I love the website Everyday Feminism. I discovered it almost a year ago, directed there by links my friends would post to Facebook, and after about the third visit, I realized what a low-key gold mine I’d stumbled upon. There were scores of articles about every possible social justice topic I could imagine, and many I had never even thought about. One of which was an approach to feminism I would later learn was called intersectionality. Who had created this oasis? A nonprofit? The social justice goddesses? A nameless, benevolent universal force?
I felt the same awe when, out of the blue, an Everyday Feminism moderator messaged me and invited me to apply for a position as a social media associate just a few weeks ago. Apparently, they’d appreciated my active presence on their Facebook page and thought I would be interested in trying out for one of their open positions. Floored, I began the application right away, eager to take them up on the offer.
But when I got to the question, “What does intersectional feminism mean to you?” I began to feel unsure of myself. I knew the type of answer they were expecting, but all I could think about was the fact that they were asking me for a definition, when the term wasn’t mine to define.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, intersectionality is the idea that aspects of our identity cannot be isolated from each other—that our experience of oppression or privilege is located at the intersection of the different parts of our identity. When it comes to feminism, intersectionality says that there are no such things as monolithic “women’s issues,” but instead that whether a woman is of color, transgender, poor or wealthy, an immigrant, and so forth all shape her specific experience of oppression. In this light, women’s issues are infinitely complex, filtered and refracted through many different lenses of identity.
Everyday Feminism is just one of a growing number of contemporary feminist communities in which intersectional feminism is recognized as the new gold standard. The phrase rolls off the tongues of many young feminists as easily as “smash the patriarchy.” That’s good. That’s great. That’s a revolution in the making.
What’s not good or great or anything new, much less revolutionary, is that the origins of intersectionality are not acknowledged by many of the feminist communities that have adopted it. During the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, it was women of color who first articulated this idea of overlapping oppression. The Combahee River Collective, a small but notable coalition of Black lesbian activists formed in 1974, was one of the most radical of these newly formed black feminist groups, and their focus on simultaneous and interlocking forms of oppression was a pivotal point in the development of feminist theory. But it was not until 1993 that the term “intersectionality” was first coined, and the framework solidified—by a black female scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Feminism hasn’t been the same since.
For such a monumental theory, one would think that Kimberlé Crenshaw would share a status with Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin. Instead, she remains practically unknown outside scholarly and radical circles. In one of the greatest examples of irony I can think of, the movement that claims to challenge the mainstream’s erasure of women of color continues to do exactly that by not knowing its own history, passing over all the black women that have made feminism the powerful and meaningful force that it is today.
Intersectional feminism isn’t just another word for inclusion and awareness–it’s a specific framework for combating oppression on multiple fronts, a tool created by women of color who often found themselves fighting alone. And true intersectional feminist activism doesn’t just make a space for people of color, queer folks, poor folks, or folks who speak another language—it restores the power stolen from marginalized groups by acknowledging that the work of our minds and hands is present everywhere. It means celebrating our contributions, speaking our language, and most importantly, saying our names.
I’m sure the social justice goddesses would be pleased.
Willow Naomi Curry is a student at American University majoring in journalism with minors in multi-ethnic and American studies. Her main areas of interest are American identity, the lived experience of women of color, and inequality. She spends much of her time watching musicals, attempting to write songs, spending too much time in bookstores, and cooking.