Is Intersectionality A Theory?

by J.J.M.E. Gleeson on February 5, 2014

‘I want to convince you, I want to get it through you that this is not a choice or an abstract concept or an intellectual exercise.’
— 
Flavia Dzodan

Characterising the Feminist Revival

Feminism’s rapid expansion across the past few years has yet to be accounted for, or adjusted to, by much of the left. As such, intersectionality has come to the fore of discussions among radical left circles. As is quite typical especially of what is perhaps best termed the ‘International Socialist orbit’ (a crowd which seems to exist in an ever increasing number of groups), among other sections of the further left, this has become framed as a consideration of ‘Intersectionality Theory’.1 This is similar to the framing of the more readily dispensed with ‘Privilege Theory’. This tendency has even strangely extended to terming developments in autonomist feminism by writers such as Federici and Fortunati ‘Social Reproduction Theory’ (despite ‘social reproduction’ being a piece of terminology foundational to Marx’s theoretical considerations of capitalism.) This implicitly further suggests that intersectionality should be regarded as a competitor to a ‘traditional’ Marxist outlook, simply the latest in a succession of distracting competitors.

Intersectionality may provide a theoretical outlook, insofar as it offers a way to look at the topic at hand (as Deleuze, uncharacteristically succinctly, put it), in this case political movements. The characterisation of intersectionality as a ‘capital T’ theory, however, is a mistaken one. Describing intersectionality as a unified worldview, oriented towards offering general explanations, is roughly as helpful as referring to Jo Freeman’s 1970s essays The Tyranny of Structurelessness and Trashing: the Dark Side of Sisterhood as outlining ‘Structurelessness Theory’ and ‘Trashing Theory’. Instead of aiming to offer general explanatory schema, both these articles and intersectionality are instrumental in nature, and address particular failings of feminism.

Intersectionality is not without intellectual heritage, but declaring it a singular thought-entity elides the actual theoretical development which has supported the rise of this ideal. Rather than possessing any unified canon, intersectionality draws primarily from direct experiences from the lives and actions of feminists. In as far as it has drawn from the academia, its heritage is primarily from queer theory, and critical race theory. These foundations are largely materialist, describing disadvantaged identities as historically constituted, rather than innate. (There are clear limitations on any efforts to stage a purely intellectual genealogy of even this kind, however: the much cited works of Judith Butler, for example, could be scoured fruitlessly for commonplace terms such as ‘cissexism’. This term was largely distributed in a piecemeal fashion, over various tumblr and wordpress outlets, rather than belonging to any ‘Great Man’, or particular woman.)

Declaring intersectionality a singular ‘theory’ seems to miss the specific historical conditions which intersectional activism arose out of, namely: the systemic limitations of previous strains of feminism in incorporating the efforts of the most thoroughly socially disadvantaged to pursue their self-emancipation. Only a historical consideration of these can account for intersectionality’s new-found prevalence, and perceived indispensability.

The Historical, and Ongoing, Limitations of Women’s Movements

Intersectionality was a direct outgrowth of critical self-assessment stage of feminism, by feminists. While in use among certain circles since the 1980s, it reached a new prominence through critiques of the 2011 ‘Slut Walks’. While intended as a response to the ‘victim blaming’ of rape survivors, and initially seen by many as a reinvigorating episode in feminist activism, these events were widely criticised. In addition to the presence of signs featuring racial slurs at some marches, more general concerns were raised about the limitations of ‘sex positive’ feminism’s aim to ‘reclaim’ misogynistic slurs, especially for women of colour. The best known of these critiques was ‘MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!’. While explicitly not claiming intersectionality as any kind of innovation, this piece and those like it establish the foundations for a nuanced revival of feminism (beginning around 2011-2012, and ongoing).

This controversy was by no means unprecedented in the history of feminist activism. Feminism had long been criticised as being far from inclusive of women in especially vulnerable social positions. In many cases, the principle of ‘universal sisterhood’ in reality implicitly resulted in preventing full participation of sex workers, women of colour, those anywhere on the trans spectrum, those with disabilities, or intersex conditions, and bisexual women.

Especially memorable episodes in this wide-ranging milieu of general hostility were Mary Daly referring to trans women as ‘necrophiliacs’, Julie Burchill’s suggestion that ‘When the sex war is won, sex worker’s should be shot as collaborators’, and Shulasmith Firestone’s reliance on racist tropes in her mythic analysis of black men in the (otherwise indispensable) Dialectic of Sex. These episodes are simply especially public and memorable examples, among countless more less readily recorded instances. Many of the keenest proponents of intersectionality have encountered many of these exclusionary tendencies personally, a point seemingly often disregarded by those quick to dismiss its value.

