Intersectionality, sexism and the left

Jasmine Ali examines the renewed interest in the idea of intersectionality associated with the revival of feminism

New battles against sexism across the globe have raised a greater appreciation of the global persistence of institutionalised sexism and women’s oppression. Protests such as SlutWalk, the outrage over the Delhi rape cases in India, alongside the sprouting of local feminist networks have been described by the New Internationalist as a “feminist spring”.

Characteristics of the new anti-sexism include a focus on the sexual and physical violence experienced by women and the predominance of online blogging.

Particular discussion and controversy within the new feminism has focused on the new intellectual current of “intersectional feminism” and intersectionality.

Intersectionality has been heralded as having particular importance for activists and the left. In academia, sociologists like Leslie McCall describe it as “the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies, in conjunction with related fields, have made so far”. Some Marxists, such as prolific writer Richard Seymour in Britain and the American Marxist Sharon Smith, have also welcomed and adopted the concept. Both have praised the importance and necessity of intersectionality for contemporary Marxism.

Whilst there is much debate over the exact definition of intersectionality, at the heart of the concept is the theory of “intra-group difference”, and a focus on differences within oppressed groups. For example, women may be oppressed as women, but also be oppressed on the basis of race. As a description, the concept reflects common sense experiences of oppressed people under capitalism. Over time the concept has extended beyond gender and race to encompass, class, age, sexuality, disability and at times even where people line up on speciesism.

While the goal of addressing each and every form of oppression is one that socialists share, intersectionality is a step away from doing this. Because intersectionality does not understand how oppression arises as a product of class societies, nor their historical contexts or continuing development within capitalism, it focuses on the symptoms of oppression, at the expense of its cause. As such, it stands in no better position than its ideological predecessors, feminism, which sees the fundamental division in society as that between women and men, or identity politics, to either understand or fight oppression.

Intersectionality and the law

Intersectionality originally emerged in the US as a strategic concept used by black legal scholars to highlight the inadequacies of bourgeois law to account for multiple oppressions that shaped many lives.

Legal academic Kimberlé Crenshaw specifically coined the term in 1989 to address law cases that denied the experiences of black women. Later writers such as Patricia Hill Collins, author of Black Feminist Thought, built on this to discuss the interlinked elements of everyday experience.

Highlighting the inadequacies of bourgeois law and its inability to deal with the complex reality confronted by oppressed groups perhaps makes it a useful contribution in that context.

But a theory that focuses on “intra-group differences” can also be adapted into the legal framework of capitalism, because it does not challenge the underlying fundamental causes of oppression. For instance, intersectionality has found a resonance on a governmental level such as in the Australian Human Rights Commission that incorporated the term in 2002 into its analytical tool box, “The idea of ‘intersectionality’ seeks to capture both the structural and dynamic consequences of the interaction between two or more forms of discrimination.” Similarly in Ontario, Canada, the Human Rights Commission adopted a similar description of “…multiple forms of discrimination occurring simultaneously.”

Pru Goward, Liberal Party member who was women’s policy adviser to the Howard government and was appointed Australia’s Sex Discrimination and Equal Opportunity Commissioner in 2001, had no problem embracing intersectionality. In a 2002 speech titled, “Beyond Racism” Goward extolled the values of intersectionality, “By intersectionality, we refer to…different types of discrimination or disadvantage that compound on each other and are inseparable…For example, too often when we talk about issues of racism we are talking about men’s issues. It is not done deliberately, but it has the effect of making women’s issues peripheral. Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. Women make up over half of Australia’s population.”

As such, intersectionality reflects standard liberal concepts that regard oppression as the product of ignorance to be overcome by enlightened education, rather than seeing oppression as institutionalised discrimination requiring a revolutionary challenge to existing society.

Intersectionality and the left

Intersectionality has also been taken up as a means of criticising political traditions within the left. For some, feminism, identity politics and what’s regarded as classical Marxism are ineffective vehicles for combating oppression.

Writing about second wave feminism, Patricia Hill Collins argued that women of colour abstained from the movement because it was “racist and overly concerned with White, middle-class women’s issues.” Similarly, Krenshaw argues in Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color, “The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences.”

