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We all know that, just like men, women are not all the same. We come in different shapes and sizes. We come from different backgrounds and ethnic groups. Some of us are disabled and some of us are currently non-disabled. Some of us are religious and some of us are not. We may be trans or we may be cis. We may be old, middle aged or young. We might fancy women or men or we might fancy both. We might find ourselves drawn to people irrespective of their genders and some of us don’t fancy anyone at all.

The above list is, of course, not exhaustive.

We also know that life changes for all of us whether we like it or not. The fact is that a number of us could find ourselves gaining or losing a large amount of weight. Any of us could become disabled if we aren’t already. If we stay alive, ageing (and therefore ageism) will affect us.

All this (and more) means it specifically matters to feminism that we address all intersecting oppressions on a feminist website. As Pippa’s recent post and the subsequent discussion indicate, many of us experience different forms of oppression. (Some of you will already be familiar with Fatshionista’s excellent piece on why intersectionality matters but if you aren’t, it’s definitely well worth a read.) However, it still remains that the first comment on Pippa’s thread asks what the post is doing on a feminist website. This has got me thinking about how social justice movements work together (or not) and why we sometimes end up boxing ourselves off when so many members of each movement often experience multiple oppressions. I’m still finding my way in all this but it seems to me that some of the biggest conflicts happen when people experience the paradox of a lack of privilege in one area but do not see or acknowledge their privilege in another.

A problem with privilege is that it tends to appear seamless, akin to some miraculous gift bestowed on someone just for being (or perceived as being) male, cis, able-bodied, thin, white, middle to upper class or heterosexual. This means it is often imperceptible to anyone experiencing it. We tend to take any perks that make our lives easier for granted to the point that we don’t even know they’re there. Even when we have our consciousnesses raised so we are able recognise our privilege, it isn’t keenly felt in the way the areas where we lack privilege are. This can make being called out feel incredibly unfair to those of us who benefit from privilege in some ways but lack it in others. Indeed, the daily frustrations we experience from otherness in one or some areas often seem like hassle enough. This means being called to account when we benefit from or fail to notice the privileges we do have can feel like we’re being bombarded with abuse from all angles.

As people willing to name and speak about prejudice, we are often hyper-aware of the discrimination we face and the ways in which this is often denied or hidden. It seems to me that an unfortunate side-effect of this can occur when we end up dismissing forms of discrimination that don’t affect us personally as “not so bad” or somehow more accepted by the public as serious issues: surely a classic example of oppression Olympics. I would suggest a completely justified sense of alienation can unfortunately sometimes lead to perception that one is somehow bottom of the pile and thereby exempt from basic responsibility to be decent or fair and unable to ever oppress anyone. This, in turn, sometimes seems to result in a sense of entitlement in attempts at “safe spaces”, with some commenters demanding that their voices are prioritised as the most important.

Overall, I think we could probably all find examples of instances where people seem to recognise a particular form of prejudice but present sexism as a non-issue but I think it would be difficult to find any movement that hasn’t been undermined by bigots in a similar way at some point. Of course, this leads to another sticking point when highlighting intersectionality: the scarcity mentality that kyriarchy encourages.

Actually arguing for full equality for all with no marginalised group excluded as unworthy compared to the rest feels risky when Conservative ideas about human nature are so ingrained in society. It seems that the idea of no-one being oppressed is actually quite frightening to contemplate because we all arguably benefit when others are viewed unfavourably. It’s hard to imagine a world where this doesn’t happen so it seems every social justice movement is at risk of rejecting the seriousness of other oppressions in order to take care of its own interests and gain the approval of those with the most privilege. But what will happen if all groups insist on doing this? Is this a competition where each group has to go all out to prove their worth by showing their ability to oppress or be seen in a more positive light than “others”?

Energy spent on oppression-Olympics battles is energy that could be better spent fighting all kinds of prejudice together. Pippa was right to talk about her experience of intrusive questions on this site. Equality with men is not just for white, het, cis, thin, currently non-disabled women. We all matter. Every single one of us.

Image shared on Flickr by McBeth, under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

coldharbour // Posted 23 August 2010 at 4:43 pm

Excellent article. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has written some excellent articles regarding this topic, there a good volume of her work online.

http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/252.html

sianushka // Posted 23 August 2010 at 5:10 pm

great piece holly.

as an aside, i don’t think i really understood about privilege before i started reading the f word. it has really helped me question my own privileges, which are plentiful, and encouraged me to try and understand better what my privilege means. so thanks all, for helping me with that. i’m still learning, but i’m so pleased i started learning…

Lynne Miles // Posted 23 August 2010 at 6:11 pm

Thanks for writing this, Holly, I completely agree. As a feminist site we need to write about all of these issues because women are black, women are disabled, women are trans, women are poor, women are fat etc etc ad infinitum. We cannot simply be a movement for the middle-to-upper class white, educated women, we have to look at the issues that affect all women.

