Three Musts for Intersectional Feminism

May 31, 2017


I’m sure I’m not the only one who has seen a surge of, or rather a recommitment to, feminism. The fear of losing the progress that women have made regarding reproductive rights, antidiscrimination laws, and fair pay has been weighing on me, but demonstrations like the 2017 Women’s Marches give me hope. These rallies have also encouraged the recognition that the feminist movement must require greater diversity, including more non-white leaders, if it is to advance and succeed. AAUW encourages bridging generational, racial, and class divides and recognizes that without intersectionality, our work is futile. As a former AAUW student organization leader and National Student Advisory Council member, I am motivated to continue to push AAUW student leaders — and all AAUW advocates — to be intentional about intersectional feminism.

So what is intersectional feminism? Kimberlé Crenshaw didn’t invent the concept, but she did coin the term to acknowledge multiple overlapping social identities and related systems of oppression. As women, we are oppressed by the patriarchal societal culture, but there is still a difference in how and to what extent we experience oppression based on our race, ethnicity, ability, appearance, culture, economic status, gender expression, sexual orientation, and more. So while we may want to work under the umbrella term “women,” there is not one global women’s experience.

AAUW, in our 135 years of leading the fight for women’s empowerment, has long been prepared to serve as a model for intersectional feminism. Here are three easy ways to help ensure that your feminism is intersectional!


1. Confront your privilege.

“Change means growth, and growth can be painful.”

—Audre Lorde

When we discuss the needs of women, we must include the perspectives of all women, particularly the most marginalized. Confronting our personal privileges puts us in a vulnerable position — one where we must be willing to open ourselves to criticism with the intention to improve. Being intentional about intersectionality involves taking the time to learn about experiences that are different from your own and encouraging each unique voice to be heard and validated. Every day we must stand up to sexism, racism, classism, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, and all forms of discrimination that are upheld by the patriarchy.

Pro tip: AAUW student organizations can seek out other perspectives by collaborating with different social justice campus groups, prioritizing diversity and inclusion when hosting meetings and events, and volunteering to support at-risk local community members. Supporting other groups will naturally open up opportunities to identify your privilege or ways in which you are already oppressed by current power structures. This will inform your intersectional work that your group might not be focused on.

Younger Women’s Task Force Greater Lafayette (IN) Chapter members at a Stand with Standing Rock demonstration


2. Respect bodily autonomy.

“The state controlling a woman would mean denying her full autonomy and full equality.”

—Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Promoting safe campuses, access to birth control and health care, affordable child care, the right of women to wear hijabs without discrimination, and the necessity of self-care all reflect respecting bodily autonomy. Supporting a woman’s right to just be who she is can take many forms. For inspiration we look to anyone from pro-choice defender and AAUW awardee Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to body-positivity activist and AAUW National Conference for College Women Student Leaders 2017 speaker Jessamyn Stanley. As a prominent yoga instructor and self-proclaimed “fat femme,” Stanley is working to prove that body size does not define agility.

Pro tip: AAUW student leaders can fight for bodily autonomy by hosting events, rallies, or meetings about anything from reproductive justice to preventing campus sexual assault. Take it to the next level by inviting local health professionals or a Title IX coordinator to speak at your next event! AAUW student leaders can also be inclusive of fellow students’ choices and needs by providing free child care at events and ensuring accommodations for special dietary or accessibility requirements.

University of Pittsburgh AAUW student organization members led a Roe v. Wade anniversary rally in February 2017


3. Lift each other up.

“There are so many figures in our history that did not believe they could make a change, and they did.”

—Malala Yousafzai

Everyone has the potential to do something great, but not all of us have the opportunity. AAUW is proud to support women by offering scholarships, fellowships, and grants to help women achieve their academic dreams. We also honor women who have made significant achievements in their communities such as our Women of Distinction, who are honored at AAUW’s National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. Work to recognize the potential in your fellow women by encouraging them to attend leadership-building events and to network with inspiring women from around the world.

Nominate an inspiring student leader you know to attend NCCWSL.

Grand View University, Iowa, AAUW student org leader Missy Farni

Pro tip: Remain mindful of the institutional barriers women face in the classroom and workplace and why people might be hesitant to branch out. Encourage your friends — especially ones who don’t look like you or have different life experiences than you do — to take advantage of leadership and scholarship opportunities. (And make sure you take advantage of them yourself, too!)

“Intersectionality is more than a buzzword. … It has to be a way of seeing the world and moving through it.”

—Kimberly Foster

Ultimately, practicing intersectional feminism means changing the way you navigate through the world. When you host AAUW events and meetings, take a moment to reflect on who is not there and why they are absent. It is not enough to include a space for everyone at the table; you also have to invite them to the table and welcome them when they get there. And while adopting these practices can be challenging, being intentional about intersectionality is required to fully achieve unity and equity.

There is strength in numbers! Success comes when we have a strong support system behind us and encouraging sisters beside us. Join or start an AAUW student organization, Younger Women’s Task Force, or branch today!

This blog was written by Campus Initiatives Intern Theresa Hice Johnson.

Related Content:

UWM Equal Pay Day Activism

AAUW Student Activists Challenge the Status Quo

AAUW provides a space for students to advocate for all feminist issues. See how our student org members are demanding equity on their campuses.

Woman introduces herself to another person.

Diversity and Inclusion Tool Kit

Use this tool kit to promote diversity and inclusion in your organization.

Intersectionality Week

Younger Women’s Task Force chapters established an Intersectionality Week to honor the overlap between women’s rights and other social justice issues.

By:   |   May 31, 2017


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