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Our work in March 2023, the month dedicated to celebrating Women’s History, remains no less urgent today than it was in the summer of 2020. Three years after the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still reeling from its disproportionately deadly impact on BIPOC communities and also from the flagrant, ubiquitous, systemic disregard for the rights of Black and brown people to live in peace and safety anywhere in this country.
One key analytical insight of legal and political scholarship, the concept of “intersectional feminism” coined in 1989 by the legal and cultural scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, helps explain how the compounding impacts of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, among other institutionalized biases, made BIPOC communities especially vulnerable to the devastation of COVID-19. As Crenshaw said in a February 2020 interview in Time, it is
a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.
Later that same year, an unsigned essay posted on the UN Women page hosted by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, applied the points made by Crenshaw to a global and historical context:
Long histories of violence and systematic discrimination have created deep inequities that disadvantage some from the outset…. While issues ranging from discrimination based on gender identity to disparate environmental burdens may seem separate at first, intersectional feminism illuminates the connections between all fights for justice and liberation. It shows us that fighting for equality means not only turning the tables on gender injustices, but rooting out all forms of oppression. It serves as a framework through which to build inclusive, robust movements that work to solve overlapping forms of discrimination, simultaneously.
Every political, social, environmental, economic, and legal issue involves and affects women in a non-trivial way. Yet women around the world, of all intersectional circumstances, must struggle to exercise agency and self-determination for themselves and their families and communities. Nothing can guarantee that an opportunity, privilege, or right guaranteed for some in one moment or location will exist at any other time.
To name one fraught example, we in the U.S. have had to go all out in an attempt to protect full and comprehensive bodily autonomy. Right wing religious (predominantly Christian in the U.S.) zealots are succeeding with horrifying regularity in sending us backwards to an era of rigidly policed gender identities and limitations. Depending on their location, pregnant people can no longer count on their ability to choose abortion in the wake of the Dobbs v Jackson decision by SCOTUS in June 2022–the decision that gutted the national guarantee in place since 1973 (though deeply compromised later) by Roe v Wade.
In a society prone to scapegoating and othering, women, broadly defined, and LGBTQ+ people of all genders find it increasingly difficult simply to live their lives in safety and peace. Trans and genderqueer youth and adults face targeting at school, in the workplace, and in public accommodations. We continue to take only inadequate steps to protect women, femmes, and transpeople from sexualized and partner violence. In short, we are far from ensuring the rights of women, inclusively defined, to live their best lives, raise their families and empower their communities without also needing to fight other life-threatening battles including environmental racism, land theft, and structural poverty at every turn.
We know that the white supremacist, misogynistic, homophobic culture we inhabit makes life much harder–and often shorter–than it should be for anyone other than a straight, white, able-bodied, Christian, cis-gendered male. (And even folks who fit that intersectional demographic niche are themselves at higher-than-necessary risk thanks to the comprehensive harm caused by white supremacist patriarchy.) Enter “intersectional feminism” for a way to understand how to grapple with the complex interconnected systems that make it difficult to imagine, let alone live in, a world with genuine equity, access to the abundance of life, and accountability for making it sustainable for all–where all includes but is not limited to women.
Much scholarship related to “Women’s History Month” in the U.S. focuses on the social, political, and economic changes in the status of women, and the Library of Congress’ repository on Women’s History is no exception. Legislation, Executive Orders, and Constitutional Amendments–whether ratified or not–have all had powerful impacts on the lived experience of women in the U.S. Yet the cultural, literary, and artistic legacies created by women also have been chronically overlooked, and those too deserve more attention than they typically receive.
During this year’s observance of Women’s History Month, applying the lens of intersectional feminism is more important than ever for those of us seeking to transform our society.
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