Search

Intersectionality and Feminist Economics: A Call for Radical Transformation

The concept of intersectionality has gained recognition in social sciences, legal studies, and public policy.Feminist economics would do well to make use of intersectional analyses to not only expand our understanding of social reality, but also to call for a radical transformation of the oppressive structures that condition our existence. Intersectionality: the travelling concept

The term intersectionality was first used academically by Kimberle Crenshaw in her seminal text “Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of colour” (1991), though the genealogy of the concept and the discussions and experiences from which it arose go further back. This concept was “intended to address the fact that the experiences and struggles of women of colour fell between the cracks of both feminism and anti-racist discourse” (Davis, 2008: 68).

Differences in gendered experiences among women have always been part of society and the feminist movement; they have an epistemological and political value that need to be taken into account in our efforts towards social transformation. This means that it is not enough to recognize that women are diverse: we must question whether it is possible to universalize women’s oppression, given the radical differences in their experiences. The answer, advanced by Black women and later followed by the concept of intersectionality, is that there is no way in which we can say that women share the same patriarchal oppression, therefore, our political struggles are not automatically the same due to our shared identity as women.

Audre Lorde explained this, asserting that “as a tool of social control, women have been encouraged to recognize only one area of human difference as legitimate, those differences that exist between women and men” (2007: 122). She further illustrates how this dichotomous approach has proven to be detrimental to the lives of Black lesbians, (and every woman outside the hegemony of being white, heterosexual, and middle/upper class) who constantly have to “pluck out some one aspect of themselves and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live” (2017: 120).

It is therefore possible to assert that intersectionality is not a concept that adds characteristics of identification keeping them fixed and stable, but a more complex one suggesting that gender does not exist in isolation but, instead, configures gendered experiences through interactions between different systems of organizing power in society. Intersectionality therefore “encourages an examination of how categories of race, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, nation and gender not only intersect but are mutually constituted, formed and transformed” (Patil, 2013: 848) Many conclusions can be drawn from these propositions, but there are two that are fundamental. Firstly, that it is not possible to generalize women’s oppression, and that it is always necessary to be specific about the experiences of which women are being taken into account in theoretical analyses and political demands. Intersectionality reminds us that there is always a risk of reproducing power relations and hierarchies when we follow universalistic explanations and that when we talk about women, in general, we are usually talking about white, middle class, heterosexual experiences of gender and sexuality. The second conclusion is that when we look at relevant differences among women, we must look at power structures like race, class, gender and sexuality. In this way, intersectionality must be understood structurally, and not simply through individual characteristics. Women’s participation in the labour market: a brief example of how class and race affect our political demands One of the main demands of the feminist movement, particularly the second wave liberal strand, was to gain access for women to the main structures of public life: politics, the labour market, and universities, among others. Because women are still under-represented in these spaces, these demands are still important and some of its goals are actively promoted through multi- level efforts. For example, the demand to incorporate women into the labour market has been strengthened in the last decades thanks to international organizations like UN Women, who aim to economic empower women through their participation in the labour market and their access to productive, paid work, as well as to financial credit. This is premised on the view that the participation of women in the labour market is not just beneficial to them, but it is also generally positive for economic growth and therefore to the levels of productivity for society. But what would it mean to analyse this demand from an intersectional perspective? To answer this question, it’s necessary to once again take into account the diverse experiences of women and the different relations they have with productive work. While liberal second-wave feminism understood productive work as a way to give freedom and autonomy to women, it ignored the reality that for many marginalized women (Black, working – class, immigrants) participating in economic activities was not necessarily a path towards self-fulfilment and economic independence, but was already an inherent part of their subaltern stories. For example, in the American historical context, Black women as instruments of societal production was integral to an economy dependent on slave labour. This pattern of Black women’s economic production continued after the end of slavery, when so many of them moved to the labour market as domestic workers. As Angela Davis explains, “judged by the evolving nineteenth century ideology of femininity, which emphasized women’s roles as nurturing mothers and gentle companions and housekeepers for their husbands, Black women were practically anomalies” (1983: 77). The history of women’s participation in the labour market cannot therefore be separated from structures like race and class, and from the way in which capitalism has used the bodies and work of women to its advantage through their incorporation in hard, precarious jobs and through the unpaid work of reproducing the working class family, and therefore the labour force. Through this lens, the assertion that women’s participation in the productive sphere of society automatically translates into empowerment and autonomy should be carefully interrogated. Nevertheless, dominant discourses continue to promote productive work as an activity of autonomy and self-fulfilment (Weeks, 2011), focusing not on the working conditions and the control of the workers over those conditions but, on the contrary, on the differences between men and women and, specifically, on the under-representation of women in the highest hierarchies of economic power. Intersectionality of struggles

