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Intersectional Feminism Explained

Updated on February 24, 2016

I identify as an intersectional feminist, but what does that mean?

In short, I strive to listen, learn, and understand intersecting issues relating to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, culture, geography, ability, and more.

Intersectional feminism is about social justice and equity. It is about dissecting and subverting the dynamics of privilege and oppression. It is about uplifting marginalized communities and giving space to many different voices.

Image of a large highway intersection.
Image of a large highway intersection. | Source

The Intersection

Intersectional feminism draws upon the metaphor of a cross-roads or intersection. Each road represents one element of a person’s identity. For example, I am white and genderqueer. I have two roads representing my “whiteness” and my “genderqueerness”. These identities are not separate, however, and they interact and influence each other. I am white and genderqueer at the same time.

I am also middle-class, someone with access to a university education, Canadian, queer, mentally ill/mentally interesting, etcetera. All of these different facets of my identity add up in a specific way which influences how I experience privilege and oppression, power and marginalization.

Audre Lorde, one of my favourite authors, wrote in "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name" of how she experienced the world as a Black lesbian woman, and the difficulties she had in different social justice movements that did not recognize certain aspects of her identity. Feminist communities recognized her gender but not her race. Civil rights communities recognized her race but not her gender or her queerness. She often called for more inclusive, thoughtful movements which would recognize and celebrate intersectionality, or all of the interlocking aspects of a person’s identity.

Photo of Kimberle Crenshaw.
Photo of Kimberle Crenshaw. | Source

History

Feminism began with a specific focus on gender-based oppression. Implicitly, however, this focus was geared for white, middle-class, Western women, and during its second wave, mainstream feminism only spoke to the experiences of this singular, relatively privileged group.

Beginning in the 1980s, Black feminists, like Audre Lorde and Kimberlé Crenshaw, among others, challenged this implicit standard and put forward some of the first arguments for intersectionality. Feminism, as it was then, did not reflect their experiences as Black women. They experienced both race and gender-based oppression, and they wanted their experiences to be recognized as valid.

Intersectional feminism rides the third-wave of the feminist movement and has grown since its roots to include class, sexual orientation, religion, culture, geography, ability, and more.

Different Types of Feminism

I’ve noticed that a lot of people who either dismiss, attack or do not know very much about feminism do not seem to be aware that there are many different kinds. This is important because not all feminists agree on or believe in the same things. Feminism isn’t a monolithic category. It’s a very diverse movement with equally diverse members.

As well as intersectional feminism, there is also radical feminism, white feminism, Marxist feminism, and ecofeminism, just to name a few. Some of these different types overlap with each other as well as have points of contention.

 
 
 
Ecofeminism
Postcolonial feminism
Intersectional feminism
Radical feminism
Liberal feminism
Post-structural feminism
Marxist feminism
White feminism
Postmodern feminism
Photo of yellowed paperbacks stacked on top of each other.
Photo of yellowed paperbacks stacked on top of each other. | Source

How to Begin Practicing Intersectional Feminism

If you’re new to intersectional feminism, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start. There’s a ton of information out there. I’m in my fourth year of my women and gender studies program and I feel like I’ve only touched the surface on many different issues. Here are a few tips for getting started:

1. Research

Read books and articles. Watch videos. Follow different social media accounts or blogs run by feminists. Look up terms you don’t understand. Reflect on your life and the ways in which it is affected by the intersections of your identity. Start conversations with people about these issues.

At the end of this article, in the resource section, I provide a few links to different articles, videos, and some of my favourite bloggers/vloggers online. If you’re feeling stuck, these can be a good launching point.

2. Listen and Stay Open

You may encounter ideas that you don’t agree with or that make you uncomfortable. Remind yourself to listen and stay open, especially if a subject is not your area of expertise or a reflection of your lived experience.

The only way we can learn from each other is to listen. If you go into a conversation with a focus on “being right” and winning an argument, you’re not listening. Actively listen to someone, pause, reflect, do research, and listen more. We cannot grow as people or as a community if we all shout at each other and cover our ears.

Listening is especially important for areas that are new or somewhat unfamiliar to you. For example, as a white person, I cannot speak to the experiences of people of colour. If someone were to ask me to write a piece on Beyonce’s video, “Formation,” I would decline and probably recommend that assignment to a Black woman. There is a long history of white people thinking that we can speak with authority about racism and the experiences of people of colour, when in reality, as benefactors of white privilege, we just need to shut up and listen.

Yes, feminism is about speaking out about certain issues, but it’s also about knowing when to shut up and listen so that other voices can take the floor.

3. Know That You Will Always Be Problematic

Keep trying anyway. I am not a “perfect” feminist. There is no such thing. I still have a lot to learn and areas of ignorance to work on. It’s so easy to unconsciously take in oppressive ideologies and let our privilege go unchecked. I will say, think and do things that are problematic or oppressive sometimes. We all have stuff to unpack and a lot of work to do. Keep doing the work. Keep fighting oppressive systems, both outside and internally. If someone calls you out for saying or doing something oppressive, apologize and take the opportunity to learn from the experience. Keep your heart open and don’t get defensive. We are all problematic sometimes, and we need to recognize this in order to keep doing our work.

Resources

Everyday Feminism

This site just blows me away with it’s amazing content. There’s so much on here. In terms of feminism 101 articles, I’d recommend:

Autostraddle

An amazing site for media reviews and recommendations geared towards feminist and/or queer and/or female audiences.

YouTube

I'm a YouTuber myself, and I think it provides a great platform to discuss and share ideas. Below is a list of some of my favourite feminist YouTubers, who make awesome, important, and informative videos.

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