Gender Studies 101: Intersectionality

At the Conference on Gender and International Affairs, we welcome anyone with an interest in how gender impacts diplomacy, security, and international business to attend. If you are new to gender studies, or if it’s been a while since you put on your gender lenses, we invite you to check out Gender Studies 101. We’ll post short articles about key concepts in gender analysis, and give some suggestions for further reading.

Last week, we talked about how gender influences the ways in which we see and understand the world. This week, we’re unpacking a few more lenses that shape – or sometimes distort – our perception of how our society works.

Intersectionality describes the ways in which varying systems of privileges and oppressions shape people’s lived experiences. Every person has a series of identities that they adopt, or that their society applies to them. These identities influence how people are able to act in the world. Each identity – whether its class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc… – exists along a hierarchy that determines how visible and valued that person’s experiences are in their particular social context. These identities and hierarchies intersect with each other in ways that shape how a person is able to move and advance within their society.

OK – so this is not how it works, but it’s hard finding accurate pop culture references about privilege hierarchies.

Intersectionality helps us see why gender analysis is incomplete if you try to isolate gender from all of the other factors that impact how people are perceived in society. The concept of intersectionality comes from Black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde, who criticized dominant feminist discourse for only representing white women’s experiences and struggles. hooks takes on famous (white) feminist Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique:

“Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating: ‘We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my house”’ That ‘more’ she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions.” (hooks, “From Margin to Center,” 1-2)

Friedan uses the term “women” throughout her book to describe a relatively small population of females – middle class, suburban, white women. While this population faces its share of problems, they are not the problems of all, or even most, American women (then or now). If Friedan just says “women,” when she means “middle class suburban white women,” she excludes poor women and women of color from her activism. hooks and other intersectional feminists argue that by doing this, Friedan is not advancing gender equality – she is only advocating that white women should have the same race and class privileges as white men, at the expense of people of color and the poor.

Luckily, we left all that behind in the Mad Men-era, right?

Of course not.

Marginalized identities are still made invisible by both mainstream feminism and those who have adopted its language. Just a few years ago, the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen went viral on Twitter, as feminists of color criticized their white counterparts for ignoring racism inherent in the online feminist community (sound familiar?).

Understanding intersectionality is especially important for future practitioners and policy makers in human security and development. For instance, consider domestic violence prevention programs that only include straight couples in their education and outreach. Queer women in abusive relationships may not recognize “red flags” if they are only framed as things men do to women. Law enforcement and medical professionals may not take queer women’s complaints against their non-male partners as seriously. This has a very real effect on the health and safety of queer women, and is part of the reason why violence against lesbian and bisexual women and transpeople remains extremely underreported.

Intersectionality reminds us that feminist analysis can’t just ask about “gender” alone – there are too many other factors that influence how people interact in the world. At this year’s conference panels, we are challenging both the speakers and the audience (you!) to consider how other gender intersects with other identities to influence leadership in security, international business, and foreign policy.

Next week – this blog takes off its America-centric lenses and looks at feminist theory and activism from other parts of the world. If there’s a topic you’d like to see in an up-coming Gender 101 blog, let me know! Megan [dot] keeling [at] tufts [dot] edu.

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