Laura // Posted 23 August 2010 at 6:42 pm

Fantastic, well-argued piece, Holly, thank you.

It’s worth pointing out that we fairly frequently receive comments from people trying to claim that, for example, “women are more oppressed/have their concerns taken less seriously than black people”. Being unable to recognise that “women” and “black people” are not mutually exclusive categories really is a glaring indication that you need to acknowledge your privilege and expand your understanding of feminism. It’s exactly this kind of thinking that alienated so many women from the feminist movement in the first place and led to the prioritisation of issues that particularly concerned middle class, white, het, able-bodied, cis women (see the BBC3 “Women” documentaries for some prime examples of this in action.)

Jolene Tan // Posted 23 August 2010 at 11:19 pm

Great piece, Holly!

Pat // Posted 24 August 2010 at 9:48 am

Does intersectionality extend to animals too?

sam // Posted 24 August 2010 at 10:03 am

i would just like to know how many black feminist write on this site. As a black woman i find it hard to relate with most things written on this site. I still think feminism is a movement for white, middle class heterosexual, able bodied women

Amy Clare // Posted 24 August 2010 at 12:10 pm

“Equality with men is not just for white, het, cis, thin, currently able bodied women. We all matter. Every single one of us.”

Does this include nonhuman animals too?

I ask because judging from your post, it doesn’t. They’re not even mentioned; human privilege is not even mentioned even though it’s something we ALL have, even though practically every point you make in your post could apply to the oppression of nonhuman animals by humans.

I’m not interested in derailing or starting an argument about speciesism (had enough stress from my own post about it), and I’m not trying to attack you. I just want to make the point that we all seemingly agree there should be no such thing as ‘oppression olympics’, and that intersectionality should be recognised, but that apparently this should only apply to humans. Do you see how much of a contradiction this is?

Even if not every feminist agrees, I would like to see *some* acknowledgement that there is another form of oppression in this world, other than those which purely affect humans.

And yes… I have felt alienated from the feminist movement by the playing of ‘oppression olympics’, especially recently, specifically because there seems to be no recognition of speciesism or human privilege at all.

“A problem with privilege is that it tends to appear seamless, akin to some miraculous gift bestowed on someone just for being (or perceived as being) male, cis, able-bodied, thin, white, middle to upper class or heterosexual…” *or human*.

Holly Combe // Posted 24 August 2010 at 4:50 pm

@Sam:

Currently, six writers in the permanent blogging team are women of colour. I don’t know the stats for the full number of contributors. We’re going to add up a sidebar item in the redesign to clearly say who is in the collective for helping to run the site.

@Amy Clare and Pat:

This was specifically a post about women (and, as you say, you’re not interested in derailing) but -yes- some of the points I make in the post could indeed apply to the oppression of nonhuman animals by humans. Much of it fits and the places where we draw lines are probably a symptom of what I said about the fears attached to arguing for full equality for all.

Edit: I have ammended the above slightly, as I don’t think the comments I made about women’s different approaches to religion or the dynamics connected to our sexualities and ethnic groups apply to animals.

Amy Clare // Posted 24 August 2010 at 5:18 pm

Holly:

Thanks for responding. I just have a small point to make in return. When you say “This was specifically a post about women,” you are in effect participating in oppression olympics, however much it might feel like this is not the case. Saying ‘this post applies only to (human) women’ is, to or me, the same as saying ‘this post applies only to cis women’ or ‘this post applies only to white women’. Imagine how offended you would feel if someone said these things.

Half of all nonhuman animals are female, and in the case of farm animals for example, their femaleness is a big contributor to their oppression at the hands of humans. Feminism is exactly the kind of movement that should be responding to this oppression. Female nonhumans – like any nonhumans, and indeed some humans – can’t stick up for themselves, so they need us to advocate for them.

What I’m saying is, please think about where you draw the line, and why – and what it means to exclude some oppressions, even from blog posts on this site. It wouldn’t hurt any of us to consider – or even just mention – nonhumans in our discussions. Feminism, imo, should be embracing *all* female beings.

