Feminist Theory

What is intersectional feminism?

Feminism, like all political and social movements, is a lot more complex than it may initially seem. Feminism is more like an umbrella term for many different smaller movements and ideologies, some of which complement each other, while others contradict each other. To use an example from another well-known ideology, communism, there are Marxists, Maoists, Naxhalites, Luxury Communists, and so on. Many of these variations of Communism developed because of specific contexts and challenges in the cultures and regions that spawned them. Feminism behaves in the same way. From the dawn of the modern feminist movement in the 19th century, there have been many types of feminism that have emerged around the world, with varying degrees of relevance and persistence. One of the most important and globally relevant of these types of feminism is intersectional feminism. 

What does intersectional feminism mean and where did it come from?

The term intersectionality was first coined by American sociologist and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 with her work Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. Crenshaw sought to expand on a persistent criticism in the mainstream Western feminist discourse that feminism mostly spoke about and catered to the needs of able-bodied, straight, white, cisgender, and middle-class women. Intersectionality challenges the idea that oppression exists in a vacuum and argues that in our complex society, there are more things at play than sexism alone. 

Essentially, intersectional feminism takes the critiques of liberal feminism about the issues faced by women in a patriarchal society and argues that while this is true, oppression works differently depending on a person’s race, queer identity, access to wealth and social mobility, religious background, if they are disabled, and a myriad of other factors that impact a person’s social positioning. Instead of seeing a Black woman’s lived experience as one impacted by misogyny and racism individually, intersectional feminism argues that her experience is instead shaped by racist misogyny; for this specific example, this may be referred to as misogynoir.

It is important to note that Crenshaw was the first to coin the term ‘intersectionality’ formally, but criticisms of mainstream ‘white feminism’ existed long before her work was released. Pioneers of Black feminist discourse, such as Sojourner Truth, in her speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ (1881), and Anna Julia Cooper’s essay The Colored Woman’s Office (1892) discussed concepts central to intersectionality long before Crenshaw formalised the concept in her work. 

Did other movements influence intersectional feminism?

While much of the initial discourse about intersectional feminism originated with Black feminist dialogues mostly coming from the United States, this was not the only movement within feminism that has ultimately fed into the modern intersectional feminist movement and ideology. After the second wave of feminism, largely led by white women in the 1960s, started to recede and weaken in its impact over the 1980s, the conversation was picked up and led by women of different cultural backgrounds. Amongst them were Black feminists like Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Angela Davis, and Latina feminists like Gloria Andaluza. 

Angela Davis. Poster from the Yanker Poster Collection, between 1965 and 1980. 

Outside of America, women across the developing world began to engage in feminist discourse at the same time as they began to engage in dialogue around postcolonialism. While postcolonialism as a movement essentially began as soon as countries started fighting for liberation from colonial powers, the 1980s saw it synthesise with the feminist movement. Key texts such as Under Western Eyes (1984) by Chandra Talpade Mohanty critiqued the Western feminist view of women from the Third World. As a movement, postcolonial feminism asserts that the colonial exploitation of much of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas has defined the experience of women in these regions distinctively, shaping understandings and expressions of gender in these parts of the world. 

Simultaneously, women with disabilities, queer and trans women, women of religious minorities (often closely linked to postcolonial narratives), and women from poorer socio-economic backgrounds were developing their own unique strands of feminism. These movements all examine sexism and how it interacts with the other forms of discrimination and oppression that these groups experienced and continue to experience. 

As intersectionality has continued to develop, all of these feminisms have been instrumental in informing what is considered when discussing gender inequalities through a lens that pushes beyond the singular experience of sexism and the patriarchy. 

Why do we need intersectional feminism?

One of the most pivotal reasons for the development of intersectional feminism, and the other strands of feminism we have discussed, is because ‘mainstream’ feminism largely has ignored or excluded women who do not exist in white middle-class circles. One of the most basal examples of this is the push for women to enter the world of work en masse in the 1960s and 1970s. While it was true that a majority of white women in the Western world did not work until the ’70s and ’80s, this ignored the fact that most Black, Asian, and Latina women in America and Britain had been in the workforce for generations, largely because their communities faced economic struggles and disadvantages that middle-class white people did not encounter. Particularly for Black women, they often could trace their lineages in North America to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, meaning that a history of forced labour defined their lived experiences. 

