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— ONE —
The Women’s March came to Washington, D.C., on January 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration. Its purpose was to call attention to the incoming president’s history of appalling behavior toward women—behavior to which Trump had all but admitted during the infamous hot-mic moment that became known as the Access Hollywood tape. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump had said. “You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”
This was a statement that rightly offended millions of Americans of all political stripes—indeed, Trump’s electoral fortunes were never lower than they were immediately after the tape’s release—and thus the march held the promise of uniting people around a universal, positive message: it’s not okay to abuse women.
More than half a million people descended on D.C. for the march, making it the largest protest in the United States since the Vietnam War era. It was a fairly awe-inspiring spectacle. I live in D.C. and only had to walk a few blocks from my apartment before I happened across streets jam-packed with activists. A sea of pink hats greeted me. Many of the protesters had chosen to reclaim Trump’s own vulgar language, and I saw dozens of signs bearing some variant of the slogan “This pussy grabs back.” Others were less intense; a young woman with pink streaks in her light brown hair held a sign that said, “To love, we must survive; to survive, we must fight; to fight, we must love.” Her friend stood next to her, waving a sign that featured a hand-drawn Donald Trump with the universally recognized emoji for excrement atop his head and the words “Dump Trump.”
All in all, the Women’s March was a success for the nascent anti-Trump movement informally known as the Resistance. More people showed up to protest than to attend the inauguration—something that seemed to infuriate the president, forcing several Trump staffers to make misleading statements about the relative sizes of the crowds. (This was the genesis of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway’s line about “alternative facts.”)
Still, the Women’s March suffered from some noteworthy behind-the-scenes conflicts that occasionally spilled out into the open and hampered the protest’s overall effectiveness and staying power.
Organizers claimed to have geared the event toward “inclusion,” according to its website.1 Inclusion would have been a good strategy, since many women of differing political beliefs had reason to be suspicious of Trump and cause to send him a message about disrespecting them. Inclusion can be difficult, however.
Right off the bat, the planned event ran into trouble.2 It was organized primarily on Facebook, showcasing the incredible power of social media, and also its considerable disadvantages. The Facebook page was constantly besieged by infighting. A lot of people were upset that white women were running the event, given that they aren’t as threatened by Trump’s policies as black and Hispanic women are. (A much larger percentage of white women voted for Trump than did black and Hispanic women, which has led to continuing resentment—a sense that some significant mass of white women betrayed their sisters of color.) The protest was initially called the Million Women March, but critics said that was too much of a rip-off; a 1997 event of a similar name had intended to call attention to civil rights for women of color.
Then there was the issue of prostitution, a topic that often divides the left. For reasons that will be more fully explored in Chapter Four, modern feminism is largely split on the subject of whether sex workers are independent women boldly reclaiming their agency and their bodies from a system of male domination or victims of economic and sexual exploitation.
At first the Women’s March stood firmly in column A, and its Unity Principles included a pledge to “stand in solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements.”3 This was eventually replaced with a very different line about protecting “all those exploited for sex and labor,” a column B position. Finally, the group compromised and included both positions: “We stand in solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement. We recognize that exploitation for sex and labor in all forms is a violation of human rights.”
The abortion issue was even more contentious. Most people on the left are pro-choice, of course, and it’s not surprising that the Women’s March would broadly support abortion rights. But at least one pro-life group, the New Wave Feminists, signed on as an official partner of the march. At the time, many pro-life women were undoubtedly feeling just as uncertain about Trump as their opponents; while Trump has governed as a fairly staunch social conservative during his first term, there was once ample reason to doubt whether the twice-divorced former Democrat and lifelong practitioner of what Senator Ted Cruz dubbed “New York values” would actually support the pro-life cause.
Organizers of the pro-life New Wave Feminists group told the Atlantic that they were “not just pro-lifers who are also feminists … we’re feminists first and foremost,” and “[we’re] so grateful to have this opportunity to walk together with [our] sisters and brothers.”4
Unfortunately for them, inclusion did not and could not extend to pro-lifers, and heaps of denunciation ensued.
“You cannot be anti-choice and feminist,” wrote Amanda Marcotte, a leftist feminist writer, on Twitter.
“Inclusivity is not about bolstering those who harm us,” wrote Jessica Valenti, a feminist columnist for the Guardian, on Twitter.
The backlash succeeded, and Women’s March leadership decertified the New Wave Feminists as an official partner. Inclusion only goes so far.
And yet despite the myriad ways in which the Women’s March failed to live up to its stated goal of inclusivity, many of the young leftists I interviewed for this book told me they thought the protest turned out to be too inclusive.
“That’s actually fucking right,” Laila, the twenty-six-year-old Muslim woman and political activist mentioned in the introduction, agreed.
I asked Laila, who lives in Washington, D.C., whether she attended the march. She did not. In fact, she skipped town that weekend. “I’m tired of being a poster child for someone else’s attempt at inclusivity,” she said.
In her view, by including so many different perspectives, organizers had watered down the message and ended up marginalizing the people who should have been the focus. They took “an approach that co-opted the narratives of many who have already been fighting in this space, specifically, black women.”
Laila is hardly the only young activist who felt that way about the Women’s March. Juniper, the nineteen-year-old trans woman, castigated the march as “super white, super cisgender-centric.” (“Cisgender,” the opposite of “transgender,” describes people who identify as the gender to which they were born.) She was skeptical of it at best, she said. And others were even harsher.
