Intersectional Feminism attempts to break down how gender, race, class, sexuality and ability might combine (intersect) to create distinct types of discrimination. This wide range of possibilities takes the original ideas of feminism and broadens the spectrum. It offers combinations of injustices that are felt by many members of our society, and not exclusively by white, middle class women. 

Five women with varying skin tones pose on a couch for the camera.

The history behind intersectional feminism

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw first used the phrase intersectional feminism in 1989, in a paper written for the University of Chicago Legal Forum. She was inspired to explore the theory when immersed in her college studies, and noticed that gender and race were categorized as separate issues.

Crenshaw felt that studying them as separate entities didn’t add up. She determined that women of color are doubly discriminated against, most notably in the field of law. Crenshaw also co-founded the field of critical race theory during her time at Harvard Law School, where she helped organize the Critical Race Theory Workshop.

To demonstrate intersectional feminism, Crenshaw cites a variety of court cases in her paper. The 1976 case of Degraffenreid vs General Motors establishes the basis of her theory. The car manufacturer General Motors (GM) was sued by five African American women for gender and racial discrimination. But the courts found that women in general were not discriminated against in the area of secretarial roles. And because GM employed African American factory workers, racial discrimination was also disproved. The court ignored the fact that the majority of secretaries were white women, and the factory workers were all men. The women lost the case.

Aeria shot of eight diverse men and women join hands.

The trouble with being mainstream

Crenshaw’s work and influence span over 30 years. Her theory of intersectionality has been embraced worldwide, not only as a concept but also as a research approach. But when something goes viral, often the original creator is misquoted and not fully understood. Crenshaw was interviewed in an article about intersectionality going mainstream. She said,“the thing that’s kind of ironic about intersectionality is that it had to leave town (the world of law) in order to get famous.”

This mainstream status took hold when it became a term in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 and gained far-reaching traction during the 2017 Women’s March. The event’s organizers pointed out how women’s “intersecting identities” meant that they were “impacted by a multitude of social justice and human rights issues.” 

How do we embrace instersectional feminism?

As women today search for ways to come to terms with our individual strengths and empowerment, it makes sense to see the multiple factors that determine our viewpoint. How is it possible to embrace intersectional feminism, going forward? 

I think reading, learning and researching is a way to start. Framing Intersectionality by Maria Teresa Herrera Vivar combines critics and supporters of the concept, breaking it down thematically with input from those who have influence in debates surrounding it.

Practical Tips for practicing intersectional feminism

Teresa Younger, the President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, offered insight in an interview featured in Quartz online. She explains, “I think people feel overwhelmed about what they can do, so they do nothing. Figure out what your personal values are and act on them.” Here are some of her ideas to inspire you:

  • Consider bystander training
  • Make a monthly commitment (with time or money) to an organization you believe in
  • Educate yourself by reading James Baldwin or Monique Morris
  • Attend a rally and support those fighting for a cause you deem worthwhile
  • Listen and be open to learning from another point of view

Younger’s biggest piece of advice is to do your own homework. In other words, don’t expect your relationships with people of color to be your educating force.

A man in a protest is holding a sign supporting all women.

Get ready to revolutionize your thinking

But wait, there’s more! Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu is one of the most charismatic experts in the field. This political and women’s rights activist teaches intersectional feminism to asylum seekers and female refugees, co-organizes women’s marches and social campaigns, and is a New York Attorney as well as a Solicitor of England and Wales.

She also has plenty to say about how we can all embrace Intersectional feminism. Her talk “This is why I resist” calls for us to join a conscious revolution. “Feminism should be intersectional, it’s not just a declaration, it’s a demonstration and manifestation. The term feminist is gender neutral, so yes, men can be feminists too.” 

She demonstrates how anyone can incorporate intersectional feminism into their daily behavior:

  • Women need to stop judging each other, and accept each other as we are 
  • Practice active citizenship
  • Get to the front of the march
  • Take responsibility to shape our politics through our voices, values and votes-stop being complicit through silence

Conclusion

As I dove into this topic, I did not understand its breadth and depth. I will fully admit that this is a superficial rendering, with so much more to be discovered. I am reminded that when women come together as they do for IWNG, there are a lot of opportunities for us to learn from one another. We come from diverse nations, religions, races and backgrounds. We can strive to find what is common, note what is different and then learn to embrace these differences. It is an invitation to get started, if you haven’t already.

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Abbie Pumarejo
abbiepumarejo@yahoo.com

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