Universalism and intersectionality – transcript

This is a transcript, for text readers, of my Feminism 101 lecture Universalism and Intersectionality

Is gender inequality really still an issue?

This section starts with a YouTube video which can be watched or listened to here.

The global picture 

  • Globally, 35% of women have experienced domestic or sexual violence in their lifetimes, with women in low-income countries especially at risk (World Health Organisation 2017)
  • Two-thirds of all completed suicides worldwide are by men, and suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK (Mental Health Foundation, 2018)
  • In all regions, women spend twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work, with women in the UK doing 60% more domestic work than men (Office for National Statistics, 2016)
  • In 2018, women in the UK earned 17.9% less than men on average (House of Commons, 2018)
  • 24% of parliamentary seats worldwide are occupied by women (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2018)

Troubling the binary

  • Most statistics on gender position it as a binary between men and women (which is mapped on to male/female and masculine/feminine binaries)
  • Structurally, people living or read as men and those living or read as women are often segregated into hierarchical roles based on the assumption of this binary
  • However, in terms of individual identities and experiences gender should not be understood in binary terms, and ‘biological sex’ is also a more diverse collection of characteristics than is commonly assumed (Ainsworth 2015)
  • Gender nonconforming people are at high risk of violence (US National Center for Transgender Equality, 2015)

Differences between women

  • Also, although gender inequality is consistent across cultures and over time, it impacts on women differently depending on situation and context, and some women are privileged in relation to others
  • This is structured by factors such as class, race, age, sexual orientation, disability, geographical location, whether they are trans- or cisgender, and many others
  • Therefore, a key concept for feminism is intersectionality – Kimberle Crenshaw (who coined the term) describes this as ‘asking the other question’

1. Intersectionality

Intersectionality is an idea developed by black feminists, which helps us to understand how gender issues are not just one-dimensional but associated and interdependent with other phenomena. Intersectionality shows us how intersecting structures (hetero-patriarchy, racial capitalism, colonialism) make certain identity categories more vulnerable than others. First applied to black women’s intersecting experiences , intersectionality is now a foundational feminist concept in relation to a variety of structures and identities.

Video of Kimberlé Crenshaw talking about intersectionality, which can be watched or listened to here.

In her famous article ‘Mapping the Margins’ (1991), Kimberle Crenshaw explored 3 dimensions of intersectionality:

  • Structural – how the social locations of black women make their lived experiences (for instance, of violence) qualitatively different from those of white women
  • Political – how both feminist and antiracist politics have marginalised the issues of women of colour
  • Representational – the cultural construction of women of colour and how this is produced by ideas about both gender and race

Because of intersectionality, black feminists and other feminists of colour have argued that mainstream feminist ideas (for instance, about the family or the state) do not apply to them.

The immediate problem for black feminists is whether this framework can be applied at all to analyze our herstory of oppression and struggle. We would not wish to deny that the family can be a source of oppression for us but we also wish to examine how the black family has functioned as a prime source of resistance to oppression. We need to recognize that during slavery, periods of colonialism, and under the present authoritarian state, the black family has been a site of political and cultural resistance to racism. Furthermore…ideologies of black female sexuality do not stem primarily from the black family. The way the gender of black women is constructed differs from constructions of white femininity because it is also subject to racism.
Carby, White Woman Listen! (1982)

In 2011, the Slutwalk was critiqued by black feminists who argued that to be able to reclaim this term as ’empowering’ was in fact a function and sign of privilege.

‘Black women have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later.’
(from An Open Letter from Black Women to the Slutwalk)

2. Feminism and universalism

Through the concept of intersectionality, black feminists and other feminists of colour have articulated the complexities of their lives and highlighted how mainstream feminist theories and activism presume white, middle class women’s experiences are universal. This argument, that the default ‘woman’ is actually a woman of a particular type, also refined and developed white feminist arguments about how mainstream social and political theory assumed the default person was a man.

The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity.
de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)

The first difficulty is that how sociology is thought – its methods, conceptual schemes and theories – has been based on and built up within, the male social universe (even when women have participated in its doing). There is a difficulty first then of a disjunction between how women find and experience the world beginning (though not necessarily ending up) from their place and the concepts and theoretical schemes available to think about it in.
Smith, ‘Women’s perspective as a radical critique of sociology’ (1973)

Second-wave feminist thinkers in the 1960s, 70s and 80s contended that academic disciplines should in fact be understood as ‘men’s studies’ – created by men, focused on men, and for the benefit of men. They also deconstructed the ways in which classical liberalism operated with a concept of rights in which the political subject was implicitly male – rights pertained only in the public sphere and did not extend to domestic relations. In fact, the home was protected from government interference through men’s rights to privacy (which is why, for example, rape within marriage has been so difficult to legislate or prosecute in many countries). Therefore, they claimed, the idea of universal equality in law actually masked the domination of women by men.

