Monday, October 04, 2010

Who Stole Feminism? Part II

This post is a continuation of my earlier post: Thoughts elicited by Jessica Valenti's article in the Nation magazine, "Who Stole Feminism?" What I wish to do here (well, "wish" is not quite the word when tackling this particular topic) is to discuss Jessica's arguments about intersectionality and, very briefly, the generational wars of American feminism.

The two arguments are somewhat different, although intersectionality in theory allows for considerations of age. Still, I'm going to cover the two topics separately.

First, intersectionality:

Let's begin with a quote from the article:

Conservative women have been trying to steal feminism for more than a decade—organizations like the Independent Women's Forum and Feminists for Life have long fought for antiwomen policies while identifying themselves as the "real" feminists. But their "prowoman" messaging didn't garner national attention until actual feminists paved the way for them in the 2008 presidential election. During the Democratic primary, feminist icons and leaders of mainstream women's organizations insisted that the only acceptable vote was for Hillary Clinton; female Barack Obama supporters were derided as traitors or chided for their naïveté. I even heard from women working in feminist organizations who kept mum on their vote for fear of losing their jobs. Perhaps most representative of the internal strife was a New York Times op-ed (and the fallout that followed) by Gloria Steinem in which the icon wrote, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life."

Soon after, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, responded in a Democracy Now! segment, "Part of what, again, has been sort of an anxiety for African-American women feminists like myself is that we're often asked to join up with white women's feminism, but only on their own terms, as long as we sort of remain silent about the ways in which our gender, our class, our sexual identity doesn't intersect, as long as we can be quiet about those things and join onto a single agenda."

The argument was not a new one—women of color and younger feminists have often taken white second-wave feminists to task for focusing on gender inequities over a more intersectional approach that also takes race, class and sexuality into account.
The first paragraph is included here to set the stage. For my discussion of it, see Part I. What I want to focus on here is the concept of intersectionality and how it can be used in feminist discourse:

One definition of intersectionality:

Intersectionality is a sociological theory suggesting that—and seeking to examine how—various socially and culturally constructed categories of discrimination interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class, or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.
Ignoring intersections of oppressions can create blind spots in the application of feminist thinking, as demonstrated by the following example:

In the 1980s, Crenshaw was trying to understand why US anti-discrimination law was failing to protect Black women in the workplace, and she discovered it was because the law distinguished between two kinds of discrimination: gendered discrimination and racialized discrimination.

That is, US law distinguished between discrimination against women (on the basis of their gender) and discrimination against Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous people (on the basis of their race).

But in her study of discrimination in workplaces, Crenshaw observed that Black women were discriminated against on both bases – their gender and their race – at once.

So, for example, Black women were the last group to be hired at a workplace she studied – after white women and Black men. When the boss decided to lay people off, Black women were fired because they were the least senior – the last to arrive. But that they were hired last was itself due to discrimination. This group of Black women took the company to court and the judge said, "there's no gender discrimination here because white women weren't fired. And there's no race discrimination here because Black men weren't fired."

So, Crenshaw concluded that discrimination against Black women in the workplace – as Black women – was invisible to legal concepts of discrimination that saw it in terms of "gender" only or in terms of "race" only. Black women's experiences of discrimination were rendered invisible by these ways of categorizing discriminatory practices.

Crenshaw argued that a similar thing happened in US feminist movements. Black women's issues – and the issues facing other women of colour, lesbians, and working class white women – became invisible as privileged white women defined "gender discrimination" and "gender oppression" in terms of their own particular experiences. They then overgeneralized those experiences and claimed they were shared by all women. But they weren't.
Likewise, past campaigns focusing on increasing access to contraception and abortions defined reproductive choice in a way which left out the concerns of those women who at that time faced forced sterilizations.