Horry // Posted 24 August 2010 at 6:19 pm

While I agree with much of what’s said here, I think there’s still a risk that in discussing how feminism isn’t just for white, het, cis, thin, middle-class women, people then feel they have to justify themselves by pointing out all the ways in which they differ from this particular feminist stereotype. In other comment threads on this site, it’s easy to get attacked for seeming too privileged in comparison with others, as though this automatically invalidates arguments. I’ve often felt tempted to preface comments with a list of my own disadvantages, even when I don’t really want to share them, just because I’m nervous of being attacked and get the impression that calling out others in advance offers a form of protection from which you’re more able to say what you like and not be called to account. This isn’t to ignore the ways in which different forms of disadvantage interact; I would say, however, that fighting disadvantage is more valuable and worthwhile than using it as a weapon with which to (often mistakenly) call out others. People who shout the loudest about their lack of privilege aren’t always those with the greatest need – not least because just as privilege is something you can have without noticing, so too is disadvantage. So many of us think it’s “just us” or just the way of the world, quite unaware of the role that different forms of discrimination operate in our own lives – it then only compounds disadvantage to be asked to apologise to those who’ve at least had the education and support to be able to recognise their own lack of privilege.

sam // Posted 24 August 2010 at 7:01 pm

Just read back what I wrote and it did not sound too nice. My intentions weren’t to make anyone feel guilty about their privileges. Like men, we women have to also recognize our privileges. My privileges are different from my white, middle class heterosexual, able bodied friends and theirs are different from mine.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 24 August 2010 at 7:18 pm

Great post Holly, thank you. It’s so important that we remember that if something affects women, it’s a feminist issue. And yes, not all women are white, cis, non-disabled, straight, middle-class etc. Yet somehow a disabled woman’s experiences, or a trans woman’s experiences, aren’t feminist enough for some.

We need to all remember that women won’t be liberated until *all* women are liberated. If you’re having happy feminist meetings and plotting to change the world, but it’s up a flight of stairs and disabled women can’t even get in, then that’s not good enough, and it’s not feminist, it’s not good for women. That’s just one example, there are numerous examples for each minority group you mentioned and doubtlessly more. And of course many of us belong to numerous minority groups at the same time.

As Laura quite rightly said, none of these things are mutually exclusive.

Jessica Smith // Posted 24 August 2010 at 10:14 pm

A great article and great comments / discussion. I haven’t been reading the F Word for long but it has massively opened my eyes to the concept of privilege. I have also struggled with the frequent “oppression olympics” in many of the articles and subsequent comments in Feminist articles and blogs, even if I didn’t have a name for it until I read this article.

The difficulty for me personally is how not to alienate everyone with a greater level of oppression than myself, whilst still feeling that I can speak up against my own oppression. I have many privileges, which I recognise to at least some extent – but I have a feeling that I don’t really comprehend how amazingly privileged in this world I am. I am constantly reminding myself and my partner how lucky we are, how lucky our kids are, and trying to ground the whole family to some extent. And yet – we live in our little world, we socialise in our little world and our day-to-day worries and concerns are related to our little world. Those worries and concerns may seem insulting to someone who finds themselves living in a different version of the world – and yet they still exist. So I could either not complain about them, because there are other people more disadvantaged than me, or I could do something about them. And in doing something about them I have the potential to impact others with similar issues.

I guess all I’m saying is that whatever your level of privilege / oppression, you should feel you can do something about it. In an ideal world we might start at the very bottom and work up – I don’t have much confidence in me solving world poverty, but there are some things in my little world that I think I have a shot of changing or positively impacting, so I think that’s where I’ll start!

Elena // Posted 24 August 2010 at 11:24 pm

Amy Clare wrote: “It wouldn’t hurt any of us to consider – or even just mention – nonhumans in our discussions.”

Sometimes it would hurt very much.

The oppression olympics is a silencing tactic – it’s a way of invalidating others’ viewpoints by trying to place them lower down on a scale of significance.

Derailing is also a silencing tactic. If someone posts a blog entry about, for example, legal aid for refugee women, then bringing animals into the debate is derailing the subject, increasing noise to signal and making it more difficult for important points to be made.

There is space on the net for all sorts of discussions; that doesn’t mean that every discussion should address your favourite subject.

I’m not trying to imagine how hurtful my saying, “this post applies only to female humans” would be to female nonhumans; they don’t speak or read human words.

Amy Clare // Posted 25 August 2010 at 9:52 am

Elena:

I have to respectfully disagree with you.

“I’m not trying to imagine how hurtful my saying, “this post applies only to female humans” would be to female nonhumans; they don’t speak or read human words.”

Many women and girls don’t/can’t speak, or read ‘human words’. This doesn’t mean that we ignore them or exclude them from feminism. They wouldn’t be able to express their offence personally if they were excluded, of course, but many people would take offence on their behalf and rightly so. (Not to mention their exclusion would lead to their oppression continuing unabated.) Imagine a feminism where we ignore any issues affecting girls up to the age at which they start to read (presuming they can) – sounds bizarre, doesn’t it?

Animal rights is not my ‘favourite’ subject and nor would I bring it up in the very specific example you gave (of legal aid for refugees), but Holly’s post was about ‘oppression olympics’ and intersectionality generally, and the various different types of privilege we may or may not have. I think it is relevant to mention nonhuman animals in this context, and ask that female nonhumans be considered, or at least that people think about why they are excluded.