This was one of many aspects of mainstream feminist concerns that largely ignored the differences in experience between white middle-class women and women further into society’s margins. Another such concern was around the procurement of contraception and access to abortion, which remains a major point of contention around the world in feminist activism today. The fight for abortion and contraception in the 1960s and 70s did not take into consideration the long history of forced sterilisation, termination of pregnancies, and population control moves made by white-led government bodies against Indigenous and Black communities in the USA and Canada. Equally, at the time, Indigenous feminism was much more concerned with the conservation of the environment and cultural preservation as feminist issues than mainstream white feminism was. 

Mainstream liberal feminists also often purposefully distanced themselves from women they deemed to be ‘primitive’ or who existed in ways they deemed in opposition to their ideology. This included women of minority cultures and religions who retained cultural practices such as religiously aligned codes of modesty, namely criticisms of Muslim women for wearing the hijab. Equally, women who engaged in sex work and pornography were heavily criticised and excluded by second and third wave feminists. Many still active figures in feminism from the second wave have since embraced intersectionality, while others have continued to define their feminism as exclusionary. Those who have retained exclusionary feminist ideologies have made considered efforts to ringfence their feminism to push out many women; in recent years, this has been most vocally true of their exclusion of transwomen. 

What is privilege and what is the Kyriarchy?

In ignoring, or sometimes even actively attacking, non-white, queer, disabled, and religious minority women, the mainstream feminist movement played a part in further marginalising women from these communities. It excluded them from the progress being made in the name of feminism. The women who dominated the feminist narrative, often without even knowing it, leveraged their privilege as white, often wealthy, and often well-educated women to race ahead and leave other women behind and out of the conversation. Privilege is the social capital allocated to people based on their identity and how it allows them to move through the world more easily than others. Straight white men, as a group, have the greatest amount of privilege as they experience the least amount of structural oppression, meaning they can move through the world with very few (if any) social barriers. This is an impact of what is known as the kyriarchy.

Feminism has always acknowledged that our society is one made by men, for men. This is evident in the basic rights that men have always enjoyed (political suffrage, economic independence, freedom of movement and property ownership) that women have had to fight for. But we know that this isn’t true for all men; Black men in the US, for example, had to earn their basic freedom from slavery and later from Jim Crow segregation laws. They aren’t women, but just like women, society was not built by them or for them. Similarly, straight people have never been denied the right to marry or adopt children, but gay and bisexual people have had to fight for these basic rights. These basic facts problematise the idea that many white feminists have had that society is unequally structured around men’s mobility through the patriarchy alone. This is where the concept of kyriarchy comes into play. 

Kyriarchy was developed by Romanian-German Catholic feminist Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who argued that modern society’s hierarchies of control, privilege, and oppression are far more numerous and complex than merely aligning the basis of gender. Kyriarchy (coming from kyrios, meaning master or lord in Greek) identifies sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Catholicism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, xenophobia, economic injustice, the prison-industrial complex, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism, speciesism, linguicism and other forms of dominating hierarchies as defining forces in institutionalising marginalisation and oppression of people. 

This concept is essential to intersectionality, which centres on the ways different aspects of identity interact as a driving force behind the need to widen feminist conversations to encompass all women and, more widely, all minorities into feminist dialogue. Consider kyriarchy as the systems that oppress us and intersectionality as the solution, or at least the platform to discuss our oppression.

Does everyone agree with intersectional feminism?

While intersectional feminism is largely respected and followed as a guiding principle of feminism today, there are those who criticise the movement. Largely, criticism has come from conservative groups and figures who argue that a focus on oppression and inequities between women of different backgrounds diverts from the focus that feminism ‘should’ have on women’s liberation. Additionally, some consider it to be divisive or too complex to be practical for meaningful change. Common critiques along these lines essentially argue that intersectional feminism highlights rather than bridges divisions between different groups.

Others also criticise intersectionality for homogenising specific groups while ignoring people’s individual experiences. However, it is important to note that intersectional feminism does not argue that social groups are unified in their experiences. Importantly, intersectionality applies within groups. For example, Black and South Asian women as racial groups may have experiences and oppressive forces from outside their groups that unify their lived experiences, namely racism. While this is true, women in these communities also have internal differences and forms of oppression along the lines of colour and colourism. In these communities, women with darker skin experience different treatment and discrimination than those with lighter skin. 

So, what is this theory in a nutshell?

Intersectional feminism is an ideology that argues that women have experiences that are complex and impacted by their identities not only as women but by the other social groups that they belong to. It exists as a direct criticism of the narrow white-centric feminism of the past and argues that progress can only be achieved when women of all backgrounds and minorities are brought to the table. It leans on other strands of feminism, like Black feminism, postcolonial feminism, and queer feminism, amongst others, to inform a discourse that does not ignore differences between women but acknowledges them and seeks to reduce the gaps between different social groups. 

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