Intersectionality and Feminist Economics: a call for radical transformation

The concept of intersectionality has gained recognition in social sciences, legal studies, and public policy. The term has received so much attention that authors like Kathy Davis caution against the use of intersectionality as a buzzword, particularly when perpetuated without carefully analysing the theoretical and political consequences that it implies.

In this article, I briefly discuss how feminist economics could make use of intersectional analyses to not only expand our understanding of social reality, but also to call for a radical transformation of the oppressive structures that condition our existence. To do this, I will first present a characterisation of the concept of intersectionality. Secondly, I will discuss some ideas about the participation of women in the labour market from an intersectional perspective.  I will then conclude with some remarks about the need for an intersection of political struggles.

Intersectionality: from experience to academia, to public policies, to a buzzword: the travelling of a concept

The term intersectionality was first used by Kimberle Crenshaw in her seminal text “Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of colour” (1991). This concept was “intended to address the fact that the experiences and struggles of women of colour fell between the cracks of both feminism and anti-racist discourse” (Davis, 2008: 68). In this way, although the history of the term in academia can be placed when Crenshaw used it for the first time, the genealogy of the concept and the discussions and experiences from which it arose go further back. 

For example, it was in 1851 that Sojourner Truth spoke at the Women’s Convention in Ohio, USA, and openly shared her experience as a Black, previously enslaved woman, and the radical difference between her reality and that of white women present at that event.  There is therefore a longer timeframe of Black women’s intellectual efforts to understand their own historical experiences, and the ways in which their lives and realities present a challenge to the hegemonic views of political movements like feminism and anti-racist struggle.

Differences in gendered experiences among women have always been part of society and the feminist movement; they have an epistemological and political value that need taking into account in our efforts towards social transformation. This means that it is not enough to recognise that women are diverse (Black, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, lesbian, cis or trans, working-class, among other categories). The question posed by these radical differences is whether it is possible to universalise women’s oppression.  The answer, advanced by Black women and later followed by the concept of intersectionality, is that there is no way in which we can say that women share the same patriarchal oppression, therefore, our political struggles are not automatically the same due to our shared identity as women.

Audre Lorde explained this in her essay Age, race, class and sex, asserting that “as a tool of social control, women have been encouraged to recognise only one area of human difference as legitimate, those differences that exist between women and men” (2007: 122).  She further illustrates how this dichotomous approach has proven to be detrimental to the lives of Black lesbians, (and every woman outside the hegemony of being white, heterosexual, and middle/upper class) who constantly have to “pluck out some one aspect of themselves and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live” (2017: 120). 

It is therefore possible to assert that intersectionality is not a concept that adds while nonetheless fragmenting the component parts of identification (being woman, plus being Black, plus being lesbian, and so on), but a much more complex one suggesting that gender does not exist in isolation but instead configures gendered experiences through interactions between different systems of organising power in society. Intersectionality therefore “encourages an examination of how categories of race, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, nation and gender not only intersect but are mutually constituted, formed and transformed within transnational power-laden processes such as European imperialism and colonialism, neoliberal globalisation, and so on” (Patil, 2013: 848)

Many conclusions can be drawn from these propositions, but there are two that are fundamental. Firstly, that it is not possible to generalise women’s oppression, and that it is always necessary to be specific about the experiences of which women are being taken into account in theoretical analyses and political demands. Intersectionality reminds us that there is always a risk of reproducing power relations and hierarchies when we follow universalistic explanations and that often when we talk about women, in general, we are usually talking about white, middle class, heterosexual experiences of gender and sexuality.

The second conclusion is that when we look at relevant differences among women, we must look at power structures like race, class, gender and sexuality.  In this way, intersectionality must be understood structurally, and not simply through individual characteristics (for example, being working class and Black), and how those characteristics are shaped and configured by power relations (being working class is a part of capitalist systems, and being Black acquires meaning and materiality as a result of racism).

This is especially relevant for feminist economics because an intersectional approach means going beyond a simple disaggregation of data along gender, race, class, or other lines. Although this approach is useful, it is insufficient for considering how systems of oppression like racism and capitalism engage with gender.  Efforts to change society must therefore address these systems at the same time. I will return and expand on this position later.

