What Is Intersectional Feminism (and How Is It Different from Regular Feminism)?

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Over the past few years, you’ve probably heard the term intersectional feminism. But isn’t that just feminism, you might ask? Nope, not quite. Here’s everything you need to know—including how to make your own feminism more intersectional.

What is intersectional feminism?

Though early Black feminists (many of whom were members of the LGBTQ+ community) practiced intersectional feminism, the term was coined by lawyer, activist and critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, when she published a paper in the University of Chicago Legal Forum titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” As Crenshaw defined it, intersectional feminism is the understanding of how women's overlapping identities—including race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion, age and immigration status—impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination. The idea is that all women experience the world differently, so a feminism that’s centered on one type of woman and ignores the interconnecting and often overlapping systems of oppression is exclusive and incomplete.

For example, while a white heterosexual woman might experience discrimination based on her gender, a Black lesbian might experience discrimination based on her gender, race and sexual orientation. Those attuned to feminist activism were aware of Crenshaw’s theory, but it didn’t really go mainstream until a few years ago, when it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 and gaining even more widespread attention in the midst of the 2017 Women’s March—namely how the march missed the mark when it came to inclusive intersectionality.

How is it different from regular feminism?

Mainstream 20th-century American feminism, for all the good it did, was incomplete, as it was based on the cultural and historical experiences of middle- and upper-class heterosexual white women. Issues surrounding race, class, sexuality, ableism and immigration were (and still are) ignored. Note that there are still people who favor the old fashioned and exclusionary feminism of the aughts, including author J.K. Rowling, whose brand of transphobic feminism has recently—and rightfully—come under fire.

What can you do to make your own feminism more intersectional?

1. Educate yourself (and don’t stop learning)

Becoming aware of—and shedding—your biases takes work, and a good place for that work to start is with learning and listening to folks who have lived different experiences. Read books about intersectional feminism (including Crenshaw’s On Intersectionality, Angela Y. Davis’s Women, Race, & Class and Molly Smith and Juno Mac’s Revolting Prostitutes); follow accounts on Instagram that talk about intersectionality (like trans activist Raquel Willis, writer, organizer and editor Mahogany L. Browne, author Layla F. Saad and author and activist Blair Imani); and make sure that all of the media you’re consuming is coming from different sources and voices. Also know that this isn’t a read-one-book-and-you’re-done situation. When it comes to becoming an intersectional feminist—as with being anti-racist—the work is never done; it’s a lifelong, ongoing process.

2. Acknowledge your privilege…then use it

As with any type of unlearning and relearning, acknowledging your privilege is a necessary first step. Be aware, though, that white privilege is not the only type of privilege that can skew your feminism—able-bodied privilege, class privilege, cisgender privilege, thin privilege and more also exist.

Once you’ve acknowledged your privilege, do not stop. It’s not enough just to say that you’ve benefitted from white supremacy, heteronormativity and other discriminatory systems. To make your feminism truly intersectional, you have to actively work to use your privilege to dismantle these systems and share your power with others.

If you’re in a position to donate money, do so. As writer and diversity consultant Mikki Kendall recently told us, “Donate to mutual aid funds, bail projects, any place where that cash could affect meaningful change for communities that may have less than yours. You have power and privilege on your side, even if it seems like you don't have enough to change the world. We can do anything if we work together.”

Take inventory of your workplace and note where you can take some actions—big and small—to promote an anti-racist environment, whether that’s getting introspective about your own actions or learning how you can report illegal discrimination.

One important thing to note is that we shouldn’t confound sharing power and using privilege with centering white cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) voices. If you’re a white woman, make sure you’re listening more than you’re speaking, and learn from any criticisms you receive—otherwise, you might be guilty of whitesplaining.

3. Use your purchasing power for good

Did you know that just four Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, and none of them are Black women? Or that this year, though there was a record number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500, there were still only 37 (and only three of the 37 are women of color)? White cisgender males continue to have an enormous amount of control over businesses, and while it might not seem like your day-to-day choices can be a catalyst for change, they can. Before spending your money willy-nilly, really think about where that money is going and who it’s supporting. On a macro level, consider investing in companies owned by women of color or donating to organizations helping young girls of color succeed in business. On a micro level, seek out businesses owned by folks whose barriers to entry are unreasonably high. (Here are some Black-owned brands, Indigenous-owned brands and queer-owned brands we love.) Every dollar and every choice matters.

sarah stiefvater
Sarah Stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...
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