Intersectional feminism can be described simply as feminist theory that examines the ways in which different systems of oppression are intrinsically connected, specifically in relation to gender. It examines the relationship between sexism and the other oppressive institutions of racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, xenophobia, and so on. Intersectional feminism stresses the idea that none of these factors can be examined individually; they interrelate to create a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination. For example, by these principles it cannot be said that a black woman suffers oppression singularly because she is a woman, or singularly because she is black, and neither can the individual aspects of her oppression be separated between these two factors; her oppression lies at the intersect of the systems of racism and sexism, and is therefore doubly felt. In recent years, intersectional feminism has become extremely popular due to the advent of social media, which is increasingly being used by people, and more specifically women, who would never have been able to access the resources or join in the conversation surrounding feminism without the technology, due to their education and background. The world is gradually becoming smaller as we become more connected, and with these new connections comes a diversity that requires a rethinking of the mainstream feminist narrative to include women of all walks of life.
However, intersectionality is by no means a new concept; from as early as the 1830s, Women of Colour have been drawing attention to the intersecting factors of race and gender as dual sources of oppression. Maria W. Stewart, born in America in 1803, not only famously spoke out against slavery, but pointed out that “race, gender, and class oppression were the fundamental causes of Black women’s poverty” (Collins 1). Since then, and especially since the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s, black women have been at the forefront of campaigns asking for the recognition and fighting for the rights of women who were not given a voice in mainstream feminist discourse, attempting to shift the focus of feminism from being purely on white women. The term “intersectionality” was not coined until 1989, when Kimberlé Crenshaw argued that “Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender.”(Crenshaw 140) However, the basic ideas of intersectional feminism had been expressed by black feminists such as Angela Davis and bell hooks, to name only a few, writing for many years before this. In 1984, bell hooks noted,
Privileged feminists have largely been unable to speak to, with, and for diverse groups of women because they either do not understand fully the inter-relatedness of sex, race, and class oppression or refuse to take this inter-relatedness seriously. Feminist analyses of women’s lot tend to focus exclusively on gender and do not provide a solid foundation on which to construct feminist theory. They reflect the dominant tendency in Western patriarchal minds to mystify woman’s reality by insisting that gender is the sole determinant of a woman’s fate. Certainly it has been easier for women who do not experience race or class oppression to focus exclusively on gender (hooks 14).
In this excerpt, and earlier in the piece when she critiques Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique for “[ignoring] the existence of all non-white women and poor white women,”(hooks 2) bell hooks addresses one of the core issues that intersectional feminism interests itself with today; that contemporary feminists frame feminism as a singular set of ideas that place all women underneath the same umbrella of oppression, even though feminist discourse is an arena still largely dominated by white, western, middle-class, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered women who benefit from a system of privilege. Not only is the existence of this privilege largely overlooked by feminists, but the issues at which that they target their opposition are more often than not issues that exclude the contributing factors of race, class, ability, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in the oppression of women. These feminists do not want to admit that their various privileges are a factor of the oppression of women of colour, for example, because that would make them just as implicit as men in the structure of what they know as the patriarchy. This is why, in intersectional feminism, the idea of kyriarchy is key; though gender can be said to be the primary privileged position, other hierarchies of institutionalised subordination of a particular group can interact to cause an individual to be oppressed in some ways and privileged in others (Kwok 192-193). Mainstream feminism’s refusal to acknowledge kyriarchy, its refusal to admit sources of oppression other than gender, results in many women having their voices silenced, and their struggles demeaned or overlooked, in favour of the somewhat more palatable struggles of relatively privileged white feminists. This is all conducted under the guise of “unity,” that somehow by recognising the differences between women, by understanding that every woman is not oppressed in exactly the same way, that feminism’s essential core is ripped apart, and that solidarity is not possible. Where intersectional feminists see intersectional feminism as inclusive, an idea that recognises and represents the needs of women of diverse backgrounds, contemporary feminism sees the very same idea as exclusionary, creating fractions in the singular camp that they see feminism as. The key to deconstructing this is to understand that there is no ‘general feminism’; there will always be factors other than gender in the oppression of women, and the essentialist ideals that feminists hold now are catered, not to the ‘every woman’ that is presumed, but specifically to white, western, middle-class, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered women.
A prominent example of the domination of feminist discourse by white women is the issue of pay equality. Activists in recent times who have campaigned for equal pay between the sexes, for example the Equal Payback Project, have used the statistic that, on average, women working full time in the USA earn 78 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earns. It is only when looking at the research that has produced these statistics that you discover that it is only white women that earn near this amount, at 77 cents; Black women earn even less at 64 cents, and Hispanic women a shocking 56 cents to the white man’s dollar (NWLC, 2013). For an issue that is so widely reported, that has been a key point of argument in the feminist movement so many years, it is surprising that these figures are not more widely known. Of course, the general figure for women is taken as an average, however intersectional feminists would contest that this grossly underrepresents and diminishes the struggles of women of colour, especially when they are more pronounced in this arena than for white women. Other research shows that in 2006, to the white man’s dollar, Black men earned 72 cents and Hispanic men 58 cents, where white women earned 74 cents (NCPE, 2007). Why is the wage gap between the sexes seen as much more of an issue than the wage gap between the races, when white women are earning more on average than all non-white men? Additionally, statistics also show that disabled workers earn on average 10% less than abled workers in similar jobs, and transgender women’s earnings fall by a third after they transition (Schilt and Wiswall). It is clear that the statistics we are presented with in the media often see white, cis, and able-bodied people as the ‘neutral’, meaning minority struggle is overlooked, especially when we consider the oppression one could face if two or more of these systems of oppression were to intersect. Intersectional feminism strives to incorporate and represent minority struggle into the mainstream narrative, and emphasises that while the oppression of women is universal, there are some women for whom it is heightened by other factors.