Women’s participation in the labour market: a brief example of how class and race affect our political demands

One of the main demands of the feminist movement, particularly the feminist movement identified as the second wave liberal strand, was to gain access for women to the main structures of public life: politics, the labour market, and universities, among others. Although these demands started mainly in countries from the Global North, they also became dominant in the Global South through the efforts of international agencies and organisations, as well as through the journeying of concepts and theories between regions as Gender Studies developed as an academic area within universities (Watkins, 2018).

Because women are still underrepresented in these spaces, these demands are still important and some of its goals are actively promoted through international, national and local efforts. For example, the demand to incorporate women into the labour market has been strengthened in the last decade thanks to international organisations like UN Women, that has as one of its goals the economic empowerment of women through their participation in the labour market and their access to productive, paid work, as well as to financial credit and other assets that would allow them to be more economically independent. This is premised on the view that the participation of women in the labour market is not just beneficial to them, but it is also generally positive for economic growth and therefore to the levels of productivity of any society. This is what has been called “smart economics”, making reference to the way in which promoting women’s access to the public economy is good for them and for the society as a whole.

But what would it mean to analyse this demand from an intersectional perspective? To answer this question, it’s necessary to once again take into account the diverse experiences of women and the different relations they have with productive work. So for example, while liberal second-wave feminism understood productive work as a way to give freedom and autonomy to women, it ignored the reality that for many Black women, participating in economic activities was not necessarily a path towards self-fulfilment and economic independence, but was already an inherent part of their stories as Black, working-class subjects. In the American historical context, Black women as instruments of societal production was integral to an economy dependent on slave labour.  Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech further illustrated this with one of her main arguments underscoring the reality that in the slave fields there was no distinction between men and women regarding heavy workloads.

This pattern of Black women’s physical economic production continued after the end of slavery, when so many of them moved to the labour market as domestic workers.  As Angela Davis explains, “judged by the evolving nineteenth century ideology of femininity, which emphasised women’s roles as nurturing mothers and gentle companions and housekeepers for their husbands, Black women were practically anomalies” (1983: 77). The history of women’s participation in the labour market cannot therefore be separated from structures like race and class, and from the way in which capitalism has used the bodies and work of women to its advantage through their incorporation in hard, precarious jobs and through the unpaid work of reproducing the working class family, and therefore the labour force. In this way, the assertion that women’s participation in the productive sphere of society automatically translates into empowerment and autonomy should be carefully interrogated.

Nevertheless, the dominant discourse around this topic continues being one that promotes productive work as an activity of autonomy and self-fulfilment (Weeks, 2011), focusing not on the working conditions and the control of the workers over those conditions but, on the contrary, on the differences between men and women and, specifically, on the under-representation of women in the highest hierarchies of economic power.

An example of this approach is the text “Why women can’t still have it all?”, by Anne–Marie Slaughter, published in the digital magazine The Atlantic in 2012. This text has been widely read and even used many times as a pedagogic resource in conversations about feminist economics. The main argument is that women participate in the labour market with a series of disadvantages vis-à-vis their male counterparts, particularly those related to the difficulties of making compatible their careers with the care of their families in what has been called work-family balance. According to this author, women cannot have it all, when “all is not only a successful career, but also work that they love and feel passionate about, all the while taking care of the emotional needs of their families.

Although this conversation is important, it reflects the lack of an intersectional approach in these kinds of discussions that are later translated into demands for public transformation. In her text, Slaughter acknowledges that she comes from a very privileged position, and that she knows that the majority of women do not have the economic and professional opportunities that she has. Nevertheless, this acknowledgement is not translated into a more careful analysis of her experience and demands, thus placing those differences in a marginal place and denying them any epistemological or political value. As scholar María Lugones explains, “white women are beginning to acknowledge the problem (of difference) in their theorising, but this acknowledgement is a non-interactive one” (2003: 1166). Recognising differences among women is not enough if there is no interaction, listening, and an opening to new political horizons.  In this example, there is no active listening to the realities of women that have historically not been able to have a career or take care of their families because they have been continually exploited by both patriarchy and capitalism at the same time.

