Update Aug 2018: I have decided to abandon ‘intersectional feminism’, and I no longer support the concept. It may have started out with good intentions, but there’s no prospect of rehabiliting it. Furthermore, classical liberal values should suffice in serving the goals of ‘intersectional feminism’ anyway. This article is still useful as a critique of how ‘intersectional feminism’ is practiced in reality.
The recent rise of intersectional feminism has been welcomed in many quarters of society. After all, it promises the inclusion of previously excluded voices, so everyone can finally feel included and equal.
The Promise of Intersectional Feminism
What is intersectional feminism, really? Many feminists seem to be using it as a buzzword, a fashion of the day statement. Many think that, as long as their feminism is inclusive of women of colour and LGBT women, they are practising intersectional feminism. But intersectional feminism is more than a mere gesture of inclusion. Intersectional feminism is actually about emphasizing the fact that all women are not the same, and do not have the same experiences and aspirations in life, because their experience as a woman also intersects and is modified by their other identities. In addition, it demands that mainstream feminism does not ignore or belittle these other identities, or forcibly assimilate women with non-mainstream experiences and aspirations into mainstream feminism’s often narrow focus.
Therefore, the proper practice of intersectional feminism requires us to listen to, understand, and be inclusive of perspectives that can be very different from the expectations of mainstream feminism. There is also no limit to the number of such perspectives that need to be included: while so-called intersectional feminists often pay lip service to including women of colour, they often fail to remember that the experiences of black, Latino, Arab and Asian women could be very different from each other, due to cultural differences. They also fail to remember that the experiences of people cannot even be fully understood and accepted simply by lumping them into groups: for example, a more religious woman and a less religious woman of the same ethnic group may have very different experiences and expectations. To be a true intersectional feminist, one needs to respect and be inclusive of all these different, and often contradictory, perspectives.
When ‘Inclusion in Theory’ becomes ‘Exclusion in Practice’
In practice, women of certain ethnic and cultural backgrounds have always been dissuaded from joining the feminist movement, and establishment feminism is comfortable with these exclusions as long as they can feel justified about it, and to some degree, be blind about it. In practice, establishment feminism has always semi-deliberately set itself up as an ideologically exclusive enclave, by declaring certain beliefs and behaviours incompatible with feminism, even when such beliefs are held by many women and would not affect anyone’s legal rights. In return, those with the aforementioned beliefs would just refrain from joining feminism, which means that establishment feminists can continue to live in their ideological bubble, blind to the many dissenting voices of real women out there. Intersectional feminism potentially poses a serious challenge to this long-standing practice, but old habits die hard, and establishment feminism is already attempting to twist intersectional feminism into an ‘inclusion in theory, exclusion in practice’ practice. For example, just this year, there was a declaration by some establishment feminists that one needs to be a socialist to be an intersectional feminist (seriously?), a ‘requirement’ which would exclude many women and render the movement even less intersectional than it is now. More subtle forms of ‘exclusion in practice’ would be based around the ‘need’ to exclude ‘conservatives’ (deliberately vaguely defined), which would in practice exclude many women of colour (because, in real life, they tend to be more socially conservative than white women on average).
Many feminists falsely believe that intersectional feminism would benefit from the second wave model of mass movement feminism. After all, this is the perspective far-left revolutionary socialist groups in the West is promoting, and they have the ear of a substantial proportion of young intellectuals in today’s West. But to think that intersectional feminism is even compatible with the second wave model of mass movement feminism is wishful thinking at best. Multi-issue mass movements (as opposed to, say, a single-issue mass movement like the marriage equality movement) requires that all individuals in the tent toe the party line when it comes to all of the multitude of issues involved. While it is easy to say that we stand in solidarity with oppression everywhere, when it comes to actual policy positions, the movement must choose to stand one way or another. And unless the choice is to embrace more freedom for everyone in every case (which ‘progressive’ mass movements never choose in reality because the movement would no longer be ‘left-wing’ but instead ‘centrist’), no matter which stance is chosen, some people would be automatically alienated. This is evidenced by recent developments in feminism, for example where many dedicated feminists have complained that they have felt excluded because of their views over abortion or Middle-Eastern politics, which in turn stem from their religious or ethnic identities. This situation is reminiscent of the failures of traditional mainstream feminism to be inclusive, and is clearly incompatible with real intersectional feminism.
