What is intersectional feminism?

Spoiler alert: feminists aren’t hairy man-haters.

I’m a feminist, sometimes I shave my body hair and some of my best friends are men. Crazy right? In this week’s lifestyle post, I am going be explaining everything about intersectional feminism: what it is, why it is important and where it comes from. I really latch onto the body hair example here, I promise this isn’t some weird obsession, but I will always remember when my Mum first spotted my armpit hair. We were on holiday in a restaurant and she screamed when I lifted my arm (partly because she thought it was a spider under there). When we got back to the hotel we shaved my armpits, and I continued doing this daily for a long time, no questions asked. Slightly different story for my brother though, when he first got his armpit hair, there was no screaming and there was no shaving. Anyway, enough about body hair (for now).

Let’s start with feminism – what is it? Feminism is about fighting for equality of the sexes, equal experience, equal opportunities. We live in a patriarchal system – essentially a society where men dominate over others. It is a system that puts us in boxes from the moment our sex is confirmed, often when we are still in the womb. So we experience sexism when we are not even born yet – madness, I know.

Let’s break this down with the body hair example. Women should be clean shaven and men should have body hair, right? If a woman doesn’t shave, she isn’t attractive or feminine enough for men. If a man doesn’t have body hair, he isn’t ‘manly’ enough. We are all put in boxes and can suffer at the hands of the system if our personal preference isn’t aligned to how we ‘should’ be, based on our sex. However, women are much more likely to be subjected to sexism and therefore male violence, especially if we don’t comply. This isn’t to say men don’t suffer too, but women experience greater oppression within a patriarchal society that is built for men. Feminism is about fighting this bullshit system. Essentially, regardless of your sex, if you have body hair then great, if you don’t then great. You do you.

This is *such* a simplistic view of the world, gender and feminism. There isn’t a patriarchy king who tells us all these rules when we are kids, but it is often our early experiences that teach us the ‘rules to live by’. We learn from family, friends, the media, school, etc. These ‘rules’ have somewhat changed as they have been passed down through generations – women can have a career now for example, but there is still an expectation to put this on hold at some point and have babies. Feminism is about challenging these rules and expectations, and providing equal opportunities so we can do what is best for us. We should be able to choose to be a stay at home Mum, a working Mum, or not a Mum at all, without discrimination.

Sexism and gender discrimination run deeper than this though, it is systemic, upheld by capitalism, law, and medicine to name a few. A lot of research that still informs modern medicine is based on male bodies. There has been an assumption that the female body mimics that of the male’s, but with a uterus. This is not the case. Feminism is about fighting for an equal system, and changing the current system. Many critics of feminism believe we want to overthrow the system and put women in charge. We don’t want this. We want modern medicine practiced by a diverse pool of people, informed by research on all bodies.

*Now is a great time to grab a tea break, this is heavy stuff.*

Now hopefully whilst you have been reading, you have come across some ‘what ifs’. What if someone isn’t white? What if someone’s gender isn’t aligned to the sex they were assigned at birth? What if someone isn’t heterosexual? What if someone is disabled? Won’t these people experience different kinds of oppression and their inequalities magnify the discrimination they experience? Yes, yes they would. This is where intersectionality comes in. Intersectionality enables us to move away from traditional feminism that was only centred around the experience of white people.

So you guessed it, back to the body hair again. This could be where it starts, but it might not be where it ends. A black woman who does not shave would not only be discriminated on the basis of her sex (because women should be clean shaven remember?), but also on the basis of race (because she is not white). A white woman who does not shave would still be marginalised, but this would only be on the basis of sex. A black man who does not shave would also be marginalised, but this would only be on the basis of race. Black women experience a different form of oppression. Intersectionality recognises that different inequalities/identities such as race and gender, interact together and compound when it comes to discrimination.

Factors at play include: sex, gender, race, culture, ethnicity, age, language, religion, sexuality, class, ability, immigration status, and weight. People’s experiences of discrimination are very unique which is why intersectional feminism is so important.

This feels an appropriate time for a note on sex and gender as I have listed them separately. This is because they are not the same thing. Sex is typically male or female, based on reproductive anatomy, however some people are in fact intersex when their anatomy does not fit the definitions of male or female. Gender on the other hand is a construct of the western world, traditionally man or woman. However, there are more than two genders, there are many and no, this is not a new concept. Gender is a label which people identify with, but it can mean different things to different people and is not related to our reproductive organs. If someone is cisgender, they identify with the gender closest related to the sex they were assigned at birth. Take me for example, my sex is female and I identify as a woman. Gender, much like sexuality, can change over time. Intersectional feminism recognises gender and sex separately and how they can interact when it comes to discrimination.

Where did the concept of intersectionality come from then? Not from issues relating to body hair I’m sure you will be relieved to know. The answer is Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black woman from Ohio who has studied race and civil rights for the past 30+ years. In 1989, she published her paper ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.’ She focussed on three court cases involving black women where discrimination law failed to acknowledge the discrimination experienced by black women – the courts saw them either as black or as women. Essentially, the law only recognised discrimination based on race or sex. Crenshaw used the term when arguing that sex and race both work together when it comes to discrimination.

From an academic background, the term intersectionality blew up and has now been expanded to explain a type of feminism that considers all identities that can influence someone’s social advantage/disadvantage.

Congratulations, you have made it to the end and have hopefully learnt something along the way! It has been a heavy post, but all very important stuff. Understanding intersectional feminism is not only important for general day-to-day life, but is particularly important for understanding me and my stance on things as you read my blog. I have and will experience unique forms of discrimination based on my identities, as will you. I truly believe in and advocate for a fairer future for everyone and I hope you do too. Now go make yourself a cuppa, have a lie down and stop thinking about body hair for a while.

Thank you for reading!! Please do comment or message me on socials (links at bottom) with any suggestions, comments, or questions. Remember, sharing is caring – if you liked what you read please do share it on social media and with friends.


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