Given the recent exclusion of sex workers from a conference discussing proposed police-empowering sex work legislation, the continued activities of a small but committed band of transphobic feminists to systematically harass trans women, and the ongoing popularity of the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, it’s clear that this feature of feminism is far from historical.

Previously, such undesirable elements of feminist history had simply been grouped under ‘radical feminism’, as if rejecting outmoded, and often flagrantly reactionary, attitudes towards the socially disadvantaged in some way served to moderate feminist analysis.2

Intersectionality and the Expansion of Gender Politics

Moving beyond this misleading framing of ‘moderate vs. radical’, intersectionality serves as a principle for resisting these continuing failures within feminism. At its simplest, ‘Intersectionality’ has served as a helpful means of differentiation between these exclusionary strains of feminism, and those informed by the analysis of black women (and other women/people of colour), sex workers, and trans people. Intersectionality is not so much a theory as an organisational ideal, intended to guide practice (or for those who are fond of leftist jargon, ‘praxis’).

Intersectionality has served as a shorthand for a feminism which includes the voices of society’s most vulnerable, disparaged, and routinely disregarded. Which seeks to support struggles to end such conditions (or at least survive them).

The result of previous failures to incorporate their perspectives on, and actions against, gendered oppression was that black feminism, sex worker self-organisation, and trans activism, to a degree developed in parallel to ‘conventional feminism’. In many cases there was an understandable reluctance of those involved to consider themselves ‘feminist’, with womanist or queer often being used instead. (Increasingly, although far from uniformly, these terms are coming to be used as supplementary labels to ‘intersectional feminist’, rather than mutually exclusive.) While not heralding the immediate end of such autonomous groups and actions, the fledgling emphasis on intersectionality has already expanded appreciation of their efforts by broader feminist organisations, and a greater interplay between them.

As with any other principle for organisation, this ideal is worth nothing save in its application. Although the recent revival of feminist activity is too recent for the fruits of this approach to be properly assessed, in certain groups participation from trans women, sex workers and women of colour seems to have advanced beyond mere tokenism.

Intersectionality has become a hegemonic organisational principle in many UK student feminist groups, many of which only came into existence in the past two or so years. Edinburgh University Feminist Society released a statement entitled ‘York Feminist Network, we reject your whorephobia’, while King’s College London’s Intersectional Feminist Society late last year held an event led by guest speaker sex workers, putting the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us’ into practice. Although no group will be immune to pressures of socially pervasive prejudice, organisation of these groups seems to reframe leadership as a matter of ‘centring’ discussions around those most intimately affected. Beyond the inevitably ephemeral world of student politics, the organisers of this year’s London Anarcha-Feminist Conference released a promising and frank statement regarding inclusion, in response to widespread criticism of their mooted ‘women and trans’ policy.3

More broadly, a reconfiguration of pro-choice politics is in process. Previously, pro-choice activism had been prone to adopting slogans which cast biological reproduction as essentially associated with women.4 Additionally, focus of pro-choice politics has been largely restricted to securing safe, legal, and preferably free, access to abortions. While a vital goal, adopting this as a sole focus excluded from consideration other, often more racialised, elements of fertility biopolitics. (Selma James refers to activism limited in this fashion as ‘pro-abortion’.) Systematic compulsory sterilisation of sex workers, trans women, and ethnic minorities has been deployed in recent history, and certain forms remain widespread. Tropes of feckless levels of reproduction among undesirable elements of society take many forms, often embraced on environmental grounds by liberals and leftists insufficiently wary of the dubious heritage behind these analyses. Many women find themselves caught between immediate familial pressures, and vivid reactionary Malthusian fantasies over the populations of council estates, projects, traveller encampments, and trailer parks, ‘flooding’ society. These class/racial anxiety sourced anti-natalist attitudes were drawn on heavily by the current UK government, in its on-going effort to dismantle the welfare state. In short, women’s fertility is not uniformly prized. Undoubtedly, efforts to restrict women and trans men’s legal access to abortions will continue, and resistance will be needed. But, especially in light of criticisms from women of colour, a reconsideration of feminist analysis of fertility politics seems to be underway.

