular quotes myself. This was what brought me to reread Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.

Now that I’m more aware of the erasure of Black women’s labor in academia, I realize now that I and other Black feminists need to give due diligence to rectifying this erasure. Here’s the full quote in which Lorde makes the now famous statement:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.1 They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

Frequently I hear people invoke the phrase in reference to oppression in general. It’s important to note that these words were spoken by a Black lesbian feminist in 1979 on a panel titled “the Personal and the Political” at the Second Sex Conference, an event sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities. Lorde’s words served as a a critique of White feminism, which she charged failed to dismantle White supremacy. In the next paragraph she states:

If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color? What is the theory behind racist and feminism?

“The Master’s Tools” is a multilayered critique of White Feminism. Lorde begins with the New York University for the Humanities:

And what does it mean in personal and political terms when even the two Black women who did present here were literally found at the last hour? What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.

Here Lorde takes issue with how White feminists reinforce inequality even when they are attempting to challenge oppression. Failure to adequately represent Non-Whites in the academy does not alter the status quo.

The results of this year’s presidential election are enough to confirm that White women put Whiteness ahead of issues that affect all women. Thus, the failure of the Master’s tools to dismantle the Master’s house directly reference that White women help to maintain White male patriarchy.


  1. Emphasis added 

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3 Comments

  • Phew! What a read! I think all Black feminists, and hopefully, some white feminist too (although a lot of them voted for trump too) have been having this extremely sad reawakening about how deeply rooted this country is in white supremacy. I won’t even try to begin the mental gymnastics you would have to do to vote for someone so blatantly misogynistic & hold up the patriarchy which actively oppresses you… Thank you for those lovely quotes! I look forward to reading more.

  • The article by Melissa Brown (WTF White feminism? Why did so many White women vote for Trump? is more complete, informative and on point. It is reached by clicking the link “white women put whiteness.” There really is not a connection with the master’s tools and how feminism does not work for Black women when it comes to Women’s Lib. Today, Black women are experiencing working with the master’s wife rather than for the master’s wife as our ancestors. The results are the same. She still has control over us and our children as was first given to her during slavery. Their concern is more about competing with the white male than a sisterhood with all women. My goal as a Black woman is not being like a white male. As a Black woman I am at least thousand times more likely to be discriminated due my race in comparison with my gender. That discrimination often comes from someone of my gender.

    The historical tension between Black women and the master’s wife has never gone away. The Women’s Lib Movement developed out of a jealousy of the Civil Rights Movement(s). There should be no advances for her husband’s property prior to her gains. She is to be always be superior to his slaves including the male slaves. So those of us who live in the city of Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony question if he was being used. It has gotten so he cannot be mention without reference to her.

    Ida B. Wells met with racism when trying to participate in the Women’s Movement. She was told that she and her followers would have to walk in the rear of the protest marches. Yes she reached out to Susan B. Anthony and found no support. Black women need to pull away from this tool. Learn our history and create our own movement in accord with our culture and needs.

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