Many of you have heard of the term “intersectionality” — but what does it really mean, in easy-to-understand terms, for feminism?
Let’s start by crediting Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw for coining the term. While she began using it a few decades ago, it hasn’t caught on in the mainstream (white) feminist movement until more recently — in the last 5-10 years. It’s now part of the terminology used when we talk about feminism, but it’s unclear whether everyone really knows what it means.
First of all, intersectionality is a way to understand feminism that includes the experiences of women of colour, queer women, poor and working women, and other groups of women not always represented in the mainstream feminist movement.
Since many of us live intersectionality, we don’t always need it explained to us, but everyone needs to grapple with issues that don’t affect us directly. These issues matter. So, for example, if I grew up in a middle-class environment, I would need to pay more attention to issues of class and poverty and inclusion — whereas if someone grew up poor or working class, they are always aware of class, inclusion, money and finances.
In general, being aware of intersections means our radar will go up if we hear the words “women’s issues” since not all women may experience “women’s issues” in the same way.
For example, the white women’s feminist movement has prioritized issues such as reproductive rights, equal pay, access to university, child care and the idea of “equality” (rather than equity).
The feminist movement overall has not emphasized any of the following issues, all of which are women’s issues, but not, historically issues raised by middle-class straight white women who are at the centre of what is understood as feminism in North America:
- The colonization of Indigenous people in Canada
- English as a Second Language classes
- Disability access
- Queer and trans oppression
- Affordable childcare
- Affordable housing
- Healthcare including reproductive rights which includes information about birth control and abortion.
- Lots more. I could go on.
All of these are feminist issues because women are affected by all of those realities every day, and usually, because of sexism, are in relatively worse off positions compared to men from the same groups.
But you wouldn’t know that from mainstream feminism, which is why intersectionality is so important.
Feminist activism, with an intersectional analysis isn’t easy. But it’s very important. If you want to engage, it will require dedication, energy, and knowing when to ask questions, when to speak up, and when to go away and educate yourself.
We need to be able to challenge each other, be challenged, and to think about what we make assumptions about, especially things we have not personally experienced. Because someone who has experienced that will know way more than us.
What to do? If you aren’t queer, you can (and must) educate yourself and challenge homophobia when you hear it or read about it. If you aren’t trans, if you aren’t racialized, if you aren’t poor/working class, if you aren’t disabled, you must challenge oppression when you see it, hear it, etc. I think you can see where I’m going with this.
Understanding intersectionality is a way for us to be allies across the many differences we have, as new activists, as “experienced activists”, as feminists, and as troublemakers. The differences aren’t the problem. It’s how those differences are taken up, or, historically ignored, that have been the problem.
Part of what it means to be a feminist is to bravely and boldly accept the ongoing challenge to call out, talk back, speak out against patriarchy, against individuals and the powers that be that try to keep women down, suppress us, speak for us and many other examples. Being an intersectional feminist is a way to understand more complex ways that women exist in the world. To call each other out, respectfully. To see our learning as never being over, and know that there is always someone who is experiencing the world differently than us, someone whose voice we perhaps drown out with ours. That there are oppressions that we haven’t experienced and for that reason may not be on our radar. And to always work for greater understanding ourselves, and greater inclusion and leadership of voices that have been shoved to the side, perhaps by us.
This is why immigration policy is a feminist issue. Did you know that for many women who immigrate to Canada, their immigration status is legally connected to their spouse’s immigration status? When women in this position experience violence by their male partners, can you understand why they’d be reluctant to contact authorities, including women’s shelters? For fear of jeopardizing their spouse’s, and in turn, their own, status to remain in Canada.
Countering homophobia is also a feminist issue, and not only because of homophobia experienced by lesbians, bisexual women and trans women, but because homophobia is sexism’s little sister. Please see Suzanne Pharr’s classic work “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism”.
Only wanting change in areas that affect only ourselves is a bit problematic, don’t you think? Selfish, yes? Let’s not do that, eh?
“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” — Arundhati Roy
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