The past year has further seen the interception of the UK Borders Agency during a routine racist harassment of ethnic minority Londoners staged by the Southall Black Sisters, the incisively anti-police statement released the South London Anti-fascists after confronting the BNP in Croydon with a banner of a pissing vulva, and the tireless work of Leslie Feinberg (among many others) to secure Cece MacDonald release from jail after defending herself from a transphobic assailant. While not simply consequences of the new era of intersectionality (both the SBS and Feinberg’s career as an activist long predate the current feminist revival), these actions show the wide range of struggles associated with gender politics, and their inextricability from racial issues.

Anti-Capitalism and Intersectionality

As these examples hopefully make clear, intersectionality is far from a liberalising and moderating force. Indeed, the closer inclusion of sex workers, people of colour, queers, and trans activists into feminism could not fail to shift its politics towards a more adversarial stance concerning the coercive mechanisms of the state. While many of those involved in each of these actions have been politically engaged since long before the current feminist revival, ‘intersectionality’ serves as a means of readily distinguishing these activities from the strains of feminism still intent on harassing trans women, or promoting the ‘Nordic Model’ of sex work criminalisation. While less radical attitudes still prevail in much of institutional feminism, critical voices and alternative approaches are now a commonplace.

Once understood as primarily an organisational principle, intersectionality can be seen as a positive, ongoing stage in the development of gender politics. Most simply, it can be seen as the continuation of a key aim of ‘Third Wave’ feminism: to include those who did not fit comfortably under supposedly universal sisterhood. The widespread appeal of this approach, and the very rapid expansion of reference to it, originates in its acceptance, and attempt to amend, longstanding failings in an earlier unitary understanding of gendered socialisation.

Ill-informed hostility towards intersectionality, especially based around aggressive and dismissive mischaracterisation, will only further distance much of the left from those wary of squandering their limited time and energy for political matters on exercises in frustration.

Opponents of capitalism should consider intersectionality not a rival claimant to truth, but as a challenge to reconsider their own modes of organisation, and interaction (both within, and beyond their participation in various groups).

1. Not all pieces on this topic have been entirely critical, however, with this piece by Shanice MacBean offering an ambivalent assessment. 

2. This framing further does a disservice to the diversity of radical feminism. Andrea Dwokin, for example wrote of her experiences being denounced for her bisexuality in piece against biological understandings of sex, collaborated with active sex workers, and argued that transsexuals had ‘a right to survival in his/her own terms’. 

3. ‘Women & Trans’ spaces have been criticised by many from across the trans spectrum. Trans men have been troubled by the apparent subtext of their inclusion, as well as being effectively required to out themselves to participate. Trans women have seen the apparent conflation of their experience with those of men as trans misogynistic. Those who consider themselves to fit neither of these categories, or both, have often found such policies the source of dysphoric ‘Am I trans enough?’ concerns. In short, these policies have often been seen as a gesture from cis women towards an inclusive politics, rather than an actual practice of it. 

4. Here in Dresden, ‘emancipatory feminist’ group e*vibes avoided simply this through use of the term ‘people who can get pregnant.’ 

(J.J.M.E. Gleeson blogs at http://dandelionscrews.tumblr.com)

  • http://shetterly.blogspot.com/ Will Shetterly

    You mention intersectionality’s heritage without examining it. It comes from Critical Race Theory, whose “father” was Derrick Bell, an academic who is on record as having no interest in Marx. He offered an explanation of racism that was entirely free of considerations of class so he could ignore the white poor when discussing black folks. Intersectionality comes from his student, Kimberle Crenshaw, who has never said anything that I’ve been able to find about socialism.

    Noting that different people have different problems hardly calls for a fancy name. But it has a name because it’s part of an ideology. The ways of intersectionalists are very easy to observe–see Adolph Reed Jr.’s comments about anti-Marxism and the charge of class reductionism in “The limits of anti-racism”.

    • DudeBroHater

      White man sees no value in the work of black anti-racist academics. Good look, bro.

      • http://shetterly.blogspot.com/ Will Shetterly

        Ad hominem in the most literal sense of the term. Good answer, brohater.

        Is it so hard to understand that bourgie folks are bourgie, no matter what color they are?

        If skin color is what matters to you, how do you decide between Derrick Bell and Herman Cain? Flip a coin?

        • sabokitty

          It also comes from Claudia Jones, who was a communist and is buried next to Marx, CLR James, one of the greatest 20th Century Marxists from the Global South, and Selma James. All are Marxists.Also, DudeBroHater said anti-racist. Herman Cain is not an anti-racist nor an academic. You need to take a breath and be a good scientific socialist, not dogmatically attack.

