By Liu Xuanyi (23J19)
A couple of months ago, I embarked on the arduous journey of creating a Student Led Academic Module (SLAM) in the Humanities and Social Sciences Leaders Academy with my friend. Our module was entitled: Through the Looking Glass: An Intersectional Examination of Gender Equality.
Feminism: What it (technically) is and its (not very favourable) history
You may note that I have refrained from using the term “feminism” in both the title of this article and the module; that was intentional. As someone who has, from the first time I heard the term, staunchly identified as a feminist, it was difficult for me to understand why some people would oppose the seemingly innocuous term which is loosely defined as a movement advocating for the equality of the sexes.
However, in the process of my research for the module, I realised that there was more than meets the eye. Feminism has, regrettably, a serial history of excluding women who belong to other marginalised groups — from the suffragettes selling out African Americans for their own personal gain to Betty Friedan, the champion of second-wave feminism, coining the term “Lavender Menace” to describe the threat posed by lesbians to the feminist movement.
That brings me to the idea of intersectionality. Intersectionality, a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, describes how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap.
Source: Misty McPhetridge, BSSW
It explains how the lived experiences of, for example, a White woman and an African American woman vastly differ. The African American woman suffers prejudice and discrimination not just because she is a woman, but also because she is a person of colour. Her identities compound, creating a problem that cannot simply be solved with policies that aim to deal solely with the issue of gender equality; she suffers from the problems that white women face, and more. Taking for example, the pain bias — how doctors tend to overlook and dismiss women’s pain: in the context of the US, a white woman is less likely to have her pain taken seriously as compared to a white male, and the African American woman even less so due to existing racial biases in healthcare. This highlights the disproportionate impact of gender inequality on women with intersectional identities.
An example that shows why policies that fail to consider intersectionality are ineffective
A Messy Web of Oppression
We are then faced with the reality that gender equality is inextricably linked to all other forms of oppression on other marginalised groups; to achieve gender equality, we must achieve equality for all. Is that wishful thinking? As a self-proclaimed pessimist, my answer is yes, but we can and we need to work towards equality.
The Focus of Mainstream Feminism
My sobering view is corroborated by how equality for all, not just based on gender but instead for other marginalised groups, is not reflected in the predominant narrative surrounding feminism. Feminism, as it always has been, is still overwhelmingly helmed by the middle class woman of the majority race. With the popularisation of feminism and viewing it as “mainstream”, it has led to a devaluing of the true aims of feminism.
Feminism in popular culture and advertising is largely reduced to issues about empowerment and “girlbossing”, presenting a largely individualised idea of feminism, and neglecting the systemic barriers that are faced by women with various intersectional identities who are not able to scale to the top of the hierarchy. The focus on breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ — a term used to describe the social barriers that prevent women from rising to top positions of power — causes us to overlook the “women standing in the basement”, as Laurie Penny puts it.
Though it is important to have women occupy more high-ranking leadership positions, it should not be the primary focus of the movement. After all, this does not benefit the vast majority of women. More importantly, having women in power does not equate to these organisations becoming more equal. Take for example, the author of #Girlboss, CEO of Nasty Gal, Sophia Amoruso, who was mired in controversy over accusations of discrimination and abusive management. Or Audrey Gelman, CEO of the Wing — a women-only coworking space marketed as a “women’s utopia” — who resigned amidst allegations of low pay as well as poor treatment of workers and women of colour. It should not be taken for granted that a female leader would tame the beast of inequality, preventing it from rearing its ugly head. Simply having women present in positions of power will not fundamentally change the way society or companies operate. Inequality is a pervasive problem that is deeply entrenched in society. For it to be uprooted would take a gargantuan effort and involve all members of society, companies, and governments alike.
Can true equality ever be achieved?
Given the immense difficulty of eradicating inequality, equality in my book is a fundamentally unachievable ideal that exists only in utopian societies. Admittedly, we are on the path to work towards equality and can see increased inclusivity, but I believe that true equality will always remain elusive. Equality is more than just about quotas; it’s about truly changing mindsets. Policies that aim to quash discrimination are not enough. The presence of female leaders is not enough. It is not enough for all to be theoretically equal under the law. We cannot conflate the existence of anti-discrimination laws with their compliance. Laws are also limited in their reach and control, for the law does not account for microaggressions in the private sphere that are deemed just that: ‘micro’.
Ultimately, while I deem true equality to be unachievable, it does not mean that I advocate for a defeatist attitude towards the fight for equality. Instead, I wish to see intersectional feminism usurp the throne to be crowned “mainstream”; mainstream feminist discourse should use an intersectional lens to examine social issues to better fight for the rights of marginalised groups, as only then can we work towards equality of the sexes. The pursuit of equality may be Sisyphean, but this task is one that must be taken on for the greater good of humanity.