Intersectional Feminism under Capitalism: A Marxist Critique
To be an intersectional feminist in a capitalistic world comes with many challenges.
As we’ve seen in feminism more broadly, ignoring the importance of class struggles in social life has given rise to postfeminist ideologies that promote the idea that women can gain equality by making money and spending money.
In a similar way, intersectionality also risks becoming co-opted by capitalism, as we see increasing examples of how ‘intersectionality’ is sold as a slogan for performative allyship. When corporations start promoting ‘intersectionality’ on their blogs, social media accounts, and corporate social responsibility brochures, we need to stay awake and watch their actions very carefully.
In this post, I’ll begin by discussing why it’s important we develop the language and tools to analyze capitalism. I’ll then outline the Marxist critiques about intersectionality, why some people believe it’s inadequate to understand capitalism as well as the counterpoint to those criticisms.
I’ll talk about how Deborah King’s articulation of multiple jeopardies understands the intersection of gender, race, and class and reminds us all that intersectional feminism is, at its heart, a liberatory project for Black women.
How Capitalism Co-Opted Feminism
So what exactly do I mean when I say capitalism?
Capitalism is an economic system where production is privately owned and trading is done in a free market.
Below you’ll find a video produced by NowThis summarizing the definition of capitalism and discusses why capitalism is seen by critics as exploitative and destructive yet remains so popular around the world.
For bell hooks, our oversight of the problems with capitalism allowed capitalism to co-opt feminist visions for change by promoting the illusion that money brings freedom and independence.
In our postfeminist culture, we now see best-selling handbooks and corporate training programs that exhort (mostly cisgender, straight, able-bodied, white, middle to upper class) women to aspire to corporate leadership.
Yet when these highly privileged women secured those positions of power, they by and large perpetuated the same forms of oppression and exploitation as any male leader.
While “my favorite position is CEO” is a popular slogan for signs at feminist rallies, we need to remember that wealth accumulation is not sufficient for social equality and corporate power is not compatible with social justice.
Feminism, intersectional or otherwise, cannot wave the banner for gender equality with one hand and perpetuate economic exploitation with the other.
Marxist Critiques of Intersectional Feminism
One highly circulated critique of intersectionality is advanced by English professor Barbara Foley. She argues that:
Although intersectionality can usefully describe the effects of multiple oppressions, I propose, it does not offer an adequate explanatory framework for addressing the root causes of social inequality in the capitalist socioeconomic system.
Here, Foley believes intersectionality theory treats class in vague, abstract ways as an identity and doesn’t have a robust enough framework to understand the structural and material effects of class.
Foley reminds us that for Marx, class is a relationship based on exploitation.
She is especially critical of the ways intersectional feminist scholars use the word “classism” to talk about economic inequality. She points out that this flawed term creates the impression that the exploitation of labor can be reduced to interpersonal discriminatory attitudes (equivalent to sexism and racism).
I admit I’ve in the past thrown around the word “classism” without really appreciating what it implies, how it’s different from capitalistic exploitation, and how exploitation is distinct from oppression.
Barbara Foley argues that a Marxist view sees capitalism as fundamental to social inequality because a class-based society compels people to be divided into antagonistic identity categories in order to keep them all laboring for the benefit of the few elites.
Intersectionality, according to Foley, is only focused on oppression around identities (gender, race, sexuality, etc.). As such, it cannot account for class, which is constituted through exploitation.
Ashley Bohrer, who is both an intersectional and Marxist scholar, offers a different perspective. She points out that the criticism that intersectionality doesn’t account for capitalistic exploitation ignores almost all of the foundational theorists of intersectionality such as Patricia Hill Collins, the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Angela Davis, and Barbara Smith.
In my previous post about bell hooks, I talk about her concept of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and her sustained challenges to capitalism as a thoroughly dehumanizing and exploitative world order.
Yet the idea that capitalism is the most important, if not the only, cause for social inequality downplays the ways race, colonization, nationality, gender, sexuality, and able-bodiedness have been central to capitalism.
