When I was a just a baby feminist in my second year at university, I came across a piece of writing which changed my life. In her chapter “The Constructed Body”, Colette Guillaumin discusses the ways that women are socialised to minimize their use of physical space, and the ways men are taught to dominate and own their space. Women cross their legs, hold themselves small, eat less, work out in ways that create leanness rather than bulk… and so on and so forth. In her essay, she also discussed the way that women cross significantly more ground while walking the same distance as men, as women are constantly swerving, ducking, and diving out of the way while men travel in direct, straight lines.
This essay, one of the first I encountered in my feminist education, really shook me. It made me examine the ways I occupy and interact with space, and the ways in which these interactions were gendered. Was it that I actually had a smaller appetite than men, or had I just been taught this? And what about the differences between the way that my brother would jump, skate, handstand and back flip with reckless abandon while I tended to interact with the physical world in a timid, worried sort of way? And you would never catch me sitting with my knees apart on a bus.. My introduction to feminism was to see the way that patriarchy and rigid gender roles were literally inscribed into my very physical being, and onto the physical being of others. So naturally, I started to resist through the way I moved my body. One of the first things I began to tackle was how I walked. Goodbye curves and swerves, hello straight lines. I promised myself I would move for no man in the street. Overnight, I flipped a switch and started bouldering ahead, eyes fixed forward, chuckling with satisfaction at the stunned faces of men whose shoulders’ collided with mine. All their lives, women had made way for them, and their shock when someone failed to do so was palpable. I was proud. I was excited. I was smashing the patriarchy, one shoulder barge at a time.
But soon I started noticing something odd. As I charged down the street in all my angry feminist glory, it was only white men who failed to notice my trajectory. I never collided with men of colour. They all moved effortlessly out of my way, as if they had been experiencing this all their lives (spoiler alert: they have). The sight of an entitled, bolshy white girl charging down the street did nothing to shock men of colour; I was simply another oblivious white person taking up more than their fair share of public space. And then I started to think a little deeper about this particular form of resistance – should I, in my fervor to challenge patriarchy, bowl down men in wheelchairs or on crutches? Stick unwaveringly to my lane in the face of the elderly? What about a trans man, who is only starting to fully embody his gender in public spaces? How would my aggression affect him? When did this gesture turn from defiance against oppressive systems to an exercise in my own privilege?
So many feminists, young and old, go through this belligerent phase. It seems to be a part of growing up and growing into the nuances of understanding the world. We must first grow and lose our baby teeth before our molars can break through our tender, swollen gums. Fierce, snarly, ready to fight first and think later. For many, the baby teeth never quite fall out. And it is no wonder that this chapter is such a pivotal part in the journey of so many (white) feminists, because feminism itself is rooted in the same reactionary anger and failure to recognise privilege. When I talk about “feminism” in this context, I am talking about the feminism spearheaded by predominantly white American and British feminists and scholars of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, also known as Women’s Lib, Radical Feminism or Second Wave Feminism. I discuss this particular school of thought because it remains the most recognisable branch of feminism even today, and continues to be highly influential in feminist discourse and understandings of power. It is important to note, however, that feminist thought has been rising and falling, oppressing and resisting, compromising and co-opting, throughout history and across the planet for centuries.
Who did I start harming when I started taking up more physical space? What power dynamics was I failing to see?
Radical feminism was and is a righteous, furious and powerful reaction to the patriarchal system that we live in. Gender discrimination is still a rampant, harmful force that affects all of our lives, but in the particular context that Radical Feminism sprung from in Western society around the 1960’s, this discrimination was widely accepted and openly woven into institutions and personal lives. Understandings of gender roles were rigid, rape within marriage was legal, “bread-winner” wages normalized a significant gender pay gap, and abortions were illegal and dangerous to obtain. Second wave feminism worked hard to make some palpable strides in improving the lives of [some] women – but it also left behind a legacy of racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism and colonialism. Radical feminism was, and continues to be, that bolshy white woman bouldering down the street, single mindedly careening towards the goal of equality for some, never glancing back to see the destruction left behind her.
Some of the notable casualties of Radical Feminism include but are (very much) not limited to, trans women and women of colour. There are so many others we could discuss here, but for the interests of keeping this a brief overview, I will focus mainly on how Second Wave Feminism has failed, and further oppressed, these two groups of women. Trans women are so blatantly discriminated against by radical feminists that a term has been coined for them: Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs. Germaine Greer dedicates an entire chapter to her transphobic views in her book “The Whole Woman”, where she discusses sex reassignment surgery as “mutilation” and goes on to say in a fit of gate-keeping rage that “no one ever asked women if they recognise sex-change males as belonging to their sex”. And in The Transsexual Empire, Janice Raymond argues that trans women can not be women because they have experienced male privilege prior to transitioning. She argues that our gender is predetermined by our sex, and that we carry our sex roles assigned at birth with us forever, no matter how we identify. In other words – our gender roles are pre-determined by our biology, which sounds an awful lot like patriarchy to me. Locally, Rape Relief Vancouver continues to have transphobic policies that do not allow trans women to access their services or volunteer their time to the organisation, despite trans women (particularly trans women of colour) being far more likely to experience sexualised violence than cis women.
