Well, yesterday was my panel at the F Conference. I had a really fabulous time and it was so great to meet so many amazing feminists! It was both strange and flattering to learn that so many people like this blog, so thanks to everyone who said nice things about it! You will be pleased to learn that I didn’t throw up on Larissa Behrendt after all, nor my other lovely fellow panelists, Candy Bowers and Cate Faehrmann. All three of them had very different and engaging things to say about their different areas; it was most gratifying to be on a panel with that lot. At the top of our panel we all gave statements on what the future of feminism in Australia should be. Mine was on, you guessed it, intersectionality! Between my notes and what I can remember, here’s an approximation of what I said:
I’m so terrified and pleased to be here speaking with you all! I’m going to talk a bit about my vision of feminism, my personal feminism – which is a feminism of the intersections – and my understanding of feminism as it stands. But first we have to back up a bit and talk about the feminism of the past. It’s a pretty problematic history, in Australia and around the world.
Feminism has a long history of being for women’s rights on white women’s terms, on middle class women’s terms, on abled women’s terms, on – well, you get the picture. There’s been a focus on the women with the least on their backs. For instance, when feminism doesn’t acknowledge the unique experiences of non-white women but claims to represent a singular experience of womanhood, it’s white women being represented. It’s a feminism that erases the bits of us that don’t fit. That is an appalling number of lives that are considered not the feminist priority there. If we take something that’s held up as an important feminist achievement, the wider acceptance of women’s working outside the home, that’s a great achievement to be sure. But it’s an achievement for women of economic privilege: working class women have been working outside the home for centuries, and there was nothing too exciting about that for them. Or how about women being granted the right to vote in 1902 – a great feminist achievement, for some women, not so much the women who fell under ‘any aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand’.
So, this view of women’s experiences – the least complex, prioritising the women with the most – was and remains a huge problem. I for one don’t want to continue with a feminism that isn’t about all of us in together. The kind of thinking I’m talking about had a great deal of its development in the late twentieth century in the United States, and the term used to describe it is intersectionality, which is a term popularised by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins. The idea is that oppressive structures aren’t just all related by virtue of being oppressive structures, but interrelated through people: if one experiences multiple oppressions, one experiences intersecting oppressions. That is, I can’t separate out my experiences of being a woman from, say, my being disabled or non-white, they all play into each other. My life can’t be separated out into categories. Nothing is separate, everything is linked.
But a problem with feminism is that those “other” issues get treated as pet issues that mainstream feminism can pick up once in a while for minority points and drop again. And the sad thing is, intersectionality isn’t that hard a tool to employ. There are so many conventional sites of feminist activism that could centre, for instance, disability along with gender, but just don’t. Disabled women are subject to high rates of sexual assault, are told that their bodies are inadequate, experience restrictions of reproductive rights. But being told you ought to have an abortion because of your genes or because you’re incapable of taking care of children doesn’t quite fit into the usual narrative of women being told that they shouldn’t have abortions. Mainstream feminism as it stands erases those kinds of differences in favour of a monolithic view of women’s experiences, and that hurts whole segments of women.
And it goes on and on like that. Whenever the dreaded ‘if you change your surname on marriage you’re not feminist!’ conversation comes up, I get really frustrated. Saying that women shouldn’t change their names on marriage points to a singular experience of womanhood: women who can legally or want to get married, women who don’t have abusive families they want to separate themselves from, women who, like me, don’t have a non-oppressive choice in the matter, because the idea of a surname is oppressive itself because it was forced on her culture by white people.
Even in feminist organising, there’s a tendency to not include certain women. With accessibility, it’s incredibly frustrating to have meetings organised in inaccessible rooms: great big signal disabled women aren’t welcome. I was really disappointed when a lot of you laughed at the autism analogy on the panel this morning; again, a signal that we aren’t welcome. Disabled people, that is, I’m not myself autistic. Something that’s really great is that there’s an increase in specifically trans-inclusive feminist spaces around these parts. Because often in feminist organising, this group of women are actively kept out of feminist spaces; there’s a long horrible history around the treatment of trans women and trans people in general by feminism.
I’ve hardly covered everything I could cover, and I wouldn’t want to suggest I’ve covered every single intersectional feminist issue that needs to be addressed. Rather, I want you to take intersectionality as an idea, a tool. I don’t like to think of a set list of intersecting oppressions or feminist issues, I like to apply a feminist lens to everything. Everything is a feminist issue, every single injustice that touches our lives. Because they are whole lives, and we are whole people. I want an end to thinking that women’s oppression is just about gender, and gender has no ties to other parts of our lives. Feminism needs to be inclusive, not on certain women’s terms. The future of feminism should aim to acknowledge and cherish the variety and difference in women’s lives, identities and experiences.