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On intersectional feminism: Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.

2012 November 12

I wrote a quick and exasperated post recently on what I perceived to be a reductive, stereotyping and patronising use of the term ‘working-class’ cropping up in a lot of otherwise well-meaning writing. I was initially inspired by the editors of Vagenda Magazine’s defence of Caitlin Moran, but the surrounding debate and its systemic problems are bigger than both of these. Despite retaining their article as a jumping-off point, therefore, I’m less interested in the specifics of Vagenda themselves than in giving a more considered explanation of some of the reasons behind my annoyance with the idea that intersectional feminism and ‘comprehensible’, ‘accessible’ feminism are somehow incompatible.

One reason behind how badly the Vagenda article was received was, I think, the authors’ attempt to address a relatively specific issue (‘Leave Caitlin alone, she’s working-class and hardly anyone else in the UK media is!’ – as if that isn’t in itself a whacking great elephant in the room, on which more later), and to address it in the more or less specific context of the kind of feminism they’d seen and experienced in the UK, without recognising that, well, feminism is really fucking big.

As explained in this post, ‘feminism’, even just within the UK, is not and never has been exclusively ‘a white, middle class movement’. The history, theory and practice of feminism is diverse, multiracial, international, and takes in issues of class, age and sexuality among others. Throughout feminism’s development there have been, as noted here, tension, discussion and conflict within the movement over how this diversity is represented, and, as noted here in 2008, there continue to be.

The concept of intersectionality is, in part, a way of helping to articulate this diversity. This was the very term Vagenda identified, oddly, as an example of unhelpfully academic language, when in fact, as the vast majority of responses to their article have pointed out, it’s one that’s relatively simple to explain by reference to lived experience. It’s also a term whose practical relevance is easily proved; in the immediate fall-out from Caitlin Moran’s failure to question Lena Dunham on the racial diversity of Girls, her fellow journalist Bim Adewunmi did a comprehensive and accessible job of clarifying why this mattered, both explaining intersectionality and making a positive case for it:

I am a woman, a black woman born in London to Nigerian parents, a Muslim woman (who does not wear a hijab or veil). I am educated and self-employed but relatively low-earning. These things, as standalones or collectively, define how I see the world. One often bleeds into the other so comprehensively, they seem almost interchangeable. This is, in its most basic form, what we call intersectionality: the idea that we wear a lot of caps, and often in challenging one wrong, we are challenging many. In reading that Moran tweet, my first thought was: “I cannot afford to take off my ‘race cap’ and focus just on the plain ol’ sexism that plagues the television industry; and nor do I want to.” – Source

Intersectionality allows the integration of systems of oppression – patriarchy, capitalism, racism, among others – to be identified, analysed, and challenged, and it provides a means of transcending and critiquing single-issue politics. The theory may be obscure, the practice surely is not.

There is an identifiable, and to some extent understandable, urge within some pop-feminist platforms to crusade against a feminism which they describe as too theoretical, remote and academic to gain mass appeal. The idea of a divide between academic and populist ways of promoting progressive politics is not unique to feminism; a similar debate periodically engulfs much of the left. How can ‘ordinary women’, or indeed ‘ordinary people’, be appealed to in language which will resonate with their everyday concerns and not alienate them by using words of more than two syllables?

But the first half of that question doesn’t automatically imply the second. Being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid. It doesn’t mean not having been to university either. Politics predicated on the assertion of an academic/middle-class versus populist/working-class divide are, at best, disingenuous, presenting as mutually exclusive what is surely more a question of priorities.

There is a difference between wishing to focus on ‘ordinary’, material concerns – the gradual erosion of living and working standards under the present government; closures and funding cuts to women’s refuges and childcare services; the removal of housing, child, and disability benefits – and assuming that the people affected by these concerns cannot recognise, analyse and talk about them for themselves, in language which can be sophisticated as well as rudimentary.

Too often, in debates within feminism – often valid and necessary debates – over how best to engage ‘ordinary women’, these women are implicitly othered, there to be appealed to and won over by more enlightened middle-class feminists rather than considered capable of engaging in the debate on their own terms and by themselves.

In such narratives, liberal commentators often employ presumptious ideas of what ‘a working-class girl’ might think of feminism, without having any meaningful direct experience of this on which to draw. Back in March, by contrast, the Camden New Journal writer Pavan Amara produced an excellent piece for The F-Word in which she interviewed a variety of working-class women and recorded their opinions and attitudes towards feminism. Her conclusion – that working-class women face preoccupying problems of poverty and inequality, and frequently regard mainstream feminism as remote and irrelevant – is the same kind of thing that Vagenda’s post was trying to get at, but far more plausibly expressed and empirically grounded. My problem lies not with that argument itself, but with the patronising ideas about class which seem to inform so many presentations of the argument.

It’s particularly galling to see an assertion with which I agree – that class is an aspect of identity too often left out of debate – being used in ways which can actually shore up negative assumptions about class. From Vagenda’s article:

Going into certain state comps and discussing the nuances of intersectionality isn’t going to have much dice if some of the teenage girls in the audience are pregnant, or hungry, or at risk of abuse (what are they going to do? Protect or feed themselves with theory? Women cannot dine on Greer alone.) “This woman does not represent me”, they will think of their well-meaning lecturer, because how can she, with her private education and her alienating terminology and her privilege, how can she know how poverty gnaws away at your insides and suppresses your voice? How would she know how that feels?

