Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

‘Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’?

Laura, a member of the Feminist Fightback Collective reviews a workshop at the Feminism in London Conference this autumn.

November 9, 2013
6 min read


Laura SchwartzLaura Schwartz Associate Professor of Modern British History at the University of Warwick


  share     tweet  

WP_20131026_004A workshop on ‘Challenging Linked Systems of Power’ was a welcome addition to the Feminism in London Conference 2013, which in the past has been criticised for an over-emphasis on pornography and the sex industry as the sole cause of women’s oppression. The workshop aimed to address the ways in which patriarchy, racism and capitalism intersect, shape and prop each other up. Participants were asked to think about strategies for building a feminist movement which could challenge all these systems of oppression. Over 160 people attended this workshop which, with tickets priced at £25 each, suggests a considerable degree of interest in feminism today.

The idea of ‘intersectional’ feminism (as it is most commonly called) is not new. The term was first coined in the 1970s by Black feminists in the United States, for whom the need to fight against racism and class oppression as well as sexism was not something simply to be argued at an abstract level, but an absolute necessity in their everyday struggle for emancipation. Since then, the idea of intersectionality has been largely embraced within academic feminism (despite differing critical perspectives on its usefulness as a term). Yet in Britain, the idea that feminists need to think about class and race as well as gender unfortunately remains something of a rarity and indeed a novelty within mainstream women’s activism.

This workshop was extremely well-organised with lots of time for the ‘audience’ to discuss these ideas amongst ourselves. The four speakers (Cynthia Cockburn, Pragna Patel, Jenny Nelson and Ece Kocabicak) opened with a very useful overview of women’s oppression in Britain and the world today, which they argued has to be understood within the wider contexts of austerity, the dismantling of the welfare state, right-wing religious fundamentalism, global capitalism and men’s patriarchal exploitation of women’s labour, rather than via a simple recourse to the idea of ‘patriarchy’. Perhaps Pragna Patel’s speech best summed it up: ‘Systems of oppression work in and through each other… we need to ask ourselves “Can we achieve freedom if other women and other men are not free?”’

We were then divided into small groups to discuss. The women who made up my group provided an interesting insight into the different kinds of people and perspectives the workshop had attracted. We consisted of 4 Norwegian Radical Feminists in their sixties; one member of Shoreditch Women’s Institute; one woman who had never thought about feminism until two years ago when she began to work in the male-dominated IT industry; someone involved in Oxford People’s Assembly; and one libertarian communist (me). In the short space of time available we discussed: objectification and pornography, sexism in trade unions, disablism in social movements, and the pros and cons of women-only organising. Other groups, reporting back on their discussions, raised issues such as the under representation of women in the media, anti-sexist education schools, male support for feminism, the Icelandic Women’s Party, whether sexism had increased in the last 30 years, and ‘creeping sexism disguised as religion’.

Struggling to talk about race and class

What struck me most about this workshop was the complete disjunct between the complex intersecting issues the speakers had initially raised, and the response from the participants. The workshop had asked us to think about the role of race and class within both women’s oppression and the feminist movement itself. The response had been to talk only about gender and women’s rights in a very one-dimensional manner. Indeed, more than one participant complained that ‘women’ often took a back-seat to attempts to address racism in both progressive movements and educational institutions.

I don’t want to dismiss what were undoubtedly probably quite varied discussions which took place in different groups, and it should be noted that we had limited time and that only 6 out of 16 groups fed back to the rest of us. However, I still think it is significant that a room full of such a large and (to some extent) diverse group of people, still found it so difficult to talk about race and class in relation to our feminism.

During the occupation of The Women’s Library in London on International Women’s Day 2013, a large banner was hung up in the window declaring ‘Our Feminism Will Be Intersectional or it Will Be Bullshit’*, quoting feminist blogger Flavia Dzodan . Since we started out as a collective, Feminist Fightback has tried to take an intersectional approach. For us, this means not just thinking about intersectionality as a kind of enhanced form of identity politics (‘some women are Black, some women are lesbians, we are all different…’). We are aware of the dangers of an ‘add diversity and stir’ approach, which can simply lead to wishing for more Black and working-class women to be involved without actually changing the kind of politics we are practicing.

This has led us, for example, to campaign for ‘reproductive justice’ rather than ‘abortion rights’. Again borrowing from Black feminist arguments of the 1970s and 80s, we think that for women to have a real ‘choice’ whether or not to have a child, she needs not only access to abortion but also free health care, contraception, housing, childcare and income support. And we need to be aware that while some women (usually white and middle-class) are pressured into reproducing, other women (usually black and/or working-class and/or disabled) have often been denied the right to have and raise children.

Putting intersectional feminism into ‘practice’ is not always easy. Campaigning organisations (especially the not-for-profit sector which so much of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s got channelled into) tend to favour single-issue campaigns which generate short and simple messages. The pressure on anti-cuts movements to defend what we have in the face of the government’s wrecking-ball, means we are wary of diverting limited time and energy into talking about the way women, Black, disabled and LGBT people are often disciplined and mistreated by the very institutions and welfare-services on which we disproportionately depend.

Nevertheless, it is clear to us in Feminist Fightback that we need to build a feminism which seeks to recognise difference and respond to the diverse needs of women by challenging linked systems of oppression, or we fail to achieve liberation for any of us. If we want our movement to be big enough to win then it needs to be built by many different kinds of women, not just a microscopic minority of middle-class white women in the global north. For me, intersectional feminism is not a choice but a necessity.

*This slogan, now widely taken up by sections of the English-speaking feminist movement, was first coined in an article by Flavia Dzodan on the blog TigerBeatDown.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Laura SchwartzLaura Schwartz Associate Professor of Modern British History at the University of Warwick


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


48