Is intersectionality practical?

Feminists are currently spending a lot of time and energy thinking and arguing about intersectionality. While some people hate the word, the actual concept is an extremely useful one: that power differentials between men and women aren’t the only ones that exist and that other aspects (race, class, sexuality, health, age etc) can also have strong effects on how people are treated, and that these interact with the male/female distinction in complicated ways. It’s obvious if you’re a historian that saying simply that “men have more power than women” in a particular society is potentially misleading if you don’t also add that in twelfth-century England you’re better off if you’re a queen than if you’re a male peasant (or a Jewish man of any social status).

So intersectionality is a fact of the twentieth-first century West, as in other societies; the question is how that ought to affect feminism as it is currently practiced. There are frequent complaints that feminist discussions and campaigns focus on issues and concerns of interest to middle-class, white, straight, cis, healthy women and ignore the experiences and concerns of those who don’t fit into that pattern. Such complaints are often justified: the difficulty comes in working out how this ought to be changed.

As one basic point, both people and campaign groups have a limited amount of time and energy and so have to decide their priorities in reading/blogging/lobbying etc. At an individual level, this is obviously going to reflect people’s particular knowledge and enthusiasms. I blog about gay issues quite a lot, for example, because I have some knowledge about them and particularly about the historical background to current issues. I’ve also blogged a bit in the past about prejudice towards Muslims. I haven’t written much about either racism more generally or disability issues, because I’m not particularly interested in those topics. (And yes, I’m aware that being white and relatively able-bodied, means I get the choice of whether I’m interested in them or not in a way that some people don’t).

If I was expected to blog about disability or immigration issues when I haven’t really got anything useful to say about them, I wouldn’t do it very well; I prefer to stick to topics where I can contribute something more effectively. In a group blog, there is a very good argument for getting as diverse a range of perspectives as possible, but expecting an individual blogger to reflect all of the many dimensions of intersectionality is unrealistic.

Similarly, political campaigns normally involve getting widespread support for a proposal, and that is inevitably easier to do with a topic that affects a large proportion of people. Discrimination against women touches more people personally than discrimination against transwomen. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t fight for the rights of those who aren’t like ourselves: it’s just to say that it’s harder to motivate people to campaign about topics that seems less immediately relevant to their own lives. For example, feminist campaigners have got less interested in family issues than they used to be, as fewer women have children and they have them later. If you’re in a minority within a particular feminist group, it’s unrealistic to expect that your specific priorities are going to be discussed/campaigned on all the time. But if they’re never addressed, then you’re right to complain.

In addition, however, I think some people have unrealistic ideas about what the aims of feminism ought to be. Feminism is primarily about improving the position of women in societies. The hope is that this in turn will benefit men, but that’s not its primary aim. One of the tweets in the recent Solidarity is For White Women protest, for example, complained about “when convos about gender pay gap ignore that white women earn higher wages than black, Latino and Native men.” I don’t think it should be the primary role of feminist campaigners to work to improve minority male wages. That isn’t because I think that dealing with racism against ethnic minority men is unimportant, but because I think that there are other organisations that are better equipped to campaign about that.

As a parallel, if the primary focus of an organisation is about protecting the environment, then you wouldn’t normally expect it also to campaign about poverty, even though that is also an excellent cause (and there are some intersections between the two topics). And in particular, I think that the organisation that should be campaigning and working towards justice and equality for all is some more general political party: ideally the Labour party, the Democratic party, the Green party etc. Feminism should not be positioned as an alternative to either of these: it has a narrower focus and it ought to retain that.

I think champions of intersectionality also sometimes make mistakes at a more tactical level, and I want to look at three aspects of this. The first problems is a tendency to AND together all the intersections: you have to have the right ideas on feminism and on gay issues, and be anti-racist and avoid ableism and class prejudice, etc to be accepted. (For an extreme example of this, see the comments policy on Shakesville: “Comments are open to anyone as long as they don’t troll and/or traffic in racist, sexist, homophobic, trans*phobic, ableist, ageist, sizeist, or otherwise overtly objectionable commentary based on people’s intrinsic characteristics.”

As a way of creating a like-minded group of people, that’s effective: as a way of building an alliance or changing social attitudes it’s hopeless. Political change comes from reaching out to and working with people you don’t necessarily like or have many other things in common with. There was a very interesting article on the success of the American gay marriage campaign that discusses how some organisations deliberately reached out to unions, churches and employers and created networks of supporters there.