“I just felt like it wasn’t very sincere,” said Yanet, a woman of color and student at the University of Maryland. Yanet made a conscious decision not to participate. “It just felt like a moment for people who aren’t as involved or didn’t care as often or before to feel like, ‘Oh, I did something.’”
“I hated it,” Ma’at, a student of color at American University, told me. “It was super cis-centric. It was exclusive of trans identities. It was whitewashed. It just in general was very co-opting and ineffective.”
“Insincere” and “ineffective” will strike many readers as surprising ways for leftist activists to describe the most well-attended mass march in four decades. But it makes perfect sense when one considers the priorities of the new activist culture, which prefers quality—intellectual purity—over quantity. A protest is successful only if it highlights the correct issues, includes the right people—people who humbly check all the appropriate boxes—and is organized by a ruling coalition of the most oppressed.
This, of course, is what intersectionality dictates. Though the words “intersectionality” and “inclusion” sound like synonyms, they are actually in conflict with each other—a conflict perfectly encapsulated by the Women’s March and the activists’ dissatisfaction with it. In case there was any confusion, Roxane Gay, a celebrated feminist author and voice of the left, said this in response to the idea of inclusion: “Intersectional feminism does not include a pro-life agenda. That’s not how it works!”
This chapter will define intersectionality, explain how it provides an ideological framework for safety-conditioned Zillennials, and describe the main problems with an intersectional approach to activism.
Intersectional Theory 101
Intersectionality is the operating system for the modern left. Understanding what it means and where it comes from is essential for comprehending the current state of activism on college campuses, at protests in major cities, and elsewhere.
Put simply, intersectionality means that various kinds of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, economic inequality, and others—are simultaneously distinct from each other and inherently linked. They are distinct in the sense that they stack: a black woman suffers from two kinds of oppression (racism and sexism), whereas a white woman suffers from just one (sexism). But they are also interrelated, in that they are all forms of oppression that should be opposed with equal fervor. For instance, a feminist who isn’t sufficiently worked up about the rights of the gay and transgender communities is at odds with the tenets of intersectionality. She is a feminist, but she is not an intersectional feminist.
Holly, a twenty-three-year-old Berkeley student whom I met at the April 2017 People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., told me that for her, intersectionality means all issues are “connected and tie in with each other, like indigenous rights, Black Lives Matter, and climate change.”
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a professor at UCLA Law School and Columbia University School of Law, coined the term intersectionality in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” She needed a word to describe the lives of black women who were discriminated against because of both their race and their sex. Their experiences were fundamentally different from those of black men, who were privileged to the extent that they were men, and from those of white women, who were privileged to the extent that they were white.
“Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another,” wrote Crenshaw in the paper. “If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.”5
Crenshaw got the idea from a 1976 federal district court case, DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, in which five black women had sued GM. They argued that GM’s policy of laying off the most recently hired employees violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits both racial and gender-based discrimination. Since it had been only a little more than a decade since the law had required GM to hire black and female employees, the most recently hired employees tended to be black women, the plaintiffs argued.
But the court determined that black women enjoyed no special protection under the law—the employees were protected from racial discrimination and gender-based discrimination, but not from the combined effects of these two categories. “The plaintiffs are clearly entitled to a remedy if they have been discriminated against,” wrote the court. “However, they should not be allowed to combine statutory remedies to create a new ‘super-remedy’ which would give them relief beyond what the drafters of the relevant statutes intended.”6
Since GM policy allowed women to work in management positions, where there were several white women, it could not be said that the company engaged in sexism, and the court told the plaintiffs they should drop this aspect of their case and instead proceed with a purely race-based lawsuit. But the women had no interest in doing so—they felt they had been discriminated against not because they were black but because they were black women.
DeGraffenreid v. General Motors was Crenshaw’s lightbulb moment. Black women lived in the midst of two kinds of discrimination—racism and sexism—and thus languished under an oppressive force greater than the sum of its parts.
“What Kimberlé is saying with intersectionality is that, in order to understand how power operates, you have to understand how people live their lives,” Alicia Garza, an activist and cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement, told me. “Intersectionality is the very basic notion that we live multiple experiences at once. It’s not just, oh, I’m black and I’m a woman, and I’m a black woman. It’s to say that I’m uniquely discriminated against. I uniquely experience oppression based on standing at the intersection of race and gender.”
Though Crenshaw came up with the term, the concept itself predates her. As far back as 1892, the black feminist Anna Julia Cooper had criticized leading anti-racists for failing to advance the cause of black women. “Only the black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood … then and there the whole race enters with me,” she said.7 (Cooper, who was born a slave in 1858, eventually became the first formerly enslaved woman to earn a Ph.D. She lived to be 105. Her sprawling Washington, D.C., residence still stands—in fact, I rented a room there for six months in 2012.)
For the Boston-based black feminist lesbian organization known as the Combahee River Collective, which existed in the 1970s, “simultaneity” was the word they used to describe the cumulative impact of the various oppressions they experienced. Their manifesto called not just for the abolition of racism and sexism but for “the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well.”8 Avowed enmity toward all the various isms: this is the strategy required by the intellectual framework that became known as intersectionality.
Copyright © 2019 by Robert Emil Soave, Jr.