An important part of bringing intersectional feminism to the forefront of discussion in recent years has been the circulation of criticism of non-intersectional feminism and of individuals who perpetuate problematic behaviour in society. “Calling out” an individual and asking them to “check their privilege” are arguably both the most recognisable and most ridiculed aspects of what has come to be known as ‘internet feminism’. To call someone out on their behaviour simply means to draw their attention to the problematic things they have been saying or doing, and to ask someone to check their privilege is to remind them of the social and political privileges, for example being white, able-bodied or cis-gendered, that may have influence over the way they perceive the world, or that may cause their words or actions to have a different impact than they may have intended. Although this practice is heavily criticised (interestingly, mainly by the relatively privileged who have been called out themselves), there can be no doubt that this technique allows less privileged minorities to weigh in on discussion of issues. By pointing out that there is no one viewpoint on an issue, that someone from a different background or circumstance may experience things in a different manner from your own, the intersections of privilege and the way these can combine can be discussed, and in a world in which the voices of the oppressed are scarcely given a platform, the accessibility of the internet is allowing for a more inclusive discussion.
This unique type of critical discussion becomes most pertinent when it is used to point out the failings of feminism, in particular the tendency for white feminists to speak on the behalf women of colour and other minorities. A popular example that comes to mind in mainstream media is that of Lily Allen. The singer-songwriter released the single Hard Out Here in November 2013, followed shortly by its music video, both of which caused general controversy. The video featured several Black women as backing dancers for Allen, who appeared in shots designed to mock misogynistic music videos that are usually created by male hip-hop artists. While Allen was praised for highlighting issues of the treatment of women in pop culture, several black feminists criticised her for objectifying black women. The video features these women dancing provocatively in revealing outfits, while Allen stands amongst them almost fully clothed, occasionally pouring champagne over them or smacking them on their bottoms. While this, and indeed many lyrics of the song, are intended to be satirical, Allen seemed to suggest that black women’s bodies are inherently gratuitous by presenting ‘twerking’ as an inherently sexual dance. She seems to assert that she has some sort of moral high ground for not dancing in such a fashion, seemingly calling these women stupid in the lyric “don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain.” This demeaning undertone makes it difficult to praise the rest of the song for its apparent ‘progressiveness’. Popular blogger BlackinAsia wrote at the time that “there is an incredibly valid critique to be made about hip hop culture and music videos which consistently demean black women, but to ignore her enormous privilege as a white woman and engage in exactly the same [racism] … is disgusting to say the least.” Allen released a statement on Twitter partially addressing the controversy, but ended by saying “I’m not going to apologise because I think that would imply that I’m guilty of something.” Here, Allen successfully silences the voices of hundreds of black women who found the content in her video offensive, by refusing to give weight to any of their opinions. When it was being pointed out to her that even in the guise of satire, the content of the video was still viewed as racist by members of the black community, Allen consistently denied, and therefore undermined, the views of black women, further excluding them from popular feminist discussion.
It is clear that, while there has been an increased interest in intersectionality as an idea in recent years, feminism still has a long way to come in terms of total inclusivity. Women who are critical of the movement are almost always those who have never had their voices shouted over, women who have no understanding of how their own privilege requires them to speak and act with the same awareness that they demand from men in similar positions. When feminists claiming to fight for the rights of all women, at the same time exclude and demean women of colour, trans women, working-class women, and so on, they make it abundantly clear that they only care for the interests of women who are exactly the same as them. In this age of readily available technology, one which allows women from all walks of life to speak for themselves, to silence or exclude these women in favour of your own agenda is to expose your hypocrisy and further divide women. It is this divisiveness, this desire to turn human rights into an exclusive members club, which causes fractions in the feminist movement, not intersectionality itself. Obviously there will always be disagreement; as long as feminists are called out on their micro-aggressions, there will be those willing to defend their intentions in the face of the feelings of those affected. However I think that the discussion and dissection of feminism is never something to shy away from; internalised disagreement within the feminist movement has long been regarded, by many of those who are against or simply indifferent to its cause, as bickering that can be used to prove the failures of the movement as a whole. Despite this, the fact that feminists are willing to scrutinise their behaviour constantly is admirable, and the more that we understand that criticism is a means of improvement and not one of destruction, the more we will be able to make feminism appeal to everyone. In my opinion, one argument that is now integral to the ongoing debate is whether someone who says they seek the equality of all men and women, when they really mean the equality of all men and some of the most privileged women, can truly be considered a feminist at all. Perhaps now is the time to decide which of these feminists truly advocate for women’s rights, and which do not.
Sorry this next post has been a long time coming. In the last month I managed to go on holiday, graduate, AND start a new job. All fantastic but not very conducive to blog-writing.
I’d like to thank the countless black female members of the online community for their undeniable role in informing and educating me – without you I would know nothing.
I also highly recommend you read Flavia Dzodan’s seminal essay “My Feminism will be Intersectional or it will be Bullshit” as quoted at the top of this post. It will enlighten you on intersectionality far more than anything I could ever attempt to write.
Image via Because We Must