Hadley Freeman, feminism and intersectionality

Cover of "Lean In" by Sheryl SandbergHadley Freeman on Sheryl Sandberg, feminism and intersectionality (from today’s Guardian)

The above is an article by Hadley Freeman, who is one of the Guardian’s fashion columnists who also writes increasingly about feminist issues in her other column, about the responses to a book by one Sheryl Sandberg, a former US Treasury chief of staff who has also worked at Google and now works at Facebook, titled “Lean In”, which she describes as a “sort-of feminist manifesto”. I haven’t heard of her before and haven’t seen or read the book, but what interests me is Hadley Freeman’s take on “intersectionality”, the notion that people may be disadvantaged in multiple or different ways rather than simply by virtue of their sex:

The tendency to dismiss a woman discussing feminism because of her background is not a new development. Intersectionality in feminism – which argues that any feminist theory that does not take into account the different levels of oppression experienced by minority groups, such as women of colour and gay women – has been around since the 1980s and is, to a large extent, beneficial. Second-wave feminism in its early incarnation was notoriously bad at looking beyond the white middle classes and clearly greater representation is a positive development. But there comes a point when a well-intentioned move for greater inclusivity becomes an excuse for bullying exclusivity and a way for women to shut one another up. When Donald Trump writes a book about how to get ahead in business – which ultimately is what Sandberg’s book is about, but with a female emphasis – men don’t write articles claiming he is being elitist (they might write articles claiming he is an idiot, but that is another story.) No, Trump is not attempting to speak for all men in his book but neither is Sandberg attempting to speak for all women.

This makes it sound as if intersectionality only applied to women who also have other sources of potential disadvantage, such as being disabled, from an ethnic or religious minority, or gay. In fact, it means that someone may be affected by one or other of these factors, and possibly be more disadvantaged than the average woman for whom race or disability is not an issue. Mainstream feminism has long been concerned with two particular issues — the economic advancement of women, and violence against women — and both of these are important, but if you turn up at the local feminist association to find them only talking about these things, and they meet in the basement of the local Costa so your disabled sister cannot attend, and therefore cannot discuss the barriers to her advancement … or maybe you’ll find that they don’t have much to say about the difficulty of finding suitable care or education for your disabled adult son or daughter (or you), or healthcare for your chronically ill son or daughter (or you) which doesn’t come with cruelty or assumptions of fakery, or about the discrimination your mixed-race son or daughter has suffered at school or their harassment by the police. In which case, the local feminist association might not have much to say that is relevant, even if you are a woman and even if you can get to the meetings.

A few months ago I responded to a ridiculous article by Cathy “Bug” Brennan, an American radical lesbian feminist, which reduced the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida to a matter of “male violence”. Never mind the fact that it was about race, and racial oppression and violence in western societies is something white women have a great deal of responsibility for, particularly in the USA (not the greater part, but still, a great deal). Her type of feminism only sees male oppression of women, and has very little to say about race or disability. This type of feminism does not seek the participation of men in any case, but is highly alienating not only to them and particularly male survivors of abuse, of which there are plenty (regardless of the sex of the abusers), but also to women whose family members are affected by these issues, whichever their sex. It has little relevance to straight women or those who have no intention of cutting men (or “Nigels”) out of their lives or blaming them for everything, or de-feminising themselves.

Applied to feminism, intersectionality makes it accessible and relevant to women outside the mainstream; it is not about competition about who is most oppressed or bragging rights for the stereotypical “blind, one-legged black lesbian” (and “female” doesn’t have to be in the list). But it doesn’t just affect feminism, but all social movements, whether they be about race, religion, disability, the rights and welfare of children or anything else. It’s about making sure everybody concerned is included and considered and minimising the likelihood of toe-treading or offence.

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