I know, you’ve heard it a lot this year. Feminism is simple. Feminism is the movement for political, social, and economic equality of the sexes.
What a surprising amount of us young, eager feminists are just realizing, though, is that equality maybe isn’t something that can be reached by reconciling two simple groups: men and women. Maybe there is no simple blanket identity for men, and there’s no simple blanket identity for women.
People are wonderful and colorful and diverse, right? Maybe all women don’t start on an even playing field in their quest for equality. For instance, most black women have to deal with the crossover – the intersection, if you will – of discrimination based on race and discrimination based on gender in her pursuit of the ever-elusive “equality,” while most white women never do. Race plays quite a factor in an individual’s experience of feminism. So does social class. And physical ability/disability, and culture, and whole host of the other intriguing little details that make us different. Women, as it turns out, are a really diverse bunch. This seems like a stupidly obvious conclusion to come to, but it’s really something that is just entering the mainstream conversation about feminism. It’s an intersectional approach.
Very basically, the idea of intersectional feminism is that some women have intersecting identities that lead them to experience everyday struggles more intensely/differently than other women. Race and gender, for example, are two components of a woman’s identity that overlap and affect the way she is treated by the public. An intersectional feminist seeks to acknowledge that feminism is not a simple, collective identity, but it is a vehicle for different women to empower themselves in the face of vastly different obstacles. Again, equality is the goal, but we don’t all start at the same position on the playing field.
So, the intersectional feminist, broken down, aims for:
Intersectionalism traditionally deals with the crossover between race and gender, but now it is more often used in reference to the intersection between gender, race, physical ability, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class, among other components of personal identity. Basically, feminists are not exclusively white, able-bodied, middle-class women whose only concerns are political issues like the wage gap. Of course they’re not – but you already knew that! Feminists are a wide range of people that face a wider intersection of issues. For instance, a low-income woman will deal with different issues than an upper-class woman on a daily basis. And I know… that goes for any gender, right? Here, though, is the complexity of intersectionalism: the kinds of issues the lower-income woman faces as a woman and as member of a lower socioeconomic class can’t often be separated. People don’t look at her as either a woman or as a low-income individual, but as a total package of both things, and they treat her as such. Were she applying for jobs, for example, any disadvantage she might have as a female applicant is compounded by her perceived social class. The intersectional feminist recognizes that while an upper class woman may experience legitimate discrimination, the low-income woman deals with the intersection of her socioeconomic class and her gender, which, together, might exacerbate the level of discrimination she may face on a daily basis.
That some people have it easier in some areas of life. This does not mean your own struggles don’t exist! It just means people experience them in vastly different ways. This is a hard idea to accept for pretty much everyone, ever, and that’s okay. Recognizing your own privilege can be a weird process, and it takes some time, but it doesn’t have to be all about guilt. Consider the experience of single-motherhood, and then consider the component of race. Certainly there is a wealth of exceptions to every stereotype, but in our culture, the white single mother tends to be looked at much differently, if not more favorably, than the black single mother. Does race seriously affect each woman’s experience of motherhood on a public and personal level? Probably. The way each woman is treated depends heavily on our societal views of race, and by acknowledging the very serious intersection of issues the black mother has to face (race stereotyping as well as preexisting stigmas surrounding single-motherhood ), the white mother is not denying her own problems, but instead she’s recognizing that other women sometimes face a complexity of issues that she’ll never have to deal with. And, say it with me: that’s okay! She’s not bringing herself down and dismissing her own struggle, she’s lifting other women up by validating the seriousness of their experiences. Let me say this again: recognizing our own privileges is not about loading ourselves down with guilt. It’s about lifting others up. Empowerment for everybody! ( YOU get some empowerment, and YOU, and YOU get some….)
3. And finally, a public relations overhaul
The feminist image is often criticized as being controlled by a predominantly white, middle class group of women. What does this mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that middle-class white women can’t be feminists or are “doing it wrong,” but it means that we, as feminists need to work to actively include all people and acknowledge their own unique experience of womanhood, along with its complexity of triumphs and struggles. A lot of criticism has come with the recent trendiness of feminism, as made visible and appealing by celebrities like Emma Watson and Taylor Swift. Their critics argue that the real struggles of feminists, particularly those that face complex intersections of discrimination, cannot be adequately represented by rich, white celebrities. They make the case that feminism is not a pretty issue, and it should not be publicly embraced only because we now have attractive, soft-spoken, non-controversial figureheads that prove not all feminists are mannish and militant. This particular issue can be convincingly defended by either side, but it stands that even rich, white women have a right to personal empowerment through feminism, even if it’s not very representative of the whole. It’s true, though, that race, class, etc. are not often addressed in mainstream feminist discourse, and that is the big image-related issue that needs to be changed. The reality is, there is no majority in feminism that dictates what is “normal” and what’s not. Every woman’s experience is unique, and intersectionalism aims to recognize, validate, and empower each one.
So, you identify as a feminist? Awesome. Step one, down. And you want to empower other women by recognizing and validating the complex, overlapping issues that they face? Extra awesome, you’re probably an intersectional feminist. Now go get out there and work to recognize your own privileges and how they can help you lift others and, ultimately, yourself up, girl. Rock on.