De-Mystifying Feminism: What is Women’s Advocacy and Why Does it Need to be Intersectional?
A lot of people take issue with the term “feminism” or with people identifying as “feminists.” While most feminists take issue with people who take issue with this (and not without good reason – feminist shouldn’t be a derogatory term), it is important to try to see from the other person’s point of view and even more important to realize that not everyone who calls themselves a feminist actually fits the definition of an inclusive, intersectional advocate for gender equality. In fact, there are plenty of groups out there, like FEMEN, who bastardize the term in the name of an extremist, anti-feminist ideology that fails to accept various forms of both feminism and womanhood, and verges on being either pro-masculine or misandrists – neither of which ought to be an intrinsic part of practicing feminism or being an advocate for women.
I’m not a big fan of using politically correct euphemisms that make oppressive individuals feel comfortable so I’m not in the habit of removing the feminist label from my lapel. That being said, I have also been known to call myself a women’s advocate if only because I think it gets my brand of feminism across more effectively. Women’s advocacy carries with it multiple connotations that the baggage of feminism simply does not. Once again, just to reiterate, I am not abandoning the word feminism, but simply nuancing its definition to reclaim it from those who use it to either abuse members of both genders or to discredit those with real interests in advocating for women.
What does it mean to advocate for women? Doesn’t this sound a bit patronizing? To claim to be lobbying the powers that be on behalf of women who may be disempowered to do so? If we occupy spaces of privilege in a given society, it is my opinion that we have an obligation to listen and learn from those who have been disempowered and then to use our positions and voices to create spaces where they can be heard. It is the difference between vocalizing for someone or helping them get a microphone and space in which to be heard. The latter is the most ideal situation and can take on many forms, whether we diversify our hiring patterns, focus on their plight in history, showcase this demographic’s successes or much more.
What other issues fall under the mandate of women’s advocacy? There are quite a number of diverse causes that can come under the women’s advocacy umbrella and feminists may choose to focus on one or many of them. Issues that are important for feminist women’s advocates might include addressing the wage gap and unfair hiring practices, the issue of gendered poverty, birthing and reproductive rights, domestic abuse and women’s housing, or rape and street harassment. Your work might focus on young women or the elderly, working professional women or the poor. It might focus on transwomen or women of colour and certain religious minorities. Even if our work in the realm of women’s advocacy does not touch these areas, we still have to be aware of them lest our feminism fail to be intersectional.
Being a feminist activist and focusing on one women’s issue over another does not necessarily mean that those issues are not important to one’s overall philosophy. Ideally, it points to a desire to be effective and make change in one’s area of strength and focus while keeping in mind that feminists around the world are all working together, even if their attention is particular and local. However, sometimes a feminist’s focus can unintentionally (or intentionally) be harmful to other demographics of women and by failing to address their concerns (which may differ from theirs), we run the risk of creating even more division when unity and cooperation are needed.
I’ve been using the term “intersectional” a lot – what exactly does it mean to incorporate intersectionality into our brand of women’s advocacy? It means that our struggles don’t always look the same and that we have to include all histories and experiences in our understanding of “womanhood”…even if we aren’t working directly in that realm. Yes, that means you have to recognize a sister’s struggle to keep the hijab on in the public sector as a feminist issue. Yes, that means that what is “liberating” for some might be “imprisoning” for others. It is respecting that there are many different ways to be in the world as a self-identifying woman and that we are all in this together, however we come to it.
Being a women’s advocate means recognizing that we all have different histories and that, to a large extent, our own history as feminists has been plagued by racism. We need overcome the fact that just because someone has historically been a feminist, fighting for equal rights and suffrage, does not mean they were not a racist – and sadly, many of them were!
These days, many women of varying degrees of privilege might not realize that their form of women’s advocacy excludes women of colour, or privileges able-bodied women and the like. This is a learning opportunity within communities of advocacy to educate one another about our own experiences and show how this isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” quest for equality. It will come in different forms for different women.
In an excellent article by Gina Florio, this difference in the center of gravity for different women’s advocates is clearly illustrated when she writes: The plight of a middle-class, straight, white, American woman is not the same as that of an uneducated, gay, American woman of color. While the former fights for equal pay and paid maternity leave, the latter is more concerned with stopping race-related police brutality, acquiring better funding for inner-city public schools, and developing more comprehensive treatment programs for HIV.
In an essay for Salon, Brittney Cooper, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, puts it into perspective. She points out that feminists are concerned with equality, while feminists of color (especially black feminists) are battling injustice. She says, “One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.”
The reality is that not only are there groups like FEMEN out there wrecking the able “feminist” for the rest of us, but also within feminist communities there may be a reluctance to identify with such labels because they are often associated with the privileged woman’s struggle. As a veiled Muslim woman, this is certainly the case for me, as I rarely resonate with calls to grow my armpit and pubic hair (which I am religiously implored to remove), be liberal sexually (which I’m (happily) religiously free to do under the parameters of marriage), to tattoo myself as a means of reclaiming my body (which I am religiously forbidden to do) and to (gasp) un-veil myself (never!). The thing is that someone without an intersectional view of feminism might call my religious tenets inherently oppressive, but I am much happier to abide by them and consider my liberation to be in my choice to do so, rather than finding anything inherently liberating in un-veiling and de-flowering according to another’s socio-cultural constructions of what my freedom looks like.
Ultimately, until intersectionality becomes the norm among feminist groups, terms like women’s advocacy might seem safer and less abrasive than “feminist”, and they might distance activists from what some are calling “white feminism;” however, while this might be effective for a time, we should approach one another with the intention to de-mystify our struggles and work towards solutions together.