So, with my week off of Feminism Friday (which happened to coincide with Feminism Friday's 3 month birthday!), I have a couple of ideas for posts welling up inside my head. So, I have enough fodder for a couple of posts now! Today, I'm writing about a theory of identity that pops up frequently in philosophical discussion, and in particular, is a criticism of first-wave feminism, namely, intersectionality.Until about the 1960s, feminism was predominantly a white woman's theory. (this time period is referred to as first-wave feminism.) Not only a white woman's theory, but a white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual, christian woman's theory. Basically, feminism benefitted the wives of men who had the most social and economic power in society. During the 1960s, a second wave of feminism began to emerge, which identified the problems with a theory for "women as a group" when "women as a group" was a fractured and heterogenous collective. (Second-wave feminism also focussed strongly on socio-economic and legal equality for women.) It turns out that not all women have the same experience, thus making it impossible to universalize the experiences of women under one group title "woman". This criticism was largely levelled against feminism by black feminists, such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Barbara Smith, but also included criticisms from lesbian feminists and feminists from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, such as Dorothy Allison and Minnie Bruce Pratt.
These women argued that the picture of women that feminism had painted was incomplete and racist, classist, able-ist, and heterosexist/homophobic. Instead, they presented a picture of identity that involved many factors, including race, sexual orientation, disability, and economic status as well as gender. Kimberle Crenshaw makes a great analogy of identity as the intersection of so many streets: each street is a part of one's identity, so in my case, my streets would be white, female, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied, and so on, and my identity is the point where all those streets intersect. So, if I should be involved in an accident at my intersection (be subjected to oppression or prejudice), the source could come from any of several directions, and the severity of the accident (or prejudice) could be compounded by any number of factors because of the traffic coming through my intersection. Hence, this theory of identity is often referred to as Intersectionality. For myself, my privilege is apparent. But for a black female lesbian of poor economic status, the collision is far more serious. Crenshaw also uses an analogy she calls the "Basement Analogy". Imagine a room in which the most well-off members of society reside. Below is is a basement, filled with all the people whose identity prevents them from being able to access the room. There is a trap-door in the floor of the room, and the people in the basement are scrambling for access. Those on top, or most likely to be granted access to the room, are those who only have one factor of their identity working against them: white women, disabled white men, non-white men, white non-christian men, white poor men, and so on. These people are standing on the shoulders of those who have two factors against them: black women, gay non-white men, poor white women, disabled women, etc. And so on, and so on. These analogies, while perhaps not perfect, provide a great visual, yes?
Audre Lorde wrote beautifully about how she was often asked to speak for all black women when she was invited to speak at feminist events, but to leave out speaking about her experiences as a lesbian, or as being part of an interracial couple, or as an economically disadvantaged single mother. She refused to do so, saying, "My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restriction of externally imposed definition." This is one of my favourite quotes.
Because we are not just one thing, but a compilation of many facets that make up a whole person, it is next to impossible to talk about women as if we are a homogenous group. I talk a lot about women here, and I am a feminist who believes that women get a raw deal and deserve equality, but I also acknowledge that women are a variegated group and include all sorts of different identities, and if women are to be equal in society, we must also eliminate racism, classism, able-ism, heterosexism, ageism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of discrimination. It does no good for women to achieve equality when black women and disabled women and lesbian women and others are still discriminated against. As a feminist, I am also committed to ending other forms of discrimination and injustice and oppression. I've used this quote before, but I'll use it again here: "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own." (Audre Lorde)
The theory of intersectionality is a theory of knowledge, or an epistemology. It is related to the "Situated Knower" theory of identity and knowledge, which holds that it is impossible to shed one's own contextual reality. This argument is often used in moral theory, and stands in contrast to Thomas Nagel's argument that it is possible to stand back and assume a "God's eye view", or a View From Nowhere when it comes to making moral judgments. As brilliant as Nagel is, I have to side with the Situated Knower and the Intersectionality arguments. Not only is it impossible to shed one's contextual reality, it should not be asked of a person to do so. (Stay tuned for a feminist critique of ethical theory!)
More recently, in the 1990s, a third wave of feminism emerged, which focusses on redefining sexuality and gender, but also includes post-colonial discourse, queer theory, critical theory (including critical race theory), Marxist and socialist discourse, transnationalism, ecofeminism, and post-modern discourse about embodiment. This is a diverse and interesting body of work and theory, and I'm excited to find out where it will go from here.
Kimberele Crenshaw, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex", Living With Contradictions: Controversies in Feminist Social Ethics. (Ed. Allison Jaggar) (C) 1994, San Fransisco: Westview Press Inc. 39-52.
Audre Lorde, "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference" and "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism", Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. (C) 1984, Berkeley: Crossing Press. 114-133.
Thomas Nagel, "The View From Nowhere", Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition (Ed. Louis Pojman) (C) 2002, Belmont: Wadsworth Group, Thomson Learning Inc. 141-150.