With International Women’s Day approaching, again the globe is beginning to reflect critically upon the current position of our world’s women – what there is to appreciate, and to improve on. This reflection often entails an evaluation of the condition of contemporary feminist movements, forming images of their failures and successes in properly advancing the constantly evolving concept of women’s rights. One such event which will significantly inform this image is the 2019 Women’s March, which poses questions concerning when internal feminist criticism is helpful, and what intersectionality truly looks like.
Across the United States this January, the usually empowering and idealistic annual Women’s March was clouded by a lingering atmosphere of conflict, confusion, and resentment.
Marches drew much smaller attendance than in years past, with some cities entirely canceling their events, and others holding competing marches – as was the case in New York and Philadelphia. While primary explanations for drop in turnout are simple, including activist burnout, the ideological conflict which accompanied these frictions was the product of something more complex: widespread controversy concerning the Women’s March’s Co-President, Tamika Mallory.
Mallory is facing accusations of Anti-semitism, as she revealed on social media last march that she is a supporter of the Nation of Islam and associates herself with their leader, Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan has been known to make anti-Semitic remarks, as well as historical and theological claims which characterize Jewish peoples as manifestations of evil and greed who feed on marginalized members of society – particularly African Americans. Mallory’s response to accusations has been widely viewed as inadequate, as she denounces anti-Semitism but fails to condemn Farrakhan specifically. The resulting conflict concerning her legitimacy as a leader generated competing marches, cancellations, and lack of attendance.
This sequence of events presents a narrative of contemporary feminist activism which is concerning or perhaps even discouraging. It highlights the shortcomings of feminist movements which wish to tackle the prodigious task of defending the interests of a multifarious nation of diverse peoples. It illustrates a leader who has not only failed to successfully engage in this task, but also lacked the accountability to rectify her mistakes. Essentially, this narrative is one in which contemporary feminist activism lacks a foundational ideology central to that which separates it from movements of the past: intersectionality.
The term ‘intersectional’ has been adopted by scholars, activists, and policy advocates alike in the early 21st century, gaining popularity following Kimberle Crenshaw’s use of the term to identify how institutional neglect and oppression functions through compounded marginalizations found in people’s identities and life experiences, and a failure to recognize or prioritize those intersections of identity. While Krenshaw in no way ‘invented’ or even ‘coined’ the term intersectionality, which has been discussed across the globe for decades, she was revolutionary in applying the term in such a way that it provided a bridge between academic analytic tools to the objectives of social justice movements. Crenshaw illustrated that intersectionality was an essential mechanistic device for social and political action.
Crenshaw’s words have proved to be extremely influential, as feminist movements since the 1990’s have adopted and utilized the concept with such frequency that it has come to be seen as foundational to contemporary feminism, and the main component which makes it distinctive from previous waves of feminism, which often failed to account for compounded experiences. Intersectional feminism has become the standard – with posters and t-shirts at the Women’s March proudly exclaiming ‘Make Your Feminism Intersectional!’
While there has been much criticism concerning the failure of feminist movements like the Women’s March to properly exercise intersectionality – such as through the use of pussy hats and ‘white feminist’ agendas, these criticisms fail to address the more complex ways the term has been appropriated within the movement. Intersectionality has devolved to become a buzzword synonymous with inclusivity, used as a regulator of the legitimization of feminist movements or actions. When the label of intersectionality is successfully stamped, it is seen as producing a seal-proof feminist sphere in which social justice movements can properly function. Through this, intersectionality has become an idealized environment of unity and tranquility which cannot sustain conflict or error.
This solecism is problematic firstly because it encourages a national imaginary – or a way of imagining political action which draws attention from individual goals or intentions towards a national goal which denies contextual specificity. Intersectional feminism as a national imaginary identifies the connectivity of identities to the point of homogeneous generalizations which erase the acknowledgement of specific experiences of exploitation and subordination. It mistakes inclusion for acceptance: just because the imagined feminist community has expanded its borders, does not mean that all who are deemed membership are heard or understood. In this form, intersectional feminism actually reinforces the status quo.
Secondly, this use of intersectionality fails to use it as a heuristic device, or a process of analysis which through trial, error, and success contributes to the formulation and execution of feminism. Heuristically, intersectional feminism analyzes the specificities, contexts, and paradoxes of identity and experience to solve problems of exclusivity, grapple with discrimination, and eradicate harmful universality. Heuristic intersectionality would involve both inclusion and acceptance, but achieve acceptance only through analysis of the conflicts which fueled initial exclusions. Viewing and utilizing intersectionality as a heuristic device not only leaves room for conflict and error, it requires them to function properly and produce informed solutions.
The challenges of properly exercising intersectional feminism is exemplified in Mallory’s situation. When responding to backlash, Mallory found herself in the difficult position of taking accountability while also managing the long and complex history between African and Jewish Americans, which involves underlying solidarities of marginalization, that are paradoxically challenged by drastic differences in privilege and positionality. The Nation of Islam is one such example of this, as it is an African American political and religious organization which produces anti-Semitic propaganda, while also existing as a positive force in black communities, most significantly by reducing street violence and providing rehabilitation support in prisons. Her condemnation of Farrakhan is therefore tied to an organization which has provided for black people in America when the state has not, an organization which personally provided her support following the killing of her child’s father. She is made to be seen as carrying entire histories and moral exigencies in her associations, as is often the case for black women activists.
Here lies the true failure and challenge of Mallory’s leadership: these complex social histories require Mallory to construct a response which is approached through a heuristic intersectional framework, perhaps by acknowledging the social contexts of her actions, in a time when the threat of American anti-Semitism is growing stronger with the rise of the far right, while violence and mass incarceration simultaneously threatens black American communities. But Mallory fails to do this, instead using intersectionality as a device of legitimization, stating in response to criticisms, “I am the same woman who helped to build an intersectional movement that fights for the rights of all people and stands against hatred and discrimination of all forms.”
Internal criticism of feminist movements is a necessary and healthy aspect of the feminist agenda, so long as those criticisms are based in comprehensive and thoughtful understandings of how flaws are produced and upheld. The events of the 2019 Women’s march illustrate this, as they indicate much about the future of the march, but these indications are not as obvious or catastrophic as they may seem. While a surface understanding delineates the divisionary ignorance of contemporary feminism, the actual conflicts themselves are evidence of its growth: in embarking on the largest political gathering of women in history, the Women’s March exposes contemporary feminism to conflicts of identity and privilege in ways that it has never before had to grapple with. This venture cannot continue without its hostilities, but these conflicts are the context through which analytical, heuristic intersectionality functions.
Heuristic intersectionality, not intersectional legitimization, is one way in which internal feminist criticisms can be made productively and accurately. Heuristic intersectionality is messy and painful, requiring the uncomfortable addressing of deep resentments and shameful histories which have long existed, but can be used to support new structures of power and community. These feminist growing pains are evidence that through cooperation and conflict, more voices will be heard, and the hopes and intentions of the Women’s March fully realized.
Words, Tennessee Woodiel – @turmericten