Who Is a Feminist? What Is Intersectional Feminism?
I became an active feminist in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the second-wave feminist movement. In some ways, what being a feminist means to me has never changed: being committed to making life better for women—all women. At the same time, my understanding of what feminism means has morphed and evolved over the years and is not the same as in the 1960’s and 1970’s. At that time, we white middle-class second wave feminists thought we were fighting to improve the lives of all women, but we were clueless about the issues of women who were not white, straight, and middle class. This cluelessness inflicted serious damage on the credibility of feminism, for good reason. Some of us, myself included, were slow learners.
The seeds of distrust between middle-class white feminists and women of color were actually planted long long ago during the first wave of feminism. The white leaders of the fight to get the vote for women, the suffragists, did not allow the issues of black women onto their agenda. They decided to stay focused on the vote and would not include the abolition of slavery in their fight. The plea of Sojourner Truth, an African American woman who had been a slave, to the suffragists at their convention, “Ain’t I a woman, too?” summed up a challenge to the suffragists to be inclusive of black women’s issues in their women’s movement. This plea went largely unheeded.
Understanding this history, I was not surprised that many women of color had a strong reaction when the January 21, 2017, Women’s March on Washington (and in three hundred other cities) was announced. Many women of color felt their issues and leadership were excluded by the organizers. While there were some missteps in the language and leadership of the march when it was first announced, these mistakes seem to have been corrected fairly quickly. Still, the damage was done for some who were too angry to participate.
When I attended the march, though, I was pleased to see a wide range of issues represented by the marchers, who all felt like they belonged under the banner of feminism. I now understand that there are many feminisms, not just one, and there are both differences and commonalities among them. At the march I saw many signs held by women of all ages and races that said, “I am an intersectional feminist,” and I thought, “Yes! This represents how I think of feminism now.”
For me, intersectional feminism means that in order to improve the lives of all women, we must understand the ways that our differences in social class, sexual orientation, immigration status, nationality of origin, race, ethnicity, gender identity, and other differences intersect with our gender to make some issues more important than others for different groups of women.
For example, If I am a low-wage worker, earning a living wage and getting access to affordable child care is probably more important to me than closing the gender pay gap. If I am an African American woman, stopping the indiscriminate killing of black women and men by police officers and stopping the mass incarceration of black men probably would be more important than closing the gender pay gap.
It’s not that the gender pay gap isn’t important, but we need to understand how the intersections of gender and other differences make our experiences and priorities as women different. We also need to be able to stand up for each other’s issues and speak up for each other’s priority struggles. All of our issues need to be on the change agenda to improve the lives of women.
As an intersectional feminist, these are issues that I think belong on the change agenda that we must work on together:
- Black Lives Matter—ending mass incarceration and the killing of black women and men by police
- Protections for immigrant families who fear the breakup of families by deportation
- Economic justice for low-wage workers who need a living wage—the fight for a $15 minimum wage
- Affordable child care for all
- Affordable healthcare for all
- Reproductive freedom by having access to birth control and abortion
- Freedom from sexual assault
- Rights and protections for LGBTQQIA communities
- Religious freedom and an end to discrimination against Muslims
- Equal pay—ending all gender and other identity-related pay gaps
- Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Violence Against Women Act
- End to all types of employment discrimination including discrimination based on gender, race, gender identity, and so on
I know that this list is incomplete, and it might be different for someone else. Are you an intersectional feminist? What does this mean to you? What issues are a priority for you?