Intersectionality, Identity Politics and the Fragmentation of the Feminist Movement

Paper presented at the University of Redlands Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Conference in March 2019.

Abstract

This paper will discuss intersectionality and identity politics and the effect both these ideas had on the feminist movement in the west from 1977 to 1992. This will be done through an investigation of Kimberle Crenshaws ““Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, Charles Taylors On the Ethics of Authenticity¸ and the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement”. The debased forms of both intersectionality and identity politics contributed to fragmentation of the feminist movement, as is proven by the application of Taylor’s terms to social justice movements.

Key Terms

Intersectionality, identity politics, eudaimonia, authenticity, dialogical identity, horizons of significance, soft relativism

Identification and evaluation of sources

            To what extent did intersectionality and identity politics lead to the fragmentation of the feminist movement from 1977 to 1992?

The first source discussed is “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, the origin of which is it’s author Kimberle Crenshaw who published the paper in 1989. This source is of value due to Crenshaw’s background in Africana studies and law. Crenshaw is the cofounder of the African American Policy Forum and is a leading scholar of critical race theory. The source has limitations because Crenshaw only discusses intersectionality in terms of black women, but it retains value because of the perspective from which it was written.

The purpose of this paper is to critique the then current approach of the feminist movement and antiracist legislation and their treatment of black women. Crenshaw calls for a broadening of the feminist movement and antiracist politics to include the perspective of the black woman instead of being viewed through the exclusive lense of the white woman’s experience or the black male’s experience. At the time of publication, feminism was based off the experience of the white woman and antiracism was based off the experience of the black male. Therefore the experience of the black woman was overlooked, because her experience is distinct from that of the black male and the white woman. Crenshaw discusses how antiracist politics and legislation use the familial structure and culture of the white suburban family to evaluate the experience of the average black family. This creates a sort of dysphoria for the black woman as she holds herself to the standard of the white suburban family.

            The second source evaluated is Charles Taylor’s On the Ethics of Authenticity. The origin of this source is Taylor’s work at McGill University in 1992.  The author’s perspective at the time of publication adds value to the source. Taylor observed the fragmentation of western society as a consequence of the misapplication of ideas similar to Crenshaw’s. The source is limited because Taylor discusses the whole of society, not just the feminist movement. His ideas must be narrowed to properly apply them to the movement.

The purpose of this source is to propose that the ideal of authenticity has been corrupted. Taylor’s horizons of significance, dialogical identity and soft relativism argue against the fragmentation of western society. Authenticity is built through dialogical identity, or interactions with others through language. The authentic person uses these limit or horizons established through language to determine the significance of a claim. The significance of having a certain number of hairs on one’s head is only significant if it has value to the general population. Soft relativism promotes the idea that we cannot judge another’s way of fulfilling life. Taylor is against this approach and argues that it leads to debased authenticity. Correct application of these concepts leads to authenticity and eudaimonia, or the flourishing of society. These terms will be discussed in terms of the fragmentation of the feminist movement.

Investigation

The 1980s was a time during which many social justice movements were coming to the forefront of politics. Second wave feminism originally focused on women’s liberation in the workplace. It fought against the stereotypically feminine jobs being the only employment  available to women and called for an end to the wage gap. The movement soon spread to sexual and political freedom, evolving into third wave feminism. Third wave feminism is said to have started in the early 1990’s, focusing on individuality and the redefinition of womanhood. The fight for minority group rights continued. Segregated schools and housing were still present, affecting the lives of black women. The AIDs epidemic was still at the forefront of the medical world and with that came the call for the decriminalization of openly gay men and lesbian women. In the 1990’s, this expanded to include other gender identities and sexual orientations that are familiar to the general public today. Legislation concerning discrimination of disabled individuals became prevalent as well. Many of the social justice movements had overlap, but each was viewed as an independent group.  For the purposes of this paper and the discussion of intersectionality, identity politics and the fragmentation of the feminist movement, race and gender will be discussed with some reference to other movements.

Intersectionality was a theory introduced by Kimberle Crenshaw, a professor at UCLA in 1989, in a paper titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. The theory discusses discrimination in terms of multi-disadvantaged groups instead of single-disadvantaged groups. She refers to this as a “‘bottom-up approach…which combines all discriminatees in order to challenge an entire…system” (Crenshaw, 1989). By viewing feminism through the lense of the most disadvantaged individual, the opposition faced by the least disadvantaged individual is therefore remedied. Crenshaw discusses intersectionality in terms of the black woman, whereas the black woman is a member of a multi-disadvantaged group and the white woman or black male is a member of a single-disadvantaged group. Her argument is that black women experience discrimination on the basis of race and gender as well as the combined factors. Think of it as intersecting paths of color. Race is blue and gender is red. Black women are on the blue path and the red path, but also experience the purple where the two paths meet. Black men would only experience the blue path and white women would only experience the red. Neither black men or white women will ever experience purple. From the time that Crenshaw’s paper was published, intersectionality has come to the forefront of the feminist movement, both academically and socially.

