What Would an Intersectional Women’s History Month Look Like?

Women’s History Month gives us an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the legacy of global women. Yet, year after year, the faces of Women’s History Month are the same: slideshows and commemorative stamps of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. These women all provided groundbreaking work for women’s rights, yet this emphasis on white, heterosexual, able-bodied and affluent cisgender female activists suggests that women’s history is a narrow scope. Surely, there is more to women than what has been promoted by these examples.

In 1989, legal scholar and theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to argue for a broader definition of what it means to be a woman: one that doesn’t compartmentalize gender but centers “multiple identities.” Intersectionality does not divorce one facet of a woman’s identity from another, but instead works to draw connections between the issues of women’s lives: race, class, disability, age, sexual orientation, trans and cisgender identity, citizenship status, body size and much, much more. Throughout history, certain bodies have been marginalized, and this is why it is important to extend the definition of “woman” so that it is always inclusive.

Women who operate at the intersections often address social, cultural and economic justice issues simultaneously, rather than in separate spheres. Consider the work of Dorothea Dix, a 19th century crusader for reform of U.S. mental-health services who drew critical connections between poverty and disability, which ultimately led to the institution of no-cost state asylums for those in need of care. There’s also scholar and activist Angela Davis, who has tirelessly advocated for civil rights, Marxism and the abolishment of the prison-industrial complex, among other issues. And there’s Milagros Peña, a sociology and women’s studies professor who not only documents Latina women’s grassroots organizing along the borders of Mexico and Texas but also writes critically about the role of punk rock in activism.

Additionally, there are many political firsts which happened because of women who emerged from the margins of society to bring about radical change. There’s Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman of color who boldly threw her high heel at a police officer and sparked the Stonewall Riot in 1969. And while many remember the election of 2008 as a showdown between Barack Obama and John McCain, the Green Party offered the first-ever presidential ticket entirely composed of women of color: U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney and community organizer/journalist Rosa Clemente.

These are far from the only examples of intersectionality. It was Ani DiFranco who sang, “There is strength in the differences between us / And I know there is comfort where we overlap.” Intersectionality affirms that the strength of women is in the many facets of our lives and our histories.

Photo from Flickr user Chris Harley under Creative Commons.

Comments

  1. hmprescott says:

    If the only place you look is the History Channel (aka the Hitler Channel) no wonder you're finding a very narrow view of women's history. Why not look at material generated by those of us who work in this field? We've been talking about intersectionality for years: http://berksconference.org/

  2. Thank you for this great post! One of my friends has been using her Facebook page to educate us, her online community, about different black women for Women's History Month. Just about every day this month, she's featured a new face, complete with a brief bio. So far she's featured Dr. Patricia Bath, Dr. Euphemia Loft Hanes, Dr. Mae C. Jemison, Valerie Thomas, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Waangari Maathai, and Belva Davis. I can't wait to see who I get to learn about next!!

  3. check out my women's history month post! i kept that in mind as well and featured sojourner truth, zahra khanom tadj es-saltaneh, nella larsen, frida, daw aung sun suu kyi, & kate bornstein.

    burstmarket.blogspot.com

    <3

  4. Elisabeth Harrison says:

    As a psychiatric survivor and a student in Critical Disability Studies, I’m concerned about the author’s characterisation of Dorothea Dix as someone whose activism improved the lives of mad people in the 19th century, given that Dix’s efforts led to the large-scale forcible incarceration of thousands of people on the basis of their behaviour, thoughts or emotional states being judged as unacceptable. Further, living conditions in asylums were often worse than those Dix had initially set out to improve. Also, Dix was not herself a psychiatrised person, and her advocacy for people identified as mad was essentially paternalistic in nature.

    Intersectional feminism opposes all forms of oppression. The forced incarceration of psychiatrised people is oppressive. Dix should not be upheld as an early disability rights advocate.

    If I had written this article, instead of discussing Dix, I might have written about Elizabeth Packard, who was a feminist psychiatric reform advocate of the 19th century. Packard’s husband had her committed to a psychiatric institution because she held religious beliefs that differed from his own. When Packard finally managed to gain her freedom from the institution, she began to speak out publicly against the poor conditions in asylums, as well as the practice of confining women to psychiatric institutions solely in accordance with the dictates of their husbands/fathers/male guardians. Her activism led to legal reforms protecting women from this form of abuse in several American states, which was undoubtedly a positive development.

    Thanks,

    Elisabeth Harrison

    PhD Student

    Critical Disability Studies

    York University, Toronto ON, Canada

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