The 19th Amendment
You are a contestant on a quiz game show and in order to win the grand prize, you just have to answer one more question correctly. Your host asks the final question with tension in the air.
“What year did women gain the right to vote in the United States of America?
You are elated. You don’t have to phone a friend, but you decide to do so anyways. You choose your old high school history teacher, Mrs. Jones. She answers and you tell her,
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m about to win a million dollars. The answer is 1920. Final answer.”
You’re ready for the lights, the confetti, and the cheer of the studio crowd, but you instead hear a blaring buzzer followed by stunned silence.
“I’m sorry.”, says the host, who is still smiling for some reason, “You’ve lost. The correct answer is not all women still have the right to vote in the United States.”
Your brain can’t process it all fast enough. All you can think is, “What just happened?”
You forgot about intersectionality.
Don’t worry. A lot of people didn’t think about intersectionality, especially since the term wasn’t coined until 1989 when Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote it in an essay, although she was not the first to write about it conceptually. To demonstrate what an intersectional lens is I will first describe what it is not by using a quote from an early women’s suffragist, Susan B. Anthony.
“I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
EDIT: It should be noted that this quote is a bit out of context. I was made aware of Susan B. Anthony’s more full position on the topic, and do not feel that it is fair to use this one statement as our only evidence of her character. Given that, I still think this statement is useful for understanding the erasure that intersectionality can cause and will leave my analysis unchanged.
If I may take the liberty to clarify her statement, I believe she meant to say, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for [Black men] and not [White women].” Her statement demonstrates what a lack of intersectional thinking is. She latches on to the privileged identity markers of each group and ignores those who lack any privileged identity markers, meaning that when she speaks of Black folks, she means only men who are Black, and when she speaks of women, she means only White women. What she fails to realize is that if she was truly working to demand the ballot for women, that should include Black women, and if she was to work for the ballot of Black folks, that would also include Black women, but in her statement and in her approach to suffrage, she had erased, it seems, the existence of Black women entirely.
Intersectionality was originally used by Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way of describing the layered or intersected discrimination that Black women experienced. She highlighted a case in which Black women sued a company for discriminatory hiring practices. They argued that when the company sought to hire Black people, they exclusively hired Black men, and when they sought to hire women, they hired exclusively White women. The judge denied their claim by saying that they had to prove discrimination either on the basis of gender or on the basis of race but not both.
The company’s hiring policy was just one piece of a society-wide issue in which women of color were simply not considered.
As the United States approaches the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, many headlines will most certainly read, “100th Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote”, but that statement is untrue. In 1920, only White women, and some Black women could vote. It wouldn’t be until 1952 that Asian women would be permitted to vote, and it wouldn’t be until 1962 that all Native American Women could vote. In 1965 with the passing of the Voting Rights Act, Black women were finally able to go to voting stations with federal oversight and protection in states that had created discriminatory voting policies.
Even now women who are incarcerated on felony charges cannot vote, and not all trans women can vote with an ID that correctly reflects their gender-identity. The supreme court decision in 2013 to strike down the federal oversight portion of the Voting Rights Act puts the voting rights of women of color at risk because without that oversight some states have introduced “exact match” laws that disproportionately disqualify them from voting.
This diversity when talking about voting rights of women is just one demonstration of the importance of an intersectional lens. Intersectionality is a call to take into account every piece of a person’s identity and to erase those who are at the margins. It is a crucial piece of challenging the way individuals think about and categorize the world, and it is not always easy.
It is difficult to think intersectionally for people who belong to one or more dominant groups because erasing the experience of those at the margins has been baked into our culture. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “all Men are created equal.” He was enshrining into a foundational document this mentality of erasure that still exists today. It is only with historical insight that individuals can look critically at this declaration and realize that “all men” meant “wealthy white men”.
Feminists must be similarly critical of feminist history and acknowledge that the Declaration drafted by women’s suffragists at the famous Seneca Falls only inched forward Mr. Jefferson’s statement when it was expanded to “all men and women are created equal” because as Susan B. Anthony demonstrated with her quote, they really only tacked “wealthy white women” onto it.
If feminism is to be effective as a framework for activism and social change, it must be intersectional. When we say “women”, we need to mean every combination of Old, Young, Gay, Bi, Straight, Trans, Muslim, Christian, Atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Black, White, Brown, Disabled, Poor, Rich, Middle-class, Formally educated, Not formally educated, Incarcerated, and every other kind of woman. We need to do the same for men, and we need to acknowledge individuals who don’t fall neatly into the categories of men and women.
Who knows? Maybe this perspective will help you win a game show one day.
Originally published at https://feministmasculinity.com on August 20, 2019.