Intersectionality as conceptual model, critique of feminist histories

29 November 2012

Women’s Studies 300: Feminist Reconceptualizations

The central key to more inclusive conceptualizations of the history of feminist movements is an intersectional approach that analyzes power through different dimensions, including race, class, gender and sexuality. A wave model that surges and recedes cannot account for multiple and overlapping movements, chronologies and sites, but intersectionality, by definition, embraces multiple overlapping dimensions of oppression and privilege as an analytical shift from “dichotomous, binary thinking about power” (Perry 237). Defined by flexibility in “how patterns of subordination intersect in women’s lives” and how “subordinated groups [pursue] conflicting agendas,” intersectionality incorporates and confronts diverse feminist standpoints in lived experiences and academies (Fitts 249). It is for this reason that the collective of The Intersectional Approach does not presuppose any single one-size-fits-all framework will account for all of these ambiguous perspectives in re-conceptualizing the history of feminism that has traditionally been popularized as the one-dimensional wave model that has hierarchically muted the contributions of poor women and women of color. The collective argues that historical narratives should be adaptive, nonlinear and dynamic in much the same myriad of ways that an intersectional approach can be applied on structural and individual levels.

Featuring articles that challenge dominant conceptualizations of women’s rights and feminist movements in the United States, Nancy Hewitt expands the chronology and provides a broader definition of politics than that which is allowed by the dominant narrative of Seneca Falls-to-suffrage by calling the Seneca Falls Convention a “single thread in a variegated tapestry” (32). Hewitt writes that “no single trajectory or chronology” can capture “multifaceted developments” (32). The Intersectional Approach collective of feminist scholars is inclined to agree with such an assertion. An expansive definition of feminism like that outlined by Combahee member Barbara Smith is more central to reimagining the relationships between intersectional identities and feminism than a generational conception of waves or extended chronology that simply appends the dominant narrative to account for the previously neglected contributions of women of color.

“Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as poster2white economically privileged heterosexual women,” writes Smith, according to Becky Thompson’s article. “Anything less than that is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement” (43).

Thompson aims to recast dominant histories by centering the experiences of women involved in multiracial feminism. Scholars Maxine Baca Zinn and Bonnie Thornton Dill maintain that multiracial feminism “highlights the relational nature of dominance and subordination,” thereby demonstrating that “women’s differences are connected in systematic ways” (Russo 311). Dill’s “Race, Class and Gender: Prospects for an All-Inclusive Sisterhood” provides insight for understanding how The Intersectional Approach collective might conceive multiracial feminism and dominant historical narratives. “Analytically, we must carefully examine the structures that differentiate us; politically we must fight the segmentation of oppression into categories such as ‘racial issues,’ ‘feminist issues’ and ‘class issues’” (Dill 148). For Dill, feminist sisterhood should come from seeking to understand struggles shaped by forces deeply rooted in histories of oppression and exploitation, struggles determined by that which is not “one’s own immediate personal priorities” (148).

A sisterhood determined solely by the politics of personal experience threatens combined political action (Dill 146). As Thompson explains, “if the only issues that feminists deem political are those they have experienced personally, their frame of reference is destined to be narrowly defined by their own lived experience” (51).

19b02675-0512-4676-a726-3288bb3084a8To develop tools for using human difference as a “springboard” to create change, feminists must acknowledge differences because “refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us as women” (Lorde 240-1). Differential oppositional ideology-praxis allows for a “tactical subjectivity” wherein multiple oppressions can be confronted by shifting modes of consciousness as different forms of oppression are experienced (Garrison 384). When feminism is focused on an ability to be revolutionary from within worlds and communities of which we are a part, then collective action becomes possible across the differences that affect people differently (Garrison 394-5). Because differences enrich socio-political action, a pluralistic and intersectional approach that recognizes and accepts differences between women is necessary to re-conceptualizing feminist histories, but it requires coalition-building around issues of shared interest to better understand one another’s needs (Dill 146).

Coming together and working together is not natural or easy, but looking for difference and seeking sites of commonality are essential to feminist projects (Garrison 386). Coalitions are volatile and unstable, but the only reason for teaming up with someone who could “possibly kill you is because that’s the only way you can figure to stay alive” (Peoples 422). This essay represents my entering into coalition with The Intersectional Approach collective to better understand some of the different ways the collective as an expression of oppositional consciousness would interpret or re-conceptualize feminist histories by making intersectionality the focal point (Garrison 387).

