‘…when young women move into the world and they realise… “Why am I being treated differently?” and they start to blame themselves because they don’t understand that they are part of a historic pattern…which is…working a little bit against them.’
The other day a friend of mine came across a term that she didn’t fully understand: intersectional feminism. She realised she should probably know what that was so she asked me to help her learn about this. I am by no means the world’s feminist guru, however, I am fascinated by this topic and I have written a bit about it here and there. Mostly, I am not scared of it, and I think that is why she asked me in the first place.
Intersectional feminism is a current development of feminism that includes all minorities (such as transgender people, black people, and people with disabilities) and not just white cis women. To understand certain things that are happening within and around feminism now, I think it would be useful to revise some things that happened long before even Beyonce was born.
Early Feminism in Australia & New Zealand
The suffragettes were predominantly women who rallied in America and the UK to get the vote for women. New Zealand and Australia, because we are countries that were aggressively colonised by white people, followed suit. New Zealand was the first country to get the vote for women in 1893 and by 1908 in every state ‘Australian women who were British subjects, 21 years or older, gained the right to vote.’
Suffragettes in America and the UK did not usually include suffragettes that were people of colour in their rallies and meetings. In some areas wealthy suffragettes still had black slaves working for them. The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand was controversially signed by The Crown and many Iwi (tribe) chiefs of the country in 1840. Maori women traditionally have equal standing with men among the Iwi as the Maori see men as the keepers of tradition and their history while the women are the guardians of future generations as they carry their unborn children. For this reason, relatively higher numbers of Maori women were educated in New Zealand than pakeha (white) women.
However, the NZ suffragettes, after gaining the vote for women lead by Kate Sheppard, formed the National Council for Women which still exists today. This council overlooked the many groups, gatherings, councils, and collectives across the country advocating for women’s rights in NZ in many different sectors. This council has a predominantly white history. In 1951 The Maori Women’s Welfare League was formed for the continuation and teaching of Maori culture and matters of the Maori women of Aotearoa to try and prevent the loss of the culture to the pakeha.
In Australia the genocide and ignoring of the indigenous Aboriginal culture continues to this day. Much of the knowledge held by the women in these tribes is sacred and only to be known by welcomed indigenous people. The Aborigines did not have a treaty that entered their people and the white settlers into an ongoing negotiation of culture or otherwise. For this reason and many others, Australia’s predominant feminism continues to be that of which the white suffragettes started. For many countries, including Australia and New Zealand, the knowledge of transgender and LGBTQ+ has been limited if anything at all. In this way, these minorities have also been excluded from ‘mainstream’ feminism which has historically focused on women who fit society’s expectations of what a woman is and isn’t.
The Waves of Change
The various stages of feminism are often simplified into a few terms: first wave, second wave, and third wave feminism. These can roughly be defined as having the following main aims:
First wave feminists rallied for the right to vote and includes the (predominantly white and cis suffragettes like Kate Sheppard). Second wave feminism was what the baby boomers (my parents) were born into. Second wave feminists (like the controversial Germaine Greer and Betty Friedman) fought to be more than housewifes, they fought for equal pay in the work force, abortion laws, and reproductive rights. This era of feminism was dominated by the issues facing white middle class women: ‘Conversely, many women during the second wave were initially part of the Black Civil Rights Movement, Anti Vietnam Movement, Chicano Rights Movement, Asian-American Civil Rights Movement, Gay and Lesbian Movement.’ Women of these minority groups felt they were not being heard or recognised within the feminist movement, eventually spawning a new wave of feminism.
Third wave feminism is where the term intersectional feminism was established and where the transgender movement has grown into the public consciousness alongside the #blacklivesmatter movement, as well as disability awareness and more. With the rapid increase of technology development and social media activism, minorities who have previously been separated or isolated geographically and politically now have online platforms to build communities. Third wave feminism also incorporates men’s rights and breaking down the pressures and expectations placed on men to be unemotional and ‘the provider’ of the household. Toxic masculinity has become a focus of this movement because we can all benefit from equality and breaking down gender stereotypes. With the domestic violence death toll what it is ― ‘in 2015 80 women across Australia died at the hands of domestic violence’ ― not only do we need to talk about the objectification and demeaning of women but we also need to talk about the mental health of our men.
You may also notice that, short of the vote for women (although in America, many people struggled to get to a voting booth for numerous reasons) every other issue I have listed here from all three waves is still having to be fought for today.
In 2012, the first ever woman prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, highlighted the sexism and misogyny she was experiencing. Her opposition leader, Tony Abbott (who went on to be Prime Minister) painted the women of Australia as domestic housewifes who ‘do the ironing.’
