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.
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.