          • http://shetterly.blogspot.com/ Will Shetterly

            Since you wish to be scientific, please cite your references. I’ll happily update Wikipedia for you then, though I’ll leave sites like Geekfeminism for others.

            And, yes, Derrick Bell is not an anti-racist or an academic. That’s my point. By the social identity argument, his opinion should be as good as Crenshaw’s. If you want an academic, please tell me why you ignore black socialists like Thandeka and Adolph Reed Jr. and prefer liberal capitalists like Kimberle Crenshaw?

      • http://shetterly.blogspot.com/ Will Shetterly

        And really, do you think Adolph Reed Jr. and Thandeka (author of Learning To Be White and “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”) are not black academics?

    • J.J.M.E. Gleeson

      You’re right that I was lighter on examination there than I could have been (although, this piece was already rather long!) I think you’re falling into the ‘great man’ method of intellectual history I identified in my piece, unfortunately. It’s the history of thought equivalent of those people who go through a word’s etymology as if its of primary importance in understanding contemporary usage. Intersectional feminism is not a sprawling fanclub of Derrick Bell and Kimberle Crimshaw. Most people describing their feminism as ‘intersectional’ will most likely have neither heard of them, nor read any of their work. There are solid reasons for the appeal of intersectionality as an organising principle, which I’ve attempted to outline. It has not achieved its sudden success because of a conspiracy against critical considerations of class.

      If we were going to identify particular figures who’ve exerted a sway over the new generation, though, much better place to start would be Angela Davis (and she couldn’t really be said to lack focus on class…) She’s an inspirational figure among intersectional feminists: her recent law lecture at Birkbeck was entirely overbooked, and average age of attendees was somewhere in the low-mid 20s. The renewed interest in both her actions and intellectual work among young feminists is relevant in assessing influence the intersectional shift is exerting. I’ll repeat this, though: the individual analysis performed by particular writers is instrumental, not essential, in considerations of ideological development. Thinkers are drawn upon largely because their thought is helpful in explaining people’s conditions, and organising to transform them.

      Not because feminists have somehow failed to notice that their lives feature class relations.

      In terms of under-appreciated (while still influential) thinkers, I think the name which needs more play is Wittig. Her account of gender being ‘marked’ drew quite explicitly on theoretical considerations of race/ethnicity. This was helpful in re-centering her analysis of womanhood as a materialist one (seeing gender as a historical development, rather than trans-historical ‘essence’). I think this aspect of her legacy perhaps isn’t appreciated widely enough among Queer Theorists, which is a shame. (If predictable.)

      People seem happier with a deraciated account of materialist feminism, with it simply springing from generations of exegesis on de Beauvoir. The actual story is a lot more tangled, and interesting (including somewhere along the line the large amount of Freudianism in The Second Sex, which probably played well in mid-20th C. Parisian left circles, being quietly jettisoned). These conflicts, unlikely developments, and dissonance are what really matter in intellectual history, not going through it as a succession of thinkers you give marks out of ten for compatibility with your worldview.

      • http://shetterly.blogspot.com/ Will Shetterly

        Dragging in Angela Davis is side-stepping. Intersectionalists are fond of doing what science fiction fans call retconning: they claim figures from the past as their own. But many of the people they cite disagree with them or their practices. The first example I can think of is the intersectionalist defense of vituperation by rejecting “tone policing”–DudeBroHater up above sounds like someone who’s familiar with the term. Malcolm X disagreed: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”

        I agree that language changes and ideas move beyond their origins. But why should socialists adopt a theory that posits class is simply a social identity that’s no more important than any other? The point of intersectionality was to create more diverse capitalism. I don’t see capitalism being any better with Obama than it was with Clinton. I’d rather focus on ending it.

        And, no, this doesn’t mean neglecting other struggles. Socialists have always been part of the fight for women’s rights and racial equality, and have often been at the head of the fight. We don’t need the divisiveness of intersectionality to continue that work.

        • J.J.M.E. Gleeson

          If you think Angela Davis is unrelated, I recommend you read ‘Lifting As We Climb’.

