The Many Meanings of Intersectional Feminism
Features / March 27, 2017
Alyssa Laube, Associate Editor
Feminism has historically been dominated by privileged voices. Its first and second waves were largely a white, straight, cisgender, middle class woman’s game. Marginalized groups have been continually pushed to the wayside from the early days of women’s suffrage until now, and the pervasiveness of such exclusivity can be witnessed all over the world.
In Vancouver, it’s easy to notice. The women’s march on Washington made waves while ignoring the contributions of women of colour and trans women at the beginning of this year. Many local protests and rallies are still overwhelmingly white and focus on the plight of cisgender women and their anatomy, being represented in the media by pale bodies holding signs covered in uteruses and menstrual products.
This type of feminism is not only uninformed, but damaging to women of all identities who are left out of important narratives about human rights and social justice. In feminism, all women must be represented. Thus, intersectionality in the advocacy for women’s rights is not optional; it’s necessary.
Feminism and womanhood mean something unique to everyone. For women, that meaning can be deeply personal and complex, and where we fit into feminism is crucial to understanding which problems exist and how we can solve them. During the Americans’ Women’s History Month this March, The Runner spoke to Canadian women of various identities and occupations to better understand intersectional feminism. Their insights and experiences can be read below.
If Morgane Oger wins this April’s provincial election, she will be the first transgender woman to be elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly, representing the BC NDP for Vancouver-False Creek. Oger is an entrepreneur in the high-tech sector and mother to two young children.
“I can’t say celebrating women’s history month is a thing for me. Celebrating the achievements of the women now and who have come before us and the achievements of policy change is.”
“The life arc of a trans person doesn’t necessarily lend itself to celebrating sisterhood,” she says. “For me, as a trans woman for example, we still have difficulties with acceptance, depending on where you are with coming out and transition and fitting inside of women’s spaces and networks. My coming out was not that long ago and I’m still finding my way within women’s societies and women’s culture, and I’m really liking it.”
Oger has faced barriers to inclusivity in feminism this year, when organizers from Vancouver’s Women’s March on Washington denied her the opportunity to speak at their event. Although she believes that the march “was not inclusive at the point of organizing and representation, at the point of participation, it was inclusive.” Still, “the transgender women, the black women in the women’s march were very aware of that general vibe that it was angry white women marching about how Trump is an offence to them as biological animals who are white,” Oger explains.
“Women’s oppression has been a lot to do with bodies. A lot of us define ourselves on the basis of our parts rather than our experiences necessarily,” she says. “We have to make room for others who define themselves with their body parts just like we have to make room for others for whom doing that is uncomfortable.”
“Women are more than a vessel for some man’s pleasure and incubation and a service provider of child-rearing,” she says. “Yet, when trans identities are torn apart, that’s the argument that those same women use. As an engineer, I rely a lot on logic, and it’s confounding.”
On the subject of encouraging inclusivity in feminism, Oger cautions allies to avoid interjecting their opinions into discourses that they are not involved in.
“All allies mean the very best, and there’s no zeal like the zeal of the misdirected ally it seems,” she says. “One thing is they need to listen. They need to not speak about things they don’t understand, and having taken a course on it is not the same as understanding it.”
Oger will be speaking at UBC downtown for the UBC Dialogues series called Rethinking Gender on Mar. 30.
KPU Communications Professor Katie Warfield, who is “very cognizant” of the privileges she benefits from, strives to use that privilege to collaborate with those who lack it in her community.
“I have to sort of situate myself within the various intersections when I talk about my own situation of privilege and oppression, and what I can offer other people in their network of privilege and oppression,” she says. “I’m white. I’m able-bodied. I’m socio-economically very stable. I’m cisgender, and so within the identity category of women, I have the most privilege.”
Warfield weaves feminism into her daily life as an instructor and scholar. Currently, she is writing a book chapter with a trans woman in Victoria named Courtney Demone about a photo project called “Do I Have Boobs Now?”. For the project, Demone “took images of herself topless while she was transitioning and waited for Instagram to censor her images.”
“The assumption was that, when the algorithm censored her, then she was passing,” explains Warfield, who also identifies with the LGBTQ+ community and has second authorship on the chapter.
Her passion for bringing intersectional feminism into the workplace comes from the understanding that “academia is fraught with gender imbalances, and yet it touts itself as the beacon of liberal thinking and academic freedom.”
