The Imperative of Intersectional Feminism

Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term “intersectionality” nearly three decades ago in an attempt to “make feminism, anti-racist activism, and anti-discrimination law do what [she] thought they should — highlight the multiple avenues through which racial and gender oppression were experienced so that the problems would be easier to discuss and understand.”

As a young attorney, Crenshaw saw first-hand the limitations of discrimination law that did not adopt an intersectional lens.

As she 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?”

Sadly, the court dismissed the DeGraffenreid’s claims, asserting that black women are unable to combine their race and gender claims into one.

Had the law taken into account the intersectional experience of being both a woman and a person of color, the experiences of these black women would have been more clearly seen as unjust. In introducing the term “intersectionality,” Crenshaw hoped to shed light on the experiences of black women within movements for gender and racial equality.  

As my podcast co-host, Bridget Todd, put it as she referenced the collection of black feminist writing with a similar title, “I grew up thinking all the women were white and all the men were black.” That’s the cultural framework historically brought to the movements for gender and racial equality, and it perpetuates “the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them,” says Crenshaw.

This kind of systemic erasure is not unique to women of color. People of color within LGBTQ movements, women within immigration movements, trans women within feminist movements, poor women within movements for reproductive freedom, people with disabilities within movements against police brutality, and the list goes on. These constituents all face significant vulnerabilities that are unique to their experience and warrant specific policy solutions and acknowledgement.

Adopting an intersectional approach isn’t just about being “politically correct” or perpetuating “identity politics.” This inclusive lens can make the difference between life and death. How we address issues like street harassment, for instance, doesn’t just matter to all women, it matters especially to trans women, who experience not only more harassment, but significantly higher rates of assault than other women. Half of the 28,000 transgender respondents in the 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality survey were sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, and 9 percent were physically attacked because of their trans identity. If we erase the significant differences in experience for trans women and “all women,” then those populations who need our support most won’t necessarily get it.

The same can be said in the movement for reproductive freedom. If we don’t acknowledge the extra barriers faced by low-income women and rural women, who have extremely limited access to abortion care services when compared to other women, we fail to see the nuance of the problem, and risk failing to provide real solutions.

So how can we all be more intersectional in our approach to feminism?

1) Lift as you climb

Bring others up with you in the fight for social justice. When you raise your voice, raise the voices of other, more marginalized women in the movement, too. Use whatever platform you have to highlight the voices of women whose experiences differ from yours.

2) Get curious, not furious

Listen with empathy to your critics. Checking your privilege is hard, especially amongst people who already feel marginalized and discriminated against. But when you’re “called out” for not being as inclusive as you can be, consider it being “called in” to examine your own privilege and bias you might bring to the subject matter, and an opportunity to learn and grow.

3) Seek out diverse opinions

Listen to women whose life experiences differ from your own, especially when advocating for public policy changes. Be intentionally inclusive by soliciting input from more stakeholders from a diverse array of backgrounds. Be open to differences in opinions and approaches and practice active listening as a part of your organizing and advocacy.

4) Resist generalizations about “all women”

It’s tempting to stand up “for all women,” but in doing so, you may accidentally be perpetuating erasure. We must not allow acknowledging our differences to threaten our sense of unity as a movement. In other words: don’t “all lives matter” your feminism. Get comfortable with the (potential) discomfort of honoring our differences as salient elements of your advocacy.

How are you practicing intersectional feminism in your everyday life? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.  

This was originally published in my Forbes Leadership column and reposted here with permission.

Emilie Aries is an internationally-recognized speaker, podcaster, writer, and the Founder & CEO of Bossed Up.

Learn more and book Emilie to speak at your next event at wwwEmilieAries.com