The Women’s March, and Mainstream Feminism, Have An Intersectionality Problem

There are currently three statements posted on the home page of the Women’s March: all are essentially apologies, addressing biases, exclusions and controversial statements or actions by the organization or some of its leaders.  The Women’s March, launched in the wake of Donald Trump’s election despite a history of sexist and misogynistic comments and actions, is in theory a feminist organization dedicated to uniting women and their allies, but in practice the movement has been hampered by internal divisions, many of which stem from the inability of the organization to deal with differences of race, religion, nationality, class and other aspects of identity.

Several of the Women’s March’s leaders have been accused of anti-Semitism due to comments allegedly made by cofounders Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, as well as Mallory’s relationship with the Nation of Islam (who’s leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, regularly makes anti-Jewish statements).  Meanwhile, a planned event by the March’s Humboldt County, CA branch was called off over concerns that participants had been and would continue to be “overwhelmingly white.” Women of color, trans women and pro-life women have all expressed feeling excluded or marginalized by the Women’s March.  In short, the Women’s March simply reflects the long history of shortcomings that mainstream feminism has had with intersectionality.

Lest you think of that feminism is a dirty word, I always prefer Marie Shear’s definition of the term: “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” The organized feminist movement in the United States first emerged in the mid 1800s and was centered on the legal rights of women and specifically the right to vote; feminism at the time was more likely to be called the fight for women’s suffrage (not to be confused with women’s suffering, which society has been more than happy to provide since time immemorial).

The movement died down when that right was granted with the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution after WWI, and didn’t reemerge until the 1960s.  When it did, feminism became multibranched, focusing on everything from the legal and social equality of women to equal pay to reproductive rights to critiquing and dismantling patriarchy (despite the myth, feminists didn’t burn their bras, although they sometimes threw them away) to radical notions of female superiority in some branches.

Throughout the various “waves” of feminism (we’re currently in the third or fourth wave, depending on who you ask), the movement has been subject to the criticism that it only reflected the interests of a certain subset of women, who were also white, middle to upper class, straight, cis-gendered, Judeo-Christian, etc.  When African American men were granted the right to vote before white women, feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, formerly an ally of the abolitionist movement, were outraged. Stanton argued that if Congress (that is, white America), granted black men the right to vote, they would be “mak[ing] their wives and mothers the political inferiors of unlettered and unwashed ditch-diggers, bootblacks, butchers and barbers, fresh from the slave plantations of the South.”

Similarly, black women and lesbians and other women grew disillusioned with the mainstream of feminism in the 1960s and beyond: author Alice Walker, for example, began using the term “womanist” as an alternative for black feminists who felt excluded by the main feminist movement.

These divisions and shortcomings all reflect the problems that mainstream feminism has had with intersectionality, a concept coined in the 1980s by Dr. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. In short, intersectionality is the idea that aspects of identity – sex, race, class, orientation, ability, and so on – all intersect to form complex identities (and complex oppressions based on identity) that are not simply reducible to the sum of their parts.  The identity and experiences of a black woman, for example, cannot be understood simply by understanding black people generally and women generally.

The canonical example Dr. Crenshaw gives is a company that routinely hired both black people and women, but the black people were all men, and the women were all white.  Thus, while the company did not discriminate against black people or women per se, it clearly discriminated against black women, yet a lawsuit filed against the company failed because black women was not an identity, much yet a protected class, in the eyes of the judge hearing the suit.  Dr. Crenshaw of course explains it much better; you should just watch her:

Intersectionality can be hard: there are lots of different people with lots of diverse experiences, and it can seem like the combinations of identity and oppression are endless. Ye it’s also a reality, and a movement that seeks to unify and promote all women must think and dialogue seriously about how to foster and reflect both unity and diversity without sacrificing one for the other.

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