Our society, like all historical civilisations, is a patriarchy. The fact is evident at once if one recalls that the military, industry, technology, universities, science, political office, and finance – in short, every avenue of power within the society, including the coercive force of the police is entirely in male hands.
Millett, Sexual Politics (1969)

(picture: world leaders at a NATO summit in 2018. All but three are men; all but one is white; Donald Trump is looking in the opposite direction to everyone else)

A key slogan for all feminists has been the personal is political, meaning that issues such as domestic and sexual violence, household labour and reproduction are political issues (albeit in different ways for different people). This has also framed a focus within feminist activism and academia on experience as a central source of knowledge, and built powerful forms of solidarity.

Drawing from the strength of shared experience, women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices…. [a] process of recognizing as social and systemic what as formerly perceived as isolated and individual.
Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ (1991)

3. Solidarity in question

However, feminist solidarities may at times be more virtual than real, and in transnational contexts questions around universalism are even more vital. Postcolonial feminists have highlighted legacies of Western colonialism and colonisation, and the resultant power relations between and within different regions of the world. They have also argued that Western white feminists have been complicit in defining women in other regions as in need of ‘saving’, which has been a justification for colonial and neo-colonial intervention.

The discourse of patriarchal colonialism captured the language of feminism and used the issue of women’s position in Islamic societies as the spearhead of the colonial attack on those societies. Imperialist men who were the enemies of feminism in their own societies, abroad espoused a rhetoric of feminism attacking the practices of Other men and their ‘degradation’ of women, and they used the argument that the cultures of the colonized peoples degraded women in order to legitimize Western domination and justify colonial policies of actively trying to subvert the cultures and religions of the colonized peoples.
Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (1992)

Feminist writings…discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/re-presenting a composite, singular ‘Third World Woman’…. This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and being “third world” (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions.
Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes’ (1984)

Video of George Bush doing a news interview in 2011 about the occupation of Afghanistan, arguing the US needed to remain in the country so ‘women’s rights weren’t abused’ – this can be watched or listened to here.

The concept of intersectionality can help us to understand these issues as part of systems of interlocking oppressions which are simultaneously local and global, and which inform each other. For example, just as colonialism exported Western bourgeois gender norms overseas, relations between black and white women in the West have been shaped by the colonial legacy. Stereotypes of both the over-sexualised black woman and her ‘pure’, protected white counterpart are rooted in colonial history (Brah and Phoenix 2004).

Shared sisterhood?

  • Challenges made by feminists of colour and postcolonial feminists (and similar arguments from others such as working class and lesbian feminists) have questioned the idea of a ‘shared sisterhood’ between women which can be the basis of political action
  • We also need to return here to the fact that gender is not a binary, and there are people experiencing oppression on the basis of their genders (such as trans, nonbinary, genderqueer people and others) whose experiences and concerns are also not part of mainstream feminist theory and practice
  • Indeed, these groups have often been actively excluded from feminism (along with others such as sex workers, who have frequently been defined as threats to, rather than partners in, feminist politics)

Trans-exclusionary feminism

  • Trans feminists have highlighted how many women’s services and events have historically ostracised anyone not assigned female at birth
  • This has recently come to the forefront over debates about ‘bathroom bills’ in the US and the reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, in which trans-exclusionary feminists have allied with political conservatives in constructing trans women as a threat
  • Trans-exclusionary feminism, it can be argued, is rooted in a failure of intersectionality
  • ‘To argue that transsexual [sic] women should not enter the Land because their experiences are different would have to assume all other women’s experiences are the same.’ (Koyama 2006)

After all, at its core, feminism is based on the conviction that women are far more than merely the sex of the bodies that we are born into, and our identities and abilities are capable of transcending the restrictive nature of the gender socialization we endure during our childhoods. I have yet to meet the person who can explain to me how refusing trans women the right to participate in women’s spaces and events is consistent with this most central tenet of feminism.
Serano, Whipping Girl (2005)

4. Some questions

  1. How might we achieve a truly intersectional, transnational feminism which is inclusive of all who experience oppression on the basis of gender?
  2. What happens when we apply critiques of universality and the principle of intersectionality to the priorities and politics of contemporary mainstream feminist groups, such as Fawcett and the Women’s Equality Party in the UK?
  3. Similarly, what do these ideas tell us about our own university curricula?