Why celebrating women’s rights without an intersectional lens is meaningless

I wouldn’t go as far as meaningless, and I find intersectionality is too jargony to my taste but of course, one should not celebrate or discuss any group, whether men, women, specific religious or ethnic groups, without consideration and acknowledgement of that diversity.

Ironically, when I analyse economic outcomes of visible minorities compared to not visible minorities, the gaps are larger between visible minority men and not visible minority men than is the case for women as the example looking at second generation 25-34 year olds below illustrates (similar pattern for first generation):

Not that many years ago, four to be precise, a senior journalist was sincerely trying to explain how his newsroom was attempting to diversify its staff.

Job applicants could check one of four boxes, he said. Gender, race, disability and sexual orientation. What box would I check, I wondered out loud.

“Race,” he said. And just like that, he erased major parts of my identity, rendering everything beyond my brown skin invisible.

This was about 25 years after civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe how people’s identities interact with power to create new forms of discrimination (specifically around Black women) when they overlap, and a few years after it had become a mainstream buzzword.

March 8 was International Women’s Day, a day that sprung from the women’s labour movement and began to be celebrated in many countries since the United Nations’ adoption of it in 1975. It gained a higher profile in recent years following important movements such as #MeToo.

But every day is every woman’s day. Celebrating the fierceness of the suffragettes who helped women win the right to vote doesn’t mean we forget that it was white women who won that right for themselves in Canada, Asians came decades later and that First Nations men and women didn’t have the right to vote until 1960.

If second-wave feminism looked at expanding rights beyond voting, I don’t know how we can celebrate representation in boardrooms and courtrooms without acknowledging that “diversity” initiatives have allowed white patriarchy to bend just enough to accommodate white women.

I don’t know how we can celebrate a narrowing gender wage gap without acknowledging that jobs traditionally done by women, often racialized women — health-care workers, daycare workers, nannies — are undervalued and underpaid. If full-time working women earned on average 75 cents to every dollar earned by a man, racialized and Indigenous full-time working women earned approximately 65 cents.

Women can use their own bodies however they choose, but I don’t know how we can celebrate Femen-type feminists and their topless protests without acknowledging that feminism is often reduced to sexual liberation or that sexual liberation is often reduced to the acreage of skin women expose.

For that matter, I don’t know how we think we’ve got anything close to liberation when women in the richest corporations are most valued when they show up to work looking thin, wearing tight clothes, tall heels and warpaint on their faces. And yeah, not in overly bright colours (too loud), not in overly short skirts (too slutty) or overly long ones (too daggy). Hair is ideally straight with a few waves permitted to flounce up at the bottom. While we’re at it, slow down those promotions if you must keep your hair grey, keep a ’fro or dreadlock or twist it, and heaven forbid you go home every time your kids are sick.

In other words, I don’t know how any reflection on the fight for women’s rights can be authentic unless it is intersectional. By that I don’t mean that we just include the voices of women who continue to be oppressed by identities of race, culture, caste, sexuality and disability.

To hell with “inclusion” and the paternalism inherent in it.

Inclusion is inviting a Black woman at a rally to speak about her experiences in a let’s-expand-our-minds sort of way. In this scenario, her experience — seen as a deviation from the norm rather than central to it — is still in service of non-Black women.

This kind of “inclusion” then allows organizations like the Toronto Public Library to claim diversity of thought and platform voices of those who reject trans women from the fold of womanhood.

On the other hand, true intersectional feminism means radically changing societal structures to put the most marginalized at the centre, making their concerns the first priority.

In this scenario, a discussion around sexual safety would yield not to more policing but less. In her book Invisible No More, Andrea Ritchie outlines how for white women, the concern around sexual assault and domestic violence is around police non-response. For women of colour, that police response is the problem, with too many experiences of officers responding to domestic violence calls sexually assaulting or otherwise violating the person who called for help.

The cases of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girlsare not a sideshow from “mainstream” women’s issues, but central to it.

Prioritize those voices and support structures around sexual assault might start to look more like transformative education for all genders at schools and highly trained, legally empowered social workers might be brought to the front line.

On reproductive rights, if issues such as the forced sterilization of Indigenous women or the dignity of the poorest women were at the centre, the discussion would go beyond condoms and abortion rights. It would lead to a revolutionary battle to keep governments away from our bodies, a fight for free services including legal and medical support, among other solutions.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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