By Nafina Raha
Since its inception, mainstream feminism has excluded many varied groups of women, disregarding the experiences of individuals with intersecting identities to instead focus solely on wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual, white women. Roots of this exclusion can be found as far back as the abolition movement of the 1800s, in which many white women fighting for suffrage shut out Black and Indigenous women from their circles in fear that their inclusion would put issues of race in the way of women’s suffrage. These early feminist movements deliberately derailed civil rights efforts, therefore contributing to the oppression of women of color.
Following this, with the extension of women’s suffrage into the 1900s and the women’s liberation movement later on, white feminism continued to exclude and disregard the stories and experiences of women of color. Modern mainstream feminism still caters mostly to a very narrow and limited group of women, leaving many groups continuously excluded.
During this Women’s History Month and beyond, we must be inclusive of all women within our understanding of feminism. Crucial to this inclusivity is an accurate understanding of intersectionality. This is a term initially coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, meant to provide a framework of understanding for how different social categorizations and aspects of an individual’s identity impact their lives. These aspects of identity include gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, and more, and overlap in different ways for different individuals to create unique experiences for them based on their correlation with existing systems of oppression. Intersectionality is a general term representing the understanding that all oppression is linked. Not only are different forms of discrimination additive, they are also compounding, producing a unique experience for the people whose identities overlap in these ways.
“Intersectionality is such a vital framework for understanding systems of power, because ‘woman’ is not a catchall category that alone defines our relationships to power,” Zoe Samudzi, a feminist writer and activist, said about intersectionality in her essay “Afro-Diasporic Feminism and a Freedom in Fluidity.”
There is a big issue with only expressing activism and awareness for one aspect of someone’s identity. For example, when an individual who is a woman, gay, and Indigenous experiences discrimination, the protective mechanisms our society has in place often would only meet the needs of highlighting one aspect of their identity, disregarding the ways in which the multiple layers of this individual’s identity overlap to cause an exacerbation of that discrimination.
In the 1980s, the new term “womanist” emerged among Black and other nonwhite feminist scholars to describe a form of feminism focused on the experiences of women of color. The term was initially coined in 1979 by Alice Walker, a novelist and social activist. It continued to take on different meanings in the years to follow. Much of the women’s liberation movement from the 1960s to the 80s excluded women of color, specifically Black women, leaving them pushed to the sidelines by white feminism, so womanism was created to address intersectionality and to create a distinction from feminism and its association mainly with white women.
Audre Lorde, a queer Black civil rights activist, feminist, womanist, and poet, encompassed the ideas behind intersectionality in face of women’s struggles in her writing. “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” she wrote in “Learning from the 60s.”
Womanism along with a variety of movements started by other marginalized groups have set landmarks on the continuous journey to achieving gender equality. From Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two prominent trans women of color within the Gay Liberation Movement and the transformative Stonewall Uprising of 1969, to Angela Davis, a Black activist, author, and philosopher who has spoken and written profusely on topics ranging from political theory to women’s studies to America’s prison-industrial complex, women whose identities exemplify intersectionality and a complex layering of identity have made history and opened important conversations in these fields with their work.
Today, we see more and more women instigating change and bringing their experiences and expertise to the table. Lizzo, a plus-size Black singer, is breaking barriers in the music industry. Jameela Jamil, a queer South Asian writer, actress, activist, and radio presenter, calls herself a “feminist-in-progress,” expressing awareness for the intricacies and difficulties that come from being a woman in a patriarchal society, especially in the form of internalized misogyny. She has dedicated her career to promoting body positivity and bringing awareness to everything from mental health to women’s rights to intersectionality. Serena Williams and Allyson Felix, two record-holding, groundbreaking Black female athletes, have brought forth many conversations about womanhood and motherhood within the realm of sports. Both faced backlash in response to their maternity leaves, and have been outspoken about the treatment of mothers in sports, specifically Black mothers, opening a very important conversation that has been previously ignored.
Feminism means inclusivity for women of color, disabled women, trans and queer women, survivors of sexual assault, plus-size women, neurodivergent women, oppressed and marginalized women, and so on. Feminism should carry a hope for the rights of all women. Without awareness and inclusion of intersectionality within the definition and understanding of feminism, we will be leaving out the most marginalized of people groups, thus derailing the entire point and prerogative of the feminist movement. So while we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, we must be sure that we are addressing intersectionality and including all women within our definition of feminism–for together we are ever stronger.