If feminism truly wants to ensure racial, gender and LGBT equalities, it must make a number of changes affecting both how it’s perceived and the way many of its advocates are developing the movement. I, as a white, middle-class, heterosexual feminist am one of many who should assume full responsibility in ensuring this change. Recognition of this is merely the first stage in the process of making feminism ultimately more diverse and inclusive.
Introducing intersectional feminism
Cultural factors such as gender, class, race, sexual orientation, physical ability and ethnicity influence the forms of and degree to which different women experience oppression. Certain groups of women experience numerous levels of interrelated oppression. For example, while black women face both racism and sexism; a white woman experiences sexism but has a racial advantage; and a Latina lesbian experiences sexism and racism, alongside discrimination based on her sexual orientation.
Acknowledging these variations, intersectional feminism is looking to highlight that the the predominant demography within feminism — white, middle-class and able-bodied — only represents one of many types of people, and can only speak for this group. The experiences of everyone else are not reflected representatively by the movement. Too many feminists frequently ignore this issue, focusing on the exclusive problems of white, privileged women.
The belief that racism is not an issue that feminism needs to be concerned with must be undermined within the movement. In the same sense, white feminism tends to assume its opinions are dominant in political and cultural areas that white people may actually have the least knowledge and understanding of. For instance, some feminists argue that hijabs, burqas, and niqabs are oppressive towards Muslim women. And while debate on such issues may be encouraged within feminism, we must recognise that only Muslim women can personally relate to the issue; in this case, such that they ultimately have a more informed opinion on the matter.
Intersectional feminism also broadens the conversation towards the addressal of reproductive rights. As Juliet Williams, professor of gender studies at UCLA, says:
‘Some intersectional feminists have been critical of framing reproductive justice claims in terms of a feminist demand for “choice”, since choice discourse presumes that all women have the economic means to afford an abortion if they so choose’.
This addresses the overlapping political issues within feminism and acknowledges other forms of oppression faced by non-white women. We risk failing to provide effective solutions to these problems if we choose to ignore the fact that some groups of women have much more limited access to abortion services, and indeed economic resources in general, than others.
Another example of a societal issue which intersectionality is encouraging feminism to address, is the fact that trans-women experience higher levels of harassment and assault than other women. Research suggests that roughly half of transgender people will experience sexual assault at some point in their lives (Human Rights Campaign). There are a number of reasons for this, amongst which is the fact that LGBTQ people are at higher risk of poverty and unemployment. Within the LGBTQ community, transgender people and bisexual women experience the highest rates of sexual violence. Intersectional feminism is merely promoting a stronger focus on such issues within feminist study. I have addressed a very limited range of these problems in similarly limited depth.
There are many different types of privilege, based on sexual orientation, physical ability, race, gender and ethnicity. Many women have a problem with feminism because it is predominantly white, western, and able-bodied, such that feminism itself is often hypocritically marginalising other groups of women.
However, most opposition to the feminist movement is critical for entirely different reasons; misinformed and ignorant dislike of the idea of a progressive and egalitarian movement, merely trying to promote equality. The criticism that mainstream feminism must take seriously is not this, but that which seeks a more diverse and inclusive political movement. It would simply be hypocritical and self-defeating to ignore the advocacy of intersectionalism.