It should be noted that Anne–Marie Slaughter is not an economist, and that she speaks from her background as a successful white woman from the United States. It has been surprising, nevertheless, to see her text used in many courses and discussions on feminist economics, and to see that many feminist economists agree that the main goal for the feminist movement is the full incorporation of women into the labour market in equal conditions to men.

But when we focus only on the differences between men and women, we are obscuring structures like class and race that are as important as gender differences if our struggle is to make a more just society for everyone.  I was recently talking to a friend from Ecuador that lives in Argentina and, when we talked about differences among women, she told me that in one of the feminist demonstrations she attended there they song the following protest song: “look at her, look at how she is breaking the glass ceiling, but who is going to clean those shattered pieces? Another woman, one that is also migrant, one that is called illegal”.

Intersectionality of struggles

Feminist economics is a very diverse field of study, where different visions of the economic system and society are being developed, also proposing different avenues to social transformation. Nevertheless, in light of the increasing inequalities and social exclusions propelled by neoliberal globalisation, working towards justice is more urgent than ever. In pursuing this goal, an intersectional perspective can be very powerful.

Intersectionality is not urging us as researchers, policymakers, and activists to simply acknowledge differences among women in individual terms, nor merely as a footnote or a parenthesis in our analyses. On the contrary, this approach calls for a radical understanding of how exclusions and oppressions are created and reproduced in our societies, and how they are the result of the complicated, historical and dynamic power relations and hierarchies that cannot be dismantled through binary thinking – one that, more often than not, ends up reproducing the world vision of dominant groups. In this regard, intersectionality is not concerned only with patriarchy and differences among men and women: it is concerned with the patriarchal racist capitalism in which we live as a whole political and economic system in which logics of oppression are connected and interdependent.

To recognise the interactions between these systems would imply a holistic feminism, as well as a political economy able to understand that patriarchy is racist and capitalist, racism is patriarchal and capitalist, and capitalism is racist and patriarchal. These systems are so intertwined that it is just not possible to dismantle each one in isolation because, if we address oppression in this one-way only, other axes of exclusion are likely to be paradoxically reinforced. For example, the idea that women’s participation in the labour market is a synonym for women’s empowerment and autonomy needs to be examined in light of class and race.  It is not enough that a woman has a paid job; this is already the reality of so many Black and working class women under capitalism.  But if she does not have control over the conditions of that job, if that job is increasingly precarious and the woman as a worker does not have access to worker’s rights that include just payment, housing, healthcare, retirement, and collective protection against abuses of power from her employers, then what exactly is the concept of empowerment that we are proposing and defending?

As Angela Davis explains, what we need is an intersection of struggles, a feminism that goes beyond gender equality and that recognises “the importance of approaching both our theoretical explorations and our movement activism in ways that enlarge and expand and complicate and deepen our theories and practices of freedom” (2016: 1390).  All in all, we need intersectional, anti-racist feminism, that does not constrain women’s empowerment to the limitations imposed by neoliberal capitalism. 

Intersectional feminist economics is therefore not about specific topics, but about the methodologies used to analyse the particular experiences of women and their interaction with the capitalist system. Some of the characteristics of this approach are:

  • It historicises the experiences of women. This implies a rejection of the category of “women” as a fixed identity and looks, instead, to the ways in which gender experiences are constituted in relation to class, race, and geopolitical belonging.
  • It makes visible the interconnections between different logics of oppression operating simultaneously: inequalities are never the result of only one of these systems. Furthermore, an intersectional approach of feminist economics would analyse how these systems of oppression are reflected on both the productive and reproductive spheres of the economy.
  • It prioritises politically the lives of women who are in the margins of the economic system, as their experiences allow a deeper understanding of the transformations needed to build a more just society.
  • It advances an economic system where the sustainability of life is the main collective goal, as opposed to the accumulation of capital in private hands.