What Are We Celebrating?: What Everyone Should Know About Intersectionality and History

By Inda Lauryn

August 26th commemorates Women’s Equality Day. The date celebrates the passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote. Facebook even created a meme depicting a diverse group of women in poses reminiscent of the Rosie the Riveter poster in front of the familiar “I Voted” sticker but declaring “We Voted.”

However, some like activist Hess Stinson noticed the historical inaccuracy of the image. Stinson took to her photo editing skills and made a few changes to the meme, a “fixed it” meme of her own so to speak. She inserted the word “white” in the phrase “On August 26, 1920, women achieved the right to vote in the US” to highlight that women of color would not receive the same right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Stinson’s response speaks to a failure of mainstream feminism that still sees “intersectionality” as a buzzword synonymous with “diversity” and still does not address the very real shortcomings of white feminism.

For instance, mainstream feminism objected to Stinson’s edit by claiming that it was divisive and shows a continued discomfort with white feminists to confront their own privilege. However, such a criticism ignored that many white suffragettes were openly angry that Black men received the vote before white women and felt their whiteness should have afforded them the right to vote not just before Black men but instead of Black men. In fact, many current incidents show that white self-proclaimed feminists are more than willing to throw women of color under the bus if it means their own advancement.

Current discussions focusing on wage equality for women also ignores racial disparities in wage gaps. Many people like to use the figure of women earning 22 cents less than men. However, this figure is only relevant to what white women earn in relation to white men. White women earn more over everyone else except white men. Yet white feminists such as Patricia Arquette refuse to see the racial disparities when it comes to wage inequality.

Still feminists of color face the unique challenge of creating our own feminists spaces while trying to make mainstream feminism a more inclusive, safer space. As the recent fiasco with the egregious misrepresentations in the Stonewall movie have shown, whitewashing history does more harm than good. In this case, the Facebook meme does not erase women of color but still erases the additional struggles we faced with voting rights and other issues that affect us when we are not afforded the privilege of whiteness. It also dismisses that white women are often complicit in white supremacy and do not experience gender the same way as women of color.

Gestures such as the Facebook meme not only create an inaccurate picture of gender equality but also leave the impression that mainstream feminists are not willing to do the real work it takes to address intersectional issues within feminism. Simply making women of color visible does not actually address the issues women of color face as feminists and world citizens. And addressing the shortcomings of feminism is not divisive.

These issues did not escape Stinson when she edited the illustration. Her edit has so far gotten more than 2000 shares on Facebook and brought attention to the failures of mainstream feminism when it comes to intersectionality. She recently spoke with For Harriet:

Can you describe how you felt when you saw the graphic circulating on Facebook?

The edited graphic or the original?

When I saw the original banner for women's rights day I was irritated. I think most people (who agreed with the edit) were. It's interesting that even though they had Black women and other women of color in the banner, I felt excluded, mostly excluded because of the history behind the women's rights movement and how it really didn't benefit me the in way they said it has. They ignored that women of color couldn't, for the most part, vote until over two scores later. It was a weird feeling; I saw brown faces but the history behind those faces were being erased.

As for my edited image, I didn't realize how much it has been shared until later on in the day because my notifications only said it was shared about 50 times. Even with that number I was actually glad that people liked it. When I logged into the desktop view for Facebook I saw it was shared hundreds of times and today I looked and it was shared over two thousand times! I'm in shock and disbelief. A lot of my friends also let me know when that my edited image has shown up via screenshot or just [that] the image [was] shared in various other circles. The number of shares listed doesn't even account for the times where it wasn't a direct link.

I feel anxious and nervous because there are so many people out here that refuse to acknowledge intersectionality or think if you bring up race that you're "a part of the problem." However, for the most part it seems that many people agree and they are adding their own research to their share. I'm just happy that people see the flaws in the original women's rights photo. It almost feels like all the arguments, the sharing of the articles, speaking up, that it's doing something, that people are starting to get it.

