Other, smarter people have had a lot to say about a recent Washington Post article by Linda Hirshman claiming that in order for young feminists to be “successful,” we need to abandon an intersectional approach (as if we have actually achieved it). I won’t rehash what they have said, but I will address her argument from a grassroots organizer’s perspective.
According to Hirshman:
A movement that uses intersectionality as a lens but banishes white, bourgeois, corporate older women might be a vehicle to glue what remains of feminism together, but it will struggle to achieve social change for women. The Clinton campaign has, perhaps unwittingly, revealed what many in the movement know — that if feminism is a social-justice-for-everyone (with the possible exception of middle-class white women) movement, then gender is just one commitment among many. And when the other causes call, the movement will dissolve.
No. No no no no no no no.
Part of what we do, when we struggle to take an intersectional approach, is try to challenge the automatic “normalcy” that our culture has given those in dominant groups. By locating middle-class white women at the center of her vision of what constitutes “women,” Hirshman is utterly missing the point of intersectionality. Including (or making central) people who are not white, middle-class women in our vision of what constitutes an end to patriarchy is not the same as excluding white, middle-class women from our vision. It is simply moving them from the place of automatic privilege and centrality our culture has given them in relation to other groups of women, which allows us to understand oppression in a more realistic way. Even if we’re willing to grant Hirshman the point that feminism should only worry about those women who constitute a “majority” of women, white, middle-class women are NOT THE MAJORITY OF WOMEN. And even if we grant Hirshman the bizarre point that white, middle-class women are the group we should be most concerned about, it takes some serious reality-bending to believe that the oppression of other people does not harm white, middle-class women. How did the war in Iraq start? Well, it required a lot of Americans to have a racist, imperialist mindset. Which made them willing to vote for people who have done some truly horrific things to white, middle-class women’s rights since their election.
We are all connected. Really. It’s not just some hippy-dippy slogan. It’s the plain and simple truth.
Whatever academic theories Hirshman and others who reject intersectionality may hold about what makes progressive movements “successful,” in my experience working with and watching various student movements succeed and fail, movements that don’t meaningfully and continuously challenge themselves to become more inclusive of the full community they claim to represent will eventually face upheavals within their ranks, recruiting problems, and difficulty forming strong coalitions. These difficulties lead to frustration and burnout in organizers from groups privileged within the movement, and they cause potential powerhouse organizers from groups marginalized within the movement to take their precious skill and energy elsewhere, or to burnout so badly that they stop progressive organizing altogether. Contrary to Hirshman’s assertion, from what I’ve seen, taking an intersectional approach leads to movements that are stronger, broader, and better at coalition-building, while ignoring intersectionality leads to three-hour meetings where people cry and yell at each other.
What causes me the most pain, when I see yet another person calling themselves a feminist and claiming that privileged white women should be recognized as the center of the universe that they truly are, is the knowledge that with every word they say or write, coalition-building between women from different backgrounds and experiences is getting a little harder. I can see the three-hour meeting now.