"Intersectionality", let me Google that for you

You don’t need an MA in Gender Studies to engage with feminist ideas, just an open mind and a willingness to learn.

Spot the odd one out. Deficit. Intersectionality. Trigonometry. Eurozone Crisis. Photosynthesis. Some of these regularly grace the front pages of the national news, some are taught in schools to teenagers. They’re complicated words that describe important ideas. But according to Rhiannon and Holly, the writers of The V Spot, “intersectionality” is a theory so unintelligible, so beyond the pale, that it should be consigned forever to the box of feminism that gender academics keep tucked under their pillows.

This debate is the result of media hypocrisy. Reporting on the economy, for example, uses complex concepts, yet it is rare that Robert Peston is called out for potentially alienating starving schoolchildren. Like the economy, gender is relevant to peoples’ lives, but the public is expected to learn the language of economics. Because it is considered important, in a way that feminism is not.

Ok, I’ll come clean here. I am the white middle class woman in possession of a Gender Studies masters that yesterday’s article so rightfully rails against. I know that class and race privilege helped me into university. Gender Studies isn’t the only discipline that has an access problem, though, it’s a massive failing of higher education in general. Yet Gender Studies is one of the few academic subjects that gives any consideration whatsoever to how social hierarchy plays out in the interactions of class, race and gender (that’s intersectionality, by the way).

Another confession. I loved Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman. I wouldn’t describe it as an important feminist text, or even an intro to feminism, but it was riotously funny. Particularly the masturbation bits. Believe it or not, there are other accessible, relevant feminist writers around. Most of whose work is extremely readable if only anyone would bother. Rhiannon and Holly miss the point that what is popular is itself structured by the kinds of prejudices that gender theory exposes.

What’s more, other populist feminist writers are women of colourdisabled people, queer women. If their writing isn’t as celebrated as Moran’s, its predominantly because the works of less privileged people are seen as inherently less valuable. An intersectional analysis helps here. White, wealthy newspaper columnists have more time for writing bestselling books than less privileged women whose equally good work is less likely to succeed. To imply that marginalised women are always alienated by theory is also a false universal. Reading and writing are all too often a refuge from oppression.

To rubbish intersectionality as “esoteric” is to dismiss the chorus of feminist voices that yesterday’s article professes to call for. If Rhiannon and Holly were to look back at the history of modern feminism (which anybody who has internet access can do), they would find that black feminist writing of the 1970s and 1980s precedes the current concept “intersectionality”. These feminists wrote about the ways that black women’s experiences of gender are different to white women’s, arguing that the sexism black women face is bound up in its racism. The Combahee River Collective Statement, This Bridge Called My Back and Ain’t I a Woman are just three classic works that outline the interlocking nature of oppressions in language which is clear and accessible.

Pissed off after receiving a barrage of irate tweets, Rhiannon and Holly tweeted:

“We're clearly not as educated or as well informed as you guys. Best stick to cupcakes and cosmo.”

A disappointing article and a dispiriting response. I would rather that Rhiannon and Holly admit they just didn’t do their research. Indeed, the slogan “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” (which they suggest should be replaced with “my feminism will be comprehensible or it will be bullshit”) didn’t originate a few weeks ago. It dates back to 2011 when Flavia Dzodan wrote a wildly popular blog on the topic. The point is that you don’t need an MA in Gender Studies to engage with feminist ideas, just an open mind and a willingness to learn.

The Southall Black Sisters demonstrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.