A Hasty Primer on Intersectional Feminism and Knowing Your Privilege

A Hasty Primer on Intersectional Feminism

A friend asked for a simple summary of Intersectional Feminism. Here's what I wrote, which is longer than it should be but not half as long as it ought to be.

A difficult thing with any social movement or idea is that lots of people contribute to it and shape it and everyone involved (or not involved) has a different idea of what it means or what it is. Definitions are hard and people argue about them. So I'll give you the definitions I use, which come from what I've learned and seen and thought. They're not absolute definitions, just my ideas based on other people's ideas.

Feminism as I learned it, mostly from the feminists in the geek community, is about equality.

Feminism sees that due to a history where men were in charge we have an unbalanced society where women are disadvantaged in things like jobs and suffer sexual harassment, domestic violence etc. You can measure this kind of prejudice and demonstrate that there are quite a few ways where life is harder for women. The standard gender roles for men and women, which are fading, are unhealthy and unhelpful. Men have repressed emotions and women suffer excessively from mental health issues like anxiety.

So the goal of feminism is an equal society, where men are able to display healthy emotions and women can go out at night without being raped and can get good jobs just like a normal person.

Feminism as a movement originated out of "suffrage", the movement to get women the vote. We call this "first wave feminism". Women like Emily Pankhurst went to prison, and some died, fighting for the right for women to vote.

Following that in the sixties and seventies (I think) there was a strong movement for the social liberation of women building on the foundation of first wave feminism and alongside the social movements of love and sexual liberation of the hippies that also included the charismatic evangelistic revival of that time in the house church movement (less sexual liberation there though). Feminists like Simone de Beauvoir were at the forefront of this and many of the goals of feminism were advanced greatly as society changed and feminism became more mainstream. Women having control over their own body was a big part of that.

Third wave feminism was a new movement from the last decade or two. On top of second wave feminism it adds sex positivity and sex worker positivity, the recognition of trans people and included and welcomed more men into the movement. Second wave feminism discouraged men from identifying as feminists, saying they could only be allies. Third wave feminism is for everyone.

Alongside third wave feminism black feminists, women philosophers, worked on a new feminism. They were involved in activism on race issues and gender issues. They suffered oppression both because they were women and because they were black and they saw that the issues they faced were compounded by the intersection of the different kinds of oppression, that they faced difficulties their white sisters did not. They also noted other intersections, disabled black people, disabled women, gay women and gay black people. So they came up with a new kind of feminism called intersectional feminism that understood and took this into account.

They saw that in life there are many different ways people can be oppressed or advantaged. To be white in this world is an advantage. To be straight is an advantage, because people experience oppression because they are gay. And so on. The advantage they called privilege.

Intersectional feminism is the understanding that many different axes (different kinds) of privilege and oppression intersect (come together) in every life. 

We all have some natural advantages and disadvantages in life. Some people suffer under a lot of oppression. So those who are privileged can empathise with and try to understand the suffering of the oppressed, because we've all experienced some suffering and oppression. It also means we all benefit in some ways, unfortunately, from the suffering of others. If others are naturally disadvantaged when it comes to applying for jobs (for example if you're black or a woman) then just being a man is a slight advantage. You can prove this is true by looking at statistics.

So those of us who have gained unfairly from the suffering of others, lots of the wealth of the west came from the oppression of poorer countries and the use of slaves, have some moral responsibility to help right the wrongs of the past and the present. We don't add to any individual and it's on the conscience of every person as to how they deal with that. But it's true anyway.

It can also help us to understand other people, to understand that they've had different lives to us and hard in ways that we haven't had to deal with. That's helpful for being able to empathise and connect with people and show them understanding and show that we care.

I was drawn to feminism, and started to all myself a feminist, because of the positive things I saw people (particularly women but far from only women) doing, in the name of third wave feminism, within the geek and tech community to include people. Django Girls, PyLadies, Transcode, mentoring, etc . So many beautiful people working so hard to actually include people, to love and support people. It wasn't about arguing it was about doing the work. People actually building a community of love. The practise rather than the theory. It's why one of my proudest achievements is my Python Software Foundation Community Award, recognising my work for the Python community. It's a community I'm so proud of and so proud to be part of.
The only theory worth a damn is the theory of the practise.
My psychotherapist, very active within the queer scene in Brighton and London, says she no longer calls herself a feminist due to the transphobia in British feminism. This is largely second wave feminists, and other FARTs, who refuse to see trans-women as women. Not acknowledging that breaking down the evil gender stereotypes is exactly what feminism has always been about. Deborah calls herself an egalitarian now. I saw and see a lot of beauty in feminism, particularly intersectional feminism, so I still call myself a feminist.

