Why feminism is still failing so many women
Let’s talk about inclusion so we can finally get it right.
Here’s something to chew on: Despite what your Instagram feed tells you, feminism is not candy- colored infographics on Equal Pay Day or wearing a “girlboss” T- shirt. It’s not women- only coworking spaces with cute merch and on- site cafés. It isn’t dreamylooking ads showing women’s body hair or stickers that say “this pussy grabs back.” At least, it’s not only those things. Because while everything I just mentioned comes from a well- meaning place, it doesn’t advocate for women who can’t access the rarefied world of that pink- hued swag.
Feminism’s lack of inclusion isn’t new. Susan B. Anthony neglected to invite a single Black woman to her 1848 women’s rights convention. In the 1970s, white feminists largely ignored the barriers that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ women face. But in order for the feminist movement to really, truly succeed today, EVERY woman needs to feel heard and seen—whether she’s a “girlboss” or not. I’m talking about people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, social and economic levels, sexual identities, and abilities—not just those with a whole lot of privilege.
That’s where intersectionality comes in. You’ve probably seen the term thrown around on your socials but maybe don’t fully grasp what it means...which is fair, since it means kind of a lot! So here’s a primer: “Intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by lawyer and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way to understand how a Black woman experiences the world, not as a woman or as a Black person but as both. Decades later, it’s now used to describe how a person should be perceived not as just one thing— their race or gender or sexuality or ability, etc.—but by the “intersections” of all those things. Basically, it’s the idea of considering the whole person versus only one of many potentially defining factors, says Myisha T. Hill, founder of the anti- racist organization Check Your Privilege.
So if we’re fighting only sexism in the workplace, our female colleagues’ complaints about other types of oppression—racism, ableism, bias against the LGBTQ+ community—may go unheard. And if a company agrees to make anti- sexism changes, its new policies might not reflect the needs of women who aren’t white, cisgendered, able- bodied, and straight. Intersectional feminism aims to fix this by understanding how laws, corporations, and social norms oppress every type of woman—and then doing something about it. You can do something about it too by being an ally, and by using the advantages you have to be a champion for women who don’t have them. Here’s how to get started.
Assess your ally status
It’s important to explore how you’re currently acting (or not acting) as an intersectional feminist, says Hill. She recommends using these journaling prompts: How did I react the last time a person with less privilege than me shared their perspective? Can I remember a moment at work or in life today when I was inclusive? Asking yourself—and answering— these questions helps you see how you can be more open to other points of view, in general and as a feminist.
Go out of your way to learn more
Next, decide what feminist group or cause you’d like to educate yourself on. This could fall along racial lines, like figuring out how to better support Black women, or it could involve a global movement, like the impact of climate change on tribal nations. From there, immerse yourself in reading and podcasts on the subject, suggests Akilah Cadet, PhD, founder of Change Cadet, an organization focusing on workplace inclusion and diversity.
If, for example, you’re learning about issues Black women face, you might follow The Free Black Women’s Library or WellRead Black Girl on Instagram for book suggestions. And/or you could subscribe to a newsletter like Anti- Racism Daily, which covers topics like politics and the environment through an inclusive lens. This will help keep feminist causes you normally don’t hear about front and center in your brain.
Or maybe you’re into the idea of a legit course? They exist, so enroll! Check Your Privilege has online classes on understanding “white saviorism,” dismantling reliance on white privilege, and more. The skills you’ll learn will enable you to be a better intersectional feminist and to advocate for women who might not look like you.
Use your privilege for good
Start seeking out ways to be useful for the advancement of all women. Perhaps that means pledging resources to mutual aid funds or volunteering with a nonprofit organization that benefits the group of women you’re trying to support.
Whether you’re journaling, studying, or donating part of your paycheck, try to make those activities a habit indefinitely, says Hill. “If you’re going to actively become and stay on the path of being an inclusive feminist, you have to plan it out and make it a part of your life,” she says.
Start speaking up
Posting a black square on Instagram or boosting a GoFundMe shows solidarity, but true intersectional feminism requires using your voice when you see injustice—whether or not someone else is watching. It isn’t always comfortable, especially if you have to call out a family member, boss, or friend. But holding yourself and people in your life accountable is the whole point. “It’s building a muscle,” says Cadet.
Just don’t forget: Listening is crucial for understanding women who don’t experience life the same way you do. When they’re the ones speaking, sharing their stories, or lending expertise, give them space to shine.
Don’t worry about messing up
The journey to being a “good” feminist is not linear, and screwing up—like misgendering someone or asking an inappropriate question— is inevitable. When these things go down, take accountability (read: apologize), reflect on why it happened, and refocus your attention on what others have to say. What matters most is trying. There’s no end point or cookie you get for a job well done. The work is the reward.