Intersectionality in Feminism

*Trigger warning: sexual assault and sexual violence are discussed in this article.

~

Intersectionality: the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. -Merriam Webster Dictionary

~

In the American history classes that I took in high school, it was very rare to discuss the plights of minorities outside of their predetermined areas of acceptibility: racism against African Americans during slavery and the Civil Rights movement; antisemitism during the Holocaust; classism during the Industrial Revolution; etc. And always, these groups were presented as independent entities, unaffected by and not affecting other time periods, regions, and identities (minority and majority alike). Never did we discuss the specific hardships of being, for example, a poor, rural, Black woman with a physical disability in the 1920’s, or an asexual, Asian Buddhist on the cattle ranges in the 1840’s.

Truly, the list of demographic combinations can go on infinitely when taking into account sex, sexuality, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, skin color (people of the same race are treated very differently depending on how tan they are), social class, political party, and disability. As such, it would be nigh on impossible for any history textbook to analyze the challenges and benefits of every type of person in every area and time period. But that doesn’t mean, in our inability to do it true justice, that it should be ignored completely.

This willful ignorance of intersectionality is occurring even in the political discussions of the 21st century (an era which has been lauded as more progressive than any previously recorded). As HerCampus focuses on female empowerment, it would defy logic for this article to not center around feminism.

Off the top of my head, there are only two distinct periods of Feminism that I remember ever being discussed in my high school history classes: the Suffragette movement spearheaded by Susan B. Anthony, and the push for female employment in the 1970’s and 1980’s (huzzah for the power suit). However, both of these revolutions only focused on white, middle- and upper-class women who were typically married and had children. 

Today, the American Feminist movement is mainly focused on the issues of rape, spousal/intimate partner abuse, abortion, and the gender pay gap. But we tend to think of these issues as being equal amongst all people who were Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) (including not only trans men, but also people who are nonbinary and/or intersex whom society views as female), which is absolutely not the case. For example, the gender pay gap: the common statistic (in language which ascribes to the gender binary) is that, for every dollar that a man makes, a woman only make around eighty cents (Sahadi). But, this is a broad interpretation without nuance; when also taking race into account, the statistics come out like this. For every dollar that a white man makes in America, a(n) ____ woman makes (Vagins):

Asian: 85 cents Black: 61 cents Hispanic: 53 cents Native American: 58 cents Pacific Islander: 62 cents White: 77 cents

While more inclusive, these statistics still don’t include many other demographics, such as those who are AFAB who have a disability/disabilities. In America, people with disabilities only earn 63 cents for every dollar that someone without a disability earns, not even taking into account race or sex (Lbogle). Statistics are not widely available on how being a racial or gender minority affects the wages of people with disabilities, but with the ingrained prejudices of our society, it would be safer to assume that these biases don’t disappear.

Moving on to everyone’s favorite topic: sexual assault. It is commonly said that one out of six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape (Victims of Sexual Assault: Statistics), but once again, this is just an all-encompassing statistic. In terms of education and economic status, people who are AFAB are thirty percent more likely to be raped if they don’t attend college; if they’re in the lowest income bracket, they’re six times more likely to be raped than those of the highest income bracket; those who didn’t graduate high school are 400% more likely to be a victim than those who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. As well, those aged 16-20 have the highest rates of sexual assault (Rennison).

But still, this is only assessing how presenting gender, level of education, and income. Let’s look at two other demographics which have an enormous impact on sexual assault statistics: sexuality and gender identity. Among cisgendered women, 46% of those who identify as bisexual have been raped, compared to 17% of heterosexual women and 13% of homosexual women. 48% of bisexual women who are a victim of rape, experienced their (first) assault between the ages of eleven and seventeen. As well, among cisgendered men, 40% of homosexuals and 47% of bisexuals experience sexual violence at some point in their lives, as compared to 21% of heterosexual men. And in the transgender community, 47% of people become a victim of sexual assault, with rates being highest among those who are Native American (65%), multiracial (59%), Middle Eastern (58%), and Black (53%) (Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community).

Yet we still have no idea how these demographics interplay with each other on these issues. So, until that extensive research is published, and even after, what is the best way to discuss intersectionality? Well, it’s the same way that we discuss single-demographic issues: let those who are members of that demographic take the stage. No one would know the plights of, for example, a transgender, Muslim woman in a mainly-Christian society than a transgender, Muslim woman in a mainly-Christian society.

Everyone, regardless of their identities, can raise awareness of the nuances of intersectionality. For those of us who aren’t a part of a particular demographic, it’s just as important that we provide a platform of speech for those who are members, as it is for those people to speak in the first place. By holding up people of multiple minority identities and giving them a safe space to tell others about their unique experiences, without interjecting with our own opinions and stories, we will truly begin to assimilate the trends of intersectionality in Feminism, and all other issues of bias in the world.

Sources

Lbogle. “AIR Index: The Pay Gap for Workers with Disabilities.” American Institutes for Research, 5 May 2017, www.air.org/resource/air-index-pay-gap-workers-disabilities.

Rennison, Callie Marie. “Privilege, Among Rape Victims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/opinion/who-suffers-most-from-rape-and-sexual....

Sahadi, Jeanne, and Tal Yellin. “For Every Dollar A Man Earns, A Woman Earns...” Money.cnn.com, CNN, 11 Apr. 2016, money.cnn.com/interactive/pf/gender-pay-gap-state-by-state/index.html.

“Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community.” Human Rights Campaign, www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community.

Vagins, Deborah J. “The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap.” AAUW, www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/.

“Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN, www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence.