People who are unfamiliar with women’s studies might assume that it only revolves around the trials women endure because of their gender. This assumption may have been true when the discipline first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, an era in which American women realized their issues must be brought into the light to affect change. As women’s studies evolved, other oppressed groups began to recognize the injustice and inequality in their own lives. Even though minority groups were not victimized in identical manners, their oppression was similar in that they all received unfair treatment from white, male, heterosexual members of the middle and upper class. Many women belonged to more than one oppressed group, which is one of the primary reasons that various forms of oppression are now included in the field of women‘s studies. The intersections of traits that are subject to oppression, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and class, are linked because it is difficult to discuss one without relating it to another.
It would be nearly impossible for belle hooks to write an essay that only acknowledged her identity as a female. As a black female, hooks’ life has not been the same as the lives of her white counterparts, and her perspective on women’s issues are shaped by her experiences as a black person. She criticized white feminists in her essay, “Black Women Shaping Feminist Theory,” for their ignorance of “non-white women and poor white women.” Hooks used Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique, as an example of the “college-educated, middle- and-upper class, married white women” who found their existences as housewives fruitless and mundane.
Hooks deemed these women’s discussion of their concerns as useful, but wrote that their views reinforced white supremacy by excluding the concerns of “other” women. She argued that such feminists emphasized “common oppression” to promote their own interests and failed to recognize that women are oppressed differently due to factors such as class, race, religion, and sexual preference. Hooks recalled her negative experiences as a member of the feminist movement and the condescension she received from “privileged feminists.” She wrote that these women did not understand the “interrelatedness of sex, race, and class oppression.” Her essay impacted me because she understood that the lines between different forms of oppressions are often blurred, and we need to consider each form in our attempts to understand the life experiences of “others.”
Audre Lorde advocated the blurring of lines between forms of oppression in her essay, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Lorde, a black lesbian, wrote that people’s refusal to recognize differences between race, age, and sex separates and creates confusion. She shared the same views as hooks in that they both believed white women intentionally ignore the oppression of black women to serve their own purposes. She wrote that women have been taught to believe that the only area of human difference that is legitimate exists between men and women.
The feminist movement would be more successful if women realized that factors such as race and sexual preference also need to be recognized. Lorde wrote that once women do this, they will be able to “use each other’s differences” to enrich their joint visions and struggles. Reading Lorde’s essay made me realize that women only worsen their oppression when they ignore their differences. Recognizing the different forms of oppression that women face is the only way to create new, more constructive patterns within the feminist movement.
I am no expert, but I think that Lorde and hooks did an excellent job dealing with intersections in women’s studies. Both authors realized that although women do share some of the same goals, the experiences of “other” women are shaped by intersections other than gender. I cannot imagine discussing the oppression I have faced as a woman without mentioning the discrimination I have experienced as a black person. It may be difficult for “privileged feminists” to understand the intersections that have become a part of women‘s studies because race and class is invisible to them, but ignoring them only weakens the feminist movement. I feel that if these feminists fail to acknowledge these intersections and different forms of oppression, they cannot claim to know the true meaning of the word “sisterhood.”
Written in Fall 2007 for a women’s studies course