Why Intersectional Feminism Is So Important

I think what I enjoy most about being a member of the radical feminist community is that interacting with other individuals who are equally passionate about Women’s Rights ensures that my consciousness remains in a state of constant expansion. Recently, an astute woman pointed out that conformance to prototypical patriarchal paradigms of the female body is not the only shortcoming of liberal feminism. Additionally, this form of “feminism” fails to acknowledge and address issues of intersectionality. I agree and want to develop this concept further here.

Intersectionality is a term coined by critical race theorist Kimberly Williams Crenshaw. The term references the way oppressive institutions (including but not limited to sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and xenophobia) are interconnected. Because of the interconnected nature of these oppressions, they cannot be analyzed independently of one another. Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has been integral to much radical feminist theory and discourse, and the ideology plays a central role in helping women from disparate backgrounds understand the divisive nature of oppression so that they can form political alliances and/or develop personal relationships based on shared humanity. When understood this way, the reason that intersectionality must remain an integral component of the radical feminist movement becomes plain. It helps unite women who were formerly segregated by the pathological, patriarchal narratives that suffuse necrotic ideologies such as white supremacy, nationalism, and compulsory heterosexuality.

(If one took compulsory heterosexuality as the springboard through which to discuss the divisive nature of patriarchy, she might consider the role this institution plays in separating women by causing them to compete for male attention. Also note that this modality places men at the center of female consciousness, thereby dictating that their thoughts and actions are continually directed away from women and towards the male. In discussing how this approach to life has a limiting impact, Nancy B. Howell notes that “In hetero-reality, the richest contributions to my emergence, the contributions from gynaffectionate women, were truncated by an imposed dissociation from female relationships.”)

When we approach feminist theory and our relationships with women through the lens of intersectionality, we can abandon the loathed “power over” system that patriarchy has established for the purpose of ensuring that relationships are predicated on a domination/submission matrix. In patriarchy, this “power over” model involves men dominating women. But within feminism, it can involve certain women dominating other women. A practical example would be heterosexual women dominating lesbians by interpreting lesbianism in terms of pathology. This reality unfolded when heterosexual NOW leader Betty Friedan attempted to mute the voices of lesbian feminist activists by referring to lesbianism as the “Lavender Menace.” In so doing, she metabolized the patriarchal agenda of privileging women who choose to make themselves sexually available to men over women who either consciously decide to prefer women or find themselves innately inclined towards them. In referring to lesbianism as the “Lavender Menace,” Friedan spoke from the perspective of a privileged heterosexual who understood the oppressive heteronormative order and, instead of challenging it by recognizing and respecting the humanity and values of lesbians who had rejected the male-centered imperative, chose to silence them in order to remain in good graces with sexist men who insisted on reifying a social order in which the bodies of women were always available to men. It is this type of approach to feminist theory and praxis that an intersectionalist feminist would abhor and reject.  Rather than centering, naturalizing, and/or privileging one’s own sexual orientation such that the lived experiences and epistemological reference points of others are elided or erased, intersectionalist feminists affirm the humanity and value of women whose knowledge frameworks and modes of living may differ from our own. In approaching feminism this way, we preclude ourselves from subjecting others to the domination/submission schema that results from placing primacy on our own epistemological frameworks and experiences.

Clearly, receptivity to and respect for lesbians is not the only component of intersectionality which works to challenge the “power over” model. Acknowledging the unique role that race can and does play in creating distinct life experiences for women of color is an equally important component of this theory and its resulting praxis. When I think of intersectionality in context of race, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s important essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” In this work, Lorde notes that “There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (855). Lorde goes on to cite numerous examples that demonstrate the accuracy of this claim. First, she notes that

“As white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone, then women of Color become “other,” the outsider whose experience and tradition is too “alien” to comprehend. An example of this is the signal absence of the experience of women of Color as a resource for women’s studies courses” (856).

Further demonstrating the validity of her claim, Lorde notes that

“…white women face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibility does not exist in the same way for women of Color. The tokenism that is sometimes extended to us is not an invitation to join power, our racial “otherness” is a visible reality that makes that quite clear. For white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools” (857).

