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Feminism 101: Universalism and Intersectionality

Introductory lecture for undergraduates - please feel free to download, use and share

Alison Phipps

on 30 November 2016

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Transcript of Feminism 101: Universalism and Intersectionality

Feminism 101:
Universalism and Intersectionality

Is gender inequality REALLY an issue? Let's start in the UK, where it's widely believed that feminism has 'gone too far'
An idea developed by black feminists in the 1980s and after, which helps us to understand how gender issues are not just one-dimensional but associated and interdependent with other phenomena
First applied to black women's intersecting experiences of gender, race and class, intersectionality is now a foundational feminist concept in relation to a variety of structures and identities
Feminism and universalism
Through the concept of intersectionality, black feminists and other feminists of colour have articulated how mainstream feminist theories and activism presume white, middle class women's experiences are universal, and have argued that the default 'woman' is actually a woman of a particular type. From the 1980s onwards, these discussions refined and developed earlier (and mainly white) feminist arguments about how mainstream social and political theory assumed the citizen was a man.
Some numbers
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 2014)
Certain types of women can be targeted for violence, for instance women of colour, trans women, disabled women, lesbians and sex workers
In all regions, women spend twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work (United Nations 2010)
In the US in 2013, women working full time were paid 78% of what men were paid, Hispanic women's salaries were at 54% of white men's and black women's at 64% (American Association of University Women)
17% of parliamentary seats worldwide are occupied by women (United Nations 2010)
Differences between women
Also, although gender inequality is consistent across cultures and over time, it impacts on women differently depending on 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
- Kimberle Crenshaw (who first used the term) describes this as 'asking the other question'
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
















Troubling the gender binary
Most statistics on gender inequality position it as a binary between men and women (which is mapped on to male/female and masculine/feminine binaries, and is also often heteronormative)
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)
Because of their intersectional experiences, black feminists and other feminists of colour have often argued that mainstream feminist theories (for instance, around the family) do not apply to them:
(Carby 1982)
(Smith 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 actually masked the domination of women by men
A key slogan for feminists of colour and white 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 women). This has also framed a focus within feminist academia on experience as a central source of knowledge
(Millett 1969)
G8 leaders at the 36th summit in Ontario, 2010
(Crenshaw 1991)
There is a history of feminist thought and activism in many countries and regions of the world, creating a powerful global movement. Regional, national and local feminisms attempt to create dialogue and solidarity, often through the ideas of politicising the personal and uncovering and sharing gendered experiences
However, global feminist solidarities may at times be more virtual than real, and in transnational contexts questions around universalism are even more vital.

Postcolonial feminists have especially highlighted legacies of Western colonialism and colonisation, and the resultant power relations between and within different regions of the world which shape culture and discourse (including feminist discourse) as well as economy, politics and society
African Sex Workers' Alliance march for rights, 2011
Planned Parenthood campaign - 'Not In Her Shoes'
(Ahmed 1992)
(Mohanty 1984)
Western dominance both within and outside feminism has positioned the Western woman as default, while women in lower-income regions have become the Other
Women in non-Western regions have also often been defined (by Western feminists and others) as victimised compared to their Western counterparts, an idea which has both reflected and constructed colonialist rhetoric
Both these issues can be observed in contemporary international feminist campaigns, such as Eve Ensler's One Billion Rising, which encourages women across the world to come together and dance to 'rise above' violence. This has been criticised by grassroots activists for being universalist and patronising, and failing to appreciate the role of colonialism in shaping violence against indigenous women and women in low-income countries
(de Beauvoir, 1949)
Solidarity in question
'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)
Useful links
Recently, the Slutwalk movement has been critiqued by black feminists who argue that to be able to reclaim this term as 'empowering' is in fact a function and sign of privilege:
Feminist rhetoric about 'victimised Muslim women' has also been a central component of the War on Terror
Alison Phipps
Director of Gender Studies
University of Sussex

Some questions:
'Rape in particular is a force of colonization. Settler colonialism and white women being colonizers contradicts the idea that we’re all women experiencing the same violence in the same way. We’re not, and we don’t' (Lauren Chief Elk of Save Wiyabi)
How might we achieve a truly intersectional, transnational feminism which is inclusive of all who experience oppressions on the basis of gender?
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?
Similarly, what do these ideas tell us about our own university curricula?
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 colonialisation exported Western gendered meanings and oppressions 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)
While not subscribing to universalist notions of 'shared sisterhood', solidarities within and between intersectional feminisms are crucial: and another potential focus is resistance towards globalised capitalism. As Mohanty (2003) argues, this is a structure which affects all of us (albeit not equally) and against which organisation is possible.

'The critique and resistance to global capitalism, and uncovering of the naturalization of its masculinist and racist values, begin to build a transnational feminist practice. A transnational feminist practice depends on building feminist solidarities across the divisions of place, identity, class, work, belief, and so on. In these very fragmented times it is both very difficult to build these alliances and also never more important to do so.'
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, queer 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)
Within a truly intersectional feminism, it would be recognised that cisgender women and gender nonconforming people are allies:
Trans feminists have highlighted how many women's services and events have historically ostracised anyone not assigned female at birth
In 2015, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was discontinued, following a long period of critique and protests by trans people and allies focused on the organisers' 'intention' to restrict the festival to 'womyn-born-womyn' participants
Trans-exclusionary feminism, it can be argued, is rooted in both transphobia and 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)
(Serano 2005)
Full transcript