Feminism, at its very core, is a fight for equality – but what happens when we forget, or actively omit, the very people we should be fighting alongside? Well, we end up with a homogenised approach to feminism that centres on the experiences of white, cis, heterosexual and able-bodied women.
Feminism calls for equality, autonomy and respect for women, but we can’t be ignorant to the fact that identifying as female isn’t the only barrier to accessing these.
We don’t move around the world existing only as one identity. We are not just women. We are all home to the diverse identities that make us who we are, and that can be influenced by our sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, and much more. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
We must recognise the intersections with being a woman and make them inherent to the cause. This is not a fight for one, but a fight for all – and that includes the limitless ways in which someone can be a woman.
If we fail to make feminism intersectional, we just perpetuate the issues that feminism seeks to fight by deflecting them from those with privilege onto those who already face additional forms of oppression. We need to move against the patriarchal notion that specific genders, sexualities and other limited criteria make some more worthy than others.
The term ‘intersectional’ was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her seminal essay titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”
Crenshaw argues that a “single-axis framework” is flawed as it “contributes to the marginalization of Black women” and excludes them “from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender.”
Intersectionality in feminism calls on us to widen the lens of feminism itself. By doing so, feminism becomes something that is not solely informed by ‘being a woman’ but rather operates with the knowledge that people can be “multiply-burdened”, as Crenshaw states. Our identities do not exist in individual vacuums, and it’s important that feminism reflects that too.
We must acknowledge the different forms that discrimination can take because of someone’s identity, and be willing to put in the work to include all women in the conversation and our actions.
All too often we see feminism centre on the views and needs of white women, particularly white, heterosexual, cis and able-bodied women. As Mikki Kendall says in Hood Feminism, “For marginalized people, feminism is failing them by being so focused on whether middle-class white women have what they need and want…”
During the urgent and growing call for justice and equality through Black Lives Matter and annual celebrations around Pride Month, we see a great swell of visibility of voices from these communities, but listening to and embracing their voices must be more than a trend.
It is crucial that we not only listen to, amplify and support the voices of women of colour, but that we value their lives, experiences and needs too. Similarly, we cannot sit back and allow high profile figures and damaging legislation to dehumanise and misidentify non-binary and trans people. Feminism has a lot to owe to women of colour, trans women, and trans women of colour.
As Kendall states, “if feminisms’ goal truly is equality for all, that means the future of feminism has to look very different from its past.” We have to ensure that feminism isn’t just a tool for “maintaining white supremacy by giving white women equal power with white men.”
We need to shape feminism into something for all women, with all their varying identities. If we continue to centre feminism around bringing a specific set of women to an equal place with white men, then we’re just perpetuating a patriarchal standard that is inherently non-inclusive and non-feminist.
As a cis white woman, I am aware that I am speaking from a place of immense privilege. I’m ashamed it’s taken me too long to take real, consistent action aligned with my beliefs, but this shame or guilt does nothing to help anyone. Instead, I am using it as a signal to myself to listen to and better support the women who exist within intersectional identities that are different to my own.
Intersectional feminism must be a verb. It is an action and a commitment to doing the work that improves the lives of all women. It is a promise to listen, to learn and to engage with women with different experiences to you, whilst giving space and support to the important causes that they are fighting for.
As feminists, we should aim to be good “accomplices,” as Kendall puts forward. This means “taking the risks inherent in wielding privilege to defend communities with less of it.” We need to stop siloing the work that needs to be done and understand that it’s all part of the same fight. For those with greater privilege, that might mean “not only passing the mic” but sometimes getting “completely off the stage so that someone else can get the attention they need to get their work done” too.
It’s crucial that we don’t use feminism as a tool to further oppress people. If we uphold a feminism that only serves a specific group of people then we’re not only erasing the diverse identities, experiences and voices of women, but also their access to health, safety, opportunities and equality.
To truly fight for equality, our feminism must be intersectional.
Photography by Madison Brooke.