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