This month, the cover of Ms. magazine features a smiling, confident picture of pop powerhouse Beyoncé. The culture-mogul-cum-domestic-goddess calls herself a feminist in public, and promotes a global charity focused on girls and women. She out-earned her celebrity husband Jay-Z (again) last year, and reportedly convinced the once-thuggish rapper to change his last name to “K n owles-Carter,” adopting her surname.
But while the cover line of the classic women’s lib mag promises a dissection of her “Fierce Feminism,” the article inside isn’t an adoring paean.
What Beyoncé receives instead is a hand-wringing investigation into whether she really belongs on the feminist team. Now, there are valid critiques to be made of the Texan-born superstar: She played a million-dollar concert for a Gadhafi, pushes Pepsi despite refusing to drink it, and despite her advocacy of poorer women’s rights, obviously doesn’t mind wearing their hair. Those arguments aren’t the ones in the article. Instead, it discusses her revealing outfits and the supposedly regressive (I’d say tongue-in-cheek) “Mrs. Carter” title of her new show. Lady Gaga and Madonna are said to be more thoughtful about how their personas interplay with female stereotypes (both have taken pains to reject the feminist label, Madonna preferring to be thought of as either a “humanist” or a “bitch”). While white women writhing around half-naked is apparently philosophical art, similar costumes on a black multi-millionaire are just too sexy.
In theory, feminism is supposed to work for the liberation, freedom and choice of all women. In practice, it too often stays focused on those whose path to fulfillment is the least thorny. While Ms. is busy finding reasons to kick Beyoncé out of the club, everyone else is fawning over Sheryl Sandberg – Facebook’s CEO, who wrote that all women need to do to improve their careers is “lean in” a little bit harder – and Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, who was hired in her third trimester of pregnancy (and rejects the term “feminist.")
Though both are Ivy League-educated and born into professional families, we’re meant to believe their paths to victory were inexpressibly laborious, and hail their accomplishments as universally meaningful. They’re celebrated for figuring out how to “have it all,” with no talk about what that means for their housekeepers and childcare providers-who are, to put it clearly, very likely of a much different class, education level and ethnicity.
To truly be meaningful to all 3.5 billion women on earth, feminism must, by definition, consider how sex and gender interplay with ability, class, race and the rest of it. The clunky but well-meaning term “intersectionality” has been coined to express that complex tangle. Ideally, what’s supposed to happen is any woman worrying how her gender might be working against her is also supposed to think about how her education, good health, or infusions of parental cash might be working for her, too. Instead, when high-profile feminists are accused of framing women’s issues through a limited, narcissistic lens, the response is either a meek apology (but no change in behaviour) or a full-out attack.
Last week, in the Guardian, former British Tory MP Louise Mensch criticized U.K. feminists for getting bogged down in “privilege-checking,” or criticizing other women for ignoring race and class. Pleading for a return to “reality-based feminism,” Ms. Mensch argued that American women are more successful in achieving their equality goals because they ignore their differences, uniting instead as an essential, unchanging mass in pursuit of a singular goal: targeting power as it exists and doing anything it takes to achieve it. If that means the luckiest among us continue to luck out, that’s still a victory for all women. Just to make her position clear, Ms. Mensch openly declared that intersectionality is “bollocks,” a “frenzied internal debate about nothing.”
Ms. Mensch needs a basic primer in American feminist history, since U.S. women have been embroiled in fierce debates about intersectionality for at least a century and a half. In 1863, anti-slavery activist Sojourner Truth made her famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech, pointing out that unlike the delicate white leaders of the suffrage movement, she had an awful lot of muscles, and she, too, would like a little equality. In the 1970s, the Lavender Menace took feminist leaders to task for suggesting lesbian issues diluted the essential fight. Days before Ms. Mensch posted, the black queer writer Mia McKenzie thoroughly and thoughtfully outlined the ridiculous insistence on one monolithic female experience perpetuating inequality: if the idea that white American women make 77 cents to every white male dollar is angering, consider that Latino women are stuck at 55 cents. If intersectionality is bollocks, then so are limited achievements that affect a tiny slice of women who weren’t unsafe or underhoused, just unfulfilled.
I believe in feminist ideals absolutely. When feminism’s most prominent personalities refuse to reach for those ideals, I do wonder if I can call myself a feminist. It’s a label I would feel sad about shedding, but not as sad as I do about the 150 years that womanhood’s luckiest members have been kicking me, Beyoncé and most of the world’s women off of the membership roster.
Denise Balkissoon is a Toronto writer and co-editor of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about ethnic and cultural pluralism in the Greater Toronto Area.