INTERSECTIONALITY & ME
By Rachel Landis
Rachel is a fellow in Kol Isha, NFTY-NAR’s NY Teen Feminist Fellowship.
Everyone should take a moment to formally acknowledge that being a feminist takes work. It’s never been as simple as just screaming “Girl Power!” or even saying “Hashtag Feminism.” Feminism is a political and social movement, one which strives for the kind of equality that can only come from hard work.
As we look at feminist history, that hard work has often created small success for those working for it. For example, black women helping the suffragette movement in the early 20th century didn’t really have a right to vote until the Voting Act of 1965, years after white women gained the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th amendment. Mainstream feminism has a long history of excluding minorities from its work and policy, which is where the concept of intersectionality comes from. The word intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is defined as “the theory that the overlap of various social identities, as race, gender, sexuality, and class contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual.” In short, it asserts what we’ve all known; all women have different struggles that come with being a woman.
As a Jewish feminist, I’m constantly striving to be aware of other people’s intersectionality the way I acknowledge my own, which is difficult. It requires acknowledging the struggles of others are independent to yours, and sometimes even because of your privileges. It’s hard to acknowledge that there are places where you should not talk, and rather echo the opinions of those who should. It’s difficult to learn to educate while including a disclaimer of “this is just what I’ve heard” and “it may not be everyone’s opinion.” I know that it’s difficult, but it’s entirely necessary.
A woman makes 77 cents to a man’s dollar. That’s a fact I learned at age 8. It’s been an integral part of my feminist career. I used to shout it at boys in middle school who were claiming that feminism had no purpose, and it’s a chant I constantly hear at equal wage protests. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that for Asian women, Black women, Latino women, Native women, and any other non-white woman, it’s even less. For so long, I prided myself on my feminism while failing to realize I was only acknowledging the struggles of white women. In my generalization, I heralded the struggles of white women as “universal” and disenfranchised women of color. At the time, I was what many today would call a “white feminist.”
Feminism, for many people, happens in stages. For me, it was very similar. I used to think being a feminist was frowning upon any woman who dressed “promiscuously” or stayed quiet and reserved, which I saw as inherently “un-feminist” actions. And with time all of that changed. I realized that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want, and pursue whatever paths in life they want, and that freedom, that choice is feminism. But even then, my journey wasn’t over. A few years ago I took a further step: acknowledging that for some women it is much harder to gain that freedom than it is for me, and that their identity may make them want to do something entirely different with that freedom than I do.
In January of 2017, women from around the world of all different races and religions marched for their rights. Whether it was ending sexual harassment, the right to choose, feeling threatened by the government, immigration policy, or something else, everyone was marching for something different, and that’s the key point of intersectionality; we have to let people choose which of their struggles they want to emphasize.
We, as a Jewish community, have to love our sisters of all kinds and acknowledge their struggles as much as our own. Wearing what you want isn’t just about the choice of a pantsuit or a short skirt; it’s about wearing a hijab, or keeping your hair natural, or doing whatever is frowned upon for a specific sect of women. We’re told so many times throughout the Torah to love the stranger, and for me, intersectionality has meant embracing that phrase and all of its meanings. My feminism can’t be only about me, or it won’t succeed with its one true purpose: uplifting and empowering all women. In order to make sure that feminism achieves its goal for all women, intersectionality has to be the tool we use to make sure no one gets left behind.