“I think there’s really a problem if your theory is disjointed from your actions. In terms of bringing it into the classrooms, I see it as a duty to the knowledge I’m imparting, that that knowledge be many knowledges instead of the established knowledge systems that hold up these systems of oppression,” says Warfield.
Being a French-Canadian woman, executive director of the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective, France-Emmanualle Joly, feels like she has “a dual identity.”
“I was born in B.C. but spent half of my life in France and the other half here. I identify with two cultures, which can sometimes be a little bit of a challenge—a minor challenge compared to many other women, definitely,” she says.
“The major thing that it brought up for me was to stand up for what I believed was my own identity and to stand up to people who were saying, ‘You’re not Canadian because you’re from France,’ or ‘You’re not French because [you’re living in Canada]’ and it totally relates to my vision of being a woman. It doesn’t take anything away from me. It’s just who I am.”
While working with the Women’s Health Collective, Joly helps women of many different backgrounds and identities. Doing so during her day-to-day schedule has “reinforced [her] approach to feminism.”
“I am reminded every day of the different realities that women can face or live in,” says Joly. “I was lucky to be born in a middle class family and white and privileged, from that standpoint.”
“There are things that we forget even if we are aware of a number of things through a feminist lens. Me working at the collective is one of those daily reminders that there are things we still need to fight for, and it can be as simple as accessing health care for women, and accessing health care that takes into consideration the realities of women.”
The Vancouver Women’s Health Collective is celebrating its first 45th anniversary this year and is open to all women seeking health care services.
Sizeism—the discrimination against a person because of their size—sucks. Founder of Body Confidence Canada, Jill Andrew, has dedicated her professional life to spreading that message and making size and physical appearance-based discrimination illegal in Canada.
“We live in a society where thinness is an unearned, unfair signifier of ‘beauty’ – a beauty that is often rooted in Eurocentric body ideals,” says Andrew. “The main goal of the many unrealistic beautification processes women and and girls are socialized very early on to embrace seeks to erase any sign of failure: fatness is near, if not arguable at, the top of the list!”
She asserts that women and girls are expected to achieve an “impossible aesthetic, and one that plays right into the hands of capitalism.” By pressuring them into spending money on image-altering products like cosmetic surgery, waist-training, and diet pills, women are not only being oppressed by patriarchal powers, but capitalistic powers as well.
“It’s a relentless tyranny of paradoxical proportions,” she says. “Body-based harassment such as sizeism and physical appearance-based discrimination is a feminist issue. It is a disability activist’s issue, an anti-racism activist’s issue, an LGBT issue. It is an issue for all of us who are invested in creating safer spaces of inclusivity and social change.”
Also identifying as a queer, black feminist in her community, intersectionality is important to Andrew, and she is currently leading Body Confidence Canada’s #SizeismSUCKS campaign to rally against size and appearance-based discrimination.
Over the past year, feminism at KPU has been greatly influenced by the Kwantlen Student Association’s VP student life and women’s representative, Natasha Lopes. During that time, she has chaired the university’s feminist collective, Women Organising Opportunities for Women, and written the KSA’s first policy on sexualized violence and misconduct.
Lopes was born into a Portuguese family, and although she grew up in Canada, she identifies strongly with the culture.
“I come from a female-dominated family, and even back home in the old land, it’s a female-dominated community as well,” she says.
However, she still feels the dissonance between her views of feminism and those that are common in traditional Portuguese culture. For instance, although Lopes is moving towards living alone with her fiance, her mother encourages her to stay at home until being officially married.
“I realized the conflict between old country and new country, and I didn’t like the stereotypes put on women,” she says. “I think there will always be the conflict, at least in my life, between being born in Canada and going back and listening to what people who were born in another Western country think of it.”
Lopes chooses to celebrate Women’s History Month by reading feminist works and focusing on self-reflection. To her, the month “symbolizes the change that we have seen in the feminist community,” in the sense that feminism is “not just [for] biological women” anymore.
She is also a survivor of sexualized violence, and has been working on making KPU campuses safer and more inclusive since she entered student politics last year.
