Feminist Roots: How Intersectionality Shaped My Perspective

When considering the history of feminist thought, I instinctively picture Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton gathered at the first Seneca Falls Convention to organize for women’s suffrage. Though this was one of the first images of a feminist to which I was exposed, I have recently found that it isn’t the picture of feminism with which I first connected. Even though I vehemently agreed that the oppression of women was destructive and important to pay attention to, this early representation of the feminist movement wasn’t enough to make me identify as a member of the movement: I couldn’t find it in myself to call myself a feminist.

My journey to the “other f-word” truly began once I recognized the concept of intersectionality. Though I had understood and agreed with the fight against women’s continued oppression, it didn’t spark a fire in my gut until I learned that feminism wasn’t just about women’s struggle, but about the various identities that each shape the way we are perceived and treated in society, especially when viewed in conjunction with one another. When discussing feminism with a friend of mine, we both discovered that we found our way to our feminist identities through the fight against homophobia. In trying to understand and address the issues that were facing us as queer people, we found that our identities and the way we were treated because of those identities was dependent not only on our sexual orientation, but on our gender as well.

Street sign with intersectional identity labels
Feminism isn’t just about gender.

This idea, though new to us, was not new to the feminist community. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality in her study of the way that various identities shape the way that each person is treated in society, and that these identities cannot exist separately from one another: each of us truly is the sum of our parts. In 1989, Crenshaw wrote “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” in which she explains that looking at feminism only through the lens of gender allows for the study of only the socially dominant group: white women. In the essay, Crenshaw goes on to explain how racism and sexism often act concurrently on women of color, and that antiracist or feminist approaches to issues that only recognized one aspect of a person’s oppression were incomplete, and would therefore be ultimately ineffective. To combat oppression, Crenshaw taught us, we have to understand all of the ways in which a person is oppressed, and how each identity affects the others.

Because Kimberlé Crenshaw identified a need for a more inclusive view of feminism, I was able to use feminist thought as a resource and a lifeline during my struggle with coming out. However, even more than that, her influence has helped me to better understand the oppression of other people whose gender identity, race, sexual orientation, class status, and disability status I don’t share. Not only has feminism provided me with a tool to identify and fight against my own oppression, but it has sparked my desire to better understand the identities and the struggles of other people fighting a different side of the same battle. For that, and for the lessons I have yet to learn, I am thankful for the feminist roots in my life.

5 thoughts on “Feminist Roots: How Intersectionality Shaped My Perspective

  1. Thanks for sharing how intersectionality opened up feminism to you. I identify with this experience in that I was a reluctant feminist for a number of years because I was uncertain about how inclusive or exclusive it was. To me, what I love about intersectionality is that it acknowledges the complexity of our modern life experience and the nuance of identity. We are all made up of many social identities and understanding how feminism can speak to empowerment of the whole person is really inspiring.

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    1. I agree- especially in Western culture where individual identity is so important, intersectionality is necessary to understand any and all oppression. It’s a bonus that intersectionality also makes feminism more accessible to all!

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  2. I really liked that you mention that although you respect the work of feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they weren’t the reason that you began to identify as a feminist. The work of these women was monumental; however, more contemporary feminist thought is what is needed to appeal to new generations and keep feminism alive. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and appreciate what these women have done. It’s much harder to identify and agree upon current issues and inequalities. Yet, getting people fired up about these issues is the only way to ensure that the fight for equality continues. The more that peopleget exposed to this work, the better.

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    1. Thank you! I think you’re right, and that even though the founding principles of First- and Second-Wave feminism are still important and relevant, they are also incomplete and tired. I like your idea of using new perspectives as a strategy to get ourselves and others “fired up,” because even if we notice something wrong, it can be difficult to gather the momentum necessary to enact change if it’s not somehow inspiring or exciting.

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