"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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496