Intersectionality, defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage,” plays a crucial role in understanding systems of oppression in their entirety, including feminism, for it acknowledges the different ways women experience discrimination. However, the term “intersectionality” has recently been demonized by the white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy in which we live — a term coined by American critical legal race scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. Although demonized by white supremacy, there is an extensive importance of intersectional feminism and learning from feminists of color. Intersectional feminism centers the voices of those experiencing overlapping and coinciding forms of oppression in order to understand the depths of the inequalities and the relationships among them (Intersectional feminism: what it means and why it matters right now, UN Women). Not only is understanding intersectionality influential and impactful for individuals, but is essential when deconstructing patriarchal systems of oppression and subordination. Intersectionality is the most fundamental piece in any area of injustice, and is tied deeper into our roots than the common white person could ever feel or imagine. As a white woman who has only ever studied feminist theory from women of color, I can confidently say that theorists like bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and Audre Lorde have challenged me to study the work of feminism as more than just gender inequality, and have taught me the depth true feminism holds.
Intersectionality in the Waves of Feminism
In the mid 1990s, there became a demand for more intersectionality in feminist activism with the inclusion of Black women and other ethnic minority women; this is known as the third wave of feminism. Prior to this, first and second wave feminism was propelled by white, middle class, cisgender women who focused on women’s suffrage and legal issues, along with the possibilities of fulfillment outside their home. Some of the most famous works of white feminists are included in Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, with essays, memoirs, and letters from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan B. Anthony, amongst others. Although the work of white feminists was crucial, the lack of intersectionality throughout the first wave of feminism (1848-1920) demanded for people to split between fighting for racial or gender equality. This ideology stayed true until the third wave of feminism in the early 1990s.
bell hooks responded to this in her work feminism is for everybody: passionate politics by explaining, “In those days [1970s] white women who were unwilling to face the reality of racism and racial difference accused us of being traitors for introducing race. Wrongly they saw us as deflecting focus away from gender. In reality, we were demanding that we look at the status of females realistically, and that realistic understanding serves as the foundation for a real feminist politic.” To successfully achieve equality for women, we must view women as a collective of people who have been subordinated and oppressed by the patriarchy in more ways than just our gender. Black and white women are not the same, nor do we experience life equally. We cannot act like we do. There are barriers, on top of barriers, that separate women — whether it’s differences in race, class, or sexuality, we experience, and are oppressed, differently. Seeing feminism from an intersectional perspective allows us to embody the radical work that must be done to gain equality for women of all backgrounds.
Intersectional feminism isn't a new idea, and women of color have been writing and demanding their voices to be heard for much longer than they are recognized for. In her chapter titled “Race and Gender,” bell hooks describes the differences in status for Black and white women:
“All white women in this nation know that their status is different from that of black women/women of color. They know this from the time they are little girls watching television and seeing only their images, and looking at magazines and seeing only their images. They know that the only reason nonwhites are absent/invisible is because they are not white. All white women in this nation know that whiteness is a privileged category. The fact that white females may choose to repress or deny this knowledge does not mean they are ignorant; it means they are in denial.”
Women of color have had to fight much harder than white women for their voices to be heard simply because of their racial difference; feminist theorists and writers of color have been voicing the importance of intersectional approaches since the beginning of the feminist movement. Yet, even when large numbers of feminists adopted perspectives which included race, gender, class, and nationality, “white power” feminists continued to project an image of feminism that linked and links women’s equality with imperialism (bell hooks feminism is for everybody). Today, someone who identifies as a white power feminist isn’t only in denial, they are choosing to reinforce the power of white supremacy by excluding other ethnic minority women. However, third wave feminism opened doors for diversity amongst women and the “critical interventions around race did not destroy the women’s movement, it became stronger”(bell hooks feminism is for everybody). The experiences of feminists of color provide a deeper understanding of feminism and the work that must be done to deconstruct the systems of oppression, making them essential for the upward movement for gender equality.
The Impact of Learning from Feminists of Color
Intersectionality helps us to understand that while all women are subject to oppression, some women are affected even more harshly, largely due to their race. As a white woman who studies gender theory, the main sources of writing I have read have come from women of color — women who are different from me. Without learning from them, it would be way easier for me to fall into white power feminism, and not because I wanted to, but because I wouldn’t know any better. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider’s chapter “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House” is one of the first essays that taught me how intersectional feminism has the power to save us. A passionate quote from this work reads, “Difference is the raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. As women, we have been taught to either ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” As a white woman, I cannot say that I will ever fully understand the struggle and fight that women of color go through. I cannot speak for them, I cannot save them, but I can tell you how important and powerful it is to center the feminist movement around the collective survival of all women. Feminism is deeper and bigger than just bridging the gender gap, but working to rebuild and rethink all areas of injustice — feminism has no barrier. As a collective community, intersectional feminism has the power to challenge and change systems of domination and oppression for all persons. Words by bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, along with so many other feminists theorists, have touched and opened my heart and mind forever. Their experiences are important. Their experiences matter. Their experiences deserve to be heard.
Reading these experiences is a hard thing to do. It’s hard to accept the harsh reality that women of color go through. But it must be done. By educating myself with intersectional approaches, I am able to recognize the unevenness within structures of oppression and admit my privilege within the system. The honesty that women of color tell within their works has only taught me the depth in which our system has failed them, and the depth that true feminism, intersectional feminism, holds. Education is the most powerful tool, and the least we can do is listen to the voices of women who have been silenced.
Ashlyn Allemand is FEMISH Intern, and a junior at North Central College majoring in sociology with minors in race and gender studies. She hopes to continue her studies in a graduate program after undergrad. Ashlyn is interested in writing feminist theory and teaching in higher education. Her goal in life is to continue learning and growing as a feminist theorist and remind others of the power within themselves.