Understanding Intersectionality

by Maria White


Fun fact: women have only been able to legally vote in elections since the 1960s.

Surprised? Allow me to explain. The women's suffrage movement began nearly 200 years ago, as women fought to secure their right to vote in free and open elections. Thankfully, with the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women were finally allowed to vote, support their own candidates, and let their voices be heard. Well, not all women...

As the women’s suffrage movement gained popularity, African-American women became increasingly marginalized. Black women continued to deal with not only the sexism of being withheld the vote, but also the racism stemming from a predominantly Anglo-dominated society.

Feminism benefitting only one kind of woman has been termed white feminism, it assumes  that all women experience oppression and discrimination in the same way. This perspective fails to address the distinct forms of discrimination faced by women of color, women with disabilities, LGBTQ women and women of diverse religious backgrounds.

Intersectional feminism analyzes how the oppression of women can come from many different social identities besides sex; such as race, religion, and sexual orientation. The bias and prejudice stemming from each identifying characteristic creates a web of oppression that systematically suppresses women of all backgrounds, making equality that much harder to achieve.

Take, for instance, the gender pay gap between males and females in America. According to a study conducted by the American Association of University Women, women do not only make a measly 79 cents to a man’s dollar. African American women only make 63 cents. Latina women make 54, and Women with disabilities make 65 cents. Trans women make nearly a third less than their male counterparts after they transition. Prejudice is expansive and ingrained--and these issues interact and influence each other all the time, creating a structure of systematic oppression.

Intersectional feminism is the only true kind of feminism: all others encourage exclusion. Without an intersectional lens, problems unique to specific subsets of women go unnoticed or unaddressed and the oppression continues. Separating social identities and pretending that each characteristic acts independently is simply a lie. The truth is that women’s issues stemming from race, class, sexuality and ability are of equal importance and equal value. Feminism cannot advance until this truth is recognized and more time and attention is given to those who experience this oppression every day. It is not enough for rich, white celebrities to stand up, throw on a Time’s Up shirt and declare themselves a feminist, for they have no experience inside the web living with this much injustice every day.

So what can be done? How can we adopt an intersectional lens and be more understanding in our own activism? First, take time to self-reflect and be mindful of your own prejudice. Every woman is your sister and if feminism is to advance, we need to examine how well we personally cater to each other. Then, find a desire to learn more and seek out information about the issues that may not impact you personally. Center your advocacy around those whose circumstances and experiences are different from your own. Become an ally for a group of which you may not be a part. Read, learn and ask about people’s unique experiences. Form relationships built on trust and compassion and begin to advocate as partners for a common goal benefitting all womankind.  

For, as Audre Lorde so elegantly stated, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own."

Maria White