This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)

First wave feminism, which was and is viewed as pivotal in the fight for women’s rights by giving around 8.4 million women the vote, only claimed the vote for two in every five women in the UK; similarly in the US, the Nineteenth Amendment of 1920 brought the vote for only white women. First wave feminism therefore largely ignored social cross-sections by focusing almost exclusively on middle class white women. 

The second wave feminism of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought a fight against the systematic social sexism in the West including that which was rooted in the anti-racist and anti-capitalist civil rights movements. However, women of colour were largely alienated from the central, mainstream platforms of the movement. It was this movement that spurred the writing of bell hooks, born in segregated Kentucky, who published her first book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism in 1981. She was one of the earliest voices within the second wave to critique the racism in the feminist movement and the sexism in the civil rights movement. hooks sought to incorporate the differences between women into feminist practices, claiming that ‘people can be fully aware of one form of domination and then be completely blind to other forms’, and effectively paving the way for intersectional feminist thought and the third wave of feminism. 

It was the discussion popularised by hooks that led to the coining of the term ‘intersectionality’ by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to address the marginalisation of black women within feminist and anti-racist dialogues. Crenshaw defines intersectionality as a framework to understand the interconnected nature of social and political identities and the way in which these create interdependent systems of discrimination, a ‘many layered blanket of oppression’ – this, like the work of hooks, stemmed from a lack of acknowledged diversity within Western feminist movements. 

Both hooks and Crenshaw continue to write on intersectional feminism, with Crenshaw acknowledging that scholars and activists have ‘broadened intersectionality to engage a range of issues, social identities, power dynamics, legal and political systems and discursive structures’. The scholars’ work has been pivotal in discussions of power, exclusion and diversity; but what does this mean for the feminism of now and for the feminism of the future?

It is often argued we are in a fourth wave of feminism, characterised by its digital nature. However, this wave is not homogenous, just as previous waves have not been homogenous and just as women are not homogenous. Abrahams claims that ‘as the target has moved from legal parity to real social equality, debates about what justice for women means and how to achieve it have become ever more difficult to unpick’ and consequently Steiner’s claim that ‘we cannot say there is only one feminism’ becomes apparent; feminism is splintered. 

Zimmerman argues that fourth wave feminism is deeply entrenched in the values of intersectionality and while evident online, such as in the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, it could be seen as exclusionary to focus predominantly on the fourth wave as the current form of feminism due to it being predominantly online. Perhaps instead we should focus on the ‘multiple feminisms’ named by Sizemore-Barber, acknowledging that there are interconnected movements in the 21stcentury. Indeed, hooks asserted that ‘we [cannot] see gains for feminism distinct and separate from other struggles’ and ‘we have to look at things more globally’.

Therefore, true intersectionality within current Western feminism is linked more greatly to movements that bring to light the coexistence of social identities as creating layers of discrimination, such as the #WhyWeCantWait campaign, rather than a focus on women as a homogenous group. Currently, intersectionality needs to be an ‘international movement within and across disciplines’, always with a new direction for concern, in order to bring inaudible voices into earshot, and ‘invisible bodies into view’. The goal of intersectionality is not exclusively to understand relations of power but to bring these dynamics forward in order to reshape them. 

Over 100 years since the acquisition of the vote, Manchester as ‘the suffragette city’ could be seen as largely inclusive with an awareness of intersectionality. Indeed, in 2011, one third of the population of Greater Manchester was non-white, with a higher percentage of LGBT+ people than the English national average and a near equal proportion of men and women. However, lack of awareness surrounding intersectionality continues to pervade this diverse city, as can be seen in hate crime legislation. While Greater Manchester Police acknowledge hate crime categories such as ‘disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and alternative sub-cultures’, they make little reference to how these intersect, and entirely omit gender and misogyny from these categories. It is therefore clear that, as a society, intersectional feminism needs to continue to permeate Western ideas of disadvantage and discrimination.

TIME argues that the ‘core of intersectionality then…is coming to appreciate that all women do not share the same levels of discrimination just because they are women’. It can therefore be seen that, historically, intersectionality is hugely symbolic in a movement towards the acknowledgement of different components of power within Western society and remains to be symbolic due to its never-exhausted nature. In our discussions of the past and our actions of the present it is necessary that we are aware of the role that intersectionality plays, in order to promote true social and political equity.