“I am not a feminist” a student in my women’s rights tutorial argued, “because I believe in equal rights for ALL.” Such comments are increasingly common from the opponents of feminism today, and on the surface seem innocent and to a degree even logical. If you are an advocate for equality and human rights, it doesn’t make sense to prioritise one group over another, instead is it better to be an advocate for all groups.
However, as much as these remarks are made in good faith, they demonstrate a misinterpretation as to what it means to be a feminist in 2017. Existing in the era of both the white and radical feminism means that contemporary feminism struggles to be perceived as either legitimate or serious. Equality in itself should be a universal priority, but it must be acknowledged that in order to achieve this equality, we must recognise our own privilege in society along with the experiences and disadvantages others face. Furthermore, we need to work to resolve these problems in order to achieve equality. Everyone being treated the same does not create equality.
The reality is women in our society, and societies around the world have a different lived experience than their male counterparts. They have different needs and rights to men because their opportunity and treatment differs dramatically. Compounding this divide, individuals of different ethnicities, sexualities, classes, religions, abilities and gender identities experience even greater disadvantages in society, which feminism also needs to accommodate and advocate for.
This new wave of feminism is called Intersectionality, coined in the late 80’s by Kimberlé Crenshaw is ‘the view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity’. If we understand feminism as the promotion and protection of women’s rights, then intersectional feminism is the understanding that different aspects of an individual’s identity influence how they experience oppression and disadvantage.
I myself am a straight white woman, meaning I experience disadvantage as a result of my gender, but privilege due to my ethnicity and sexuality. My experience would be different if I was a woman of colour, a member of the LGBTQI+ community, held a religious affiliation, a different class or wasn’t able bodied. These differing circumstances would drastically alter my experience in this world.
Feminism today, more specifically intersectional feminism, means understanding your own position is society along with how it differs from that of others. It means prioritising your own issues and realities while also listening and advocating for others whose experiences exceed your understandings of the world. It means realising how you are affected by an issue, but also thinking beyond yourself and how it would affect people of different identities.
Furthermore, it is morally cogent and incredibly admirable to believe in equality, but equal rights and treatment does not necessarily guarantee equality. Instead, to promote and protect the rights of all, we must create programs and use resources in a way that takes into account the different needs and identities of people in our society. True equality comes from accommodating the disadvantaged, rather than treating everyone the same. Through changing our perceptions and treatment of women and individuals of different ethnicities, sexualities, classes, religions, abilities and gender identities, we can create a world that benefits both men, woman and non-binary individuals. Feminism is still needed to benefit all, not just women.
To that student in my class and to those reading, if you seriously ‘believe in equal rights for ALL’ then congratulations, you are an intersectional feminist!