“I think being incredibly hurt and abused by someone you love changes you and it makes you a little cold and a little louder,” she says. “It took me a very long time to come to grips with what happened and then realize that what happened to me was not unique and obviously is not going to stop, because that’s just one person and I’m just one person. There are over seven billion people on the planet. It gave me the mandate to want to make a change.”
Formulating the KSA’s sexualized violence and misconduct policy was one way of achieving that goal, as was planning initiatives with WOOW. As a bisexual woman, she strives to assure that everybody on campus—including members of the queer community—is able to get involved with feminism, either by attending some of her bystander training events, roundtable discussions, film screenings, or other female and safety-focused events.
Rather than celebrating women’s achievements for one month of the year, Kimberley McMartin endeavours to do so every day. She is a board member for the Kwantlen Public Interest Research Group, a member of Pride Kwantlen, and a highly involved member of the KPU community.
“I think if people just pay attention to one month, then they’re not really paying attention. It’s kind of like Black History Month. If you just celebrate black achievements for that kind of thing, then I believe you’re part of the problem,” she says. “You’re not being a good ally and you’re not being supportive because, for the rest of the year, are you living in ignorance? Are you helping the oppression?”
McMartin identifies as an asexual femme person who doesn’t “feel a specific affinity with either gender.” She has physical and learning disabilities which she feels has affected her inclusivity in feminism and her everyday environment.
“My needed accommodations aren’t necessarily the same every day. They change, and a lot of people that aren’t used to that can’t handle it,” she says. “There’s also the fact that asexualism is usually not what people see when they think of the LGBTQ community. With asexuals, people don’t understand relationships without that sexual component.”
Her learning disability affects the way she speaks and communicates, occasionally leading her to become non-verbal while under stress. That, along with joint issues, allergies, and anxiety, is an obstacle to McMartin and her inclusivity in the feminist and local community.
“I think if you say that any place has intersectional feminism, hard stop, then you’re wrong,” she says. “Every day we’re learning that stuff that we thought was okay is actually transphobic or racist or ableist in some way. Every day you’re learning something in a new and better way in order to support someone.”
She believes that intersectional feminism starts by engaging in dialogue, and that businesses and organizations are responsible for making social justice a mandatory part of employee training. Having a low tolerance for discriminatory behaviour, checking in with “people who have been historically oppressed” in the workplace, and bridging the gap between people in power and citizens are all essential to the aims of intersectional feminism, McMartin says.
On an individual level, she suggests that, “when you do something that offends someone, apologize and change.”
“Feminism is very deeply layered for me because, as a coloured woman who’s married, being of the South Asian ethnicity, being Muslim, there are cultural norms,” says Aisha Amijee, instructor of digital storytelling courses at KPU.
Amijee has two young children and a husband at home, and finds juggling her life as an educator, activist, mother, and wife to be a challenge to her relationship with feminism. The expectations of motherhood that have been imposed on her by others can cause internal conflict for Amijee, who is deeply passionate about both intersectional feminism and her family.
“Being a working mom has been really challenging for me because I don’t just work. I love what I do, so I usually put a lot of time and effort into it,” she says. “I have to make that decision every day. Like, is it going to be one of those days where I say to my husband, ‘Okay, get pizza. I’ve got to go do this,’ or do I just stay home and skip this one out?”
As a Muslim woman, she feels that “being pigeonholed and being directly misrepresented in the media and stereotyped is super frustrating.”
“I think that most of it comes from the misrepresentation of Muslim women. We’re always seen to be more oppressed and helpless, like we have to cover our heads and wear the hijab, and if we’re wearing it, it must be because a man is forcing us to,” explains Aimjee. “It’s really hard to fight that stigma, where people are either feeling sorry for you, or they think you’re very sheltered and closed minded and that you couldn’t express a diverse opinion.”
Despite this negative perception of Muslim women, she believes that “it is changing a lot,” thanks to members of her community.
“A lot of muslim women are coming to terms with that, if we don’t self-represent, we’re always going to be represented this way, which is either that you’re the Aladdin Jasmine figure or you’re the one that’s always on the news—the veiled woman that can’t help herself,” she says. “It’s just so sad because the religion is so diverse. Interpretations of the religion are so diverse, and muslim women are so diverse.”
Next month, she will be instructing a course called Voices of Muslim Women, which, over the span of four Saturdays, will encourage 20 students from diverse backgrounds and ages to “come together to tell their stories on a variety of topics.”