            While it did bring the combined issues of many people to the forefront of politics, intersectionality also had a negative impact on the feminist movement. Crenshaw argues that feminism is based off of the struggles of white women and white women only. This declaration led to the formation of different groups. These will be referred to as subgroups of feminism. These subgroups include but are not limited to: women of color, women of low socioeconomic status, disabled women, women of different ages and queer women. Before the introduction of intersectionality, feminism was a single faceted movement, as was the push for antiracist politics. After intersectionality there were multiple, many faceted groups. These subgroups started to work for their individual interests, therefore leading to an increase in the use of identity politics.          

Identity politics was first coined by the Combahee River Collective in “A Black Feminist Statement” written in 1977 and defined as “ focusing upon [one’s] own oppression” and “the most…radical politics…directly out of [one’s] own identity”(Combahee River Collective, 1977).  The Combahee River Collective was a group of black lesbian women who met periodically from 1974 to 1980. The paper is a discussion of intersectionality in the political sphere without using the term coined by Crenshaw. Due to the sexual orientation of the majority of the group members, another color path is added to the analogy used above. In other words, there is another layer of discrimination. The lesbian black woman’s experience is introduced. The paper discusses the formation of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in reaction to the racism and elitism present in the second wave feminist movement. The group believed that by focusing on their own liberation, everyone would be liberated, because for the members of the NBFO to be free would “necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (Combahee River Collective, 1977). They also believed that, “it [was] obvious from looking at all the political movements… that [no one] is more worthy of liberation than [them]selves” (Combahee River Collective, 1977). The rhetoric and motivation behind the introduction and following rise of identity politics created an opposition between movements whose goals were not identical and did not give equal standing to each disadvantaged experience.

            Charles Taylor’s theories in On the Ethics of Authenticity can be applied to the argument. The movements as wholes lack authentic dialogical identities, or identities formed in relation to outside influence. The NBFO was created in reaction to the general second wave feminist movement. A significant number of people and ideas broke off from the group without evaluating horizons of significance or the impact on the flourishing of the movement. Many different groups followed, each then working independently of the others with no regard to each other’s needs, no matter how they might intersect. While working for some of the same things, the movements worked against each other with no authentic dialogue. This lead to the fragmentation of the feminist movement. The misunderstood idea of intersectionality and the overemphasis on the individual created a void between those who identified as intersectional feminists and those who did not. The subgroups of feminism felt as though their identities were not being recognized. The focus of each movement shifted away from the fight for equality and towards a fight for recognition and validation. This then led to feelings of resentment between the various subgroups, a disruption of the momentum of feminism and the progress that had been made and a corruption of the motivation behind the movement.

            The concept of identity politics and intersectionality when discussed within the framework of Taylor’s authenticity are beneficial to the movement. The notions of self fulfillment and liberation have been misunderstood because of a lack of authenticity in the western world. Crenshaw’s paper calls for the white female and black male experience, and white familial structure to be reevaluated to include marginalized groups. This follows Taylor’s dialogical identity and horizons of significance. The marginalized groups and their experiences are discussed in relation to other’s experiences and are deemed significant enough to contribute to the flourishing of the movement. Identity politics, on the other hand calls for individual fulfillment independent of the group. This can be equated to soft relativism, which Taylor argues against for the reason that it works against eudaimonia, or general human flourishing.

            Kimberle Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” , the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” and the concepts of intersectionality and identity politics discussed within each paper, when viewed in conjunction with one another, encouraged the fragmentation of the feminist movement. This can be seen when the two papers are evaluated in reference to Charles Taylor’s On the Ethics of Authenticity, a book which discusses the reasons behind the fragmentation of western society.  The reevaluation of the feminist lens that intersectionality calls for promotes a dialogical, authentic movement that will benefit all parties, but when viewed through the independent nature of identity politics leads to an excess of independent movements which work against the success of each.

Bibliography

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989.1 (1989): 138-67. Print.

Combahee River Collective, Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith. “A Black Feminist Statement.” Capitalist Patriarchy and a Case for Socialist Feminism (1978): 210-18. Print.

Taylor, Charles. On the Ethics of Authenticity. 1st ed. N.p.: Harvard U Press, 1992. Print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s