Clearly, then, an intersectional approach is useful. But what does it mean to use one in feminism? Is it really true that

If the new wave of feminists—the leaders of small grassroots organizations across the country, the bloggers who are organizing hundreds of thousands of women online, the advocates for reproductive justice, racial equality and queer rights—aren't recognized as the real advocates for women, then the future of the movement will be lost.
I'm not sure, and the reason is that lots and lots of women slip through those intersections altogether. Can't there be more real advocates than that list?

It seems to me that a full-blown use of intersectionality would replace all the social justice movements focusing on gender, race, class and sexual preference with one movement. That movement would then push for the removal of every type of oppression simultaneously. Would that be feasible?

I doubt it. Intersectionality seems to me to be indispensable in understanding the experiences of specific groups in the society as well as in theoretical debates. But it would have serious problems as a practical social justice movement, simply because of the enormous tangle of influences it would be expected to battle. And as long as the individual movements addressing gender, race, class or sexual preference exist, they are going to specialize.

At the same time, feminist activists should learn from intersectionality to listen carefully to all groups of women in order to make sure that their concerns are understood and also to make sure that the problems the activism addresses are defined in the most inclusive manner possible.

That's how far I have gotten with respect to intersectionality. I hope to return to that topic in the future. Right now I need to wind down this post by addressing

The generational wars in feminism

Here is Jessica's take on these:

Part of the reason Palin and her cohort are so successful at positioning themselves as the "new" women's movement is because we fail to push forward and support new feminists of our own. This is not to say that younger women aren't at the forefront of the movement—they certainly are. But their work is often made invisible by an older generation of feminists who prefer to believe young women are apathetic rather than admitting their movement is shifting into something they don't recognize and can't control.

For example, in an April Newsweek article about young people's supposed apathy over reproductive rights, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan suggested that it was only the "postmenopausal militia" on the front lines of reproductive justice. Yet when I asked a NARAL spokesperson about employee demographics, I was told that people younger than 35 make up around 60 percent of the organization. And when they're not ignored, young feminists are painted as vapid and sexualized. Take feminist writer Debra Dickerson, who wrote in a 2009 Mother Jones article that today's feminists are all about "pole-dancing, walking around half-naked, posting drunk photos on Facebook and blogging about [their] sex lives." This insistence that a new wave doesn't exist or isn't worth paying attention to has left open the cultural space for antifeminist women like O'Donnell and Palin to swoop in and lay claim to the movement.


Women vote for their interests—not their gender or age—but they still want to see themselves represented. If the only young women Americans see identified as "feminists" are those on the right, we run the risk of losing the larger cultural battle and the many younger women who are seeking an answer to the mixed messages about what feminism really is. And frankly, if we position vibrant young activists front and center, there will be no question as to who is creating the best change for women.


Feminism isn't simply about being a woman in a position of power. It's battling systemic inequities; it's a social justice movement that believes sexism, racism and classism exist and interconnect, and that they should be consistently challenged. What's most important to remember as we fight back against conservative appropriation is that the battle over who "owns" the movement is not just about feminists; feminism's future affects all American women. And if we let the lie of conservative feminism stand—if real feminists don't lay claim to the movement and outline their vision for the future—all of us will suffer.
What I find fascinating about this is the total absence of intersectionality when it comes to age and gender. Ageisms, of both types, should be among the influences which are entered into that matrix of oppressions, after all.

If you desire something more reasoned, check out Amanda's take and Katha's recent Nation article as well as the Faludi article both Amanda and Katha discuss.

So who is it who stole feminism? I read through the comments to Jessica's article to find out what the back benchers thought. Sadly, many of the commentators at the Nation website are anti-feminists. They argue that feminism was stolen when it focused on baby killing and disrespecting housewives and motherhood, and when Bill Clinton was given a free pass for his sexual harassment of an intern.

Knowing what anti-feminists think about feminism isn't obviously of great relevance. But the disconnect between the message of the article and those comments is worrisome, to say the least. At least both the article and the anti-feminist commentators decided on the same culprits.