(I assume there’s been an unintended elision between secondary and university education made there, since in my state comprehensive we had teachers, not lecturers, and I’d be frankly astounded if any of them had been privately educated – they’d been educated, yes, but by the state, exactly as I was being. ‘State-educated’ shouldn’t be used as a synonym for ‘stupid’ either.)

Generalisations like this are often in danger of buying into narratives which see working-class parents, schools and communities as unable to impart education or instil political consciousness in the same way as their middle-class counterparts, and which present working-class girls as the helpless inhabitants of some kind of neo-Victorian netherworld, a perspective which is, again, less helpful than it clearly wishes to be.

What this perspective also neglects is that Women’s Studies, at least in the UK, was rooted to a large extent in attempts by women of generally less privileged backgrounds to question and critique the privileges of existing academia and to draw attention to neglected perspectives and experiences, including those marginalised by virtue of class, race, age and sexuality. That feminism in academia is now considered middle-class and irrelevant perhaps says more about the squeezing out of attention to and discussion of class-based analysis within it; the erosion of empowering traditions of adult education and of self-education through libraries and community colleges; and the pricing out at postgraduate and increasingly at undergraduate level of poorer students, than anything about education’s intrinsic appeal to and suitability for anyone outside the bourgeoisie.

The unhelpful aspects of these well-intentioned arguments are compounded by the fact that those who find themselves in the position to make them to a mass audience are hardly ever working-class themselves. The restriction of access to politics, media, arts and entertainment to those with the parental support or independent wealth to get them through unpaid internships, or maintain them in precarious freelance work, is referenced increasingly often as it becomes more glaringly apparent, but hardly ever with a view to how the situation might be changed. Caitlin Moran is frequently held up as a representative of The Real World on the grounds that she had it tough once upon a time, as though her current individual high profile makes up for the fact that there is hardly any mainstream media or political platform for those who continue to have it tough right now. To their credit, it’s not as if Vagenda don’t recognise this:

What feminism needs is more voices – a whole chorus of them. By all means, we can criticise those already at the top, but we should be combining that with a real desire to listen to women from all walks of life and their experiences: to actively seek them out, rather than waiting for the lucky few to claw their way into our ranks. Giving them jobs on newspapers so that they can write movingly and persuasively about the inequalities they suffer.

But what should also be recognised is that an intersectional perspective is vital in facilitating these developments, and that intersectionality affects the very focus on ‘ordinary’ concerns which these arguments advocate. The political climate since the banking crisis of 2008, and the imposition of economic austerity, has only sharpened the need to prioritise issues of material inequality and financial stability – especially for women. Much of the burden of analysing and opposing the impact on women of rising unemployment and the erosion of the welfare state is being shouldered by women whose identities mean they are under attack from several intersecting angles: as low earners, as mothers, as women of colour – very often, all three. Here for instance is Ava Vidal interrogating the myth of reliance on benefits as a ‘lifestyle option’ (and doing so, incidentally, in highly accessible language):

The promotion of a multiplicity of voices within feminism is surely better done in ways which challenge alienating ideas of what ‘feminism’ is, rather than in ways which risk entrenching these ideas by presenting feminism as an intrinsically white-normative and middle-class-normative movement which should benevolently open its gates to ‘others’.1 I believe that a lot of working-class awareness of disadvantage and oppression is already informed by what we may as well call a feminist impulse, even if the women in question wouldn’t necessarily call themselves feminists.

Equally, while there’s nothing wrong in seeking to engage ‘ordinary’ women in feminism through using ‘accessible, populist’ language, it’s also not too much to ask for this language to be conscious and sensitive, free of condescension and stereotyping, and seeking to be inclusive through attention to race, ability, age and sexuality as well as class. The problems of the ‘ordinary’ working class are inherently intersectional: material inequality is intersected by racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism, all experienced as real and immediate issues rather than matters of abstract theory. It’s just that this generally takes place outside a media and political mainstream which is increasingly the preserve of a homogenous and insular elite. Liberal condescension which pays lip service to issues of race and class is less meaningful than attempts to address the many failings in cultural and political representation which make it increasingly difficult for non-privileged voices to be engaged with on their own terms.

  1. Ed’s Tiny Note: I think it should be noted that Team BadRep, who are (among other things) predominantly white, wouldn’t seek to claim that we always avoid falling into this trap in everything we do – almost certainly we don’t. But it’s important to try. []
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Nancy permalink
    November 12, 2012

    Thanks Rhian, v well said!

    I was talking to someone who works in a community theatre environment just last week, and we were discussing the various government and charity initiatives that encourage young people (at whatever level) to get into arts-based jobs. I argued that it’s massively disingenuous to suggest hard work and one little boost through a sponsored post (even if it’s a year long) can solve the distinct lack of disparate voices in those roles. As you point out, those unpaid internships are of no material value to those whose parents can’t afford to support them for the years required to establish themselves in these fields.

    I’d love for you to expound on what you think is a less harmful tactic, under the circumstances. Though I welcome diverse faces and voices in these arenas, I’m deeply uncomfortable at the individual cost of giving false hope.

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