During the early to mid 1900’s, first wave feminism and second wave feminism focused on specific goals. Women from all backgrounds came together to fight against common obstacles. They marched in unison for the right to vote and picketed side by side for the right to own land. Every female, whether white or black, straight or gay, cisgender or transgender, could get on board with these issues. But as we rolled into third wave feminism in the 1990’s, with our goals changing from concrete to more abstract concepts, we neglected to consider the diverse needs of all women and girls.
How can we ensure the needs of all women are met? How will we achieve success for feminism today?
One word. Intersectionality.
As discussed in a feminist’s to do list, intersectionality is a concept used to describe “the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another”. Though it was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a relatively new term to the masses.
Intersectional feminism (aka when intersectionality is applied to feminism) is the notion that the feminist theory is not ‘one size fits all’. Every woman comes from a different background, has diverse experiences, and must endure different trials. Feminism needs to be a harmonious union of distinguishable yet equally valued parts, in much the same way that Canada is described as a ‘cultural mosaic’.
A mosaic is beautiful because each part individually shines just as brightly as its entirety.
Though one of the quintessential pillars of feminist theory is to value every perspective and acknowledge that no two stories are ever identical, mainstream feminists today often fail to ‘step into someone else’s shoes’. I understand - when every story is of equal value, it’s difficult to walk that many miles. But how else can we properly participate in a movement that demands valuing all perspectives?
In today’s world, when the more abstract third wave feminism is fighting for validation from each and every person, it’s the responsibility of mainstream feminists to practice intersectionality. We must make an effort to listen to all women and include everyone’s life experiences and multi-layered facets. We must give this respect in order to truly be allies.
Third wave feminism is anchored by its overarching goal of achieving gender equality. It fights to erode the value disparity between genders and dismantle the power gap pervasive throughout all societies. This can only be achieved if the feminist movement integrates itself with all of the other ‘isms’. Feminism is not feminism without studying and advocating against racism. Feminism is not feminism if it remains ignorant towards ableism. Feminism is not feminism if it continues to ignore transphobia.
In the last decade the mainstream media has applauded the feminist movement for its resurgence. Unfortunately its pervasive infighting is tarnishing the movement’s success. For the step forward we take by claiming our place as women, we take two steps back by failing to include any woman labeled as different.
White, affluent, heterosexual women are portrayed in the mainstream media as the people spearheading today’s feminist resurgence. Though campaigns like “Banish Page Three” are important and commendable, they do not reflect the most pressing needs of the majority of women (namely those who identify with another oppressed group of people). The issue for the feminist movement is not that these campaigns exist, but rather that they are given such focus, while ignoring the vital work with which other feminists are engaged.
The movement is marginalizing people of colour, LGBT* individuals, and people with disabilities to the point where they don’t even identify with the feminism of today. This polarization directly results in a fragmentation of the movement, and inevitably weakens it.
What intersectionality brings to light, and what we need to recognize, is that mainstream feminism today is overwhelmingly white, middle class, cisgendered and able-bodied. The movement is representing just one point of view and failing to reflect upon and include the varied and complex experiences that women of all backgrounds face.
It is time we take responsibility, redirect the feminist movement, and allow ourselves to create meaningful change.
We need help ourselves in order to help others.