As well as reinstating oppressive gender binary, Radical Feminism also reasserted racialized oppression. Since the early second wave movement, feminist circles have been predominantly white and middle class, and even as said feminist circles tried to diversify, they often cited the reason for this lack of diversity being linked to women of colour being less progressive and politically minded. They almost never stopped to ask if feminism itself was hostile towards women of colour, and any experiences they brought to the table that differed from their own. As bell hooks writes in “From Centre to Margin” when discussing the pivotal feminist text “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.”
At the time that “The Feminine Mystique” was published and playing a weighty role in sparking the Women’s Lib movement with its emphasis on finding empowerment through careers, one third of black women in the United States were already in the workforce. bell hooks argues that, by making the struggle of white middle class women synonymous with the struggles of ALL women, white feminists were never forced to acknowledge the ways that they benefited from racism.
It would be comfortable for us to dismiss these problematic feminists as “a few bad apples”. It is what many of us may have been doing for a long time. But it is vital that we learn from these examples, and allow them to reveal the oppressive structures that are alive and well within feminism. Radical Feminism has, at its core, a belief that gender is the ultimate oppressive category, trumping all other facets of a woman’s identity. Radical Feminism fought patriarchy from a place of shared oppression and unified sisterhood. While perhaps positive in theory, the insistence on creating a unified “female experience” laid a foundation for recreating oppressive power structures within feminism itself. If the female experience is universal, and centred in the biologically female body, there can be no room for varied bodies, experiences, or alliances. Trans women were erased. Black women called traitors for working alongside black men. Women of colour accused of weakening the feminist movement by pointing out the racial power dynamics within it. And on and on and on. Sisterhood and biological determinism gave feminism a unique tool to silence all who would critique the oppressive power dynamics from within, sheltering white, middle class, cis gender, able bodied feminists from being made aware of their own privileged status.
The effects of these ideas linger strongly in contemporary feminism: from the “Lean In” approach of Sheryl Sandberg which ignores class privilege and the oppressive nature of capitalism, to anti-sex trafficking lobbyists refusing to listen to sex workers as they fight against the dangerous SESTA/FOSTA laws, to the Pink Pussy Hat wearing white feminists who fail to acknowledge the huge role that white women played in Trump’s rise to power, many brands of feminism are still blindly careening down the sidewalk, leaving destruction in their wake.
Since Feminism first began to bubble over with oppressive structures, so too have people met these oppressions with power and resistance. Before we had widespread terminology, marginalised women (particularly Black women) were fully aware of the interplay of power and privilege, and critical of feminisms glaring blindspots to the intricacies of oppression. But it wasn’t until 1989 when Kimberlé Crenshaw gave us the words to help fully articulate a new kind of feminism; a feminism that actively aims to acknowledge imbalances of privilege and power within and outside of gendered oppression. In “Demarginalizing the Intersection” Crenshaw writes:
“Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated. Thus, for feminist theory and anti-racist policy discourse to embrace the experiences and concerns of Black women, the entire framework that has been used as a basis for translating “women’s experiences” or “the black experience” into concrete policy must be rethought and recast.”
Intersectional feminism at its core understands that women are not a unified category, but are inherently multiple, fractured, and shaped by more than just gender. A person can experience both oppression and privilege at the same time, depending on a myriad of identifying categories And while Radical Feminism would tell us that pointing out these differences weakens the feminist cause, Intersectional Feminism encourages us to find these intersections of power to better strengthen the feminist movement. By reframing multiplicity as opposed to unity, Intersectional Feminism has given us the tools to work towards ending all forms of oppression at the same time, instead of reinforcing some oppressive structures to end others.
Intersectional Feminism emphasises listening over speaking, and growth over always being right. It acknowledges the many forms of intersecting privileges and oppression that we all face. There has never been any excuse for feminism to have such glaring blind spots to its own inherent racism, transphobia and many other oppressive structures. However, today, there is even LESS of an excuse, with the wealth of knowledge available thanks to the tireless work of feminists existing and resisting from the margins. Intersectional feminism is a dedication to doing better than we have before. It is a stand against ignorance, fear and violence. As indigenous activist Lilla Watson-Kangula says more eloquently than I ever could:
“If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Aboriginal activist group, Queensland, 1970’s
by Rachael Lundy
Crenshaw, Kimberlė; “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Anti-Racist Politics” in University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989
Friedan, Betty; “The Feminine Mystique”, 1963
Greer, Germaine; “The Whole Woman”, 1999 *
Guillaumin, Collette; “The Constructed Body” in Reading the Social Body. Edited by Catherine Burroughs and Jeffery Ehrenreich, 1993
hooks, bell; “Feminist Theory; From Margin to Centre”, 2015
Raymond, Janice; “The Transsexual Empire”, 1979 *
*TERF trash, I do not recommend