In summary, intersectional feminism is about loving and accepting people and understanding and supporting them. The intersectional part helps us to understand some of the disparate forces that shape and influence lives.

Knowing Your Privilege

Intersectional feminism teaches us that women are disproportionately affected by the plight and emotional and mental health of men. You therefore can't care about all women without caring about men.

Socially isolated and unhappy males cause a great deal of suffering and can become very evil.

An important consequence of intersectional feminism is that there's no blame associated with privilege, and that oppression isn't personal either. Isn't the fault of the disadvantaged. It's all just chance and the circumstances of life. That's a freeing understanding.

If you're aware of your privilege, if you know your privilege and use it then you can have a clean conscience. You didn't cause the suffering personally and you don't owe any individual anything, you've been aware of your privilege and tried to pay it forward when you could - so no-one has any hold on you.

I like to say: pay tax, give to charity, give to the homeless and owe nobody anything and have a clean conscience.

That's why I think intersectional feminism is both useful and beautiful. By viewing the world through that lense, and making a reasonable effort to act on what I see, I'm able to have a clean conscience.

And it also tells me how to deal with any privilege I'm unaware of. I'm only morally responsible for it once I become aware of it, because I only have any opportunity to deal with it once I'm aware of it. It's lovely. I don't have to worry about the past and anything I might have done without being aware of the consequences because I'll deal with things as they come up and make an honest attempt not to make mistakes. I think that's just behaving honourably and it isn't really that new.

I'm a a Jewish, British, Socialist, Feminist, Witch, middle aged, middle class, pansexual, ex-christian, ex-homeless, ex-prisoner, GenX, neurodiverse, cult survivor, body positive, university educated, university dropout, sex positive, switch, gamer, raver, hippie, white, cis, mostly male identifying geek. My life has been marked by many different kinds of privilege and oppression.

I've been beaten up on the streets for being homeless. I've helped setup and run a charity for the homeless and disadvantaged in Northampton and worked there part time for about seven years, longer as a volunteer. I lived without money and personal possessions in a Christian communal cult for ten years, working selling bricks during that time, in order to live for something I believed in. During which time I taught myself to program computers. I was eventually ostracised from that "church movement" (and left) for, amongst things, speaking out vocally on the issue of the role of women and sexuality in particular homosexuality over a long period of time. I've always tried to be generous with what life has provided me.

So I feel like I've tried to be honourable with the privilege I've had and I've worked at resolving the trauma I've suffered. I find privilege a really useful tool for understanding life.

And it's intersectional. Women who are homeless are particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged because of their gender. So you can't care about all women without caring about the homeless. Similarly women with gender identity issues are particularly vulnerable and oppressed because society tries to control women's bodies and women are more subject to sexual harassment. So you can't care about all women without caring about gender identity issues.

Conversely, if I've helped the homeless and worked to helping the homeless then I've helped women. Women who were particularly vulnerable.

So for me it's a freeing theory. It allows me to be an ally to the disadvantaged in a lot of what I do, just by helping people which I like doing. And it means I can address social issues and need without guilt. I rarely feel pressured into helping out of guilt, because I know I've tried. So when I do help someone it isn't obligation, it comes from a genuine heart. That's a much nicer way to help people, free from obligation and guilt.

Sometimes I hear "privilege theory", which is both a part of intersectional feminism and a derogatory reductionism of it, is a cult that people don't want to join.

The cult part is interesting. It's mostly a reflection of not wanting to see another point of view. The new point of view does come with a whole worldview that people don't want to buy into, which is why it looks like a cult.

Unfortunately people do a terrible job of selling that worldview, making it seem nasty. Because they're nasty people. That's a shame. Most people are nasty it seems at times. Which leaves you feeling like you have to be a bit nasty yourself just to stand up for what is right. And then you wonder what the difference is.

A lot of those who "don't want to join the cult" don't realise that they need to leave the cult (restricted worldview) they're in and join the rest of the world. There's a really beautiful world out there to discover. Everyone's lost in their own little cult, their own world, their own way of seeing the world. And so many people are trapped in their own hell.

It's awful, more so because it doesn't have to be like this. It starts by helping those out of a hell that other people make.

And of course feminism cares about men. Caitlin Moran speaks beautifully on the subject.

For every person you meet you have no idea what struggles and oppression and suffering they've experienced, nor who they have loved and helped or where their passion burns.


"90% of our experience is in the rational, 90% of our power is non-rational. The 90-10 rule."

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