“My feminism is better than yours (and you can’t sit with us).”
This is the general sentiment I’m seeing expressed when Millennials online — often, ironically, white people — use the word “intersectional” as a prefix to “feminism.” This is a shame because the text that brought the term intersectionality to feminist discourse – “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of anti-discrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics,” written by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 — is one of the most important feminist texts of the 20th century.
It highlights a very real need for the women’s movement to understand that oppression against people who are marginalized in multiple ways (through, for example, the combination of sex and race, or sex, class, and disability) is greater than the sum of its parts.
Historically, this failure (primarily by white, middle-class women) to incorporate an analysis of other forms of oppression into feminist politics has manifested itself in a number of ways, both within theory and practice. Crenshaw gives three examples:
First, parts of the women’s movement subscribed (some argue subscribe) to “separate spheres” literature, which focuses — to the exclusion of other labour-based forms of patriarchal oppression — on the history of “women’s” exclusion from the workforce. Of course, this definition of “women” ignores women of colour, who were both enslaved and, later, expected to take on chores and duties within white women’s homes (childcare, cleaning, cooking, etc.) for poor wages when white women entered fields that were traditionally reserved for males. It also ignores women who are part of the working class (or the working poor) who have always had to work outside the home in order to support themselves and their families.
Second, the women’s movement has failed to acknowledge representations and stereotypes of people of colour when we address the gendered roles and stereotypes that men apply to women in order to justify their subordination. As Crenshaw points out:
“Statements such as ‘men and women are taught to see men as independent, capable, powerful; men and women are taught to see women as dependent, limited in abilities, and passive’ [Richard A. Wasserstrom] are common within this literature. But this “observation” overlooks the anomalies created by crosscurrents of racism and sexism. Black men and women live in a society that creates sex-based norms and expectations which racism operates simultaneously to deny. Black men are not viewed as powerful, nor Black women seen as passive” [parenthesis mine].
Third, early American rape law failed to include or protect women of colour, women in prostitution, or women who white men otherwise deemed to be morally unchaste. Additionally, it failed to incorporate an understanding of rape as a “weapon of racial terror” used by white men against women of colour.
The fact that the mainstream women’s movement needed a reproach on its exclusion and erasure of women marginalized by race, class, disability, and orientation is undeniable. Crenshaw asks us to address this by dismantling our “top-down” anti-discrimination practices, which operate under the assumption that each area of oppression should be addressed independently (and that if it weren’t for singular oppressions, all would be fair), and replace them with a “bottom-up” approach. She draws her inspiration for this strategy from a 19th century scholar, educator, and author:
“Anna Julie Cooper, a 19th Century Black Feminist, coined a phrase that has been useful in evaluating the need to incorporate a specific analysis of patriarchy in any effort to address racial domination […] Referring to one of Martin Delaney’s public claims that where he was allowed to enter, the race entered with him, Cooper countered: ‘Only the black women can say where or when I enter…There and then the whole negro race enters with me.'”
She argues that when we address the needs of those who are the most marginalized, we will inadvertently relieve those who are discriminated against for a single cause from the oppression that plagues them.
Crenshaw writes, in her essay “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of colour”:
“Intersectionality is not being offered here as some new, totalizing theory of identity. Nor do I mean to suggest that violence against women of color can be explained only through the specific frameworks of race and gender considered here.”
This is where my generation comes in. Where Crenshaw defines “white feminism” as “the creation of a consciousness that was distinct from and in opposition to that of white men” and “the failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness,” Millennials often use the term to denounce anyone who explores topics or holds political views they don’t like, particularly any critique of queer theory’s definition of gender as a chosen and individual identity, sexualization, objectification, and/or the sex industry. The result is that many young feminists, like myself, apply an oversimplified (or simply erroneous) analysis of intersectionality to topics that are complex (not least because women with experience in the sex industry and gender non-conforming folk have diverse and often polarized views).
As readers may remember, a campaign (in May) aiming to have Meghan Murphy, the founder of Feminist Current, fired and no-platformed at rabble.ca, was based on the idea that her beliefs on gender and her analysis of the sex industry “are not sufficiently intersectional.”
It is perfectly possible, however, to have an analysis that is both radical and intersectional at the same time, particularly on issues of prostitution and gender. Having an intersectional practice requires us to address the needs of the most oppressed, putting their experience at the center of our analysis and activism, rather than at the margins. It then requires us to get to the root of their oppression and do something about it.
The problem is not that radical feminists are “not intersectional.” Quite the contrary. The problem is that radical feminists and liberal feminists have completely incompatible understandings of what is at the root of patriarchal/gendered oppression and, consequently, the marginalization of women in the sex industry and people who are gender-nonconforming.
Radical feminists believe that male violence is at the root of prostitution itself, which is an institution that hovers around the intersections of many different oppressions. Liberal feminists believe the root of oppression against women in the sex industry is “stigma,” which we’re told, when eliminated, will eradicate the violence these women experience.
Radical feminists believe that what oppresses people who do not conform to gender norms is gender itself, which they define as a set of expectations and stereotypes attached to people based on sex at birth and reinforced through socialization (which is used to subordinate women as a class and ostracize anyone who fails to fit nicely into gendered boxes). Liberal feminists believe that the root of oppression against trans folk is hatred, phobia, bigotry, and the unwillingness to acknowledge the gender identity of people who feel that they were born in bodies that do not align with their true selves (as represented by outward performances of masculinity and femininity).
Both radical feminists and liberal feminists rely on people with personal experience in these areas to inform their theory and praxis.
This puts us in a bit of a bind, does is not?
Perhaps this is defeatist, but I do not foresee this fissure repairing itself. What I want to stop seeing is the term “intersectionality” used by women in my generation as a tool for equating radical feminist arguments about and approaches to the sex industry or trans issues with “white feminism.”
We need to ask ourselves several questions with regard to how the theory of intersectionality applies on complex topics. Given two different factions of feminism with conflicting interests, who holds the trump card and who decides which intersecting oppressions are more severe than others? Where do you draw the line between women that are and are not sufficiently oppressed for their lives to be “centered?”
Turning “intersectional” into a quick, go-to label to differentiate yourself from the “pearl clutching prudes” (a misogynist term in and of itself) you don’t like is not only cheesy and clichéd, it’s a slap in the face to all the women of colour, working class women, working poor women, lesbian women, prostituted women, and, yes, transwomen who subscribe to radical feminist politics and have informed the development of its current theory and practice.
Yah no. I refuse to apologize to the Meghan Murphy Pearl Clutching Gang for liking feminist porn and supporting my sisters in sex worker.
— Lyndsay Kirkham (@Lyndsay_Kirkham) March 16, 2015
In short, it’s not intersectional at all.