Learning Intersectionality: A Process


Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of RH Reality Check‘s youth voices.

I started blogging about reproductive rights issues during high school, and a lot of the feedback I received from editors and feminist peers was based around a lack of inclusivity. At first, I felt defensive, as most people do when they get called out. But as I thought more critically about my writing, I realized that the knowledge and sources I was pulling from weren’t intersectional.

The books I was reading, the research I was doing, and the people I was quoting on reproductive rights relied on assumptions that reproductive health-care issues affected women in more or less similar ways. There weren’t nearly enough distinctions made between women with privilege on the basis of race, class, and ability, among other things, and women without some or all of those privileges.

Intersectionality is a term used to signify the acknowledgement and critical analysis of the multiple systems of oppression and privilege involved in identity. So, for instance, a woman of color’s experiences of oppression differ markedly from that of white women, as they deal with both racism and sexism; and it must be further acknowledged that each of those women face other interlocking systems of oppression and privilege, including but not limited to sexuality and gender identity.

Although the reproductive rights movement and the broader feminist movement have become increasingly intersectional since the late ’80s, when the term was introduced into the public discourse with help from Kimberlé Crenshaw, there is still much work to be done in centering the issues faced by women who are not white, economically advantaged, heterosexual, and cisgender (which means that you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth).

The trans* community (those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) especially needs more inclusion in these conversations. Likewise, including more intersectional analysis for women with disabilities, LGB women, and the intersex community is equally important.

When people are omitted from conversations about reproductive rights and justice, there’s not a picture of the full extent of oppression in our society. These omissions are often supported by a strategic history of disinclusion. For example, prominent second-wave feminists displayed open antipathy toward transgender individuals. Gloria Steinem famously pointed to Renee Richards, a transgender woman athlete, as “a frightening instance of what feminism could lead to” in 1977 (although in more recent times, she’s apologized for comments like this). Another example would be Annalee Newitz’s “Gender Slumming,” a popular essay that seeks to invalidate transgender identities by questioning their status as a minority. This was all on the heels of TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), or feminists who do not support the inclusion of trans identities into feminism or society. TERFS have been active in promoting transphobia, one example being how they worked to curb health-care access for transgender folks in the 1980s.

Old habits can die hard.

In terms of the health care aspect of reproductive rights, it’s important that providers not base their practice in assumptions about gender and sexuality. Too much of our language around sex, biology, and reproduction relies on an assumption of cisgender and heterosexual identity. Every time I go to my general practitioner (or even to a clinic to get some medicine for a pesky sinus infection) I’m asked if I use contraception and/or condoms when I have sex. What if I’m having sex with another woman, or what if I’m intersex or a trans woman? How does that fit into the tiny box of “normalcy” that’s been created by our society? Because I have cis and heterosexual privilege (not so much because I identify as heterosexual, but more because my sexual behaviors are generally heterosexual), these questions are easy for me to answer and don’t cause me to have to out myself or risk not being treated because of my identity. If I didn’t have this privilege, I know I wouldn’t feel like I was in control of my reproductive health care.

Another important intersection that needs to be pioneered is physical access to facilities. Poor women, who are  disproportionately women of color, face some of the biggest obstacles in practicing their right to choose, since choice in this country comes with a big price tag. Ninety-five percent of counties in the United States that have shown patterns of persistent poverty exist in rural areas. This includes Athens County, Ohio, where I attend college—it is one of the poorest counties in Ohio. This, combined with the fact that living in rural areas means you are probably further away from an abortion provider, puts rural dwellers seeking pregnancy termination services in a double bind. Eighty-two percent of counties in the United States don’t have abortion services, and a study from the Guttmacher Institute found that 74 percent of the women in rural areas who had abortions had to travel more than 50 miles to get to their nearest clinic. Clearly, more work needs to be done in terms of access.

Living in a rural college town has taught me that the act of choosing is often only really an option for the privileged; your right to choose often comes down to how many dollars are in your bank account. As a result, those who have low incomes are often the ones who shoulder the burden of restrictive, anti-choice policies.

The high costs that come with pregnancy termination services in this country, for example, don’t allow everyone to have the same opportunity to choose. The average first-trimester abortion costs $470 (which doesn’t account for traveling fees associated with mandatory waiting periods or other unnecessary abortion restrictions that make it exorbitantly more expensive for women to get an abortion), which if you are living in poverty or have a low income can be a price you cannot afford to pay. I know many women living in Athens wouldn’t be able to afford an abortion on their own, considering not just the direct costs, but also the indirect ones.

If you receive Medicaid benefits, you often cannot get any coverage for an abortion, as it is illegal for federal funds to be used for this purpose under the Hyde Amendment. The only way to receive funding as a Medicaid recipient is through your state—each state has different laws about how their state Medicaid dollars can be used. One in four women who qualifies for Medicaid, however, cannot afford to pay for an abortion and must carry her pregnancy to term.

What all this means is that we need to think bigger, and insist others do the same.

When conversations around reproductive health care have an assumed audience (white women with class privilege), many voices get left out. Feminists with privilege have to collaborate with those of marginalized identities in their various communities to create a more intersectional movement. It’s not about creating a token seat at the table for marginalized women—that is, women with other marginalized identities—but rather about having those seats be open for them to sit on.

Beyond just a seat at the table, though, bringing in intersectionality means that all of our perspectives will be broadened, no matter our identity, since there will not be one assumed point of view that speaks for all. When we break down the ways in which hierarchies of privilege recreate themselves, even in feminist spaces, we can stop reinforcing the hierarchy altogether. We can push beyond needing inclusion or representation, because our movement will be filled with it. We won’t need to work with models that are based in patriarchal constructs, because we will be smashing the patriarchy by letting those whose voices are most silenced be heard.

Just as I am learning to be more intersectional—it’s a process, not an overnight transition—others probably are too. I invite you to follow me in challenging your thinking about identity and privilege and learn how you can become an ally to marginalized voices.

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