How does this image illustrate the shortcomings of mainstream feminism’s understanding of intersectionality?

It shows that they don't even know what intersectionality is. They think if you include a couple of brown faces here and there it [portrays] inclusiveness. Mainstream feminism doesn't take the time to acknowledge the backstory, microaggressions and other societal experiences that create the journey of women of color, Black women, are on from the day that they are born.

What, if anything, did you hope to achieve when you edited the illustration? Or were you simply frustrated with such an obviously historically inaccurate depiction of voting rights?

I was just hoping to get my point across to my Facebook friends and to start some dialogue with them. Many of the friends I interact with regularly are woke and add so much to the conversation. I didn't expect any of this. It was more me being a smart ass and expressing frustration.

How do you feel Gender Equality Day can be better utilized to create more nuanced understandings of intersectionality and help us see why intersectionality is necessary in feminism?

It could be better utilized by giving the mic to more women of color, hire us or seek those of us who are outspoken public relations consultants to oversee initiatives. Encourage people to check out social media accounts of Black women who are public figures. Promote hashtags that have proven to be insightful.

Having real world accounts of intersectionality helps reach those who are uninterested or not knowledgeable of academic jargon around feminism and intersectional feminism. It gives a face and story behind different theories within feminism.

What would you suggest in terms of creating images or conversations that actually explore intersectionality, not simply paying lip service to “diversity”?

No matter what image [was] created or chosen, there would have been some fallout because the women's rights movement has such a messy past. There was so much racism, classism and at times internalized misogyny. Whether they showed only white women or a diverse cast (as they did), those skeletons were bound to come out of the closet. Especially since the principles of the people that stole feminism from us set the foundation for today's mainstream feminism.

Something interactive would have been awesome. A type of graph that guided you along what the women’s rights movement and laws would have been like for you depending on your demographic. A time warp that would have taken you through how or if the women’s suffrage movement would have affected your life if you were a Black woman, woman of color, a poor woman, etc. It wouldn't be exhaustive but a gateway to get people to explore what having am intersectional identity would have been like back in 1920. I would have also liked quotes of reactions to the passing of women's voting rights from prominent Black women, women of color. It would have been nice to have an honest display of what the victory meant to more than financially well white women.

What has being a mother shown you about how to teach children about intersectional feminism?

Being a mother has shown me the source of internalized misogyny and sexism and ignorance of intersectionality is a result of a child's environment, influenced by society. Environment is made with not only physical locale but words and actions that create a tone for your home and settings outside of it.

My grandmother (who raised me) was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in her local area; she was fiercely pro-Black and just a very wonderful, amazing Black woman. With her words and encouragement, she instilled some great lessons as a Black woman within me. However, growing up in a mostly white neighborhood took its toll on me. So many things she taught me were constantly challenged by my interactions with the people in our area. The microaggressions and at times blatant prejudice were at odds with my prideful sense of self as a Black girl. [I] said all of that to say that you teach intersectionality to your children by not only talking about it but [also by] immersing them in environments that acknowledge intersectionality. Give them experiences where they can see the definition of intersectionality in action. Take them to see performances by Black women, poetry and book readings by Black women, community events hosted by Black women, read them books by Black women. Show them where to find intersectionality so they can have experiences that counteracts ones within the dominant culture.

What would you hope mainstream feminists learn from this particular incident in terms of incorporating intersectional feminism in theory and practice?

I hope they learn just how frustrating it is to constantly feel excluded, feel antagonized in small and large ways, expected to educate, to be silenced and erased all in the same setting. For Black women, our experiences [as] women are always coated with race. Womanhood and blackness for us are never separate. Don't try to take your experience as a white woman and drape it over me and tell me that is what womanhood looks like.

Photo: Hess Stinson edit of Facebook meme

Inda Lauryn is an editor at For Harriet, writer, radio host at Mixcloud and co-host of the podcast Black Girl Squee.

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