The intersectionality theorists believe that it is the focus on singular categories of oppression; sex, race or class, that is responsible for the marginalisation and even exclusion of political minorities from social movements. Through addressing intersections of gender with other forms of oppression such as race, class, and sexuality, intersectionality claims it can best understand the most marginalised and under-represented sections within oppressed groups.

In doing so it believes that it is reframing traditional feminism to one that represents “all women, not just the privileged white ones”. In fact it reproduces the hierarchies of oppression so familiar from identity politics and indeed compounds the divisions by layering that with hierarchies of privilege within each oppressed group. Rather than uniting common struggles, intersectionality leads to endless introspection and more division.

Intersectionality has unfortunately found a resonance in some quarters because it extends the reductionism of identity politics into more and more definitions of oppressions, more and more exclusive categories.

Those whose identities may change, for example transgender people transitioning from female to male, can find themselves excluded from being considered members of such identity groups, and indeed find themselves declared to be “privileged”.

For some Marxists, such as Sharon Smith, intersectional theory is seen as an extension of the critical interventions made by a group of black feminists in the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1977, the Combahee River Collective in the US, known as Black Feminists, issued a statement that described the rationale for Black Feminism.

They wrote, “Black, other Third World, and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation. In 1973 Black feminists, primarily located in New York, felt the necessity of forming a separate Black feminist group. This became the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO)…”

Smith favourably quotes the Combahee River Collective’s critique of radical movements in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was really an example of the problematic logic that underpins identity politics. This views the working class (female and male) and other oppressed groups not as allies in the struggle to end oppression, but indeed potential direct or indirect beneficiaries of oppression.

Tragically, the NBFO drew the logical defeatist conclusion, “We realise that the only people who care enough about us, to work consistently for our liberation is us.”

Intersectionality as practice

Rather then being a political corrective to identity politics, in practice, intersectionality leads to mining down identity categories into smaller and more discrete and fragmented units of identity and a focus on intra-group dynamics.

On top of this, the intra-group differences are understood as rungs in a ladder of oppression(s), which can be addressed by giving weight to less “privileged” voices with the category, such as black women, women of colour or black gay women, in political spaces, campaigns or forums.

What begins as means to involve marginalised people across differences within oppressed groups, becomes its opposite—division into smaller and smaller units of oppressed groups, that have less and less in common with those they have separated from. Ultimately, it becomes a tokenistic gesture, instead of a directing strategy leading to united struggle and confrontation with the state, its institutions and the system. In practice, it is a formula that becomes an organisational concern to seek to represent ever-greater combinations of intersections, black gay women, black gay women with disability, and so on.

The logic of focussing on intra-group dynamics and constantly redefining the social weight of all of one’s oppressions does not necessarily lead to clarity or confidence about how to fight it. It can often have the very opposite effect, consolidating under-confidence, and concern with policing so-called privilege, in much the same way as over-emphasising legal sanctions against strikes can sap workers’ confidence to take industrial action.

Moral appeals for unity can be made, but that cannot overcome the divisions that are set into intersectionality’s theoretical assumptions. Worse, because, intersectionality (like identity politics), does not locate oppression as stemming from and developing within class society, it can only ever replicate the divisions of capitalist society, rather than provide the basis for struggles that can overcome them.

Intersectionality, class and classical Marxism

Many proponents of intersectionality champion the concept for critically addressing the subordination of working class women’s struggles within first wave feminism in the early twentieth century.

Originally, the first wave of the women’s movements campaigned for universal suffrage exclusively for women with property. However, it should be noted that Marxists were amongst the first to oppose these manifestations of bourgeois or “power” feminism. Socialists such as Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollantai were central to fighting the dominance of bourgeois feminism in the European and Russian women’s movement.

The debates around whether the struggle for women’s liberation could be waged separately from a wider social struggle and revolution against capitalism, and whether or not working class men could be allies in the fight for liberation, sharpened the analysis and significance of class distinctions within feminism.

The Paris Commune in 1871 had dramatically exposed the gulf between the bourgeois and working class women.