Coalitions and collectives should seek an intersectional approach to emphasize accountability across difference, rather than using it to look for superficial sameness between women. Examining the differences in understandings of beauty using the lens of intersectionality highlights a way of thinking about dominant group experiences as contextually specific, rather than universal or normal, while acknowledging how a beautiful body is defined is relative and interdependent among different groups (Cole & Sabik 173-92).  Ms. Magazine’s attention to women’s “sameness” allowed the magazine to gloss over contradictions of sisterhood and liberal individuality and Bust fashioned a feminist culture diverse in lifestyle choices but “only for those who could buy it.” Although Bitch was criticized for its lack of reflecting racial diversity, it provided more space for queer politics and class privilege than Bust. Bust and Bitch aspired to better reflect the “hybridity of women’s experience” than Ms., but Bitch’s uneven attention to diversity and Bust’s promotion of girlie culture show that “selling feminism works best in a normative and privileged package” as it continues to be commercially successful to neglect the “contradictory positions of sisterhood and liberal individuality.” From “Sisterhood to Girlie Culture” demonstrates how packaging feminist histories as glossing over contradictions of sisterhood and liberal individuality can be popular, like the wave model, but deters the progress of feminist movements (Zarnow 288-94).

It is much more productive to develop new, intersectional methods of analyzing feminist history that fosters new ideas about the broad links and subtle shifts in feminist thought and practice than continue separating feminist history into a wave paradigm that does not move beyond “us versus them” rhetoric, and thereby tapers the “mosaic of feminisms” (Zarnow 295).  Teaching difference through comparative historical analyses is useful when applying an intersectional framework in women’s studies to integrate different fields into the canon of the discipline, while promoting a women’s studies consciousness. Institutionalizing intersectionality in women’s studies programs calls scholars to examine power dynamics in how institutions reflect difference and how the extent of difference influences faculty recruitment, promotion and tenure and learning outcomes that expose student to complexities and ambiguities of gendered realities. Diverse feminist standpoints among faculty members directly affect the quality of teaching and the extent to which an intersectional approach is central to the women’s studies curriculum (Fitts 249-57).

Intersectionality allows for marginalized women’s experiences to be centered, but also allows for power and privilege to be analyzed more succinctly to better inform the totality of women’s experiences. A lack of knowledge about the matrix of privilege obscures and allows the privileged elite to maintain power (Sherwood 150).  This concept can be directly contrasted with the stance taken by contemporary affirmative action and employment anti-discrimination legislation critics who harp on blacks, but fail to acknowledge that affirmative action policy has served other groups, including white women (MacLean 359).

Lynn Povich and 45 of her predominantly white female Newsweek colleagues successfully filed a sex discrimination lawsuit under Title VII after the magazine relegated them to research positions and refused to promote women as writers, instructing them to “go somewhere else” if they wanted to write. Lynn Povich, a white woman of upper-middle class status who followed her father, the legendary Shirley Povich, into the profession, seemingly took for granted her privilege and the reality that most of the black women in her newsroom did not join the effort to sue their employer, as she explained at a promotional event for her book hosted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the University of Maryland women’s studies department. It was essentially assumed that black women were “more concerned with civil rights (racial) issues” than sex discrimination, thus employing flawed hierarchical thinking that led to choosing one dimension (race) over another (sex) rather than both simultaneously.

“Intersecting forms of domination produce both oppression and opportunity,” writes Maryland Arts and Humanities Dean Bonnie Thornton Dill and Maxine Baca Zinn (Russo 311). Povich’s socio-political position kept her from the initial promotion, but it also empowered her to sign on to the suit that would create monumental change in newsrooms. Similar to the origin myth of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, ignoring the role that class and racial privilege played in group’s success contributed to the illusion of equal opportunity, impeding a “more realistic assessment of differences among women [and] the difference that privilege made in how differently located women could work together in [coalition on] feminist projects” (Davis 98).

