By Roshaé M. Lowe •
Liberal feminism (often interchangeable with humanist feminism1) has very little relevance today. Times have changed and gender is no longer regarded as the lone oppressive factor for women. With the rise of the theory of intersectionality, feminism has broadened its scope to allow for the inclusion of women of color, queer women, transwomen, and folks outside of the restrictive gender binary. Intersectional feminism advances the idea that race, class, sexuality, gender identity and gender expression are not mutually exclusive. Intersectional feminism recognizes how these pertinent and oppressive factors interact and intersect with folk’s experiences and identities.
According to feministhumanists.org, a feminist humanist (or humanist feminist) “aggressively challenges the harmful notion of gender inferiority. A feminist humanist believes in the humanity of all human beings and works toward an equal and just society based on human reason, compassion, empathy, and fairness.” Humanist feminism can be a slippery slope to homogenizing what it means to be a “woman”, as well as glossing over how systemic and social discrimination can impact the experiences of numerous human beings, especially those who identify as women. This paper aims to prove that without an intersectional standpoint, humanist feminism, like liberal feminism, is irrelevant today, as it aims to universalize an experience that is only applicable to a few women. The women of the 19th century did not use this term to describe themselves. It is used in this paper, however, but should be understood that it is attributed loosely, as the ideologies of many of these women would not completely resonate with modern feminists.
Liberal feminism has its roots in the earliest U.S. women’s rights movements. Though, during the 19th century, a number of the ideologies from feminists2, were considered radical, bordering on ridiculous, in modern times, these thoughts and beliefs would not be categorized as such. Hindsight allows for a closer, more analytical survey of the movements of the past. With a more critical lense, the radicalism can be more appropriately accredited to liberal principles. For instance, the first3 women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York over the course of two days, July 19th and 20th in 1848. Organized by local Quaker women and Elizabeth Cady Stanton4, the goal of the pioneering and progressive convention was “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” At the convention, E.C. Stanton, along with the Quaker women, brought forward “the Declaration of Sentiments.” The document was primarily authored by Stanton, fashioned to liken the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Therein, these women argued for their equal treatment under the law. Yet, many of the ‘sentiments’ mentioned in the document presume relevance for all women of the time. Take for example:
“Having deprived her of this first right as a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides. He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns. He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education—all colleges being closed against her.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton—fall short in properly addressing the realities of women from divergent backgrounds. Women of color did not enjoy rights as citizens of the United States, nor were they, specifically, Black women, acknowledged as full humans8. Furthermore, enslaved Black women could not agonize over property rights and the wages earned from them, as they were property by which a white man or a white woman could measure their wealth. Poor women, or women living in less industrialized areas (such as the South), did not have access to a formal education, college was not an option as too many were deprived of basic education. The omission of women of color’s issues Is no accident, many supporters of women’s rights wanted to tread lightly, as not to ‘poke the bear’ too hard. Despite that many supporters were abolitionists, it did not completely erase deeply embedded societal lessons of racial superiority and inferiority. It would be more fitting to rename movements like these, which do not curve out spaces for all women, which are not intersectional, as white women’s rights.
The chief objective of liberal feminism is to secure gender equality in the public sphere through legal reforms. Contemporarily, that may look like same pay for the same job; accessible education for all; and, improvement of work environments. Matters more private in nature, such as reproductive rights, are also vital issues to liberal feminists, as they can obstruct or impact equality in the public domain. Liberal feminism seeks to attain this equality by appealing to the state, but it is imperative to identify who has created and controlled the state—white men. Therefore, when examining the methodologies of liberal feminists, it is crucial to inquire, to whom are you trying to be equal? Equal pay, equal treatment in the workplace, equal opportunities to education, and a bettering of working conditions, are all laudable aims. However, it is problematic to frame the obstacle between a woman and goals such as those, as one thing and one thing only: gender inequality. The notion that all women are engaged in the same social battle is preposterous. There are, presently and previously, women who have battled gender inequality in addition to racial inequality in addition to class inequality in addition to heterosexist inequalities in addition to cissexist inequalities in addition to ableist inequalities. Removing one barrier does not necessarily remove them all, especially if rhetoric and practice purports that there is only one barrier to begin with. Intersectional feminism, in contrast, asserts that these numerous factors, together, heavily influence and distinctly shape the discrimination and oppression women can face.