Working class women had played a crucial role in the Commune. One of the most far-sighted of the revolutionary women’s organisations, the Union des Femmes, proclaimed its goal to be, “…total social revolution…for the emancipation of the working class by the working class.” The Commune had begun establishing day nurseries near the factories as a way of helping working women. Special attention was paid to improving women’s education.

But, rather than siding with the struggle of working class women, the ruling class women of Versailles put their class interests first and supported the violent suppression of the Commune. One newspaper of the day reported, “One sees elegant ladies insult the prisoners on their passage and even strike them with their sunshades.”

A recent study by Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the UK revealed both profound changes and continuities over the last few decades. While the average gap between men and women’s earnings has narrowed over the last 50 years, there was almost a 300 per cent gap between professional and unskilled women’s wages compared to less than 50 per cent for the same groups of men.

IPPR researcher Dalia Ben-Galim commented, “The ‘break the glass ceiling’ approach that simply promotes women in the boardroom has not been as successful in changing family-friendly working culture or providing opportunities for other women to advance.”

Advocates of intersectionality do often raise class as an issue, something that can make it seem that they shares some common ground with Marxism. As Krenshaw outlines, “At the simplest level, race, gender, and class are implicated together because of the fact being a woman of colour correlates strongly with poverty.”

But even here, class is a moral category, just one among many, of co-existing elements of women’s oppression, rather than a fundamental determinant defining a person’s relationship to the means of production and whether you have an objective interest in maintaining capitalism rather than overthrowing it.

Without an understanding of how oppression is embedded in capitalism, intersectionality can also result in the reductionism of identity politics—simply looking for “race” or “looking for gender” in any political situation.

In Australia, the question of the Northern Territory Intervention, which the government justified on the basis of pornography, paedophilia and sexual assault, concretely posed inter-related questions of sexism, racism and the role of the state. Those feminists who applied an uncritical anti-sexism ended up on the side of the government, oblivious to the insidious use of racism to disempower Aboriginal women, and men, alike.

On an international level we have seen the way in which sections of the left and feminists have been wrong-footed over how to deal with the rape allegations against Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange in the context of his demonisation by the West and their obvious interest in extraditing Assange to the US to face espionage and terrorism charges.

Similarly, we have also seen the confusion on the French Left in dealing with the intersection of Islamophobia, racism and women’s rights over the French government’s ban on women wearing the hijab, leading them to back the French state’s Islamophobia and racism in the name of protecting women’s rights!

Class is central in Marxist analysis not because it is another element of experience or form of oppression, but because of the unique position the working class (women and men) occupies in capitalist society.

It is through collective struggle at the point of production that the working class, through strikes and occupations, when generalised across the whole of society, has the ability to transform society, ideas and reality.

Class struggle inevitably involves social and cultural issues such as ethnicity, gender and race, as the working class is made up of blue and white collar workers, migrant workers, women workers and workers on temporary and 457 visas.

It is in the process of struggle and political argument that the working class changes itself and its ideas, and as Marx describes rids itself of the “the muck of the ages”. The politics needed to build solidarity within the working class across racial, sexual or gender lines, is not automatic and requires explicit political argument—hence the importance of discussing the value of intersectionality in that fight.

Intersectionality, however, cannot live up to the aspirations with which many on the left have imbued it. Intersectionality is a step sideways from bourgeois feminism, and identity politics. Its motivation is critiquing the old divisions, but it ends up reproducing them or creating mistaken new ones.

Understanding how oppression is inter-linked with capitalist society is essential to both understanding and fighting oppression, in the here and now, as well as understanding that ultimately we need to link those struggles with the fight against capitalism itself.


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

End systemic pressures inside the family to end violence against women

The problem is not straightforwardly men’s power over women but the unbearable pressure on everybody to perform socially recognisable gender roles in a nuclear family.

Setback in early childhood pay campaign as action called off

After campaigning since 2018, Early Childhood Educators are demanding a 25 per cent pay rise. But a walkout planned for this week was called off.

Abortion access still faces barriers due to sexist system

Barbara Baird has written extensively on abortion law and politics. In this book, she examines the state of abortion provision in Australia in a history of reproductive health since 1990.