I won’t say any more on the subject though, as I’ve made my point.

Marie // Posted 25 August 2010 at 11:13 am

I laughed when I read Amy Clare’s first comment on this post, and I thought she was indeed derailing. But then I thought, the way animals are treated and, in particular, female animals, does worry me a lot. Apart from the sheer horrible cruelty of the way female animals are treated, I also worry that a lot of scientists would love to use some of their methods on female humans if they got the chance!

Hannah // Posted 25 August 2010 at 12:58 pm

I agree with Amy Clare, I think it’s important to address human privilege vs nonhuman oppression. Saying that, I don’t think we need to look at animals in the gendered way that she suggests – the way I see it, animals are almost gendered ‘female’ in that they, along with women, are always on the oppressed side of the privilege equation.

On a more general note, back to the topic of the post, I think it’s really important that feminism addresses issues of intersectionality and that the F Word continues to expand its range of contributors and issues covered. At the same time, I feel like feminism has been better than many liberation movements at seeing the connections between different forms of oppression, for instance, the prominence of women in anti-nuclear protest and in ecofeminist activism.

Josephine Tsui // Posted 25 August 2010 at 2:05 pm

As a Chinese Canadian UK resident, I write for this blog and I have read this blog for years. I find that my feminism enhances my racial politics and my racial identity gives me a thorough understanding of feminism.

I do think it’s important to focus on other intersectionalities as it can help advance each other’s arguments. For example, my work with “Mama Says Good Girls Marry Doctors” is about bringing in the intersectionalities together and finding unique answers that work well for women. You can’t say that they are exclusive. But a woman’s autonomy over her body will be unique with cultural implications but she still must have autonomy over her body. Just as women should be agents within their own culture.

gbl // Posted 26 August 2010 at 9:46 pm

If the discussion is about feminism, I don’t see how it advances the discussion to introduce every other ism someone introduces with a “but”. It just makes for non-discussion, it’s obstructionist, and quite honestly, I’m beginning to think that’s often the point.

When I want to discuss, say, the seal hunt and how that intersects with feminism, that’s a different discussion. They can’t both come in cogently under the same head, in 350 word posts with 12 comments.

Holly Combe // Posted 27 August 2010 at 9:28 am

@gbl:

The point is not to obstruct feminism and I’d suggest attempting to do so on a feminist website would be incredibly convoluted. The point is to try to advance it by helping build bridges between women experiencing multiple forms of discrimination, some of whom may have felt excluded by the feminist movement.

For example, I would say Pippa being inhibited from posting her “Intrusive Questions” piece on The F-Word would have amounted to the site deliberately ignoring different dimensions to the treatment women often experience in public spaces. I would say such a strategy would be exactly the kind that weakens feminism.

Acknowledging intersectionality isn’t about indulging the buts and what-abouts of anti-feminists looking to undermine feminism. It’s about genuinely listening to each other, as feminists, and not allowing feminism to alienate *women* by ignoring huge parts of women’s oppression.

Lynne Miles // Posted 27 August 2010 at 9:42 am

Holly – this is *exactly* the point. Thank you for making it!

Elle // Posted 27 August 2010 at 3:56 pm

I think that it’s important to distinguish between intersecting and general issues. It’s perfectly healthy to question whether a particular problem is a feminist issue, a disablist/racial/classist/fattist, etc. issue, or the intersection of the two.

I made a comment on Pippa’s article that wasn’t posted – I don’t know why as it was not trolling, rude, or offensive. However, I did question an opinion voiced repeatedly in the comments that intrusive commenting about disability “doesn’t happen to men in anything like the same degree” or “feels different for women” because this was in direct contradiction to my own experience and that of my boyfriend. All the feelings of intrusion, anger and injustice that Pippa described were also experienced by my boyfriend, and so I questioned whether it would still be a purely feminist issue if it turned out males and females experienced this kind on disablist behaviour in equal measures.

Disability interacts with gender, yes. But we have to make sure we don’t accidentally or intentionally exclude everyone outside that intersection. “Male and disabled? Female and able-bodied? We don’t want to know because it’s different for you / you can’t understand / your experience is too different from mine to be relevant / etc.”. Claiming to know what other people feel and experience, and excluding them on that basis, is oppression in its own right.

Discriminatory oppression is an open party. Please let everyone in.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 27 August 2010 at 6:01 pm

Hi Elle,

It was me who didn’t publish your comment. In all honesty, I held it back to think about, and then forgot. I was a little wary because of some attacks I was getting and I was probably feeling defensive.

What I would have said in response, had I published it was that yes, injured and disabled men will also experience these intrusive questions, but I suspect the way they experience them is somewhat different to how women do, in the context of a society where women’s bodies are constantly seen as public property for comments and judgements.

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