'The work is far from done': Women, feminism, intersectionality

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wendy Robbins, University of New Brunswick
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Portfolio’s ‘Equality Then and Now’ series, marking 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Look for more on this topic in upcoming posts and at Congress 2010.

“Women’s committees, it was argued, cannot effectively address intersectionality.” This was one of the main reasons given for dismantling the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) Women’s Committee , which CAUT’s Council voted to do at its April 24 meeting. The statement made by CAUT president Penni Stewart took me aback: if not women, then who claims to be the inventor of intersectionality, as well as its chief advocate? For as long as I can remember, a rallying cry within the women’s movement has been that until all of us are free, none of us are free.

True, the term “intersectionality” was coined only at the end of the 1980s, but the realities of multiple, inseparable identities and of intersecting – not parallel –  oppressions, have been long recognized, if in varying terms, over the years: “double colonization,”  “double discrimination,” or being “multiply situated.” Integrating race, class, sexuality, ability, and multiple factors into feminist analysis is key to the work of women’s organizations like the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) and the Legal Education Action Fund (LEAF), as well as that of women’s and gender studies faculty and of feminist scholars across Canada.

As theory and practice, intersectionality has been evolving for more than 40 years. It began at least as far back as the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1960s.  Women who were marginalized by multiple factors in “mainstream” society, in the “mainstream” women’s movement, and in various male-dominated civil rights groups, made an ever-deepening exploration of oppression.

One starting point is the consciousness of sexism within anti-racist organizations of the 1960s. Akua Benjamin has written about the sexism that Black women experienced, for example, in Montreal in the years following the 1966 White Paper on Immigration and Citizenship and leading up to the 1969 protests at Sir George Williams University: “The women were the workhorses in these organizations. We did the cooking and the cleaning. . . . Men were the leaders and we were told to do the grunge work.”

A similar recognition of sexism within the Native rights movement, as well as of racism in Canadian society, is recorded by Métis writer Maria Campbell in her groundbreaking autobiography Halfbreed, published in 1973. Canadian and Commonwealth women writers of the period (e.g., Margaret Laurence, Doris Lessing) also reveal the ambiguous situation of white women at home and abroad, sometimes powerful because of white skin privilege, sometimes powerless because of patriarchal laws and institutions.

At the first national conference on the women’s movement in Canada, held in 1970 in Saskatoon, the keynote speech was given by McGill University sociologist Marlene Dixon; paradoxically, she argued that race and class divide women too much to build a unified women’s movement. It was some years later that Indian postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak coined the term “strategic essentialism,” meaning that it is sometimes advantageous for women to temporarily “essentialize” ourselves in a simplified group identity to achieve certain strategic goals. Should women emphasize commonalities or differences? The answer seems to be sometimes one; sometimes the other.

In Quebec, feminism was interlinked with the emerging sovereignty movement. As union activist Monique Simard recalls: “The slogan of the women’s liberation movement was: ‘There can be no liberation of Quebec without women’s liberation, and no women’s liberation without the liberation of Quebec.’ So it was a total environment.”

To this day, people debate whether we should speak of women’s movements in the plural rather than in the singular. In 1971 the group Indian Rights for Indian Women was founded to fight sexist discrimination in the Indian Act (work which is ongoing in the current debate over Bill C-3). In 1973 in Toronto at the first national conference of lesbians, there were debates about whether to organize autonomously, within the larger women’s movement, or within the gay and lesbian movement. In the same decade, organizations like the Congress of Black Women, the Disabled Women’s Network, the Native Women’s Association, and Paukiuutit formed as advocacy groups, each focusing on their own issues.

Significantly, they also chose (not without controversy, to be sure) to work together in what became Canada’s largest umbrella organization of women’s groups, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). In 1991, NAC designated seats on its national executive for underrepresented groups, including racialized minority women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, and Aboriginal women, and it was soon after headed by consecutive presidents from these groups. In 1992, CRIAW held 16th national conference on “Making the Links: Anti-Racism and Feminism.”

Organizations like NAC, CRIAW, and the former Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW), and Canadian legal scholars like University of Ottawa’s Joanne St. Lewis emerged as early leaders in “anti-racist feminism” or what by the late 1980s had started to be called “intersectionality.” Kimberlé Crenshaw, currently a professor of law at University of California—Los Angeles and Columbia, is usually credited with coining the term, and University of Maryland’s distinguished sociologist Patricia Hill Collins was instrumental in its development. Like Joanne St. Lewis, they are racialized women whose experience requires “integrated feminist,” “Black feminist,” or “intersectional” analysis.  Many books now document the lives of academics across Canada who have experienced multiple marginalization, such as Dionne Brand, Himani Bannerji, Arun Mukherjee, Patricia Monture, and many others.

Achieving equity within and across diverse communities is a cherished part of the widely shared dream of a just, caring, bilingual, multicultural Canada. Coalitions and alliances amongst women’s groups and between women and men have been important, both historically in the fight for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage, and still today around issues ranging from reproductive choice to family violence prevention. As York University’s Enakshi Dua noted as part of the recent discussion on intersectionality on CAUTeq listserv, alliances with men are especially important in the cultures of Aboriginal women and racialized minority women, including some of the women I have mentioned, who challenge the validity of “women only” spaces. Postmodernists go further to deconstruct the very category “women.”

Postfeminists outright declare feminism dead. If my memory serves me well, the CAUT Women’s Committee ceased to function briefly once before, in the 1980s, then returned to life. As statistics on women in the professoriate continue to document, the work of this important national advocacy group is still far from done.

Wendy Robbins is a professor of English and co-ordinator of Women’s Studies at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton. She has served as Chair of the Women’s Committee at CAUT and as Vice President, Women’s and Equity Issues, at CFHSS. 


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