These are just two of many epistemological and experiential disparities that exist between white women and black women. Feminists who are serious about building woman-identified communities where women of all racial backgrounds can share humanity and love one another without mental distortion or pretense must acknowledge the role that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has played in creating distinct and oftentimes diametrically opposed forms of fragmented subjectivity for white and black women.

Even as we acknowledge the role that racism plays in creating a world in which women of color and white women experience the world disparately, we need not ignore the fact that our experiences under patriarchy are oftentimes somewhat (or even very) similar. This idea becomes plain at numerous points, including what may be andocracy’s favorite mode of dehumanizing women: objectification. Poets such as Sylvia Plath have done an exemplary job of demonstrating the role that institutions such as compulsory heterosexuality have played in reducing women to objects whose primary purpose is to serve men and “be sexy.” Plath displays this phallic social schema through poems like “The Applicant.” Here, a woman is described as “a thing” (l. 7) that will be given to a man. This to-be wife will “bring teacups and roll away headaches” (l. 12). The servile component of the woman’s personhood is coincided by the objectified dimension of her identity, and this fact becomes plain when the woman-wife is described with the phrase “a living doll” (l. 33). The sexualized nature of the objectification is underscored when the speaker informs the male applying for a wife that “You have an eye, it’s an image” (l. 37). This reduction of women to servile sex objects is replicated all over the world, and this reality becomes evident in Geraldine Heng’s important essay “A Great Way to Fly”: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-World Feminism.” There, Heng references the Singapore government’s exploitation of maids before going on to note that

“More invisibly, but just as exploitatively, state-owned or state-affiliated airline industries throughout Southeast Asia (and South and East Asian countries) routinely sell the sexualized images and personal charm and services of their female flight attendants, in the highly competitive and highly profitable commercial air-travel market, through aggressive global marketing and media advertising, for the profit of the national coffers” (863).

Whether the sexualization and subservience of women materializes through the political institution of heterosexual marriage or a state-run airline, the theme of objectifying a woman for profit and pleasure remains strong. Clearly, the continuities that exist between white and Asian women who experience sex-based objectification under patriarchy do not elide the reality of distinctions based on factors such as the racialization of womanhood and collective vs. private ownership of women in phallism. Yet the distinctions do not negate the fact that phallocracy continually creates a world in which women of disparate racial backgrounds can experience a similar mode of dehumanization.

Despite the negativity indigenous to discourse regarding the necrotic impact of patriarchy (which is indeed a process of necrosis given the role it plays in turning subjects into objects), it is important to acknowledge the realm of positivity that is feminism continually suffusing itself through (and contending with) the androcentric world. As noted by Joyce Trebilcot, “for me, patriarchy is always present there is no “pure” wimmin’s space (As if in compensation, when wimmin are present there is no pure patriarchy-we are always violating and sabotaging it” (3, Dyke Methods or Principles for the Discovery/Creation of the Withstanding). Adopting an intersectional approach to feminism makes this violation and sabotage of patriarchy more effective because it abrades the divisions created by sexist men who who want women to see themselves as members of distinct, hierarchical classes rather than individuals who share humanity and can collectively organize against oppression.

Works Cited

Heng, Geraldine. “A Great Way to Fly”: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-  World Feminism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael  Ryan. Blackwell Publishing: 2004. Pg. 861-881.

Howell, Nancy. “Radical Relatedness and Feminist Separatism.” http://www.religion-  online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2773.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Literary Theory:  An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing: 2004.  Pg.     854-860.

Plath, Sylvia. “The Applicant.” Poems from the Women’s Movement. Ed. by Honor Moore.  The Library of America: 2009.

Trebilcot, Joyce. “Dyke Methods or Principles for the Discovery/Creation of the  Withstanding.” Hypatia, no. 2, 1988, p. 1. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?  url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?  direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.3809948&site=eds-live&scope=site.

 

 

 

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Why Intersectional Feminism Is So Important

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