Intersectionality and the Women’s Movement

 

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Intersectional Theory, coined by an American professor, (Kimberlé Crenshaw, 1989) is defined as the study of how different power structures interact in the lives of minorities, specifically black women.  For example, while a white woman may face sexism among her peers, a black woman experiences both racism and sexism.

The term intersectionality was originally used to encapsulate anti-discrimination laws when applied to the issues of black feminism. In Crenshaw’s essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Anti-racist Politics.Crenshaw writes that discrimination against Black women does not fit within the legal classification of either “racism” or “sexism”—but as an amalgamation of both racial discrimination and sexism.  By large, the law considers sexism as an injustice that affects all women (including white women).  Racism, on the other hand, refers to discrimination faced by black people (including male) and other people of color. Crenshaw believes that cultural forms of oppression are interconnected and influenced by the instructional systems of society. Contributing factors of intersectionality include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.

This article examines how Intersectionality plays a substantial role in the constructed framework of the women’s movement. The Theory is of particular importance in understanding why black women and other minority groups are still not afforded the same equal rights and opportunities to the extent that white women have advanced in American society.

Black women, for instance, throughout American history confront a myriad of distinct Intersectional hardships that were not adequately addressed theoretically and or politically during the women’s movement. This article discusses three of many areas of conflict that black women faced during the feminist crusade.

1) Black women on a large scale are not viewed as women; rather, we are perceived as black women with many of the negative stigmas from slavery attached to our identity.  Some researchers believe that the constructed Mammy figure as obese, stocky, with masculine characteristics and lacking intimation of sex appeal was a deliberate attempt by slave owners to eradicate black women of sexual attraction and her identity as a woman.  The mammy figure has varied over time, but today, many still view black women through a twisted lens of physical unattractiveness and inferiority. American author and activist, (Bell Hooks, 1981) in her book, Ain’t I a Woman, titled after Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech at the Women’s Rights Convention, spoke to the issue of black womanhood. She writes: “Contemporary black women could not join together to fight for women’s rights because we did not see ‘womanhood’ as an important aspect of our identity.”

2) Black women have faced a lifetime of racial discrimination and negative stereotypes that played out on the front line of the women’s movement. Research indicates that black women who took part in the movement faced sexual and racial discrimination and were delegated to the backdrop of the cause.  Gloria Steinem, nationally known as a leader and a spokeswoman for the movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, spoke about the role that Black women played in the feminist movement. In an interview with Black Enterprise Money editor, Stacey Tisdale (2015) Steinem credits the invention of the movement to black women, stating that she learned feminism disproportionately from them. Steinman also acknowledges that white women’s needs took precedence over black women. She said, “…But things being what they are, the White middle-class part of the movement got reported more, but if you look at the numbers and the very first poll of women responding to feminist issues, African American women were twice as likely to support feminism and feminist issues than White women,”

3) Black women were expected to keep silent about their oppression to give voice to the uprising of black men. (Hooks, 1981). This expectation emphasized the race and sex social hierarchy that originated from slavery in which white men ranked themselves first, white women second, (though sometimes equal to black men) who ranked third. Black women ranked last. As a result of the racial oppression from many white women in the Feminist movement and sexual oppression from some Black men in the Black Liberation movement that black women, in 1973 felt the need to form the National Black Feminist Organization to address their unique challenges.

Some critics may argue that across ethnic lines ‘all women’ are still fighting for equal rights in many areas of their lives. For example, women as a whole experience inequality in areas of gender wage gap, sexism, social status, under-representation of women in high-powered positions and politics, among other challenges. And even though that argument is valid, empirical studies reveal that in all areas, including health, education, and economic security, black women in the United States fare worse than other women, writes human rights attorney, (Chaumtoli Huq, 2015).  In the field of economics, Huq cites research findings by the American Association of University Women which reveals that Black women earn 63 cents on the dollar in comparison to the 79 cents for white women. The pay gap is attributed to a concentration of a large population of black women in low-wage jobs. Some of those jobs include health care, fast food, and retail sales. The inequity between black and white women is widely researched. Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth conducted a study over a span of 26-years reveals that 29.5 percent of black women with high school diplomas and no college degree experience unemployment that exceeds 10 or more unemployment spells in comparison to 13.5 percent of white women from a similar educational background.

A solid case can be established that the movement was organized around the demands and desires of the predominantly middle-class, heterosexual, and healthy white women. This small framework does not consider the large multifaceted experiences and backgrounds of women from other ethnic groups. It is on this ground that white women emerged from the movement as the dominant ‘better off than’ more progressive of all women.

Racial discrimination is not a myth; it is alive overtly, and implicitly continuing to devastate the everyday lives of Black women on a large scale. We cannot continue to pretend that we live in a post-racial, color-blind, race-neutral society. In fact, black women fall within the framework of the marginalized co-cultural group more than any other group. For example, if you are black, a woman, from a lower socioeconomic background, who is gay, lesbian or bisexual, you have encompassed every aspect of the marginalized group in America and will face different life challenges.

This article is not meant to diminish white women or the importance of the feminist movement, but rather bring attention to the inequities that exist between different groups of women. The unique challenges of black women must be acknowledged and solutions implemented across the socioeconomic landscape and within human rights policies. Intersectionality Theory can be used to understand and mend many of the divisiveness that renders one group dominant over another. As women, whether we are black, white, Asian, Latina or Native American, we should all me moving forward together.

References:

  • Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.
  • Chaumtoli Huq (2015) A National Black Women’s Economic Agenda Would Improve All Workers’ Rights
  • Bell Hooks (1981) Ain’t I a Woman?