An intersectional approach to Povich’s story reveals that being a feminist involves revolutionary thinking about persons as oppressed and oppressor so as to not become complicit in marginalization. As Ann Russo writes, “making more visible the ways in which relations of power intersect with oppression creates the possibility for more accountability for relations of dominance and privilege” (313). Neglecting Povich’s privilege is no different than neglecting the privilege of the white men at Newsweek in terms of reinforcing the status quo. It is no different from placing blame on country club leaders as a strategy to appear innocent of performing exclusion as a member of an invitation-only country club that justifies homogeneity with affordability as the only filter, thereby neglecting the racialized character of class stratification and history of institutionalized discrimination (Sherwood 140). Color blind approaches in specific empirical health data obscured immense racial health disparities in Brazil, which continued to reproduce inequality in the country (Caldwell 128). These types of color blind strategies reinforce the status quo and a white middle-upper class dominant historical narrative that discounts the role of elite privilege in maintaining power and reproducing inequality, while neglecting the stories of women of color and working class women.

Some of the more prominent labor feminists were from distinctly elite families, but most labor feminists were working-class and poor (Cobble 148). Although it is important to acknowledge influential labor figures such as Esther Eggertsen Peterson and Katherine “Kitty” Pollack Ellickson, both from middle-class backgrounds, it is remiss and reductionist to render invisible the contributions of working class poor women like Mary Callahan, Addie Wyatt and Caroline Dawson Davis (Cobble 144-62). Applying a “kaleidoscopic lens to a broad spectrum of actors and organizations engaged in gender-justice work” is crucial in re-conceptualizing feminist history (Zarnow 295).

Using generational differences to differentiate wave periods in the wave model is flawed in that it places a hierarchy on age over all other dimensions and erases the contributions of many feminists whose work does not lend itself to such categorizations (Garrison 382). However, the wave model can be seen as important in signifying changes in feminism within the context of a continuing movement (e.g. not the first, but not the last) and examining intersectional generational oppression allows for the exploration of more specific outreach initiatives. For example, the ways in which the intergenerational cycle of intimate partner violence is experienced among different ethnic groups is critical in developing more effective, tailored strategies to offer culturally sensitive services and combat domestic violence. A 2003 study conducted by Yoshioka, Gilbert, El-Bassel and Baig- showed that South Asian women are overwhelmingly more likely to suffer from burning and scalding forms of abuse and more likely than other ethnic demographic to disclose the abuse to their fathers, brothers, or siblings of the abuser. This suggests that interventions should include parents and siblings of battered women and the siblings of the abuser, while preventative educational workshops should be made more readily accessible to young South Asian men as a strategy for combating intimate partner violence on multiple generational fronts specific to culture and ethnicity (177-8).

The women in the second and consecutive wave(s) are forced to recognize that their work is an extension of, influenced by and interconnected with other historical social justice movements across generations (Garrison 394). It is significant to distinguish that an intersectional approach does not simply mean that how feminism is performed in a particular way is not merely a byproduct of prior movements.  For instance, the experiences of black women must be written or conceived as interactions of race, class, gender and sexuality at particular historical moments as opposed to a linear progression out of slavery (Dill 137).

handoutLinear timelines, the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle, the symbol of connect-the-dots diagram and the wave model are all flawed conceptual models whose value lies in critique (Peoples 404; Garrison 395). While some are considered to be more inclusive than others, a truly intersectional approach does not adopt a single model. Taken together, the diverse perspectives of all of the models could be seen as an additive intersectional approach as each contributes to the production of knowledge in some capacity. Connecting dots of race, sex, sexuality and class provides a more complete picture of how privilege operates to reproduce oppression (Garrison 395). A jigsaw puzzle places an emphasis on becoming aware of how different persons are affected by and affect a systematically oppressive structure because a person must become conscious of systems of domination and means of empowerment in a person’s own culture before understanding the interconnections between individual and group lives and institutions to understand historical connections (Garrison 395). The notion of radio waves presented by Hewitt is a valiant attempt to convey intersectional alterations to the standard wave model in constructing feminist histories given that radio signals coexist and overlap. “Radio waves allow us to think about movements of different lengths and frequencies [that] grow louder or fade out” (Hewitt 8). Hewitt’s radio waves model also illustrates how feminist ideas are continually articulated (“on the air”) even when people are not actively listening (8). Still, radio signals do not seem to take into account points of intersection or entering into dialogue (coalition) with one another, which makes the radio wave model appear as an additive approach to analyzing inequality which overlooks “something unique [that] is produced at the intersection point of different types of discrimination” (Perry 237).

