Before I came to the University of Michigan, back when I was just a naive, little high schooler, I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling–anger at being belittled, looked down upon, a burning passion to change the small minds of others. You see, I went to a private Christian school (I promise I’m not that weird because of it) where it was constantly reinforced that men were above women, that women should aspire to serve their husbands, that women should remain pure until marriage, that women were homemakers, mothers, etc. This infuriated me while it boosted the egos of my male classmates. I knew that my worth, as a woman, was in no way lesser than that of a man’s simply because a teacher said so. I wasn’t going to just be someone’s wife or someone’s mother. Additionally, I knew that serious problems faced women, plagued us, even, besides just the bigoted, misogynistic views of my narrow-minded school.
I discovered what I was looking for when I arrived at the University of Michigan. The word I was looking for was feminism. I was a feminist! It suddenly all made sense.
I took a Women’s Studies class during my freshmen year of college, and let me tell you, I was a feminist newb for sure. I didn’t know the correct terms or jargon to express what I was feeling. I was learning, though, and I was trying to do so quickly, to make up for lost time. The person I was in high school was a naive girl misinformed by delusions created to belittle and impel. The person I am in college, however, is the feminist that has always been inside of me.
But feminism is so much more than what my preconceived notions told me. I remember, very clearly, our first lesson on intersectional feminism. I had absolutely no idea what the word meant. I’d just assumed, naively so, that feminism meant the same to me that it meant to other women, because we were all fighting for equality, right?
And I remember feeling like a real jerk after that lesson. Because it had never occurred to me, a very privileged white girl, that other women experience vastly more inequality than I do, and they experience our shared inequality in ways I don’t.
Intersectionality means looking at how the–you guessed it–intersections of a person’s life can lead to “varying configurations and degrees of oppression.”
A really good essay on intersectional feminism was written by 14-year-old Girl Meets World star Rowan Blanchard back in August of 2015. Even though she is young, she is vastly wiser than I am, and I’m not afraid to admit that. I’ve really looked up to Ms. Blanchard ever since she penned the piece on her Tumblr:
“White feminism” forgets all about intersectional feminism. The way a black woman experiences sexism and inequality is different from the way a white woman experiences sexism and inequality. Likewise with trans-women and Hispanic women. While white women are making 78 cents to the dollar, Native American women are making 65 cents, black women are making 64 cents, and Hispanic women are making 54 cents. Kimberlé Crenshaw said it perfectly in 1989 when she said “The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.” This includes trans women especially, who have been robbed of their souls when they are told they are not “real women” It is SO important to protect trans women and trans youth as they are incredibly at risk when it comes to sexual assault and hate crimes. People also seem to forget that black women are victims of police violence too- from Sandra Bland to India Clarke- a trans woman who was beaten to death in Florida just a month ago.
After Ms. Blanchard posted this, the piece received a lot of attention, and rightly so. The essay gets straight to the point: white feminism is not enough, and ultimately, it is not feminism at all. Because if we see feminism from our own, small viewpoint, we’re really not getting it. Because what led me to feminism–the constricting views of my high school–might not be how woman of color, a lesbian woman, or a trans woman was led to feminism. While we all fight for equality of the sexes, we do so coming from a very different background, a very different point of view. And, if done right, this can lead to a very rich and diverse feminism. Unfortunately, the feminist movement is not perfect (surprise!).
Overcoming white feminism has been a conscious effort, and I have to catch myself often to make sure I’m seeing the bigger picture and not just my own pinpointed view of it. Intersectional feminism is really dependent upon empathy. Because while I cannot first-handedly understand the experiences of other women, I can be empathetic to their experiences, and I can try my absolute hardest to help them eradicate the inequalities they face.
A good way to think about empathy comes from Leslie Jamison’s book of essays, The Empathy Exams (which I encourage all of you to read). Says Ms. Jamison:
Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must be really hard–it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see (p. 5).
Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us… it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves… The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations (p. 23).
That is, ultimately, what I must do to have a more inclusive, intersectional feminism: I must extend myself. I must listen, and I must ask questions. Change won’t come any other way.
I recently read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and this idea that others face more layers of inequality is echoed in his words, as he says that women’s bodies are “set out for pillage” in ways in which his is not.
Coates, a black man writing about the injustices faced by the black community every day, recognizes that black women experience that inequality and fear in very different ways than he does. Like Coates, I, too, now recognize that many, many women experience inequality and fear in very different ways than I do.
But just like Coates says this not to belittle his own experience, but rather to bring to light that inequality wears many faces, I too must remember that it is okay that I fight the inequalities that I, myself, face. I just also must be empathetic and ready to fight against the inequalities that plague others.
I believe that feminism, like life, is a constant educational experience. I am always learning new ways to be better, to do more, to achieve more. I am learning from books, like The Empathy Exams and Between the World and Me. I am learning from 14-year-old TV actresses. I am learning from my own What the F colleagues–fearless, inspiring women who dare to challenge the status quo, the minds of others, and even my own perceptions.
I do not have all the answers. I am full of contradictions, and I make so many mistakes. But I am learning.
Blog Editor, What the F
Communications and Creative Writing