s e smith
People often assume I’m a feminist based on my politics and the kind of work that I do; I work in solidarity with members of oppressed groups, I advocate for groups I belong to, I’m on the political left, and I frequent circles heavily populated by feminists and social justice activists.
Yet, I walked away from feminism, very publicly, and with very good reason. It seems like I constantly have to ‘come out’ as not-a-feminist because memories are short, and thus I find myself rehashing the reasons I chose to leave feminism (though I work in solidarity with some feminists) on a regular basis. The core reason was the lack of intersectionality in the movement—I felt actively excluded by feminism, and didn’t want to be part of a movement that either ignored me or sometimes actively agitated against me.
Feminists often react viciously to accusations of lack of intersectionality in their movement, either because they think it doesn’t belong, or because they aren’t willing to listen to the lived experiences of people saying their movement isn’t living up to its stated ideals. When Natalie announced the INTERSECT conference, I was immensely excited, because I thought it might furnish some excellent opportunities for exchanging ideas and information, and for having some difficult discussions about what feminists want their movement to be, and what kinds of messages they want to send.
Depicting feminism as purely gender-focused may be a traditionalist approach, but it can’t be the only approach, because so many things intersect with gender and play a role in women’s experiences. Simply being a woman doesn’t mean you have a lot in common with other women; you may be a disabled woman, a woman of colour, a poor woman, a trans woman. These experiences inevitably inform your view on the world as well as your interactions with other human beings.
To say that gender alone is the primary problem is to miss critical structural issues that must be combated. Feminism ought to be embracing ‘none of us are free until all of us are free’ because of the close ties between these issues; while feminists in the United States lobby on equal pay issues, for example, many ignore the fact that women of colour and disabled women are at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to employment and pay equality. Focusing on gender alone misses the larger picture and leaves some women behind.
While feminists defend reproductive rights, many ignore the specific social and cultural issues faced by poor women, women of colour, and disabled women. You can’t talk about reproductive rights without discussing disability, for example, and the complex, tangled, and intense history surrounding disability and reproductive rights. Women are sterilised today for being disabled, still. They have their children taken away because they’re deemed unfit parents. Feminists argue that it’s necessary to protect abortion access to ensure that children won’t be born disabled—and they wonder why people with disabilities feel excluded from their movement.
Even if gender is the primary focus for some women, they ought to be concerned by the fact that gender-based oppression is tied with other issues. If you genuinely believe in equality and liberation for all women, you must, inevitably, fight structural issues beyond sexism. Anti-racism, for example, belongs in the feminist movement because racism plays a role in the oppression of women worldwide. Ableism (or disableism, I suppose I should say for a UK conference) affects huge numbers of women when disabled persons make up 20% of the population, and some disability issues specifically target women, just as some racial issues are gendered, and some class issues are gendered.
The resistance to intersectionality sends a number of messages to people outside the movement, including those considering and ultimately rejecting feminism. It also signals dangerous things to those within the movement. It tells people that feminism isn’t truly about liberation for women, but about liberation for a small and specific subset of women, those who meet specific demographic criteria; primarily white, middle class, cis, nondisabled women. It tells people that they don’t need to delve deeper into overlapping structural issues that interplay with gender. For example, there’s a reason some disabilities are dismissed by the general public and medical establishment, and that reason is highly gendered: they affect women more than men, and are deemed ‘women’s problems.’ There’s a reason the Jezebel and mammy stereotypes are gendered; misogyny plays a role in expressions of racism. The list goes on.
Liberation for some is justice for none: feminism could be a stronger, more powerful, more effective movement simply by including all women, and fighting structural issues together rather than telling people to wait their turn because this isn’t their fight.
Tags: Feminism and Intersectionality