April 24, 2018
Written by Shani Ealey, Communications Manager, Women’s Foundation of CA
We believe in the power of an intersectional feminist policy agenda. But what exactly does that mean? For starters, let’s look at intersectionality, which is so much more than the latest buzzword to describe the complex inner workings of our racial and social relations. Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School who is a leading authority in the area of Civil Rights, Black feminist legal theory, race, racism and the law.1 Introducing the concept nearly 30 years ago in a seminal paper, Crenshaw described “the intersectional experience as something greater than the sum of racism and sexism.”2 Therefore, when we are talking about the concerns and realities of women–particularly Black women, Latina women, Indigenous women, queer women, trans women, working-class women, undocumented women, immigrant women or differently-abled women–we cannot understand the complexity of their experience by simply referring to one particular identity.
This is the heart of intersectionality.
“Intersectional feminism examines the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination that women face, based not just on gender but on ethnicity, sexuality, economic background and a number of other axes.”3
Embracing an intersectional approach creates room and space for the full complexity of a person’s lived experience. It is the understanding, for example, that while both Black and Latina women are women of color and experience certain forms of oppression, it is by no means the same. A working-class cisgender Black woman surviving in Oakland, CA will have a different experience than an undocumented Latina woman who is a domestic worker in Los Angeles County. Just as an employed white trans woman living in San Francisco will have a uniquely different experience than an unemployed cisgender Asian Pacific Islander woman working in a small rural town. All of these women are impacted by the perils of heteronormative white supremacist policies and practices that relegate them to the margins. But there is nuance to each experience, and we would do well to honor that. Gender is not an isolated concept and works in conjunction with other socio-political categories such as race, class, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, sexual orientation, where one lives, age, and ability.4
This is why we must prioritize an intersectional feminist policy agenda!
At the Women’s Foundation of California, we believe that it is imperative to work at the intersections when it comes to securing gender justice. Nothing embodies this more than the hard work that is being put forth by our Women’s Policy Institute fellows who are creating transformative policies that are multi-layered and multi-issue across race, gender, and class lines.
For example, this year’s WPI-State Criminal Justice Team proposed two bills, SB 1392 and SB 1393 to Senator Holly J. Mitchell, who agreed to author them as one half of her Equity and Justice Package seeking major justice reforms for both youth and adults. SB 1392 seeks to repeal ineffective sentencing enhancements for prior felony convictions and SB 1393 advocates to reinstate judicial discretion to the application of the 5-year sentence enhancement for each prior serious felony at the time when a person is currently charged with a serious felony. Ineffective sentencing enhancements only serve to fuel the oppressive system of mass incarceration which disproportionately impacts people of color. And as a result of the efforts from grassroots organizations across the nation and the work of the #SayHerName campaign we are becoming more and more aware of how women of color are impacted by the prison industrial complex. Thus, mass incarceration is a gender justice issue!
As a result of “War on Drug” policies, discriminatory school disciplinary practices, and other institutionalized racial and gender biases, women and girls of color are the fastest growing populations in U.S Prisons. According to a report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Black women are four times more likely to be imprisoned than their White counterparts.5 At the federal level, Latinas are 47.6 percent more likely to have a harsher sentence for a similar crime than Whites.6 Trans women of color are also targets of the prison industrial complex with nearly one in six transgender people (16%) (including 21% of transgender women) have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.7 As stated by Senator Holly J. Mitchell, “mass incarceration is a moral failure and a policy failure” that threatens the well-being and economic security of women, girls, and LGBTQIA+ folks throughout the state.
This is why we must center an intersectional approach!
We cannot afford to approach public policy from a single lens because that is simply not the reality. We cannot afford to engage in work with our grant partners, community members, and staff without an intersectional approach. We have to center intersectionality and operate from a place that recognizes and honors the varied complexities of gender, race, and class and how this shapes the experiences of women of color and queer and trans folks of color. This is how we begin to break down the walls that come with living in a world full gender, racial, and economic injustices that happen at both the systemic and interpersonal level. The more we are able to put intersectionality into practice the greater impact we will have in creating transformative policies that truly disrupt systems of power and produce pathways toward well-being where communities can thrive.
- “Kimberlé Crenshaw” African American Policy Forum, 04-18-2018, http://www.aapf.org/kimberle-crenshaw/
- “Kimberlé Crenshaw Explains The Power Of Intersectional Feminism In 1 Minute” HuffPost, 08-11-2017, https://bit.ly/2jiwFUT
- See reference 2.
- “Intersectionality: Matrix of Domination” A Feminist De/Reconstruction, 03-26-2012, https://bit.ly/2EXHCAl
- “The Status of Black Women in the United States” The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 07-17-2017, https://bit.ly/2HgakT5
- “10 Troubling Facts About Latinas and Mass Incarceration” Latina, 08-24-2015, https://bit.ly/2qNn6Os
- “Prison and Detention Reform” National Center for Transgender Equality, 2012, https://bit.ly/2K0cEv0