by The Lady Eve

The definition of “feminism” is actually simple and straightforward. Dictionary.com lists the following:

  1. The doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men
  2. (Sometimes initial capital letter) an organized movement for the attainment of such rights for women

And yet only a cursory search of the world-wide-web would demonstrate the many facets of the Feminist Movement. Given the various nuances and the ever-evolving nature of the movement, it’s easy to understand the misconceptions that I’ve heard expressed by people who I expected would know better.

When I was in college, I recall learning about two types of feminism: liberal and radical. Liberal feminists were defined as those who wanted to work within the system to create change, such as Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinem. These are the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were the women who fought tirelessly for the Equal Rights Amendment, the ultimate display of working within the system to bring change. As the name implies, radical feminists believed that change could not come from within the system, because the system itself is the problem. These were the feminists who didn’t just oppose the idea of a patriarchy but also opposed the numerous systems that they identified as contributing to the patriarchy, such as capitalism, religion, or pornography. While I initially thought of myself as a liberal feminist, I found that over time my views became more aligned with concepts originally attributed to radical feminism. This became apparent to me when I was writing my senior thesis on witchcraft. That was the first time I could understand what my professors meant by the system itself needing to be dismantled.

However, since that time, a seemingly new dichotomy has emerged in the discussion of feminism. This is the distinction between traditional (white) feminism and intersectional feminism. At its core, intersectional feminism is based on the belief that all systems of oppression are interconnected, and it is impossible to eliminate any one single system in isolation of the others. In simpler terms, sexism cannot be fully abolished without also addressing racism, homophobia, etc. Understanding the need for an intersectional approach to feminism can definitely be a challenge. I know because I’ve been there.

I have a confession to make: when I turned 18 and registered to vote, I registered as a Republican. I spent four years as a proud member of the College Republicans. Even as I learned to embrace the feminist label, my views were still extremely narrow and, I hate to admit, extremely self-centered. It wasn’t from any lacking in my Women’s Studies classes, just my own inability to fully process the information until years later. Although I don’t recall hearing the term “intersectional” in college, the coursework definitely fit that description.

One of the requirements for my major was a class called Feminisms in an International Context. Without question, this class was one of my least favorite. In retrospect, I see that much of my dislike was based on the way that it challenged my views. I didn’t feel like the class was relevant to me or to my own life. Spoiler alert: this is the epitome of what white feminism looks like. As I began to understand intersectionality better, I was able to reflect on how much this class contributed to that understanding.

One of my sharpest memories from this class was a discussion over an article in the previous day’s Daily Orange (our school paper). It was about an email that the Student Government Speaker sent to a number of his friends. It was supposed to be one of those jokes that everyone sent to everyone they knew. Only this was about Ebonics. The guy who sent the email happened to be a personal friend of mine, and I felt defensive as the discussion centered on why what he did was wrong. I even stayed after class to debate it further with my professor because I just knew that my friend didn’t send it out of malice. It was my very first experience with impact vs. intent. It was years before I was able to really understand why my professor kept saying that it didn’t matter if it was meant to be a joke.

I wish I could point to the exact moment it finally clicked, or cite the article that put everything into perspective. I can say that it hinged on my understanding of the term “privilege.” So what exactly is privilege, and why does it seem to make so many people feel defensive? Privilege is the idea that certain traits (often based on genetic luck of the draw) give some people a leg up on others. I’ve most commonly seen this used in relation to skin color, i.e. “white privilege,” a term that seems to send many white people into a mini-rant about how hard they worked for everything they have.

But privilege is about more than skin color. There are a number of areas where someone can be more or less privileged than others. For example, if you happen to be heterosexual, you have a level of privilege. How so? Well, you probably wouldn’t have to worry about a bakery turning you away if you asked for a wedding cake, just for starters. Socioeconomic class is also a type of privilege. If you happened to be born into an upper-middle-class family, you also experience a type of privilege. This could include things like private schools, vacations abroad, or being able to attend college without the need for student loans. In 2015, Buzzfeed released a video on privilege. They had 10 staffers stand in line and then asked them a series of 35 questions. Each question involved either taking a step forward or a step back. The end result demonstrated how all of the different forms of privilege intersect and impact each of us to varying degrees.

Once you can fully appreciate the impact of privilege, it becomes easy to see why an intersectional approach is so necessary for the Feminist Movement. When privilege exists on so many different planes, it requires addressing multiple areas in order to even attempt to level the playing field. It also points us in the right direction to truly come together as one united movement. At its core, intersectional feminism is about shifting the focus off of the white woman’s experience and looking at the broader landscape. It means learning to become allies to other marginalized groups (I realize allyship can be a full essay in and of itself, and encourage you to do some additional research if the term is unfamiliar to you). In the broadest sense, intersectional feminism hinges on empathy, which is something I will be further examining in my next post.