Liberal Feminism: The Only Way Forward
A real intersectional feminism requires that everyone can feel included, as long as they commit to freedom and equality for everyone else, in their own conscience. Therefore, both religious and secular people must be included. Both pro-life and pro-choice feminists must feel welcome, as long as they don’t plan to force their morality down the other’s throat. The tent must also be big enough for people on both sides of every geopolitical debate across the world (for example, but not limited to, the Israel vs Palestine question). Practically, the only ideology compatible with such a wide spectrum of inclusion is the one where people can agree to disagree and support each other’s right to voice a dissenting opinion. That ideology is called Liberalism. Liberalism, and its feminist manifestation Liberal Feminism, is the only credible platform on which a truly intersectional feminism can be built, because it guarantees freedom of speech and conscience for everyone. Without liberalism, some women will continue to be excluded from feminism, and the establishment can continue to comfortably turn a blind eye to it.
It is important that feminism takes on a liberal, individualistic outlook if it is to be truly intersectional. This mean changing a few ‘bad habits’, at the very least. Due to a historical alignment with the left, many feminists often unquestioningly accept certain leftist perspectives and tactics, including outdated practices from historical Marxist movements. For example, the long-standing practice of allowing freedom only in policy debates but demanding collective obedience to majority wishes in action is a major barrier to real intersectional feminism. In feminism, it means that minorities are always bound to support the majority, establishment position, even where they personally believe differently. This clearly has the effect of discouraging minorities from joining up. Another bad habit that needs to go is the tendency to think of people as groups rather than individuals. Women of a certain ethnicity are still a diverse group, and while they share a certain cultural heritage and are similar in that way, they are still very different in many other ways. A truly intersectional feminism would recognise every intersection in these women’s lives, not just their ethnic identity, and therefore must treat them as individuals rather than as examples of their ethnic group, ultimately.
Many traditional feminists are understandably anxious about a real intersectional feminism, even if they do not say so. They fear that, if so-called conservatives are allowed to partake in feminism, the pro-choice platform would be lost. Or alternatively, the transphobia of TERFs will come back. It is unfortunately true that if feminism is based purely on majority decision and reactionaries are welcomed into the tent as a result of intersectionality, many previous gains could be swept away. However, as long as feminism is based on liberalism, it will always have a legally pro-choice, LGBT-friendly platform. This is because, while liberalism allows people to have freedom of conscience, it also demands that they give others the same respect in return. Therefore, using a liberal standard, feminism will be welcoming to people with all kinds of cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs and outlooks on life, but will still be able to define itself as a movement that stands for the liberty and equality of all. It wouldn’t matter that some feminists are pro-life and others are pro-choice, because under liberalism both parties would be able to act in accordance with their own conscience: a pro-lifer cannot support legally punishing women who choose abortion and still be liberal, after all.
Some may say that using a liberal criteria to define feminism’s limits still results in the exclusion of certain people, i.e. those who believe in conservative governments controlling society’s morality, and some other groups like TERFs. However, these people have all violated the principle of the equal moral standing of all humans and the resulting need for mutual respect of each others’ rights, the very principles which feminism is justified upon, and their exclusion is therefore fundamentally required if feminism is to have any meaning at all. It is like how the most liberal of liberal democracies must still criminalise and severely punish any action to violently overthrow the government, because failure to do so could result in the replacement of liberal democracy by dictatorship. This is entirely different to the current practice of establishment feminism excluding people based on individual beliefs.
In conclusion, a feminism that is based upon the principles of liberalism can guarantee the inclusion of diverse voices, as necessary for real intersectional feminism. It will also guarantee the continued dedication of feminism to liberty and equality, even if more conservatives are welcomed into the movement. There really is no other way of ensuring a real, all-inclusive intersectional feminism, in practice.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for freedom-based politics in the 21st century.