Intersectional Feminism 101

Defining it, a brief history, and why it’s not actually “divisive”

Defining Intersectionality

Intersectionality — a term first coined in 1989 by Columbia law professor and one of the nation’s leading critical race theorists Kimberlé Crenshaw, refers to the interconnecting and often overlapping systems of oppression.

Originally the term intended to address the “multiple avenues through which racial and gender oppression (are) experienced…” (Crenshaw). The term has evolved, however, to be inclusive of factors beyond race and gender.

Class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion, age, and immigration status among many other elements are often included as well.

It is important to address these intersections because, to truly liberate all women, we must take into account and fight against the oppression(s) all women face — not just those of our straight, white, cisgender, middle class, able-bodied privileged sisters.

A History of Exclusion

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The importance of intersectionality initially arose when Crenshaw noticed the lack of visibility black women faced within the mainstream feminist movement which, to this day, remains largely centered on the experiences of upper class heterosexual white women.

While Crenshaw was the first to put a name to the term, the concept of intersectionality existed long before the 80’s, being discussed by the likes of Sojourner Truth, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and many other women of color active in the movement.

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For decades, mainstream feminism decided that the only problems which mattered were that of the most privileged within the group.

Mainstream feminism, or what has been rebranded as white feminism, fails to acknowledge the issues of “People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse,” notes Crenshaw in her Washington Post piece.

This is what intersectional feminism is trying to combat.

“What people don’t seem to get is that “White Feminism” is feminism for white people, and never exclusively feminism by white people. It’s more about who it benefits exclusively than who is perpetuating it exclusively. … a word for the institution we’re trying to separate ourselves from.” -TheWhistlingFish

Imagine being left out of a movement supposed to be for you, a movement that claims to be a champion for your rights but fails to recognize your existence because it doesn’t fit the “one-size-fits-all” definition of oppression.

You’d feel pretty excluded, right? That’s all intersectional feminists are getting at.

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Crenshaw, like many other women of color, faces racism in addition to sexism, and therefore saw the importance of addressing the fact that “women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity.”

Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, xenophobia and other systems of oppression are intertwined, and thus we cannot dismantle one without dismantling all the rest.

Case in point: without dismantling other interconnected systems of oppression, women’s liberation cannot be fully realized.

It’s Not About Dividing Us

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The resurgence of intersectionality theory has gave rise to critics who decry that recognizing our differences only “divides” us further and is actually weakening the movement from within.

Some even claim it is akin to segregation which, in itself, does a huge disservice to those who actually had to live through Jim Crow era laws.

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The ‘divisive’ narrative is an age-old diversionary tactic employed by white feminists, who’re uncomfortable getting their privilege challenged, to derail conversations about inclusivity and silence the voices of the oppressed.

It is not dissimilar to a time in our history when, upon pointing out the injustices black Americans faced, they were often silenced for speaking out against institutionalized racism.

“We have been taught to either ignore our differences or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community, there is no liberation... But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” -Audre Lorde

Challenging our own biases within the feminist movement will not weaken it. On the contrary, it will only make stronger the structure.

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If we can get past the uncomfortable stage of recognizing that we may carry certain societal privileges, listening when the marginalized talk about their experiences, and committing ourselves not to being perfect activists but activists who strive to live a life conscious of the way we may unconsciously oppress others, we can strengthen the movement from within and perhaps accomplish more than we ever could’ve before.

In order to see true progression in the movement, our feminism must be intersectional. In order to see progression in any social movement to end domination, oppression, and the subsequent exploitation that follows, our framework must be intersectional

“Adopting an intersectional framework is not an easy process. It involves seeking to understand things that are difficult for you to understand, empathizing with people who are not like you, stepping back instead of speaking over others, and opening yourself up to a high level of accountability.” -Jarune Uwujaren and Jamie Utt

Latoya Peterson said it best when she said that “To understand intersectionality requires critical thinking.”

Even those aware of their biases have difficulty implementing intersectional practices into their daily lives.

The reality of growing up in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is that we are all taught from birth to hold generalized beliefs about groups of people.

The good news? Being conscious of our internal prejudices is the first step in learning to unlearn bigotry and relearn compassion for our fellow brothers and sisters (and everyone in between).

While the concept may seem a bit daunting or complex, it all just boils down to looking out for each other.

For more on how to better incorporate intersectionality in your lives, check out this informative piece from Everyday Feminism here!

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Authors note: Feel free to spark up a conversation down below! I tried my best to limit academic jargon and simplify terms as much as possible. I personally feel that many people uninformed on social/political issues remain that way because (often times) information isn’t easily accessible nor understandable. If we truly want to see the movement grow, we must inform in a way that is conscious of our diverse communities who might be passionate to learn but are limited in their scope of understanding terminology.

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