The second problem with intersectionality as it currently tends to be practiced is the perfectionism required. For example, Julia Glassman wrote an article discussing white feminists appropriating the work of black women. (Julia Glassman (2012). Stop Speaking For Us: Women-of-Color Bloggers, White Appropriation, and What Librarians Can Do About It. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 8(1), Article . gseis_interactions_820. Online here). This includes some useful ideas about preserving content from radical blogs, which is going to be an increasingly important issue, but here I want to focus on her examples of appropriation and lack of acknowledgement.

Glassman has three case-studies, including the notorious behaviour of Amanda Marcotte writing about immigration without citing any of the ethnic minority activists (especially Brownfemipower) who had worked on the topic extensively. But the two other cases Glassman cites are far less clear-cut. In one, a prominent white commentator wrote about the concept of “radicalizing love”; Glassman argues that this did not acknowledge the work of Brownfemipower and other bloggers on “radical love”. She accepts that the term is not unique to “radical women of color”, but goes on to state (p. 9):

However, one can argue that Valenti, as a feminist blogger, had a responsibility to avoid using the term to conceptualize her and Kipnis’s ideas if she was familiar with the conversations happening elsewhere in the feminist blogosphere — and that if she was not familiar with those conversations, that she had a responsibility to read the work of women of color.

You don’t have any responsibility to read another person’s blog, unless you’re working on a narrow specialist subject and you need to keep up-to-date with everything on the topic. I don’t read every blog about medieval history, and I doubt it’s possible to read even a fraction of the blogs on feminism and its intersections (WoC, LBTQ issues, disability issues etc). Discussing what people should do without being realistic isn’t a good strategy.

And the final example that Glassman discusses also reveals the same kind of perfectionism. She discusses the concept of the kyriarchy, a word first coined by the theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, then popularised by the blogger Lisa Factora-Borchers and included in an academic book by Shira Tarrant. A commentator on the Guardian website talked about the concept, citing Schüssler Fiorenza, but not Factora-Borchers or Tarrant. When Factora-Borchers contacted the writer:

Hodgson responded that she had read about the term in Tarrant’s book, and “offer[ed] a sincere apology if [Factora-Borchers] ‘felt plagiarized’” (Factora-Borchers, 2010). Hodgson then asked Factora-Borchers to provide her with a list of all work she had published in order to ensure proper citation in future articles (Factora-Borchers, 2010) — rather than offering to print a correction, or taking responsibility for performing comprehensive research in the future.

Comment articles of this type rarely include the detailed acknowledgements that you would find in academic work. Hodgson acknowledged the originator of the term in the original article, but journalists/commentators don’t do “comprehensive research” on anything. She also admitted her mistake in not mentioning Factora-Borchers and tried to make amends. Saying that’s not enough, as Glassman and Factora-Borchers do, again strikes me as perfectionism. If people start to move in the right direction and you tell them that’s not enough, you’re not likely to encourage them to do more.

The same kind of perfectionism is also seen in a third area where I think intersectionality currently isn’t working effectively. That is the question of “allies”: people who do not share a particular social disadvantage but want to work for the rights of those who do. The problem again is that unrealistic demands are put on allies. If they do not speak out against every act of oppression, they’re part of the problem. The fact is that lots of people who are in an affected group also don’t speak out about sexism, racism, homophobia etc. Again, we come back to issues of time, energy and interest: nobody can do everything. And instructions to allies have a particular way of coming out wrongly: any time someone is telling you what you should do, rather than what we should do, it can very easily come across as “getting at someone.” An attitude that privileged people are part of the problem both if they deny being racist/ageist/ablist etc and if they admit to such feelings isn’t going to win many allies. And if you simply tell people to “go away and do the reading”, most of the time they won’t do it, whether it’s on medieval history or crip theory.

At this point I may be about to be accused of this last attitude myself: aren’t I criticising other people for how they do their intersectionality? But I want to turn this back to “mainstream feminism” and ask whether we’re doing our intersectionality correctly? Feminism can also be thought of as an “extra intersection” within other movements to change society, and we need to think: are we also failing to be effective and are our attitudes alienating people from feminism?

To be more specific: are we effective at building alliances when campaigning on issues, even if this means allying with people with whom we disagree in other areas? I think part of such alliance-building is that we have to be willing to accept that some people won’t see feminism as a political priority of theirs, and that they’re going to put other aspects of their identity and interests first. White feminists shouldn’t be insisting that a white female politician must be supported over a black male politician.

I think we should therefore be aiming more seriously for an OR approach to intersectionality: “you’re on my side if you’re working to support feminism OR gay rights OR reducing poverty OR aiding ethnic minorities.” We also need to try and avoid perfectionism and alienating potential allies. As a couple of examples of the tendency to do this, take the claim that “There’s no such thing as doing “enough” to fight sexism and rape culture”. Or Laurie Penny’s recent article, in which she addresses men:

What you feel about women in your heart is of less immediate importance than how you treat them on a daily basis.

