STAFF BLOG: INTERSECTIONALITY AND THE FEMINIST CLUBHOUSE: REFLECTIONS ON THE ALL ABOUT WOMEN FESTIVAL 2018
BY SARAH MCCOOK, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AT THE EQUALITY INSTITUTE
The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined in the 1980s with the black feminism movement. Law scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw used the concept to identify and examine the dynamics of gender and racial inequalities as experienced by women of colour. Crenshaw argued that these experiences reflect multiple, intersecting forms of power and oppression, but that this nuance was missing from mainstream (white) feminist analyses of violence against women.
‘Intersectionality’ has since been expanded as a broader concept that aims to identify the various factors that shape the identity and experiences of certain individuals and groups. In contemporary feminist theory, an intersectional analysis means identifying how these factors interact, to understand how people exercise power over others, or experience discrimination based on different forms of oppression. These factors include gender and race as well as ability, sexual orientation, religion, age, socio-economic status, Aboriginality, and so on. Intersectionality is about more than acknowledging difference. It is about recognising the complex patterns of power and oppression that privilege one person over another, in order to challenge and transform them.
While intersectionality has a strong theoretical underpinning, and a powerful history, we are in danger of losing its transformative potential.
Intersectionality has fast become the new feminist buzzword that pops up everywhere: our social media feeds, in news and entertainment articles, and increasingly in policy documents and frameworks. ‘Intersectionality’ is the new ‘diversity and inclusion’, but we’re still failing to put these concepts into practice in a way that moves beyond ticking boxes.
This point clearly articulated in several panel discussions at this year’s All About Women festival, held at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday 5th March. These panels highlighted that rather than working in solidarity and embracing diverse perspectives, many women and others are still excluded from the feminist “clubhouse”. The All About Women festival itself has previously been criticised for offering limited representations of feminism and womanhood from a white and middle-class perspective, and this year’s line-up was an active attempt to improve representation and promote intersectionality.
The disability and intersectionality panel discussion brought together Kath Duncan, Samantha Connor and Katharine Annear, chaired by Van Badham. The panellists described various ways in which the mainstream feminist movement often side-lines disabled women. Connor described the “soft bigotry of low expectation”, which devalues the lives of disabled people and perpetuates disability-based discrimination and inequality. “We’re not expected to have jobs, we’re not expected to have relationships, we’re not expected to be at the pub”, said Connor. Connor also described another situation in which she had been told that “feminists are not [disability’s] footsoldiers”.
These attitudes were reflected in a story told by Annear about an international feminist conference at which she was a keynote speaker, and disability had been promoted as a specific theme. Upon arriving at her accommodation with her co-presenter, Annear found the facilities were completely inaccessible, a point that had been completely overlooked by the conference organisers. The presenters for the disability theme were then provided with a separate welcome event that effectively reinforced their difference from the rest of the conference, and this habit of exclusion continued throughout the event. In this way, disability was included in the conference in a way that ticked boxes. Annear and her colleagues’ inclusion did nothing to challenge the power and inequality that discriminate against disabled women, even within the feminist movement.
The discussion turned to empowerment and how to be a ‘good’ ally for disabled women. Annear rightfully stated that we cannot approach marginalised groups such as disabled women with the attitude of “I’m going to empower you”, as this maintains our position as power-holders, with the privilege of determining who can have power and when. Instead, able-bodied and able-minded feminists should be working to create an accessible movement in which disabled women are leading the charge to empower themselves. This includes moving away from the language of “helping”, knowing when to stand aside and breaking down the barriers to the feminist clubhouse.
The panel discussion on feminism and transgender experiences presented similar themes about the exclusivity of the feminist “clubhouse”. This panel brought together a transgender and genderqueer panel with CN Lester, Eddie Ayers, Jordan Raskopoulos and chaired by Sally Goldner. Lester quickly dismantled the idea of the exclusive feminist clubhouse, saying “we don’t need [feminism’s] permission to be doing this” because the work of trans and genderqueer activists is already deeply feminist in working to dismantle unequal, gendered power structures. For Lester, feminism is something for everyone coming from different perspectives and with different tools. They argued further that we can’t dismantle the patriarchy if we continue to use the patriarchy’s tools of hatred, exclusion and inequality.
Continuing with this idea of dismantling and rebuilding, Raskopoulos argued that feminism needs to build scaffolding that can be renovated by future generations as our ideas and values shift: scaffolding for an evolving, multi-feminism. To do this, we need to see what trans people and other marginalised groups can offer feminism – perspective and tools of inclusion – and see the power of difference for challenging the status quo. She also highlighted that those with privilege need to take responsibility for transforming inequalities. “I really want to press that if you have a privilege you should feel responsible about that. It’s not about feeling guilty, it’s about realising what you have that other people don’t and deciding whether that’s fair or not,” Raskopoulos said. “And if you decide that it’s not fair, then be responsible for making sure that other people have that or be responsible for dismantling the structures that are in place to give you that advantage.”
For me, these panels both highlighted that the feminist movement has a long way to go before we can claim to have put intersectionality into practice. But they also highlighted the tremendous strength and passion of different communities within the movement, and the importance of making sure we pass the mic so that voices like these can lead the discussions.
Because while intersectionality matters, what matters more is how we put that into practice.
Promote intersectional approaches that focus on understanding and challenging multiple forms of power and oppression. Co-create spaces for people from marginalised groups to lead on their own terms. Avoid potentially patronising language of “helping” and know when to stand aside. Take responsibility to educate yourself and don’t rely on the emotional labour of marginalised peoples. Build supportive relationships and avoid using shame to motivate change in attitudes. Remember it’s ok to make mistakes, but always prioritise respect for difference.
 Crenshaw, K. 1989. Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum. Vol. 1989, Article 8: 139; Crenshaw, K. 1991. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review. Vol. 43, No. 6: 1241. P. 1245. This article adopts an identity-first approach to terminology referring to disability and personhood, as preferred by the panel speakers.