The term “intersectionality” was first coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw The idea of intersectionality, however, was not conceived by Crenshaw. It has been embodied in countless identities throughout history; so, though the terminology was not present, the concept still existed. This can be seen on the occasion of May 29th, 1851 in Akron, Ohio at a women’s convention. There, Sojourner Truth delivered an impromptu but passionate speech, subsequently titled, “Ain’t I A Woman?”12 Truth is an early example of how intersectional identities affect experiences—she was a former slave (class), she was Black (race), and she was a woman (gender). Her speech allowed for another narrative, one that is equally impacted by gender inequality as it is by racial and class inequalities, to be exposed in mainstream feminist spaces. When she repeatedly asks (and reminds) her audience, “Ain’t I a woman?”, she aims to assert her intersectional experience, though deviant from the white woman’s, as valid and significant.
Truth colloquially dissects the hypocrisy of gender roles. Women are to be “helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere.” However, Truth remarks that these gendered actions are not performed for her. She further notes that she doesn’t conform to the perception of women as fragile and weak, but still sternly affirms her womanhood. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her “Declaration of Sentiments” expressed anger and frustration that children, despite being overwhelmingly raised by their mothers, are under the guardianship of their fathers. What then of the experiences of the enslaved women—whose children belong not them, not to their fathers, but to the slave masters as property? Truth bore thirteen children and saw most of them sold away as someone’s slave, as someone’s property, but her pain was not respected and so, it went unacknowledged. Why? She echoes this sentiment throughout her speech, peppering it with the powerful, titular question, “ain’t I a woman?” Due to her race and her class, Sojourner is not considered a woman by society. This idea should prompt the inquiry, who is considered a woman? And what then, does women’s rights look like if the very concept of a woman is cherrypicked and subjective to a “right” (white) experience?
“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?” 14 “He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes of divorce; in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given; as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women—the law, in all cases, going upon the false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.”
– Sorjourner Truth
Intersectional feminism does not allow a singular experience to dictate or dominate the
ideology. It provides a thorough analysis of the ways in which race, class, sexuality, ability, and nationality may affect a woman’s oppression, while also identifying how gender takes various forms in women as well. Most importantly, intersectional feminism does not aim to reform the institutions in which oppression is systematically perpetuated. For example, in regards to discrimination in the work place, a liberal feminist would see affirmative action as the best defense—the state would compel employers and corporations to include more women in the pool of potential applicants. Yet, this action has been shown to benefit one specific group—white women. An intersectional feminist would see the solution to work place discrimination as reconstructing the capitalist foundations which allow for the monetizing of certain bodies over others. In a world populated by an immeasurable amount of identities, and intersecting factors which affect them, intersectional feminism leaves no one behind, it does not settle and it does not give in.
Historically, mainstream feminist spaces have been reserved for a particular type of
woman: higher class and white. These women in these spaces demanded equality,
enfranchisement, and esteem from their (white) male counterparts. Earlier feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton viewed their liberation achievable by way of inclusion, meaning, they would be ‘free’ so long as they were not excluded from law-making, voting, working, etc. These women viewed themselves as more than deserving of equal rights—certainly much more than males of other races19, for example. Their legacies exist and persist contemporarily in libera lfeminism, defined by its pursuit of reformation of political institutions and public spheres. It considers the foundations of our legal, educational, military, social, and cultural institutions sound; the only issue, in the eyes of liberal feminists, is the lack of women in these institutions—not the intrinsic inequality and intended oppression under which they operate. Where liberal feminism is shallow, intersectional feminism is deep; where liberal feminism lacks, intersectional feminism compensates; where liberal feminism seeks to reform, intersectional feminism seeks to reconstruct.
1 According to feministhumanists.org, a feminist humanist (or humanist feminist) “aggressively challenges the harmful notion of gender inferiority. A feminist humanist believes in the humanity of all human beings and works toward an equal and just society based on human reason, compassion, empathy, and fairness.” Humanist feminism can be a slippery slope to homogenizing what it means to be a “woman”, as well as glossing over how systemic and social discrimination can impact the experiences of numerous human beings, especially those who identify as women. This paper aims to prove that without an intersectional standpoint, humanist feminism, like liberal feminism, is irrelevant today, as it aims to universalize an experience that is only applicable to a few women.
