On Leaning In & Intersectionality
Emilee RussellFeminist Wednesday University Ambassador
In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg's face seemed to be appearing in media outlets everywhere. She was already well-known for her impressive career at Facebook, Google, and the United States Treasury Department. Hers was certainly not a new name, but when she published her book titled Lean In last year, it sparked an insane amount of controversy. To some degree, I understand why it spurred so much outrage. It's a book about the predicament that the modern woman finds herself in facing a career, marriage, and motherhood. Strong feelings are a completely natural response to this book because it reveals our shortcomings as women and as a society. In a sense, it's reassuring that what Sandberg was saying stirred up such strong reactions because that is a good, encouraging indication of change.
Sandberg's book was an eye-opener for me in several ways and forced me approach some classic feminist ideas (such as child rearing, career vs. family, etc.) in a new way but what I came away with was essentially a call to arms for all women to recognize injustice in mainstream society and media and have the courage to demand something different, something more realistic for all of us. That is why I was so taken by surprise when I started hearing, and reading so much criticism toward Sandberg and her ideas, calling them out as exclusive to middle-class white women. Why are Sandberg's ideas invalid because she isn't a minority? I understand that Sandberg, like myself, is not a woman of color and as a member of the middle class, has had little or no experience with serious poverty. That doesn't make either of us incapable of understanding other people's experiences. We can only speak from our own experiences, as Sandberg did, but we all can and should try to see and appreciate things from other perspectives. It would be so tragic if we let Sandberg's work, with the potential to do so much good, be diminished by our hang-ups on her race and socioeconomic status. As women, of course we'll have our own unique challenges and obstacles, but there is immense power in identifying with each other and our struggles. We can't win if we bring other women down. The ideas in Lean In can bring us together as women and society as a whole. This is where the concept of intersectionality comes in.
Intersectionality is a relatively new buzzword in mainstream feminism and it's absolutely critical for understanding each other as we dive deeper into social inequities and inevitably into touchy subject matter when we address gender, class, race, and socioeconomic status as it applies to modern-day feminist issues. The root of this new term is intersect, because it's all about finding the space where all of these factors come together. I see it as finding a common ground as women. We may not have the same backgrounds but we're all joined together by womanhood and that is something we must recognize and celebrate. We can use this to our advantage when tackling tricky issues like our reproductive rights, domestic violence, healthcare, and education. Each of us have had our own struggles and lessons with sexism and other forms of discrimination.
Intersectionality allows us to examine each factor in our lives that contributes to who we are as women. Intersectionality means dissecting all these different aspects of a woman's life (race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, marital status, career, education, income, etc.) and examining how they apply to and shape her life. It may seem like a newfangled idea to make us all feel like special little snowflakes but it completely makes sense if you boil it down. Of course a married, straight, upper middle class white woman would have a different experience as a woman compared to a biracial, queer mother living below the poverty level. We can't fool ourselves by saying that feminism or solutions to these social ills are one-size-fits-all. No, that philosophy can only lead to exclusion and leaving people behind. Of course there is an incredible amount of work to be done before women achieve true equality and freedom worldwide, but we should be really thankful that we live in a time where the ideals of feminism are expanding to be so comprehensive and inclusive so that no woman feels alienated from the movement.
None of us are the same. We've known this. Our life experiences and all the factors that go into them are different for every one of us but there is so much strength in that. Not only because we can learn from each other, but because we can share and identify with one another as women. Let's start a real conversation about intersectional feminism and be clear about our intentions. Let's spread the message that intersectionality is totally inclusive and there's a space for everyone. Let's allow our differences to empower us and fight for our individuality to be recognized. This can only make us closer and stronger and in turn, create solutions for us as a society. Intersectionality as an approach to feminism opens so many doors for women but more importantly, teaches and encourages us to open those doors for ourselves.