Op-Ed: Why Intersectional Feminism Matters
5 min read
by Emma Glassman-Hughes | May 21, 2015
We come in all shapes and sizes; all races, backgrounds, body-types, sexualities, all everything. We have differences, sure, but the one thing we all have in common is our shared struggle. And I’m not just talking about #TheStruggle of spilling your morning latte on the way to work—I’m talking about sexism. While the story of the struggle varies significantly depending on who you talk to and where in the world you are, it’s ours. Because we’re women! The lesser sex! High five!
For real, though: this is where feminism steps in. A lot of feminist ideals have been stretched and pulled in a million directions, and sometimes it’s hard to make sense of it all and find real meaning in the movement, especially if you feel the movement doesn’t help you.
Feminism is not meant to be divisive; feminism is meant to be uniting. It empowers women of all different creeds to come together and share their stories of struggle and to rise above it all. Okay, we’ve all heard this before. It’s inspiring and it’s beautiful, yada, yada, yada. But a lot of the time it’s a bunch of crap.
The stories of struggle aren’t crap, the movement isn’t crap, and the women themselves are certainly not crap—but the overarching narrative can be pretty crappy. I speak for western feminism when I say that, when you look at our televisions and magazines and stages, it is very clear that we are still deeply entrenched within patriarchal influence. More specifically, white supremacist, patriarchal influence. I don’t want to get too technical here, and also I don’t have any degrees in this field so I wouldn’t even know how to get too technical here; I’m just speaking from observation and frustration. An important exercise in realizing the importance of inclusive feminism is challenging yourself to come up with a list of mainstream feminist icons of today. What names come to mind? Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, Jennifer Lawrence, Miley Cyrus, Amy Poehler, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham, Emma Watson etc. All wonderful (albeit imperfect) women with important messages, but also all white. Of course, this list is incomplete without names like Beyoncé, Malala Yousafzai, Shonda Rhimes, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and others, but we can’t deny that most of the loudest voices in the mainstream feminist movement look pretty similar and are all white.
What we see projected to us as mainstream feminism is overwhelmingly white, cis-gendered, and conventionally attractive. One example of why this is odd: while the U.S.’s overall population is growing more and more racially diverse (ahem, less white), this trend doesn’t translate to the feminist agenda that we’re seeing. We’re not hearing from women of color—not because they aren’t talking, but because we aren’t amplifying their voices.
So why is this harmful? As we all know, different women face different struggles. Because white women in the U.S. are not affected by institutionalized racism the way that women of color are, the struggles of a white woman will be different in a lot of ways than the struggles of a black woman. Young black girls growing up being fed feminist role models who are all white, none of whom are relatable, will feel isolated and won’t benefit from the empowerment of feminism that makes women feel heard and respected. This doesn’t seem fair or productive.
One thing I want to stress that often gets muddled in conversations about intersectional feminism (which is what this is, by the way) is that making room for more diversity in mainstream feminism does not mean silencing voices of the privileged women who have been given platforms to speak already. Silencing women of any decree is not exactly the endgame of feminism. Discouraging women like Emma Watson or Taylor Swift from raising their voices for the sake of feminism is counterproductive to the movement; in fact, feminism would be much better off removing the word “discouragement” from its vocabulary. Imagine if we encouraged these women to be brave, and to broaden their feminist horizons, using their privileged platforms to raise intersectional issues that need addressing to the forefront of conversation.
Imagine if we encouraged oppressed groups to raise their voices and speak out about the issues they face. Imagine if, instead of treating women who aren’t white, or skinny, or heterosexual, or able-bodied, or even anatomically female like they’re invisible, we started marketing our products toward them, making them feel heard and making them feel like they matter. Imagine it.
Feminists who don’t make an effort to embrace intersectionality (and feminist companies that don’t make an effort to embrace intersectionality) must be pressured to scrap that crappy white supremacist, patriarchal narrative to make room for a narrative that does justice to all oppressed people—female or not.
Women of any background know what it feels like to be disrespected. We know what it feels like to be ignored. We know what it feels like to hurt. Why would we let anyone else suffer the same? That’s what feminism is all about.
Emma Glassman-Hughes was raised on the beaches of San Diego and educated in the city of Boston. She is a dedicated foodie, cat enthusiast, political communications student at Emerson College, and intern for THINX. She finds inspiration in all things feminism- or Beyoncé-related, and has a deep appreciation for carbs and good music, preferably when combined.
by Emma Glassman-Hughes