Every time a group of marginalised women speaks up about the issues they face as a specific subset of the community, it tends to attract a great deal of negative commentary. One of the most common and frustrating forms of commentary comes when women criticise the actions of other women; people respond by saying ‘we’re all women’ and ‘we need to work in solidarity’ and ‘we should stop tearing each other down.’ Often, such commentary comes with loaded overtones about how minority women are being misled into attacking majority women, playing right into the hands of ‘the patriarchy.’
People are termed divisive and counterproductive for daring to address serious issues within the women’s movement and within larger social justice movements that focus on gender. The fact is that gender is not a sole unifying force, never has been, and never will be; it’s only a facet of experience. This is the whole point of intersectionality, a model developed by Black scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw when she noted a lack of representation of diverse experiences in discussions about ‘women’s issues.’
Things that happen to women are women’s issues (and larger social issues), but not all women experience the same things. This doesn’t mean that some things should be prioritised over others when it comes to confronting oppressive social structures; the fight for a fair wage, in a classic example, isn’t just about addressing the wage gap between men and women. It’s also about addressing the racial wage gap, and the disability wage gap, both of which hit women particularly hard; women of colour in particular are faced with extremely low wages and very low net worth (in the economic sense) and acting like the wage gap is just a gender problem elides this issue and leaves these women without justice.
Likewise, the wage gap is about more than simply some people making less per hour. It’s also about who gets which jobs, and where, which while gendered is also racialised, and heavily disablised (?) as well. You cannot talk about workplace inequalities without looking at these intersectional issues, and if you insist that gender is the only thing that matters, because ‘we’re all women,’ you’re doing two things.
The first is that you’re cutting people out of your alleged revolution. It’s a plain and simple truth that a hyperfocus on gender leaves people out. While a gender-based attempt at rectifying the wage gap would certainly help some people of colour and some disabled people, it wouldn’t do enough in terms of advancing their social and economic position. And they wouldn’t have many reasons to participate in any kind of wage gap fighting initiative, because they’d have no incentive to do so, not when the organisers are making it clear that the fight is not about ‘their issues.’
The second, of course, is that it doesn’t actually address the core issue. If you just look at gender, you’re not going to solve the fundamental problem that some people make less than others because of social inequality. Let’s say it was feasible to mandate equal pay for equal work across the board and unilaterally enforce it. That still wouldn’t solve the bigger problem of why many people of colour are denied employment opportunities, and that would drag their earning averages down. It wouldn’t solve the bigger issue of disabled people being hounded out of the workplace, which results in lower earning averages.
Certainly some women would benefit, but not enough women, and they wouldn’t have the backing of minority women frustrated by being left out of the fight. This is not an act of spite, but one of practicality: why show up for a dinner party you weren’t invited to? Thus, women of colour often do their own labour and wage organising, well aware that the focus on workplace disparities in many conversations ignores racial issues in the workplace, and thus won’t actually address their wage gap.
All women’s needs are not the same. That doesn’t mean some needs are more important, more worthy, or more pressing than others. All needs are important, and all needs must be addressed as part of an interconnected system, and people need to realise that if they want their social initiatives to be successful. When I hear people saying that minority women need to ‘stop blaming’ and ‘focus on the bigger picture’ and ‘support women,’ what I hear is that minority women should put their own needs aside in order to serve majority women, even though doing so is both a profound violation of their own needs and rights, and something that will not ultimately serve the larger cause.
Does this make things more complex? Yes, yes it does, and that’s sort of the larger point. These situations are complex and pretending that gender is the only inequality issue facing people who happen to be women is absurd, because many people who are women also have other experiences that interfere with their fair and equal treatment in society. A woman who belongs to a religious minority isn’t just a woman. She’s also a member of a persecuted religion, and thus encounters the world fundamentally differently than a woman who belongs to the majority. When women in that majority tell her to set aside her ‘issues’ and work on ‘the greater good,’ where does that leave her?
It leaves her largely alone on an island, which is the very thing majority women claim to be concerned about. Not creating a fully integrated women’s movement harms everyone by disrupting the ability to work in solidarity and combine strengths for an interconnected and interdependent movement. No one person can be all things, nor should she, but together, women with a depth of life experience can create something powerful, and something that doesn’t exclude on the grounds that it distracts from some abstracted larger movement.