Bohrer argues that there has never been a form of capitalism that is not structured through both oppression and exploitation at the same time. She articulates that “exploitation and oppression are co-constitutive features of capitalism, that they work in and through one another”.
Rather than dismissing intersectionality, Bohrer believes it can offer helpful tools to Marxist thinkers and activists, even if intersectionality in and of itself is not a theory of capitalism.
Related: Intersectionality in the Workplace: Creating Justice, Not Inclusion
Gender, Race, and Class
Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original formulation of intersectionality theory in her 1989 article, ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex, as the title suggests, doesn’t explicitly or extensively examine capitalism and class.
However, Marxist scholars have argued since that one of the most famous legal cases that Crenshaw analyzes — DeGraffenreid v General Motors — is fundamentally about a class struggle between General Motors (capital) and the five Black women (labor).
If you’d like to learn more about the case and how it, along with two other Title VII cases, led Crenshaw to develop intersectionality theory, please read my post ‘What is Intersectional Feminism?’.
In her 1991 article, ‘Mapping the margins’, Crenshaw deals more directly with class in her study of battered women’s shelters in communities of color in Los Angeles. She analyzes how many women of color experience the intersection of racial and class oppression/exploitation and are “burdened by poverty, child care responsibilities, and the lack of job skills”.
Throughout this article, Crenshaw also acknowledges that Black feminist theory has a rich tradition of analyzing the effects of gender, race, and class disadvantage in the lives of women of color. She explicitly recognizes that factors such as class, sexuality, and age have an impact on the lives of women of color and sees her own work on the intersection of gender and race as a small contribution to this broader collective movement.
Yet because intersectionality theory has become so popular, critics tend to take Kimberlé Crenshaw’s two articles as representative of all Black feminist theories about social oppression and exploitation.
Before Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’, Black feminists like Frances Beale and Deborah King were developing theories around double and multiple jeopardies. From 1972, activist Frances Beal proposed that Black women experienced the combination of racism and sexism, and later added class and heterosexist ‘jeopardies’ to the list.
Sociologist Deborah King extended this work and argued that gender, race, class, and sexual discriminations were not simply ‘added’ to the challenges Black women faced. She theorized that these discriminations actually multiplied with one another. That means we can’t study gender, race, class, and heterosexism one at a time as though each form of discrimination “has a single, direct, and independent effect” on Black women.
The multiplicative model King developed means that different forms of discrimination are interdependent. Depending on the situation, race may be more important, other times, class may play a greater role in the status of Black women.
Deborah King offers a roadmap for an intersectional feminist politics, which must involve:
- A declaration of the visibility of Black women.
- Black women’s self-determination where they have the right to interpret their reality and define their objectives. In other words, Black women ought to be empowered to decide for themselves the relative importance of any and all identities and oppressions, and how each informs their politics, if at all.
- Challenges against the interlocking oppressions/exploitations of gender, race, class, and sexuality both in the dominant society and within liberation movements.
- The recognition that Black women can’t be reduced to their multiple jeopardies and regarded solely as victims. We must see Black women as powerful, independent subjects.
Capitalism has formed in our society with and through interlocking oppressions. As such, anti-capitalist interventions can and should be supported with challenges to gender, racial, colonial, sexual, and dis/ability oppression.
At the same time, intersectional feminist thought and activism need to hold onto a critical and rigorous understanding of capitalism alongside its critique of interlocking oppressions.
Witnessing the ways capitalism co-opted second-wave feminist values to produce a postfeminist sensibility, we can remain alert and resist attempts to do the same with intersectional feminism.
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Ashley Bohrer (2020) Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism
Sadhvi Dar, Helena Liu, Angela Martinez Dy, and Deborah Brewis (2020). The Business School is racist: Act up! Organization, 1–12. The essay I wrote with the Building the Anti-Racist Classroom (BARC) collective discusses how racism and capitalism intersect in Business Schools.
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Featured image by Ashutosh Sonwani