Forming a collective, the writers of No Permanent Waves created an epistemological project that continues to remake nonlinear feminist history as a means of inspiring action to rethink our visions of past and current feminisms, so that we can reimagine future possibilities for feminism as a revolution that is simultaneously based on solidarity and confrontation (Garrison 394).

An intersectional approach incorporates multiple overlapping dimensions of identity and difference that shape experience and diverse feminist standpoints; therefore no single model is embraced through the intersectional approach as outlined by this similarly named collective. Embracing the simultaneous and nuanced dimensions of oppression and privilege, an intersectional approach shifts from power binaries to a more inclusive framework. Historical narratives should be adaptive, nonlinear and dynamic in the many different ways that an intersectional approach can be applied. The No Permanent Waves collective inspires those who enter into coalition with their epistemological project to critique and rethink feminist histories to imagine future possibilities for the revolution based on solidarity and confrontation. As both the critique and model, an intersectional approach is at the heart of re-conceptualizing feminist histories.

Works Cited

Caldwell, Kia Lilly. “Black Women and the Development of Intersectional Health Policy in Brazil.” Berger, Michele Tracy and Kathleen Guidroz. The Intersectional Approach. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 118-35. Print.

Cobble, Dorothy Sue. “Labor Feminists and President Kennedy’s Commission on Women.” Hewitt, Nancy. No Permanent Waves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 144-67. Print.

Cole, Elizabeth R. and Natalie J. Sabik. “Repairing a Broken Mirror.” Berger, Michele Tracy and Kathleen Guidroz. The Intersectional Approach. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 173-1925. Print.

Davis, Kathy. The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Dill, Bonnie T. “Race, Class, and Gender: Prospects for an All-Inclusive Sisterhood.” Feminist     Studies. 9.1 (1983): 131-150. Print.

Fitts, Mako. “Institutionalizing Intersectionality.” Berger, Michele Tracy and Kathleen Guidroz. The Intersectional Approach. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 249-57. Print.

Garrison, Ednie Kaeh. “U.S. Feminism-Grrrl Style! Youth (Sub) Cultures and the Technologies of the Third Wave.” Hewitt, Nancy. No Permanent Waves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 379-402. Print.

Hewitt, Nancy. “From Seneca Falls to Suffrage? Reimagining a ‘Master’ Narrative in U.S. Women’s History.” No Permanent Waves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 1-38. Print.

Lorde, Audrey. “Age, Race, Class and Sex.” Zinn, Maxine Baca and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Michael A. Messner. Gender Through the Prism of Difference. New York: Oxford  University Press, 2011. 239-44. Print.

MacLean, Nancy. “The Hidden History of Affirmative Action: Working Women’s Struggles in the 1970s and the Gender of Class.” Hewitt, Nancy. No Permanent Waves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 356-78. Print.

Peoples, Whitney A. “‘Under Construction’: Identifying Foundations of Hip-Hop Feminism and Exploring Bridges between Black Second Wave and Hip-Hop Feminisms.” Hewitt, Nancy. No Permanent Waves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 403-30. Print.

Perry, Gary K. “Exploring Occupational Stereotyping in the New Economy.” Berger, Michele Tracy and Kathleen Guidroz. The Intersectional Approach. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 229-48. Print.

Povich, Lynn. An Evening With Lynn Povich. The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. 12 November 2012. Richard Eaton Theater, Knight Hall.

Russo, Ann. “The Future of Intersectionality: What’s at Stake.” Berger, Michele Tracy and Kathleen Guidroz. The Intersectional Approach. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 309-18. Print.

Sherwood, Jessica Holden. “The View from the Country Club.” Berger, Michele Tracy and Kathleen Guidroz. The Intersectional Approach. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 136-56. Print.

Thompson, Becky. “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism.” Hewitt, Nancy. No Permanent Waves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 39-60. Print.

Yoshioka, Marianne R, Louisa Gilbert, Nabila El-Bassel, and Malahat Baig-Amin. “Social Support and Disclosure of Abuse: Comparing South Asian, African American, and        Hispanic Battered Women.” Journal of Family Violence. 18.3 (2003): 171-180. Print.

Zarnow, Leandra. “From Sisterhood to Girlie Culture: Closing the Great Divide between Second and Third Wave Cultural Agendas.” Hewitt, Nancy. No Permanent Waves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 273-304. Print.




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