It’s time for another theory lesson! What is intersectionality? Where does it come from? How does intersectionality relate to feminism? All of these questions are really essential to being able to understand how intersectional feminism works – and why this form of feminism is so very important to fight for. As always, I brought some academia with me to help make the case!
First, let’s explore what feminism is. Feminism, as defined by bell hooks (an incredibly important Black feminist scholar) is, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Now, that might seem pretty basic and straightforward – surely we don’t still need feminism, right? Well actually, according to a scholar named Ştefanovici, in 2016 she pointed out that, “Even nowadays, the kitchen is considered to be a woman’s place, yet the overwhelming majority of restaurant chefs are male. Fashion and clothes and make up are considered to be girly hobbies and passions, yet the top earning designers and CEOs in the fashion industry are men. Even in the fields that are supposedly dominated by women, you see men leading the companies and cashing in the profits.” Further, she argues that women face objectification and oppression in new domains, and that women are still being exploited by gender marketing strategies. Worse still, she says, in sexual education courses girls are taught what to wear, but neglect to teach boys the concept of consent. All of these reasons are incredibly important reasons why feminism is still much needed in the present day and age.
And feminism isn’t just for women! It’s for all genders, and it’s not about being anti-male. Another great quote from bell hooks is, “To end patriarchy (another way of naming the institutionalized sexism) we need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and hearts, until we let go of sexist thought and action and replace it with feminist thought and action.” Her point is, anyone can be sexist, just as anyone can be racist. You can be oppressed and racist, or oppressed and sexist, or hey, all three! But until we (all of us on the gender spectrum) start to consider being more feminist in our actions, that won’t change. But, there’s a problem with feminism as it currently stands. Western women have gained greater class power than their sisters of colour. As bell hooks says, “when women with class power opportunistically use a feminist platform while undermining feminist politics that help keep in place a patriarchal system that will ultimately re-subordinate them, they do not just betray feminism; they betray themselves.” Here’s where intersectionality comes into play.
Intersectionality is actually a concept that refers to interactions of social structures like race, class, and gender. According to Gopaldas (2013), “the implication of intersectionality is that every person in society is positioned at the intersection of multiple social identity structures and is thus subject to multiple social advantages and disadvantages. … [Further,] Intersectional research stresses the inclusion of all voices, especially oppressed voices.” Gopaldas and (another very important feminist voice to pay attention to!) Kimberle Crenshaw argues that even though these concepts are socially constructed categories, they are constructs that are causing harm in the world, and therefore must be addressed.
Imagine intersectionality as a grid, and place yourself on that grid at the intersection where your race, class, and gender meet. In intersectionality, there’s no “oppression Olympics” where one person’s oppression is the worst oppression or more oppressed, but we instead recognise that in some cases, we have privilege, and in some, we have less. Also, according to Severs, Celis & Erzeel in 2016, “at all times, both parties – privileged and disadvantaged – are simultaneously undergoing and exercising power. In a similar vein, intersectionality theorists’ observation that ‘one is never just privileged or oppressed’ dissolves rigid distinctions between the so-called powerful and the powerless.” To emphasize: in all scenarios, you are never just privileged or oppressed. Power flows, moves, and shifts; intersectionality expands on concepts like privilege but examines them in a way that pays attention to all aspects of what is influencing a person’s privileges and oppression.
This means that intersectionality meshes incredibly well with feminism – in order to stop sexism and oppression, we also have to work to undo the systems keeping people oppressed by their race and class (to name a few). Kimberle Crenshaw argues that it’s illogical for feminism and antiracism to campaign about their causes as if they’re mutually exclusive. Krenshaw also says that “frequently the consequence of the imposition of one burden [is] that interacts with pre-existing vulnerabilities to create yet another dimension of disempowerment”. What she means is that laws (for example) that are made using only white, middle class perspectives to try and create a certain change may actually have the opposite effect with the communities that were not considered, and that this will actually further oppress them. I use the example of laws because intersectionality doesn’t need to be limited to feminism or academia – if other parts of our world such as businesses and our laws became more intersectional, we’d be helping to lift up so many people from all walks of life out of oppression.
Personally, this inspires me. I know there’s a lot of work involved in dismantling such deep-rooted social constructs, but if your feminism isn’t intersectional, is it really feminism? Is it truly feminism if your work gives certain communities freedoms at the cost of others? I’m deeply inspired by bell hooks, Krenshaw, and Audre Lorde – they are all black women scholars whose writings on intersectional feminism are absolute must-reads if you’re curious to know more. Pro tip: Feminism Is For Everybody by bell hooks is actually a very small handbook full of feminist information that I highly recommend if you’re wanting to learn more about feminism and intersectionality!
So what do you think? Did this piece help you understand intersectionality, and intersectional feminism better? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Crenshaw, K. (1994). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. In M. Fineman & R. Mykitiuk, The Public Nature of Private Violence (pp. 93-118). New York: Routledge.
Gopaldas, A. (2013). Intersectionality 101. Journal Of Public Policy & Marketing, 32, 90-94. doi: 10.1509/jppm.12.044
hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for everybody. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.
Severs, E., Celis, K., & Erzeel, S. (2016). Power, privilege and disadvantage: Intersectionality theory and political representation. Politics, 36(4), 346-354. doi: 10.1177/0263395716630987
Ştefanovici, S. (2016). Why Do We Need Feminism. Studia Universitatis Petru Maior – Philologia, 21, 105-110.