In defence of intersectionality

The debate surrounding Suzanne Moore and Juliet Burchill’s views on transsexuality and its relation to feminism looks set to wage for a while longer.

I’m not going to continue it here – not because I am abdicating moral responsibility, hedging my bets or being cowardly about nailing my trans politics to a public mast – but because I had started this post on Moore’s views on intersectionality (as evinced in her Guardian piece) several days before. I want to publish it because I still think intersectionality needs defending, regardless of the more serious debate that may now have eclipsed it.

In Suzanne Moore’s piece in the Guardian she said this:

 “Intersectionality is good in theory, though in practice, it means that no one can speak for anyone else. It is the dead-end where much queer politics, feminist politics and identity politics ends up. In its own rectum. It refuses to engage with many other political discourses and becomes the old hierarchy of oppression.”

The writer Stella Duffy has also written an interesting blog post on the academic cold shoulder offered by intersectionality. When I first came across the concept, it wasn’t at university on a high falutin Gender Studies course. Instead, it was in a very accessible book called Men and Feminism edited by Shira Tarrant. Admittedly Tarrant is an academic, but the book, published in North America was recommended to me by a high school drop-out (her self-identification) I met at a community yoga class in California (stereotype her as you will).  The book is easy to read, engaging and not the slightest bit interested in theories that cannot be applied to every day life. Rather, it takes its theories from observing how power plays out in daily life. Which is actually rather like intersectionality.

Now let’s get back to Moore. Intersectionality is about recognising that every human is a bundle of relative privileges. Race, class, socio-economic status, education, ablebodiedness, and gender are some of the most obvious ones, as Moore identifies. But far from preventing us from speaking about anything we are not, when it comes to feminism, this means recognising that not all women are subordinate to or subjugated by all men. For example, the homeless guy that asked me for a dollar outside Walgreens this morning wasn’t innately more ‘privileged’ than me because he was male. It isn’t apologetic, rather self-reflexive and commonsensical to recognise that. That is what intersectionality is about.

In fact, acknowledging that the system might need some refinement is, to my mind, the most sage self-observation identity politics has ever made. If ever proof were needed of feminism’s dedication to its own evolution, to ensuring it does not become what Moore called ‘the old hierarchy of oppression’ then embracing intersectionality is it.

As a young feminist (just under 30) I am deeply depressed by the suggestion that we diluted play-feminists are to blame for the persistence of misogyny. Women’s rights, as recognised by law, are incredibly new to life in the West, and still to be achieved in much of the rest of the world. Yet the idea of gender equality being a social work in progress, a social work that needs to undo thousands of years of so-called ‘patriarchal’ normalcy, a system that still needs to better engage men if it is to truly transform gendered relations, that idea seems to be as readily forgotten by the ‘real’ feminists as much as by anyone else. By all means cite the civil rights movement or the apartheid movement as proof that peacefully ‘negotiating’ with the gatekeepers is a disenfranchised mug’s game (although ultimately, peace needed to prevail before they could be heralded as successful). Whether radical violence is the only precursor to social progress is another argument altogether. By all means, let’s have that debate. But please can we stop blaming, by insinuation or otherwise, feminists who are trying for equality a different way to our own.

Instead, it is we ‘femin-ishs’, with our love of lipgloss and BDSM-inspired lingerie, and proclivity to question how we might better engage men in the quest to prevent rape or to increase childcare provision, that are apparently undoing all the good work of our foremothers, and letting womankind down in the process.  All because we think there might be something in that intersectionality business.

Ultimately, Moore’s argument – that feminism is failing because we have forgotten to focus on real social deprivation – would benefit from a little revision. Rich women do not suffer in a recession the way poor ones do. As much as being an unpleasant fact of life, that is almost certainly proof of intersectionality. We don’t blame the first or second-wavers for not securing gender equality first time; why, then, should we contemporary feminists be any more guilty of going about it all wrong?

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