According to workforce specialists, Australian men are still paid on average 20% more than women of the nation. While in NZ our pay gap is only 12%, clearly this inequality is still thriving, despite about 60 years of raising this issue. As we watch increasing funding cuts to abortion and family planning clinics in America under the Trump presidency, NZ’s own prime minister, Bill English, announced that he would not be updating the kiwi abortion law despite it being part of the Crimes Act of 1961 claiming it has ‘stood the test of time’ the way it is. Australia’s own abortion laws are similar to that of NZ. Just last year my friend in Canberra dressed up as a tampon and joined crowds of women around Australia to protest against the ‘tampon tax’. As more people learn about this tax, the more momentum this movement is gaining. Similarly the shift toward gender neutral bathrooms is growing in Australia, since 2013 when NZ was the first to legalise gay marriage. Recently, kiwi school children rallied at parliament to protest NZ’s rape culture in schools.
A lot of people feel intimidated by feminism because they don’t know what some of the words mean that are thrown around this topic. There is even a lot of debate over the word ‘feminism’ because people feel it doesn’t reflect what it means.
Feminism has a history and if you learn about that history you will understand that the feminism movement is evolving along with our cultures and societies. People hear the word ‘feminism’ and think of a group of white suffragettes walking along the streets with placards shouting about the vote for women. Or they hear an out of context statement that vaguely resembles something Germaine Greer said about never having babies. Or they hear their kids arguing about whether ‘girls are better than boys’ and assume that feminism is either irrelevant (‘woman can vote! And they have jobs now!’), or it is about something other than empowerment (they might say ‘I believe in the empowerment of women but I am not a feminist because that scares people’) or that it is about total female world domination (they might say ‘I’m a man so I can’t be a feminist’). So, to clear things up, here are some helpful word definitions (SPOILER: I think you might find you are a feminist):
If you weren’t too sure what various terms and titles mean when experiencing feminist conversation in the media, here is a few to get you started:
Intersectional Feminism – ‘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 are influenced by intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.’ [Source]
LGBTQ+ – People often use this term to include all of the following communities: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual, agender, gender queer, bigender, gender variant, and pangender. [Source]
White feminism – A brand of feminism centered around the ideals and struggles of primarily white women. While not outright exclusive, its failure to consider other women and its preoccupation with Western standards and the problems faced by the ‘average woman’ is often alienating to women of color, non-straight women, trans women, and women belonging to religious or cultural minorities. [Source]
Transphobia – Dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people. [Source]
Privilege – A set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group. [Source]
Toxic Masculinity – ‘One of the ways in which patriarchy is harmful to men. It refers to the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, emotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.’ [Source]
Rape Culture – A society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse. [Source]
Radical Feminism – ‘The main difference between Radical Feminism and other branches of feminism is that they didn’t concentrate on equalising the distribution of power. Instead, they focus their efforts on completely eliminating patriarchy by transforming the entire structure of society.’ [Source]
Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) – ‘A person (typically one directly opposed to third wave feminism) who believes that men’s issues (almost 4x as likely to commit suicide, majority of victims of violent crime, 90+% of deaths on the job and 99% of combat deaths) are also relevant in today’s society. Men’s rights activists, or MRAs for short, promote equal treatment of men’s issues and equal accountability for women.’ [Source]
I just want to add that these different factions of feminism as well as the Men’s Rights Movement stem from limitations within the movement. The more that we understand the ways in which gender inequality is damaging for everyone, including the white cis men, but also understand the ways in which we are privileged, the more we can progress as people and as a society.
We Still Need Feminism
There is an infinite amount of women, minorities, experiences, historical, and cultural information I have not included. This is just the stuff I felt I could include at this stage of my own feminist journey. Wherever you are on your feminist journey, know that intersectional feminism is about including everyone as we work to make our society a better place for everyone in it. This includes giving people the choice to dress and express themselves however they like (including nudity and provocative clothing, hijaabs, saris, and clothing that may not fit the fashions trends of your peers or country). This includes penalising rape and raising awareness around consent. This includes funding women’s health centres and companies providing maternity leave. This includes plentiful sex education in schools and throughout our lives for all orientations. This includes better rights and conditions for all sex workers. This includes the acceptance of vulnerability in everyone and allowing everyone the permission to cry. This includes not judging other people for what they choose to do with their lives.
If you don’t know about a term you come across or if you don’t know why a hashtag like #blacklivesmatter and #changethedate are occurring, don’t ignore it. Take a minute to read a bit about it and learn something. If you see an advert that is saying they promote the empowerment of women, think about what they are trying to sell you in order for you to access that empowerment. Don’t turn away because these issues are probably affecting you or someone you know and you may not even realise. Those suffragettes were great, but today a feminist has many different faces, so please don’t look away.
Continue your learning
While we have you here, how about you sign up to this petition to axe the period tax? We will love you forever if you do.