TW: Discussions of Ableism
Intersectionality may sound like a complicated word and coupling it with the term feminism may make it seem doubly repelling for some, but it’s actually really simple and relevant for everyone. It is modern feminism, which, by definition, is the advocation of gender equality. Plain and simple. But what does intersectionality really mean?
The concept is straightforward and universal. Each person has their own experiences and social identities that directly link to the way they experience discrimination. These factors include gender, ethnicity, financial stability, physical ability, employment, sexual orientation, and class. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term 'intersectionality' in 1989 but it was only added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2015. She described intersectional feminism as, “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other,” showing how social identities combine and contribute to specific experiences of discrimination.
The way these identities overlap within specific social contexts directly affects the level of oppression experienced by every individual. This can be illustrated through a Venn Diagram - picture two overlapping circles, one represents a particular gender, let’s say cis-women, and the other represents middle-class people, the section where they overlap would be middle-class cis-women. Now imagine the many other potential sub-groups within this one category such as sexual orientation breaking the group down into, for example, homosexual, middle-class cis-women, pansexual middle-class cis-women, and so on. There will be particular social images and treatments for each sub-group. This will differ related to their social environment and historical context, affecting how they experience discrimination.
This then singlehandedly both complicates and simplifies the campaigns for equality. It is impossible to identify a singular group that is disadvantaged in the same way to allow for an obvious universal solution to remedy this. But, at the same time, it can make these campaigns simple in that they just have to be equal for everyone, regardless of everything else. Utilising an intersectional lens is vital to building a cohesive framework for inclusive campaigns that can address these overlapping forms of discrimination. Understanding and utilising this is critical today as global crises, such as Covid-19, unfold in an increasingly interconnected world. This gives us the opportunity to uncover connections and deconstruct the roots of discrimination to create a new normal. The nature of crises exposes and highlights existing inequalities embedded in decades of discriminatory practices. They are brought to the forefront of public scrutiny increasing the likelihood of definitive change. This gives us the power to redefine normality.
In honour of Disability Pride Month, it is important to recognise that intersectional feminism is fundamental to preventing people with disabilities from being left out of the conversation. This is a social identity that can intersect with others, as described above, that results in each person experiencing discrimination and its negative consequences differently. Though the feminist movement as a whole is dynamic, it has historically had a tendency to focus on issues as single entities, as opposed to how they interlock within society. For example, the Suffragettes, although fundamental for the advance of women’s rights in the UK, fought predominantly for middle- and upper-class women. Once classism was less instrumental it took even longer for the rights of those in racialised communities to be counted alongside their white counterparts.
The wider feminist movement has been criticised for excluding people with disabilities. People with disabilities are subjected to discrimination globally, .and representation within these movements allows for the stereotypes to be deconstructed. One of the aims of feminism is to counteract the objectification of women in society. Both non-disabled and disabled women are objectified but in entirely separate ways. While non-disabled women are reduced to sexual objects existing to please men, women with disabilities are considered to be 'lesser', 'require fixing', and ultimately are 'defined [solely] by their disability'.
This is clearly presented in the media, film and TV. Disability is associated with ‘bad’ characters explicitly, through depictions such as Peter Pan's 'Captain Hook', or implicitly by having no representation at all. These are blatant distancing tactics to keep people with disabilities separate from non-disabled people. Furthermore, society tells women they will only be accepted if they meet a specific beauty standard which is difficult for most non-disabled women but may be entirely unattainable for some disabled women. Realistic depictions of women are slowly gaining ground, but disabled women need to be included for this to be relevant to all and inherently feminist. Feminism focuses on the reassessment of the social construct of identity, to achieve equality, the fundamental aim of feminism, the social construct associated with disabled people also must be tackled.
Now, this legacy of negative social identity associated with disabled people may remain in certain sectors of society, but intersectionality aims to remove it from feminist ideology. Being an intersectional feminist ensures that all forms of oppression are being eradicated and everyone’s rights are being fought for: Feminism is not choosing who deserves rights and who does not, that’s what the patriarchy is for, and we’re done with that. Having the ability to choose who to fight for is just an extension of privilege. The issue of achieving equality is everyone’s problem. To put it simply if you identify as a feminist, you are an intersectional feminist, you leave no one behind in your fight for equality, or you are not a feminist at all.
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Cover Art courtesy of Karolina Jonc Buczek (@jajonc on IG)
In-Article Artwork courtesy of Ebrul (@ebrulillustrates on IG)
Madeline Trudgian (She/Her)
Politics and international relations student at the University of Nottingham, intersectional feminist and blog writer for Our Streets Now. Passionate about women's education globally as a powerful tool to dismantle the patriarchy.