This framework will change how you look at identity.

By Taylyn Washington-Harmon
July 28, 2020
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Intersectional feminism is a term coming into the forefront as we encounter a myriad of social justice issues in today’s society. But how does it differ from 'capital F' feminism? We explain this framework through the eyes of feminist scholars, including a doctor, and how you can apply it in your everyday life. 

The definition of intersectional feminism

Coined by lawyer and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectional feminism is “a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” In other words, the term recognizes the different factors such as race, class, and sexual orientation, among others, that affect gender equality. Intersectional feminism acknowledges that a middle-class cisgender white woman and an impoverished transgender Black woman, for example, are not exactly fighting the same battle. According to Sherri Williams, PhD, feminist scholar and assistant professor of race media at American University, intersectional feminism reveals that “women aren't just women with a single identity that needs care and attention.”

“Intersectional feminism is looking at not only the myriad aspects of our identity—our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, but how power and oppression play in those,” Malika Sharma, MD, staff physician and education lead in the Division of Infectious Diseases at St. Michael's Hospital, tells Health. Sharma, who is currently researching the social determinants of health, says of her own experience: “It’s conflicting [for doctors] because when we enter medicine, we're asked to shed so many other parts of our identities to enter into the culture of medicine and treat people universally, when that's simply not the case.”

Why intersectional feminism is important

An excellent example of why intersectionality matters is the women’s suffrage movement, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. "People hold up Susan B. Anthony as the pinnacle of feminist ideology and advancement, who wanted women to get the right to vote, but specifically white women—affluent educated white women,” Williams tells Health. “If we think intersectionally, she wasn't concerned with Black women getting the right to vote.” Intersectional feminism is important because acknowledging your own privileges and intersections alongside others can help you recognize your own biases and how they affect your interactions, especially in a health care setting.

“An intersectional feminist approach helps us understand that we operate with some degree of bias and unless we're aware of it, we can't really mitigate it,” explains Sharma. By thinking intersectionally, we aren’t placing identities on a hierarchy, but seeing how each identity creates different experiences for all of us, as well as the biases that may come with them.

“Having an intersectional feminist understanding of how power plays out on the patient level is key,” says Sharma. “I've been spoken to in very gendered ways by patients, but an intersectional feminist approach also helps me understand how a patient is trying to use power in a position where they feel powerless." Sharma shared an incident where a white male patient of hers was resisting being committed for a heart issue, resorting to gendered and racial insults. She later learned that he was apprehensive about being committed because of his economic status and lack of familial support. It was about having a sense of control. "Even when [patients are] saying hurtful things to me, I still have a lot of the power," Sharma explains.

Sharma admits that although it can be difficult, finding a doctor that shares or advocates for one or more of your intersectional identities can greatly improve the patient-physician experience overall. Consider reaching out to patient advocacy groups that recognize and fight for your intersecting identities, like Black Women's Health Imperative or Migrant Clinicians Network. "As patients, knowing the lack of intersectionality in medicine can help you push back when you feel unheard and push providers to see you wholly," says Sharma.

How to be an intersectional feminist

The simplest way to apply intersectional feminism to your own life? "Use whatever power you have in your different roles to acknowledge the ways gender, race, class, ability, immigration status, and all of these different identities, impact where we are,” says Williams. If you’re a cisgender heterosexual female journalist, for example, use your privilege to empower and share the stories of queer and non-binary people. Or, if you’re a doctor of color, consider how your role can make other patients of color feel comfortable advocating for themselves. 

“Having an intersectional feminist approach requires us to have a sense of humility and for us to acknowledge our strengths, where we fail, and how we can act as allies using the power and privilege we've been granted by society to support the broader movement,” says Sharma.

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