2 The women of the 19th century did not use this term to describe themselves. It is used in this paper, however, but should be understood that it is attributed loosely, as the ideologies of many of these women would not completely resonate with modern feminists.
3 Though there were previous conventions which spoke on women’s rights, in the company of many other topics, this was the first convention organized by women for women. The principal purpose of, what was to be retroactively named, the Seneca Falls Convention, was to discuss women’s rights.
4 Very prominent women’s right activist during the first wave of feminism in the United States.Stanton helped to author “the Declaration of Sentiments”, which is considered to have jumpstarted the women’s right movement and women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. Though she is regarded as a champion for women’s rights, it should be acknowledged the racist language to which she resorted, additionally, it should be asked, how could she be for all women if she utilized such racist overtones in her rhetoric and arguments for equality? Does this not exclude and ostracize women of color? Stanton was certainly aware of the peculiar situation that women of color, specifically Black women, faced in the U.S. saying that (freed) Black women are subjugated “to a triple bondage that man never knows”, referencing how slavery, race, and gender played equal parts in the oppression of these women. It was not, and is not, enough to simply recognize the various issues plaguing women of different racial, economic, and sexual backgrounds—action is the only way a privilege party can show their solidarity for extremely marginalized groups, otherwise, it all appears performative.
5 Wellman, Judith. “The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention.” The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention, University of Illinois Press, 2004, pp. 189–189
6 Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. “Seneca Falls Convention.” Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, 19-20 July 1848,
7 Taken from “the Declaration of Sentiments”
8 Referencing the Three-Fifths Compromise
9 “Basic education” used in this section means to agglomerate the skills that would denote literacy— “the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living” as defined by Alberta Education (“Literacy and Numeracy | Literacy.” Government of Alberta. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2017.)
10 At the Seneca Falls Convention, there was only one African American person—Fredrick Douglass. Black women were not in attendance to speak for themselves nor have a voice in the dialogues about what women’s rights look like for them.
11 A Black woman. Crenshaw is a critical race theorist, she first introduced her theory of
intersectionality in the 1980s.
12 Truth, Sojourner. “A’int I A Women?” https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-
woman.asp. Women’s Convention, 29 May 1851, Akron, Ohio.
13 “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?”
14 “He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes of divorce; in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given; as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women—the law, in all cases, going upon the false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.”
15 There are varied discrepancies in the generally historically recognized transcription of Truth’s speech done by Frances Gage. First, Truth is attributed a thick Southern dialect—English was her second language, Dutch was her first, and she took great satisfaction in her handle of the English language. Second, Truth was widely known to have given birth to five children, with just one being sold off. This speech cannot be considered a true representation of events, as it has, more than likely, been altered to fit a particular narrative that Gage designed.
16 “…When I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
17 Transgender women, gender noncomforming women, nonbinary women, etc
18 Massie, Victoria M. “White Women Benefit Most from Affirmative Action — and Are among Its Fiercest Opponents.” Vox. N.p., 23 June 2016. Web. Nov. 2017. <https://www.vox.com/2016/5/25/11682950/fisher-supreme-court-white-women-affirmative-action>.
19 “He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners.”—taken from the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. The “he” can be inferred to be white males, as they were (and are) the group with the most social, political, and economic power. This supports this paper’s idea of Stanton (and her other contemporary, feminist colleagues) solely wanting rights that made women like them—white and higher class—equal to white men. It is obvious from Stanton’s wording that she views (white) women as superior to “natives” and “foreigners”. This racist overtone does nothing but further white supremacist
thought, as it should be asked, why are natives and foreigners considered ignorant and degraded by these progressive women of the time? And, furthermore, why does Stanton see herself as more deserving of rights than these groups of people marginalized—albeit, in a racial manner—same as she? An intersectionalist feminist would understand that as a group experiencing systemic oppression receives freedoms, it will do nothing but allow other (slightly less) marginalized groups to be free, as well.