Intersectionality is not urging us as researchers, policymakers, and activists to simply acknowledge differences among women in individual terms, nor merely as a footnote or a parenthesis in our analyses. On the contrary, this approach calls for a radical understanding of how exclusions and oppressions are created and reproduced in our societies, and how they are the result of the complicated, historical and dynamic power relations and hierarchies that cannot be dismantled through binary thinking – one that, more often than not, ends up reproducing the world vision of dominant groups. In this regard, intersectionality is not concerned only with patriarchy and differences among men and women: it is concerned with the patriarchal racist capitalism in which we live as a whole political and economic system in which logics of oppression are connected and interdependent. To recognize the interactions between these systems would imply a holistic feminism, as well as a political economy able to understand that patriarchy is racist and capitalist, racism is patriarchal and capitalist, and capitalism is racist and patriarchal. These systems are so intertwined that it is just not possible to dismantle each one in isolation because, if we address oppression in this one-way only, other axes of exclusion are likely to be paradoxically reinforced. For example, the idea that women’s participation in the labour market is a synonym for women’s empowerment and autonomy needs to be examined in light of class and race. It is not enough that a woman has a paid job; this is already the reality of so many Black and working class women under capitalism. But if she does not have control over the conditions of that job, if that job is increasingly precarious and the woman as a worker does not have access to worker’s rights that include just payment, housing, healthcare, retirement, and collective protection against abuses of power from her employers, then what exactly is the concept of empowerment that we are proposing and defending? Intersectional feminist economics is therefore not about specific topics, but about the methodologies used to analyse the particular experiences of women and their interaction with the capitalist system. Some of the characteristics of this approach are: · It historicizes the experiences of women. This implies a rejection of the category of “women” as a fixed identity and looks, instead, to the ways in which gender experiences are constituted in relation to class, race, and geopolitical belonging. · It makes visible the interconnections between different logics of oppression operating simultaneously: inequalities are never the result of only one of these systems. Furthermore, an intersectional approach of feminist economics would analyse how these systems of oppression are reflected on both the productive and reproductive spheres of the economy. · It prioritizes politically the lives of women who are in the margins of the economic system, as their experiences allow a deeper understanding of the transformations needed to build a more just society


References


Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’. Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039.


Davis, Angela Y. 1983. Women, Race & Class. New York: Vintage Books.


Davis, Angela Y., and Frank Barat. 2016. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books.


Lorde, Audre. 2007. ‘Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’. In Sister Outsider, 114–23. Berkeley: Crossing Press.


Patil, Vrushali. 2013. ‘From Patriarchy to Intersectionality: A Transnational Feminist Assessment of How Far We’ve Really Come’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38 (4): 847–67. https://doi.org/10.1086/669560.


Watkins, Susan. 2018. ‘Which Feminisms?’ New Left Review. 2018. https://newleftreview.org/issues/II109/articles/susan-watkins-which-feminisms.


Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.


Natalia Flores - Garrido is a Doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Nelson Mandela University. She can be reached on na.floresga@gmail.com

216 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All