By Saara Meghji, Canada.
The meaning of feminism and the way in which it applies to everyday individuals has changed throughout time. While proponents of first-wave and second-wave feminism fought for incredibly valuable policies (i.e. the right to vote, equal pay and representation in the workplace), it is only recently that intersectionality is beginning to be perceived as a vital part of productive activism. Unfortunately, feminism has historically failed at incorporating individuals of different races, sexualities, gender identities, and social classes into the movement: and even more unfortunately, many individuals who personally align themselves with the feminist movement still fail at this today. With that, here are a number of reasons why women of various races/social classes are uniquely impacted by the Patriarchy, and why the feminist movement is overall stronger when as many individuals can align themselves with it as possible.
*DISCLAIMER: This list is by no means exhaustive! The patriarchy has many impacts specific to women of varying intersectionalities – these are just a few of them :)
The feminist movement today often fails to recognize and validate the identities of trans women. There tend to be a couple reasons for this, but mainly, many cisgender women don’t believe that a transgender woman has undergone the “true” struggles of being a woman, simply because she once identified as a male. This has extended even to prominent feminist activists dismissing the experiences of transgender women, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie claiming that “if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
It is true that the experience of a trans woman is different than that of a cis woman, but it is by no means “easier” than the latter. The unique experiences of a transgender individual – of feeling trapped inside your own body, of struggling to come out to those around you, and of feeling as though you are not “enough” of the gender you identify with (to name a few) – cannot be cast aside under the logic that male privilege somehow invalidates this very unique kind of oppression.
Misconceptions of Oppression Within the Developing World
Due to colonialist structures that have existed (and continue to exist) throughout time, feminism first emerged and grew prominence throughout the developed world. For example, the Suffragette movement, which first granted women the right to vote (white women, for that matter!), was most prominent throughout the UK and the US. As such, feminism has made most progress throughout the developed world, and because it’s been unfortunately centralized in specific locations, many feminists lose sight of issues facing women throughout developing countries. Crucially, these are issues that face women to a much greater degree. While feminists within developed countries might perceive feminism to be largely about calling out microaggressions, this creates an exclusive brand of feminism that doesn’t take into account the struggles of women who face rampant sexual violence from incredibly young ages when crossing borders between war torn countries, who face staggering illiteracy rates and do not have access to education in comprehensive forms, and who are quite literally treated as property under their fathers and husbands. Don’t get me wrong, issues such as microaggressions that are aimed at women (among others) are extremely important, and addressing them is incredibly necessary and valuable for forward progress. But when feminists within the most privileged countries lose sight of issues beyond the scope of what directly affects them, the possibility of positive, global feminism becomes increasingly diminished, which creates a weaker movement overall.
Unique Beauty Standards
It is common within feminists circles to hear talk of unlearning patriarchal beauty standards – among these, the notion that women must be tall but not too tall, skinny but not too skinny, and ultimately, beautiful but without the sense that she’s tried too hard. What is less heard is the unique standards of beauty that have specific impacts on women of colour.
One of the most common examples of this is whitewashing. As a brown girl who is comparatively lighter skinned, I often hear praise from the aunts in my family for looking “fair,” and as such, for being beautiful. This kind of rhetoric is passed on throughout generations, and is ultimately bred by notions of white supremacy: put simply, the belief that beautiful equals white.
Aside from these messages being incredibly damaging to girls and women who are consistently told they need to “look fairer,” it also fuels the skin whitening industry which is incredibly popular throughout the world. In India, the skin whitening market is valued at over $200m, with the brand Fair and Lovely holding a 50-70% share. Furthermore, women are often valued based on how fair they look: in India, the more white-passing a woman is, the less dowry ends up being during marriage.
Stigmatization of Sex Workers
It is impossible to discuss intersectional feminism without discussing justice for sex workers. Whether individuals have undergone sex work as a means of obtaining a basic income, or because they have simply chosen this career path as the right one for them, the stigma which exists around sex work causes these individuals to be faced with a gross amount of discrimination. This stigma finds its roots in stereotypes around promiscuity, and specifically, how many feminists incorrectly draw the link between that concept and sex work. Ultimately, sex work is seen as something improper, and thus, sex worker exclusionary feminism subsists.
But societies in which sex work is criminalized witness women being unable to reach out to authorities or to access legal recourse when a client has abused or mistreated them. This is specifically problematic for individuals who access sex work as a means of survival, as these women have no choice but to go back to clients who continue to exploit them for their own benefit. Specifically for sex workers who are transgender or gender-fluid, who are parents, or who are of colour, discrimination persists. Sex workers living with HIV have been incarcerated, despite a lack of evidence showing they have transmitted HIV to clients. Ultimately, a feminist movement that does not recognize the legitimacy of sex work is one that fails to protect an incredibly vulnerable, and incredibly valuable, class of women.
The Wage Gap
You’re probably familiar with the concept of the wage gap: the fact that in the United States, a woman makes 78 cents to a man’s dollar. But what is less known about the wage gap is the staggering effects it has on women of colour specifically, as shown in the infographic below:
Due to these numbers, it can be argued that women of colour specifically are put at an inherent disadvantage in the workplace. When these women are unable to attain the financial security necessary to access higher education, and as such, to continue rising within the ranks of their workplace, it leads to detrimental impacts. At worst, more and more women of colour are stuck in cycles of poverty, wherein they are living paycheck to paycheck in an attempt to put food on the table for themselves and their families. But beyond this, when there are less women of colour holding senior-level positions in a company, it creates less change for women of colour occupying entry-level positions, as there are fewer individuals who can properly articulate the best way to address specific issues faced by these women. This ultimately creates a cycle of women of colour being unable to access the opportunities they deserve.
Have you had unique interactions with feminism as it relates to intersectionality? Let us know in the comments below!
Authors explore the development and application of various feminist theories on our modern society.