Showing Caution with Mainstream Feminism

It’s a strange thing to say so deep into third-wave feminism, but feminism is now fashionable. Pop stars use it as a marketing ploy. Actresses use it as a way to boost their audience. Models push products with it because it’s a winning social media marketing branding tool. Beyoncé is a feminist! 

Don’t get us wrong. It’s great that we’re all talking about feminism and the way it’s allowed many women to live in an inherently freer and more equal society (thanks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg!). At the same time, there’s a lot of work left to do. If we have learned anything in the past three years, then it’s that feminism isn’t only about girl power. It’s about learning from the experiences of all women, and that’s one thing mainstream feminism fails miserably at.

We Need to Talk About Mainstream Feminism

When we say mainstream feminism, we need to be clear about what it is. It’s not “mainstream feminism” because one of your favorites likes it or when someone with 1 million-plus followers uses the hashtag on Instagram. No, mainstream feminism is a specific type of feminism that is neither radical nor socialist nor much of anything else beyond what you see in hashtags.

Mainstream feminism isn’t all bad. It has encouraged women to do things like start their own businesses and go into tech to help other women-owned businesses — even though harassment in the workplace towards women continues. However, at the same time, mainstream feminism offers up feminist platitudes that don’t acknowledge the experience of different groups of people or the intersectional nature of feminism. To be perfectly blunt, mainstream feminism is a feminism that doesn’t address, and sometimes even disregards, women who live in poverty, women who live outside of urban centers, and women who are part of minority groups.

Dolly Parton is the perfect example of the failures of mainstream feminism. One of our greatest living icons doesn’t consider herself a feminist, even though you could argue that she is the genesis of third-wave sex-positive feminism. But why would she want to wear that title? The classism so entrenched in second and eventually third-wave feminism had no time for poor women, like young Dolly, so why should she have any time for them?

The Only Useful Feminism is Radical Feminism

Feminism has never been as marketable as it is today. At the same time, the same pushback that feminists have faced has hardly changed. Along with a new wave of feminists is a new wave of women (and men) against feminism. Peak mainstream feminism also saw the election of President Donald Trump with the help of 53% of white women.

There are two arguments at the heart of this debate: the first is that feminism today is too ideological — the dogma drove women and men away from it and thus renewed the battle for women’s rights. The second argument suggests that modern feminism is too soft — it hasn’t fought hard enough and thus became easier to erode. Both lead to the same conclusion.

Either way, there needs to be a renewed call for more radical feminism — and not a call that tries to destigmatize the word radical. Because we should not confuse radical with overzealousness. Radical feminism is, at its core, something that relates to the fundamental nature of something. Without looking at the fundamental nature of misogyny, feminism becomes the toothless slogans printed on organic cotton tote bags rather than a point of reform.

Statistics Show that Double and Triple Oppression Are Real

To have functional feminism, we need radical feminism — a feminism that includes all women. And a focus on intersectionality is what could reignite not only feminism, but useful, practical feminism that brings together the collective power of all women and people who identify as female. Feminism can’t achieve any goals without intersectionality.

Mainstream feminism focuses too heavily on the empowerment of women who already have some modicum of power. But the evidence for double and triple oppression (e.g., racism and misogyny) is indisputable. For example, among disabled women, 12.5% were unemployed in 2014, which is twice the unemployment rate of able-bodied Americans. Another shocking figure: people with disabilities are seven times more likely to experience sexual assault.

Although the term intersectionality was first coined in 1989 by Kimberele Crenshaw, the first writings on intersectional feminism date back to abolitionists like Sojourner Truth. In her speech at a women’s rights convention, she called out the hypocrisy of the feminist suffragette movement suggesting that they only considered white women. Intersectional feminism embraces the unique experiences of women of color, poor women, disabled women, trans women, and more.

The function of intersectionality is vital because if you leave space for one type of oppression — be it economic, racial, or something else — then you leave space for misogyny. Intersectional feminism doesn’t tone police or exclude groups who are doubly marginalized. It recognizes the ‘intersections’ between oppressions and fights them. 

Radical Feminism is Intersectional Feminism is Feminism

We need feminism more than ever, but we also need a feminism that means something; one that prioritizes the perspectives and ideas of women who endure double and triple oppression. It is a type of feminism that will make for better teachers, encourage more nurses to enter the field and provide essential care, endorse a diverse STEM workforce, generate politicians who instigate widespread change, and generally create better, more equitable communities.

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