  • James Heartfield

    I think the point is that critiques which position themselves as the voice of the excluded other are always open to the protest that the practitioners themselves are excluding others. It is a process of subdivision, where authority in argument comes from division, not from building unity. Socialists are challenged by feminists, feminists are challenged by radical feminists who are in turn challenged as trans-exclusionary, feminists challenge sexualised imagery, and are then challenged by sex-positive feminists; black power is called out by feminists (for saying that “the position of women in the movement is prone”); white feminists in turn are challenged by black feminists, for presuming to speak for women of colour. The trajectory of this intersectionality is not towards unity, but towards division, and ever greater subdivision, until the power of all critique is thoroughly dissipated.

    • D

      Completely agree. Whether it was intended or not, the result of all this talk of identity politics and intersectionality, is to elevate difference to the point where dialogue becomes impossible. It ends up doing a quite impressive reversion into an essentialising critique of those taken to be the ‘oppressors’, and this then becomes a label any proponents can casually throw about to alienate (or ‘other’) those they don’t agree with.

      The result of this, is an ugly strategy of ressentiment.

  • James Heartfield

    You cannot see how my claim rings true with actual feminist history? Really?
    ‘essentialising’ – that is your bugbear, not mine. But it is interesting that these divisions mirror the naturalised divisions thrown up by our own society, of ‘race’, ‘gender’, sexual orientation – whereas other political movements divide over questions of doctrine, over what you think, not who you are.

    • J.J.M.E. Gleeson

      You claimed that we our destination was a diminishment until ‘the power of all critique is thoroughly dissipated.’ I’ve provided links which show the reverse: intersectional feminism has proven to be a lot more confrontational of the police, and had a broader critique of the state/society. Much like the radical lesbians were responding to the quite shallow critique that required excluding lesbian perspectives to sustain.

      A movement being more inclusive of the most socially denigrated is radicalising, not moderating.

      As for the natural, on of the key points of writers like Wittig and Federici is that there’s a lot of power in casting social differences as innate, and immutable (in using sex as a fetish, in the Marxist idiolect). This has to be challenged directly.

      I was responding to D’s characterisation of intersectionality as a “quite impressive reversion into an essentialising critique” when I mentioned essentialism, btw. It’s a commonplace, if inexplicable, criticism.

  • Andrew Coates

    It would be interesting to hear what theorists of Intersectionality (which if it’s what described here would get a favourable response form many on the left) to the recent developments in France.

    In France the Manif pour tous (which held massive marches last Sunday) has, apart from its campaign against gay rights, waged a campaign against the “Idéologie du Genre” (gender theory).

    They allege it is going to be taught in schools. They claim it will instruct primary pupils in LGBT. They have even (this is just in) banned Catholic students at one school from seeing a screening of the film Tomboy.

    I wonder what they would think of intersectionality!

    http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/panic-over-gender-theory-in-france/

  • whosemma

    I appreciate that you tried to depart from the knee-jerk hostility towards intersectionality present in much of the male-dominated radical left. But intersectionality is a theory – namely, that capitalism, sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression are contingent and mutually constitutive and that consequently, you cannot consider one in isolation from any of the others. This has been elaborated in the work of many theorists, including (off the top of my head) Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Chandra Mohanty, Avtar Brah, Nira Yuval-Davis, Kum-Kum Bhavnani, Margaret Coulson, Amina Mama, Patricia Hill Collins and Andrea Smith. And that’s literally just the people I could think of off the top of my head – 5 minutes on Google and I could have doubled this list.

  • Jara_Handala

    Online are all ISO Pre-convention Bulletins, & Sharon Smith has
    something to say about the truth & relevance of the grid in building the revolutionary party in today’s Amerika:
    http://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/02/07/international-socialist-organization-2014-convention-bulletin/

  • Pingback: scarpe nike online

  • Pingback: air jordan 10 venom green

  • Pingback: pre order joradn 9 barons

  • Pingback: nike air force

  • Pingback: olimpiada v sochi 2014 goda

  • Pingback: Where to buy center

  • Pingback: Where can i buy

  • Pingback: samsung s24c200bl 23 6 inch led lit monitor b00arjnkh4 2120

  • Pingback: xtenda x550 5 user desktop kit b00hhz6ya6 5315

  • Pingback: d160 flagship retail package 99h11114 00 b005lvms3a 8141

  • Pingback: interest loan rate refinance

  • Pingback: loans that can be paid back in installments

  • Pingback: liberty cash loans phone number

  • Pingback: private short term loans miami

  • Pingback: pre settlement advances

  • Pingback: short term business loans for bad credit

  • Pingback: credit line home equity

  • Pingback: Trackback

  • Pingback: website

  • Pingback: Trackback...

Previous post:

Next post: