Monday, June 09, 2008

Feminist "Intersectionality"

Looking to the Future, Feminism Has to Focus -

[F]aced with criticism that the movement was too white and middle-class, many influential feminist thinkers conceded that issues affecting mostly white middle-class women -- such as the corporate glass ceiling or the high cost of day care -- should not significantly concern the feminist movement. Particularly in academic circles, only issues that invoked the "intersectionality" of many overlapping oppressions were deemed worthy. Moreover, that concern must include the whole weight of those oppressions. In other words, since racism hurts black women, feminists must fight not only racist misogyny but racism in any form; not only rape as an instrument of war, but war itself. The National Organization for Women (NOW) eventually amended its mission statement to include interrelated oppressions.

Although other organizations work on women's issues when appropriate, none of the other social movements were much interested in making intersectionality their mission. The nation's oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, which co-sponsored the 2004 march in alliance with women's groups, says nothing about feminism or homophobia or intersectionality in its mission statement. The largest Hispanic rights organization, National Council of La Raza, unembarrassedly proclaims that it "works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans."

Why did feminists get caught up in "intersectionality"? I suspect was a consequence of the ingrained idea that women have a special obligation to be altruistic, to "do for" others, which historically lumbered activist women with a broad "maternalist" agenda. From the Temperance Movement to Moms for Peace, women acting in the public sphere played the "civilizing" role that they were supposed to play in the home. This was justification for leaving the home to engage in political action. "See, we're not neglecting our domestic responsibilities--we're doing our womanly duty on a grand scale. We're not just taking care of our own children--we're working to take care of all children and, by extension, the poor, the oppressed and all people who can't take care of themselves. We're not just concerned with harmony in the home: we're concerned with peace in the world and with the creation of a kinder, gentler society."

When women campaigned for women's rights as such they were slapped down.
In 1964, when Ruby Doris Smith Robinson presented an indignant assault on the treatment of women civil rights workers in a paper entitled "The Position of Women in SNCC," to a SNCC staff meeting. Stokely Carmichael reputedly responded, "The only position for women in SNCC is prone."

Things improved over the years but there was still sense that feminists who focused exclusively on issues that benefited women were frivolous and selfish: frivolous because white, middle class women, the chief beneficiaries of feminist activism, weren't as badly off as racial minorities, the poor or other disadvantaged groups and selfish because women were not supposed to focus on their own problems--they were supposed to do for others. Women who suggested that they were unfairly disadvantaged and that this should be fixed were cast as whiners and complainers, or embittered man-haters--unless of course they could show that their feminism was "really" a larger agenda that promoted peace in the world and solidarity with all the oppressed.

Unlike the NAACP and other civil rights organizations that promoted the interests of ethnic minorities, NOW and other feminist organizations were pressed to prove their legitimacy by making the case their mission was to combat all "
interrelated oppressions." No one chided civil rights activists for being "selfish" if they concerned themselves with advancing the interests of ethnic minorities: the NAACP was, after all, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. That was the job they did. And that certainly wasn't to say that they wouldn't cooperate with other organizations in mutually beneficial projects or that members weren't concerned with other social problems. No one suggested that with the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s and the progress black Americans made since then the civil rights movement was passé or that the NAACP should concern itself with the plight of starving people around the world who were much worse off. The NAACP was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People--it was not a foreign aid organization.

Feminists by contrast were pressed to prove that they weren't fighting some battle of the sexes for their own selfish ends (women were not supposed to be selfish) and once "intersectionality" became the official theology it was futile to kick against the goads. As the author notes, this was certainly true in "academic circles." I've been there. And it is very difficult to have a discussion of the disadvantages women still face or how to fix things without having it veer off into a discussion of various other social injustices and a rousing call for the Solidarity of the Oppressed.

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