By Sumaiya Ramsaroop
Volume 1 Issue 6
March 18, 2021
Image provided by Adobe Stock
As human beings, we are naturally multifaceted; race, gender, sexuality, class, ability or disability, we are individually composed of infinite intricacies that merge to form a whole person. However, when speaking about inequality, we tend to separate out our race, gender, class, etc. -- we split up race inequality from gender inequality from class inequality, as if oppression only targets parts of a person, and not the whole person. The reality is, people are uniquely oppressed at the intersection of their many identities. The inequality experienced by white women is not equal in magnitude to the inequality experienced by indigenous transgender women, for example. In order to combat oppressive systems, we must adopt intersectional thinking and acknowledge the unique lived experience created by our individual intersections.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, UCLA and Columbia law professor, lawyer, and civil rights proponent, coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to explain how systems of oppression work together to invoke distinct experiences unto people with multiple identity groupings (The Editors). She describes intersectionality as “a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other” (Steinmetz). Her founding work primarily encompasses Black women, whose oppression was neither fully acknowledged nor embraced by the feminist movement, nor by antiracist initiatives. Being Black and being a woman were presented as mutually exclusive, when Black womanhood is, holistically, a unique experience on its own.
Intersectionality becomes relevant when we understand that “all inequality is not created equal,” as asserted by Crenshaw (UN Women). By adopting an intersectional approach to conquering inequality, we shed light upon discrimination and oppression magnified under overlapping social identities, and we amplify the voices of those overlapping individuals.
Feminism is one ideology in dire need of intersectional revision, for it has centered the voices of cisgender, straight, white women since its origin at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright, and Jane Hunt, the convention was both spearheaded and attended by upper and middle-class white women. Women of color were largely missing from the event, and Black women were not invited (Brown). When asked to prioritize Black men’s voting rights above women’s suffrage, social reformer Susan B. Anthony proclaimed, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman” (Wilson & Russell). The once-united women’s suffrage movement and Black male suffrage movement diverged as emancipated Black men rallied for and ultimately received voting rights under the 15th Amendment, while women remained disenfranchised. However, this divergence further sidelined Black women’s voting rights.
Sojourner Truth, a former slave and advocate for women’s suffrage, disassociated herself from Frederick Douglass’s voting rights advocacy, for he emphasized Black male suffrage as more pressing than women’s suffrage. Though befriended by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Truth also distanced herself from the white-led women’s suffrage movement, as she did not agree with Stanton’s opposition to the 15th Amendment. In an 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Truth delivered an impassioned speech titled, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (Reilly). In her speech, she brought awareness to the “double-burden” women of color, particularly Black women, endured while fighting for both civil rights and gender equality––a burden amplified by the two movements’ divergence nearly two decades later (Reilly). Voting rights for women of color remained deprioritized through the remainder of the women’s suffrage movement and well after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
While we can celebrate the achievements of the women’s suffrage movement (“first-wave feminism”), we must also recognize that it principally fought for a white woman’s right to vote, and continually disregarded––and oftentimes silenced––the intersectional, overlapping woman. The 19th Amendment states that the right to vote shall not be abridged on the basis of sex; while a pivotal achievement, this classification benefitted white women unburdened by state-sanctioned racial discrimination (Not All Women Gained). Therefore, by accepting that all women gained suffrage in 1920, we are participating in a white washing of history. Indigenous women earned the right to vote in 1924. Asian women earned the right to vote in 1952. Black and Latina women earned the right to vote in 1965 (Panetta, Reany, Lakritz). And while these years mark the passing of legislation that legalized such marginalized women’s voting rights, these women remained largely disenfranchised by state interference decades subsequent.
Forty years after the 19th Amendment’s ratification, a new incarnation of the women’s movement arose, known as “second-wave feminism.” Lasting from the 60s into the 80s, the movement shed light upon women’s cultural, political, and economic inequality by bridging the gap between women’s personal matters and sexist societal power structures (Drucker). Second-wave feminism broadened the scope of gender inequalities and discrimination, as it drew attention to issues such as reproductive rights, family, the workplace, sexuality, domestic violence, custody and divorce laws, sexual assault, and women’s shelters. However, like first-wave feminism, it was critiqued for disproportionately elevating white, upper and middle-class women.
Writer and activist Audre Lorde, known as the mother of intersectional feminism, advocated for feminism which transcended society’s incessant need for categorization (Liberman). She celebrated individual and communal differences while highlighting the exclusive nature of second-wave feminism. At a NYU conference in 1979, Lorde introduced a speech entitled “The Master’s Tool Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” by announcing, “I stand here as a Black lesbian feminist within the only panel where the input of Black feminists and lesbians is represented” (Liberman). She emphasized a gaping intersectional hole in a movement that claimed to advocate for all women, and––she got to work. In a 1981 interview transcribed in The Denver Quarterly, Lorde pointed out, “There’s always someone asking you to underline a piece of yourself” (Liberman). In this request, however, they often dismiss everything else about an individual; Lorde described this fatal flaw as the center for her intersectional endeavors. While calling upon the role white feminists played in perpetuating exclusive feminism, Lorde also acknowledged in her “The Master’s Tool” speech, “As women, 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” (Liberman). Lorde not only advocated for intersectionality, but she championed interdependency among all people to prompt the transition from second-wave feminism to intersectional feminism.
Modern “third-wave feminism” carries on the fight of second-wave feminism in a more inclusive light, but still demands that women disregard their intersectional identities linger, to center their womanness in the name of gender equality. However, as Lorde and Crenshaw both noted, gender inequality and oppression cannot be separated from other inequalities and forms of oppression. While LGBTQIA+ women, women of color, disabled women, and non-binary people remain overlooked in the modern-day feminist movement, blooming intersectional efforts seek to transform feminism as we know it by including all women.
If feminism is going to intrinsically progress, intersectionality should take root in our thoughts and especially the actions we take towards creating a more equitable, inclusive world, where all marginalized voices can be heard. We must commit ourselves to seeing each other as whole individuals––some elevated by systems which cater to their privileges and others oppressed by power structures which target their intersections. As Audre Lorde proclaimed in a speech entitled, “Learning from the 60s,” “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” (Blackpast). As long as we adhere to a “one size fits all” mentality when addressing and fighting to mend inequalities, we continue to turn a blind eye to the injustices that thrive at intersections. Let us see each other for who we are, and not merely for the aspects of one another we can relate to. Let us celebrate intersectionality, for our commitment to intersectional thinking is the means by which we can achieve gender equality for all women. And let us reclaim third-wave feminism from the exclusive legacy of its predecessors by centering marginalized voices in our efforts towards equality. After all, “if it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminism.”
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