You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world yet still benefit from sexism. That’s how oppression works. Thousands of otherwise decent people are persuaded to go along with an unfair system because it’s less hassle that way. The appropriate response when somebody demands a change in that unfair system is to listen, rather than turning away or yelling, as a child might, that it’s not your fault. And it isn’t your fault. I’m sure you’re lovely. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to do something about it

.

In other words, it’s not enough for men to treat women well, to be “gentle” or “sweet”. They are also expected “to challenge misogyny and sexual violence wherever you see them.” The system has to be smashed and if you’re not a system-smasher you’re not good enough for Laurie. But this isn’t a revolution where a few determined enough people can change the world. Changing social attitudes can be done, but it’s a gradual process of winning over converts, however frustratingly slow that may be. And rejecting men (and women) if they aren’t supporting feminism whole-heartedly enough for whatever reason isn’t a useful tactic. It’s alienating a lot of potential converts up-front.

In the early 1980s, Jill Tweedie wrote Letters from a Fainthearted Feminist and at the moment I’m starting to feel like a faint-hearted intersectionalist. I can’t see how feminism will continue to be relevant if it ignores so many other factors in women’s lives. But I think the way that intersectionality is currently being practiced often ends up turning off more people than it inspires to change their attitudes.

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4 thoughts on “Is intersectionality practical?

  1. Not on intersectionality as such, but on perfectionism. I grew up in a perfectionist (fundamentalist) religious environment: if you weren’t Right (on a wide number of issues) you weren’t really a Christian. Many years later I hung around with leftist academics and encountered a similar mindset from a few: there was only one correct orthodoxy and those who did not fully subscribe to it were heretics (“revisionists” was the Marxist term). I fled from both.

    As I came to regard myself more and more as a feminist – a story for a different time – I became aware of the perfectionism common (if not inherent) in that movement as well, and thought “Oh no, once again I will fall short and be read out of the church as unworthy!” But then, belatedly, I thought myself of Catholicism, at least the American variety. Everyone acknowledges the existence of “bad Catholics” – those baptized in the church who rarely confess or attend mass, ate meat on Friday (back in the day), use contraception despite Vatican remonstrances, etc. – BUT who still regard themselves, and are still regarded, as Catholics, unless and until they are officially excommunicated (which is rare) or choose to remove themselves from the church.

    And that consoled me considerably. I am no great shakes as a feminist, in a variety of ways (theoretical and behavioral) that I will not describe here, but I am a feminist (*) until officially excommunicated by an authority I recognize (at the moment, none) or opt out, which is unlikely. I could clearly improve both in theory and praxis, but even if I don’t, I’m a feminist – just not a particularly good one.

    (*) I’ll stipulate that under some definitions of feminism no man can qualify, because “feminism” in that particular sense entails experiencing life as a woman. Among subscribers to such a definition, I’m willing to be a “feminist ally,” since it would be the height of male presumption (“mansplaining”?) for me to try to tell women how feminism should be defined: You have to accept me as a feminist because I qualify according to my logic! The same analysis follows, however; sometimes I’m a good “ally,” sometimes not so good. But always an ally.

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    • I’m thinking a lot at the moment about how to alienate people (as a theoretical concept, not as a life-goal) and such perfectionism does seem to be a particular failing of many movements. I suppose the Marxists believed that history was on their side (as the exclusionist Christians believe that God is on their side), so that you only need a few True Believers to defeat the enemy. But I don’t see why feminists think that, because there’s no obvious mechanism to get political change except getting lots of “ordinary people” to want it.

      I think what I find depressing is that some feminists seem to concentrate more of their time on attacking their allies than the enemy (or saying that they have no allies and no need for them). But I suppose hating one’s allies more than the enemy is nothing new in many settings!

      You’ve done guest-posts here before on feminism; if you ever want to continue the series, you’d be welcome. It’d be particularly interesting to hear about the successes or failures of the Women’s Rights movements in the 1970s and how that compared to the US Civil Rights campaigns of your youth.

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  2. Fascinating analysis, and I think your arguments about perfectionism are relevant in a great many spheres of thinking. The post put me in mind of something said by Christ ‘if they are not against us, then they are for us’. Perfectionists have to learn that they (we) themselves/ourselves are not perfect.

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    • I do think that sometimes such perfectionism is seriously getting in the way of achieving people’s supposed goal of encouraging others to change their mind. Groups of Christians who argue for a particularly “pure” interpretation of their faith may have the partial excuse that it doesn’t matter if they alienate people, because God is on their side and can work miracles. But if you’re engaged in political work, you have to be able to make alliances and compromises and that lesson seems to have been lost on many activists.

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