I’m With Her (and Him and Them): Reflections on Intersectionality
The Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017 was one of the most transcendent twenty-four hours of my life. Despite involving a long bus trip that began and ended in the middle of the night, waiting in long lines for the Metro, and being packed shoulder-to-shoulder with half a million other human beings for hours on end, I experienced a sense of communitas that overwhelmed my ordinary responses to such stimuli. And despite the reasons for the gathering — the election of a president who campaigned on a platform of exclusion and who flaunts his misogyny — the sheer power of solidarity at the March held me in a state of wonder. The memory of the return trip still brings tears to my eyes: homeward bound, our smart phones brought us report after report of the estimated 5 million people who marched worldwide.
The event was framed in terms of intersectionality. In this single word, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw encapsulated the principle that had also motivated the Combahee River Collective and other activists to claim every part of embodied experience in the world — not only race, and not only gender, but the intersections of both with one another and with social class, sexual orientation, dis/ability, religion, and more — as relevant for analyzing and solving social problems.
Intersectional theory inspired the sign carried by one college student on our bus, which vulgarly suggested what marchers could do with their “white imperialist feminism.” I remember how one African-American marcher moved against the flow of the crowd with a megaphone, excoriating white women for how they voted as a group. She was right! At the same time, it was easy to see from the diverse signs and slogans that the marchers were far from a single demographic with a single platform. The ubiquitous multidimensional arrows proclaiming, “I’m With Her!”, marked the moment as intersectionality. We were there with one another.
Within this messy terrain, the election and its aftermath have brought to the surface a discontent that has been rumbling around theories of intersectionality. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on “the intersectionality wars,” and in the New York Times, Bari Weiss argued that “in practice, intersectionality functions as a kind of caste system, in which people are judged according to how much their particular caste has suffered throughout history.” Some have blamed intersectionality for the fragmentation of community into smaller and smaller identity-based groups.
Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge (2016) suggest intersectionality’s bad rap is a consequence of academics using it as a theory but divorcing it from its political thrust. This fundamental misunderstanding erases its origins in the social justice activism of people of color. Rather, intersectionality is “a way of interconnecting personal experiences and structural analyses of interlocking oppressions without skirting the meaning of life experiences, multiple identifications, and political communities” (76-77). It interrogates how multiple structures of domination may be functioning within institutions and the persons affected by them.
The feminism I took with me to the March opposes what Wendy Farley calls “the logic of domination” (2015, x). This fundamental feminist commitment is theological: it testifies to another power at the heart of reality, which does not coerce or repress but invites all people into the fullness of personhood and community. Because the logic of domination takes many forms, feminist theology done well is intersectional (to weakly paraphrase Flavia Dzodan’s catchier slogan). It concerns not only the identity of the theologian, as critics charge, but mounts a challenge to oppressive ideologies. White feminists (who may identify as many other things as well) must be in dialogue with womanist, Black feminist, Asian feminist, mujerista, queer, postcolonial, and religious and non-religious colleagues. Uprooting the ideology of white supremacy — both within oneself and the public sphere — is essential and ongoing work for feminist theologians.
Religion marks a sticking point for intersectionality because of the perception that, as one marker of identity, it is off limits for criticism. This moment of pause is significant, given the prevalent scapegoating of Muslims, Jews, evangelical Christians, and others. A too-easy dismissal of entire world views is often grossly uninformed, ignoring their internal diversity, internal critiques, and the myriad ways people negotiate their identities and find empowerment within them. It is true: some feminist theologians find it hard to recognize resistance to oppression and injustice in more than one model of flourishing. Comparative and interfaith work are becoming increasingly important for having better feminist theological dialogue.
Working at the growing edges of privilege and bias makes feminist theology expansive. Listening well to what solidarity looks like to others makes feminist theology effective. This is the heart and soul of feminism for me; and it’s why I’ll continue to march.
Farley, Wendy. The Thirst of God: Contemplating God’s Love with Three Women Mystics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015.
Hill Collins, Patricia and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016.