Issues Magazine

Intersectional Feminism 101

Guest Article By Professor Bettina Aptheker

Feminism, activism, and social justice have transformed and impacted society in countless ways throughout history. From my first protest at nine-years-old, my activism in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, and my role as a professor in the feminist studies department at UC Santa Cruz, I’ve gained insights from history and my own personal experiences that can help guide us as we continue to advocate for change in today’s society. Understanding the modern women’s movement and the intersectionality of all social justice work can help us pave a path toward progress.

One of the main things about the contemporary women’s movement is we see it as what we call intersectional. We mean that race is not separate from gender. Gender is not separate from disability. Race is not separate from class. Everything is intertwined because it’s all about intertwined systems of domination. So, if you try to change one thing, it’s going to impact something else.

For example, when women organized against sexual and domestic violence, they first worked to change the laws. Our legal system was inherited from British Common law. Originally, rape was a property crime in which the sexual predator violated the property rights of the husband or father of the woman. She was merely an object. In our early U.S. laws, domestic violence was legal. It took many decades of struggle beginning in the late 19th century, and then again an upsurge in the late 20th century to see real substantive changes in the law so that women were treated as full human beings — and violence against women was made a crime.

However, when you change the laws and have men who are found guilty of sexual violence, arrested, and incarcerated, you run into the problem of the racism of the criminal justice system. That is, police are far more likely to arrest men of color than they are to arrest white men, and prosecutors are more likely to seek stiffer penalties against people of color. This creates the system of mass incarceration, where a disproportionate number of Black and brown men are incarcerated, often having ‘plea-bargained.’ This means they forego a trial and many legal protections. The racism of the criminal justice system also makes women of color far less likely to call on the police. So often, this ends in tragedy for the men and women. So, if you’re going to have a women’s movement that’s multiracial, how are you going to carve out opposition to violence against women that doesn’t at the same time reinforce a racist criminal justice system? New initiatives for Restorative Justice and Transformative Justice are being implemented in many urban communities. These are some of the things you have to think about to build a coalition that counters all forms of violence.

Kimberle Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia and UCLA, illustrated the relationship between race and sex in a piece on intersectionality she published in the Stanford Law Review in 1991. This was an important essay because she pointed out the flaws in civil rights law and affirmative action law. If a Black woman wanted to file a lawsuit for discrimination, she had to decide whether to file it on the basis of race or the basis of sex. In the law’s original incarnation, it couldn’t be filed on the basis of both. Her essay highlighted the senselessness of forcing Black women to make an impossible separation between their race and sex, both of which are core parts of their identities. Crenshaw’s piece on intersectionality became a hallmark in feminist thinking, organizing, and scholarship. It also helped to change the law.

What work do we need to do as Intersectional Women’s Rights advocates today?

Voting rights have been an essential struggle for women beginning in the mid-19th century. In August 2020, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment passage, in which women won the right to vote. However, in practice, the Nineteenth Amendment was limited by segregationist laws and violence against Black enfranchisement in southern states. In fact, it was white southern opposition to woman suffrage that delayed its passage for decades. This was a consequence of the legacy of slavery. Thus, Black women in the south did not win the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. Likewise, Native American women could not vote until after 1924, when Native Americans were finally granted U.S. citizenship. Similar conditions existed for Mexican Americans in the Southwest, and Chinese people were denied the right to become naturalized citizens until the mid-20th century. In all of these ways, the history of woman suffrage illustrates the ways in which race, class, and citizenship were intertwined with the right to vote.

Today, we are faced with a situation of increasing efforts to prevent people from voting. For example, many states enacted strict ID laws, which tend to impact poor people and people of color more than white people. Likewise, states have carried out purges of voting rolls that have been contested and ultimately reversed in the courts. In addition, many states prevent anyone convicted of a felony from ever voting, even after they have been released from prison, thus reinforcing the racism of the criminal justice system as it intersects with voting rights. In Georgia today, Stacey Abrams and other leaders in the Black community have built powerful coalitions to restore voting rights and register people to vote. Their movement, called Fair Fight, changed the outcome of the Presidential election in 2020. Similarly, another organization called Four Directions has mounted a massive voter registration drive among Native Americans and encouraged people to vote even when they have to travel vast distances to be able to do so. We need to continue to build these kinds of coalitions to expand voting rights, remove current voting restrictions, and increase the number of people that can vote.

We, social justice activists, wherever we are, must not get discouraged. It’s tough, but don’t get discouraged because it takes a long time. There are setbacks, but there’s also progress. If you get discouraged, and you stop, then nothing is gained. So, you keep doing the best you can with the resources and tools you have available to try to make change.

How can we be progress-makers?

Everything is about coalition. Everything is about working with the community, working with other people, listening to other people, and forging an alliance across gender, race, class, and sexuality to protect human rights.

You can’t take on the power structure as a single entity. Obviously, you can’t take it on as a single individual, but even as a group, you need allies. So, you have to build a movement that can contest power.

The main thing is you can’t do it alone. You need to find other people and groups in different communities, find common ground, and seek ways of working together.

I also teach a course on Feminism and Social Justice, and I’m very grateful that it should be in some way useful. The first presentation in this course is about this intersectional approach to defining feminism. I then talk about a social justice movement involving Mexican-American workers in a strike in New Mexico in 1951. In the third lecture, I discuss the trial of Angela Davis that took place between 1970 and 1972. Professor Davis is a well-known Black scholar-activist, an advocate for prison reform and civil rights, who also worked with the Black Panther Party. She was also prominent in the movement against the Vietnam War and in developing a Black feminist movement. In the 1970s, she was charged with three capital offenses and called a ‘terrorist’ by the then President of the United States. We built a vast coalition of support in the United States and a global movement of hundreds of thousands of people for her freedom. This finally won her right to bail. It also allowed us to put together a stellar legal team and exercise all of the constitutional options for a fair trial. She was found not guilty by an all-white jury in San Jose. Since then, she has become an icon of social justice and prison abolition throughout the world. The fourth and final lecture in the series explores the #MeToo movement, using the intersectional and coalition approach described above.

My teaching philosophy is to create an energy that is compassionate and loving, and kind while articulating issues that matter in people’s lives. Then, I create a space that they can choose to walk into and take what they need.

Progress is incremental — people’s consciousness changes when they’re engaged in movements.

Dr. Bettina Aptheker is a prominent American activist, distinguished professor in the feminist studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and teaches an online course on Feminism and Social Justice.

About the author

Bettina Aptheker

Bettina Aptheker is Distinguished Professor Emerita, Feminist Studies Department, University of California, Santa Cruz, where she has taught for 40 years. Her class, Introduction to Feminisms, which she taught for 30 years, was among her most popular. She is holder of the Jack and Peggy Baskin Foundation Presidential Chair for Feminist Studies, 2017-2020, and held a UC Presidential Chair in Feminist Critical Race & Ethnic Studies (with Karen Tei Yamashita), 2012-2015.