Intersectional Feminism: What It Is and Why It’s Important

*This post was originially published April 9, 2015–it felt like high time for a reboot*

 

Have you been hearing the term “intersectional feminism” lately and been like…what the hell is that?  Some fancy-talk with a complicated definition, or some made-up feminist word?  Is it a term only some feminists use, like “womyn?”

 

Well don’t fear, because it’s neither very complicated nor very shocking.  Most of my readers, based on demographics and surveys, probably believe in intersectional feminism and don’t even know it!  It’s been around for decades, but has only come into the mainstream recently, and has been getting a lot of buzz without a lot of explanation.  So I’m here to explain to you what it is and why it’s important.

 

Intersectional Feminism: What it is and why it's important  |  Jill of all Trades

 

Definition of Intersectional Feminism:

 

The term was coined in 1989 by law and civil rights professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, and is defined as:

 

The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”

 

What this means, in layman’s terms, is that other social issues and patterns of oppression are closely linked with the system of oppression for women; in other words, it is important to distinguish that not only is a person with a disability or who is a racial minority or who is not cisgender or who is not straight going to experience an extra layer of social hardship, but it cannot be separated from the oppression they experience as a woman.

 

For example, I am a middle-eastern, bisexual woman and as a result I experience racism, homophobia and sexism in everyday life.  A white woman in America would experience less oppression, and a black woman would experience more.  Women who are gay or more outwardly queer, transgender, from a lower income bracket, from a “lower” social class, or have a disability would experience still more.  Those experiences on an individual level are all closely related and important.

 

 

Why Intersectional Feminism is Important:

 

For example: my experiences as a woman can’t be separated from my experiences as a minority because they are closely linked and intertwined.  I am treated a certain way oftentimes not because of one thing or the other but because of both combined.  No one would make jokes about burkas to me if I were not both a woman and middle-eastern (even though Armenians are almost exclusively Christians both historically and currently–but many people don’t bother getting details like that before they start in with the burka and terrorist jokes).  And black, Asian, gay, transgender, and disabled women (to list only a few of many examples) experience things specific to their personal combination of disadvantages as well.

 

Many terms and groups have arisen over the years to address the issues within the feminist movement as being heavily focused on the white, straight, middle-class woman’s experience–most notably womanism, which focuses specifically on the issue of race as it relates to feminism and addresses a pattern of ignoring black women’s experiences, especially in American feminism.  This term came about in the late 70s and boasts such followers as Alice Walker (who is credited with coining the term and is also one of my favorite writers of all time) and Audre Lorde.

 

 

Intersectional feminism encompasses the ideas of womanism as well as much more.  It seeks to give proper notice to other underrepresented groups of people within the larger community of women, including those with a non-binary understanding of gender.

 

In my opinion, while the issue of race is probably the largest within feminism, the issue with gender is the least well understood.  I have heard from far too many feminists with whom I otherwise agree some shockingly close-minded statements about gender.

 

We all live in our own understanding of the world, and no one has it all right–and I’m not saying I expect everyone to be born with an innate understanding of the complexities of gender.  However, it can be a large issue within groups of feminists to deny that transgender women experience sexism, for example, or even worse, to treat them with suspicion and rudeness because they consider them to be men who are infringing upon women’s spaces.  Some feminists reject persons of ambiguous or fluid gender identity as having any belonging in a community of women.  Some feminist women complain about transgender women using the women’s bathroom.  These are issues that are hugely important and in America at the moment are politically relevant, as new laws are introduced regularly that either help or hinder the LGBTQ community.

 

Intersectional Feminism: What it is and why it's important | Jill of all Trades
I’m looking glaring at you, North Carolina

 

It is absolutely imperative that feminism address the issues of other oppressed groups within their own and acknowledge the complexities of individual struggles.  The greatest social movements happen when people of differing backgrounds band together to face a common issue, in this case a social, political and economic system of oppression that affects so many people in so many different ways.

 

“Part of the problem with Western feminists, I find, is that they take after their brothers and their fathers. And that’s a real problem.”

-Alice Walker

 

This is not to say that women with any privileges of any kind should only be focused on those less privileged, and ignore their own experiences.  Far from it.  It is vital to the feminist movement that a voice be given to people from all different backgrounds and experiences, including those of the white, middle-class, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied woman.

 

Rather, publications and groups that claim to address feminism as a general whole should be considering which people they give the most attention to, and remember to consider others outside their personal realm of experience to give the spotlight to, and people with influence should think carefully about who they include and exclude in the way they speak.  Individuals who speak up about their own personal experiences should continue to do so, and make their voices heard–and remember to listen when people of different backgrounds from themselves speak about their experiences as well.

 

I also believe that on the level of the individual, there is a point where they must learn to be humble and empathetic, and shut their mouth and open their ears and their heart to those around them.  It is part of growth as a person.  And when we look outside ourselves and our own experiences we are able to better understand the world around us, how to relate to others, and in the long run, even how to understand and relate to our own selves.

 

There are a lot of things to talk about regarding such a broad and intriguing topic as intersectional feminism, so if you have any questions or points to bring up, feel free to do so in the comments or you can email me as well!

 

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  • The thing with Planet Fitness & the transgendered woman really brought this into focus recently (basically a biologically female woman had an issue with a trans woman literally walking into a women’s locker room & hanging something in a locker). It speaks a lot about how a) both women & men have a VERY rigid idea of “woman” which makes us ignore a LOT of people’s experiences; and b) we have somehow made some women believe that all things male must be separate and scary (the offended woman stated she felt unsafe with a “man” around). Complicated, and worrisome, and annoying.

    But, there are almost always some levels we can relate on- like coming from a low-class/poverty background (me, even though I’m white) or whatever it may be. And when we can’t relate, we can learn.

    • Complicated, worrisome, and annoying is RIGHT. You hit the nail on the head. And also yes–taking our own experiences into account we can connect to others with theirs. You or I may not understand what it’s like to be black, for example, but we CAN both understand what it’s like to be poor, and that will help us sympathize with others who are disadvantaged in one way or another.

      Keep on rocking, Brittany! You’re super cool!

  • I absolutely love this post. Feminism tends to get put in this tiny box, as a completely separate issue that cannot be connected to anything else.

    I think it can be too easy for us all to look down a narrow telescope about these kinds of issues or the people who speak out against them, as if that narrow telescope somehow makes us more comfortable. People need to take a step back and broaden that view, and I think you’re one of those people who are going to play a role in helping make that happen.