Feminism has been around for a very long time. For over 100 years, female-identifying individuals have been taking vocal positions to demand equality. However, until very recently, feminists gaining attention were exclusively middle-class white women, and the “equality” that they were fighting for did not include equality for women of color, transgender women, disabled women, or women identifying under the LGBT umbrella. But since third wave feminism has gained traction, intersectional feminism had been slowly replacing this exclusive, outdated type of feminism.
“Intersectionality” is a term that gets tossed around quite frequently when discussing feminism as a whole. Its roots come from Kimberle Crenshaw, a black feminist and legal scholar who coined the term in 1989 following the rise of the multiracial feminist movement. Crenshaw argued in her Critical Race Theory that the experiences of being black and being female were inherently intertwined - one cannot be examined without the other also being examined. Since 1989, the idea of intersectional feminism has been extended to cover any female-identifying person who does not fall into the historically more privileged categories of white, straight, able-bodied, and wealthy. Intersectional feminism fights for the inclusion of females who have been historically excluded.
Feminism that lacks intersectionality neglects a huge portion of the population. An example of historical “white feminism” is suffrage - black women in the South were specifically excluded from the movement, because the white female leadership thought that including them would destroy their chances. And even today, women of color are often not included in the conversation. While white women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar for the same job, women of color make an average of 67 cents to a white man’s dollar for the same job. There are all sorts of other demographic intersections that lower a woman’s pay. such as age and disability.
A good way to think about intersectionality is by picturing a Venn diagram. If each circle contains a different demographic (gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, etc), intersectionality is the place that all of the circles overlap. The experience of an individual woman cannot be truly measured without looking at these overlaps, because every woman has a different experience. A black woman coming from a low socioeconomic background will have a more difficult time getting to the same place as a white, middle class woman, because more opportunities and privileges are available to women with more privilege.
Intersectionality is required for comprehensive and inclusive feminism. Feminism that only promotes the wellbeing of privileged white women does not support all people who ought to be included in feminism. Excluding people from feminism is something that was done for too long, and rings too closely of what people have been doing to women for centuries. Women do not need to also be excluded from feminism. So when you hear the word intersectional, don’t be intimidated! It’s a big word for a simple concept that just means, “Everyone is welcome here.”
Tips for Being an Intersectional Feminist
Examine your own privilege. If you are an able-bodied, straight, gender-conforming, middle-class white woman, you have privilege over someone without some of those qualities. Every female-identifying person will have a different experience based on a many different factors. Likewise, each of those experiences are important and should be acknowledged.
Listen to others. Bringing everyone’s perspective into the conversation will make your feminism better and more inclusive. And once you have inclusive feminism, you will be affecting a greater change. As the great bell hooks said, “Feminism is for everyone.”
Be an ally for groups that you are not a part of. Respect spaces that are made for minority groups that you do not identify with, and use your own privileged influence to bring the voices of these minorities to the forefront of the conversation.
Orient yourself with others’ struggles. If you do your research and are prepared to not only listen, but participate in a conversation about struggles that you do not face, change will happen much more quickly. Make yourself knowledgeable about more than just the struggles that you face.
Find Out More
- MTV’s great video about intersectionality can be found here!
- The Washington Post wrote a great article about what intersectionality is!
- Check out a brief from Kimberle Crenshaw herself about why intersectionality is so important here!
- The African American Policy Forum, co-founded by Crenshaw, has campaigns like #WhyWeCantWait and #SayHerName, to bring attention to the struggles of black women in comparison to that of black men. Get involved.
- We at Day of the Girl released a “Start the Conversation” Toolkit for the 2015 Day of the Girl, which includes sections about intersectionality.