It wasn’t until my early twenties that I ever really thought about feminism. Its values had been my values I suppose, without me really noticing, but I was naively unaware of the deep rooted sexism that exists the world over.
The more I learnt, the more feminism explained the world around me. It helped me understand beauty standards better, and it made me examine the way women were represented in the media. It justified my rage at street harassment and made me realise I wasn’t making a fuss about nothing, that this was not something to “take as a compliment“.
It educated me about my rights, and injustices such as the gender pay gap (even in 2019, figures show that 8 in 10 UK firms pay men more than women). It took my once very conservative views on abortion and made me see how vital it was for women to have control of their own bodies. It taught me the devastating reality of so many women, in a country where one in four women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime and where two are killed each week by a current or former partner.
I felt like I’d woken up in a sense, as I spoke to people around me and read more, watched more. I wrote in 2013 in one of my very first blogs that I was certain feminism was a cause to believe in and I’ve written about it several times since.
But, as I’ve come to realise over the last year or so, there was a big problem; this feminism didn’t go far enough. This was a feminism for white, straight, cis-gendered middle class women like myself. It was a feminism that considered only the disadvantage of the white woman vs the white man.
It didn’t account for the woman of colour’s experience, where racism intersects with sexism. It didn’t account for trans women or gay women, or less able-bodied women. It only confronted the possibility of one type of prejudice at a time, rather than the complex intersection of oppression that so many other women face.
By way of some background, “intersectionality” was a term coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in a paper she wrote in 1989, to describe bias and violence against black women (well worth reading this Vox article if you’d like to learn more).
In recent years, Crenshaw’s term has entered the mainstream and come to be used to describe lots of different types of discrimination. It was included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, which defines it as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”
Intersectional feminism therefore, recognises that barriers to gender equality differ according to the person, and recognises that many women experience a complex intersection of discrimination and oppression, due to for example, their skin colour or their sexuality. It makes far more sense, in the face of narrow white feminism which only accounts for a certain type of woman. If the whole point of feminism is equality, then to exclude any person, unwittingly or not, isn’t feminism.
And I’m guilty. When I got angry about the gender pay gap, did I even stop to consider the race pay gap? In December 2018 The Guardian reported that “Black, Asian and ethnic minority employees are losing out on £3.2bn a year in wages compared to white colleagues doing the same work, according to a study that adds to pressure on the government to introduce mandatory reporting of race pay gaps.”
We can read reports like that and talk about how atrocious it all is and “isn’t that awful? I never knew that!” but our disgust is empty if we only ever use words and don’t act, if we only ever blame the people in power and never look at our own complicity in the system. That’s a huge subject in itself of course, but I’m learning that a good place to start is by acknowledging our own privilege and and recognising where we personally have benefited from the system. This is a shift because if you’re like me, you might only have really thought about how the system goes against you, i.e. benefiting men over women, rather than stopping to consider how it works for you. We can’t ignore that.
Of course, gender and race is one intersection; there are many more. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) website reports that in 2018, at least 26 transgender people in the U.S. died due to fatal violence, the majority of whom were black transgender women. HRC’s article notes that “While the details of these cases differ, it is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities, barriers that make them vulnerable.
Our feminism has to be all-encompassing, or there is no point. As Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote in her excellent book, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, “Feminism doesn’t work well as a polite, gender-only analysis that is neat and unchallenging enough to be accepted in corporate environments. It has failed when it works as an unwittingly exclusive movement that isn’t self-aware enough to recognise where its participants benefit from the current system.”
All of this leads me to the belief that intersectional feminism is the only feminism I should pursue. But to actually call myself an intersectional feminist would be a big claim; it’s something I’m aspiring to, but not something I could possibly pretend to know, when in fact I’ve got a ton of learning and work to do.
I hope this post doesn’t come across as me trying to act “woke” because honestly, it’s the opposite story. It’s me saying I’ve been a crap feminist, not because I’m suddenly a ‘good’ one, nor because I want to assuage some guilt, but because I want to share the tiny amount I’ve learnt recently, in the hope that you’ll join me in ditching a feminism that excludes, and in committing to do better.
I would love to know your thoughts on this, please let me know in the comments.
And if you’ve read this as someone that does face intersections of oppression and I’ve phrased stuff clunkily or offended, please call me out, I’m here to learn.