Stuck At The Intersection

Confronting the online furore among feminist thinkers over the issue of intersectionality, Claire Askew has feminist road rage

Feature by Claire Askew | 02 Sep 2013
  • Do Not Block Intersection

Feminism – Rebecca West famously claimed – is the radical notion that women are human beings. A useful, straightforward sort of definition, if you ask me. Intersectional feminism, then, is the radical notion that some women have it harder than others, and we should take that into account in our activism. Also pretty straightforward, right?

If you’re even vaguely interested in the section of the internet that identifies as feminist, you’ll have noticed this word intersectionality popping up there with increasing regularity. It first started doing the rounds of said interwebs in October 2011, when Tiger Beatdown writer Flavia Dzodan wrote an article for that site entitled “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” The article was a deliciously angry but also deeply smart response to some then-current events – events that proved fairly conclusively the age-old theory that white, straight women reckon they own feminism. Dzodan’s article, with its all-caps yelling and numerous obscenities, went about as viral as anything with the word ‘feminism’ in the title ever could. And ever since, the word intersectionality has become prime feminist click-bait.

It’s not a new concept. Way back in 1989, bell hooks – arguably the most important black feminist thinker of all time – called for intersectionality in her book Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Women, she claimed, need to “work collectively to confront difference, to expand our awareness of sex, race, and class as interlocking systems of domination,” in order to aid “the making of feminist revolution.” In comparison to most feminist theory that’s pretty accessible writing, but I still found it kind of head-scratching at first. So I’ll put it more simply: intersectional feminism is a form of feminism that looks beyond the idea that everything boils down to men = oppressors, women = oppressed. It acknowledges that, if you’re queer, or disabled, or trans*, or a woman of colour, or a sex worker, then your life is probably more difficult than the life of a straight, able-bodied, cisgendered, white woman. If you’re both queer and disabled, it becomes a little more difficult still, and so on. 

I love the analogy – which, of course, I found somewhere on the internet – of a big junction where a bunch of different roads intersect. Each road gets a different kind of traffic, which represents discrimination: one road gets misogyny, the next gets homophobia, another gets trans*phobia, another racism, and so on. If you’re standing in the middle of any of these roads, you’re having to focus on dodging this traffic, and that really sucks. However, if you’re queer and disabled and a woman of colour, for example, you’re having to stand in the middle of the junction between three different roads, and you have much more traffic coming at you. If you get three times the traffic, then dodging it is way, way more tiring and frightening and difficult than just having to deal with one lane of the stuff. Intersectionality is understanding that. And that’s literally it.

So why is the concept still being so hotly debated? Basically, there are a bunch of feminists who want to stop intersectionality from being a thing. For example, there’s still a big, gobby wing of the feminist movement who think trans* women shouldn’t get to call themselves women. There’s an even bigger club of folk who think that any sex worker who doesn’t spend her every waking hour feeling thoroughly degraded and dehumanised must surely be an evil agent of darkness, come to lure your teenage daughter into a career in pornography. 

There are also a lot of feminists who devote a startling amount of their time to blogging and tweeting about how we all need to stop blogging and tweeting about the whole thing. Because you guys, it’s distracting! We should all be holding hands and marching forward together to lay wastes to the evil armies of patriarchy! Fun fact: these women are almost always white, almost always cisgendered, almost always straight, able-bodied, middle-class and… well, you see where I’m going here.

And then there are all those feminists who think we shouldn’t do intersectionality because it seems hard, or because it means we have to think before we speak, or because it’s distracting. Those feminists are essentially saying, “Hey, you in the middle of the intersection!  Quit whining!  The traffic we’re dodging is totally the worst!  We don’t even want to hear about your traffic!”

Rubbishing intersectionality basically means you think the concerns of a whole load of women are rubbish too. If you’re in any way committed to tackling discrimination, that sort of thinking should give you some serious road rage.