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All About Intersectional Feminism
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Leah Thomas
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What is intersectional feminism?

Intersectional feminism is the recognition that there are many kinds of women experiencing different forms of discrimination based on race, transgenderism, income, sexual orientation and more. This type of feminism highlights that not all women are white, middle class, cisgendered people and that we need to fight for equality for all. 

And according to Kimberle Crenshaw, the woman who coined the term, intersectionality is “the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them.”

Modern intersectional feminism

Intersectional feminism is criticized for being too politically correct or focusing too much on race or sexual orientation rather than on all women — it’s even criticized for attempting to turn women against each other. But none of these are valid claims, as the goal of intersectional feminism is for all women to fight for others and see the blockades affecting certain women that they aren’t facing themselves. 

In 2017, Emma Watson was criticized for being a white feminist and not advocating for women of color. In response, Watson reevaluated the criticism and said, “When I heard myself being called a 'white feminist' I didn't understand... was I being called racist? I began... panicking," she said while explaining how she could have used her platform differently. She then made Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race the first book of her 2018 book club.

Another example in pop culture is Nicki Minaj taking a stance against the MTV Video Music Award nominations in 2015. Nicki said the awards didn’t recognize not only women of all sizes but the music contributions of black women. A stance which Taylor Swift took personally and accused Minaj of pitting women against each other until she later apologized to Minaj and recognized her privilege. 

The feminist movement has been working to transition into intersectional feminism since Crenshaw’s initial definition of the term and has become a talking point for women-of-color activists, especially on social media. 

What is intersectionality?

The term intersectionality was coined by Crenshaw, a law professor and civil rights advocate, thirty years ago. Crenshaw defended several black women in court as they sued General Motors for discrimination. 

Crenshaw wrote in the Washington Post

“In 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid and several other black women sued General Motors for discrimination, arguing that the company segregated its workforce by race and gender: Blacks did one set of jobs and whites did another. According to the plaintiffs’ experiences, women were welcome to apply for some jobs, while only men were suitable for others. This was, of course, a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded. You see, the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites. Thus, while a black applicant might get hired to work on the floor of the factory if he were male; if she were a black female she would not be considered. Similarly, a woman might be hired as a secretary if she were white, but wouldn’t have a chance at that job if she were black. Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white.  Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired?”

The court dismissed the claims, saying that black women were not allowed to combine race and gender into one, but Crenshaw has not stopped her fight to raise awareness and redefine feminism. And by introducing the new term, intersectionality, she created a way in which equality for all types of women could be discussed and fought for.

Crenshaw recently gave a speech on intersectionality at the annual Netroots Nation conference in Atlanta. 

“There are many, many different kinds of intersectional exclusions ― not just black women, but other women of color. Not just people of color, but people with disabilities. Immigrants. LGBTQ people. Indigenous people. The way we imagine discrimination or disempowerment often is more complicated for people who are subjected to multiple forms of exclusion. The good news is that intersectionality provides us a way to see it.”

More on modern feminism

We are now in a period that is being called fourth-wave feminism and began with Laura Bates’s Every Day Feminism Project in 2012, which showcased examples of sexism around the world. 

Fourth-wave feminism was created on the grounds of “the opposition to sexism, violence against women, sexual assault and rape culture on college campuses, body shaming, and workplace harassment.” 

The #MeToo movement has also sparked a new era of feminism (although we are still considered to be in the fourth-wave period.) #MeToo was started by Tarana Burke in 2006 but became a social media trend in 2017 after the outing of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator against women in the film industry. The simple hashtag has inspired thousands of women to come forward with sexual harassment and assault accusations against powerful men who were previously protected by a very patriarchal society.

Intersectional feminism vs white feminism

White feminism is feminism without intersectionality — feminism solely concerned by and working for the straight, white woman. White feminism has negative connotation to it because it implies a woman is selfish in her fight for equality and unwilling to acknowledge her own privilege and lack thereof of others. 

Intersectional feminism takes into consideration all discrimination a woman may face and the multiplication of the combined effects. Intersectionality advocates for women who identify with social, biological and/or cultural groups that are not favored in a white, patriarchal society. 

Intersectionality is so important in feminism because problems that are specific to a certain subset of women will continue to persist if the women who aren’t experiencing this type of discrimination do not acknowledge them and advocate for change. 

One historical example of the fault of feminism without intersectionality is women’s suffrage. When women were granted the right to vote in 1920, this applied only to white women. Decades went by before black and Native American women were granted the same right to vote that white women were given years before. 

Because of historical facts like this, a lot of black women believe that while white women can and should advocate for intersectional feminism, they cannot truly call themselves intersectional feminists — as they have not and will not experience the discrimination that comes with being a non-white woman in the United States. 

How can I make sure I’m advocating for intersectional feminism?

As women, we all want to fight for equality but at times it can be difficult to recognize your own privilege and fight for those issues you do not experience yourself. So how can we work to ensure we are implementing intersectionality into our feminism? A few tips:

1. Pay attention to news that you may not normally pay attention to — i.e. news from different demographic areas.

2. Update your Twitter feed to follow more activists who are women of color, transgender women, and more. 

3. Speak out —if you see hateful speech on Twitter, Instagram, at the grocery store, in the workplace, wherever. Speak out against this kind of behavior in order to speak for those who may not feel safe to speak for themselves.

4. Do actual activist work (some are simple!) Sign petitions, donate to campaigns, advocate for a charity and more.

Books to read about intersectional feminism

1. Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis

Davis’s book explores the history of the path to female equality for women of color since the abolition of slavery. 

2. Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella

Learn about 50 different women from all backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc. who have worked to bring about equality for all.

3. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Gay tells her own story as a black woman in America and uses it to comment on the state of feminism and intersectionality in our country today. 

4. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie redefines feminism for the 21st century and describes exactly why the gender divide is bad for both men and women.

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