Intersectionality is a slippery concept, for those on the right. Their general view of it is best summarised by prolific grifter Ben Shapiro:

Intersectionality is a form of identity politics in which the value of your opinion depends on how many victim groups you belong to. At the bottom of the totem pole is the person everybody loves to hate—the straight, white male.

And who’s at the top?

Well, it’s very hard to say, because new groups claim victim status all the time. No one can keep track. So, how does this intersectionality thing play out?

Something like this: Let’s say you’re a gay, white woman. Your opinion matters, but less than that of a gay, black woman.

Why? Because while all women are oppressed by the patriarchy, and all gays are oppressed by the heterosexual majority, blacks have a victim status that whites obviously don’t.

Of course, a gay black woman’s victim status is less than that of a black trans woman, who ranks below a black, Muslim trans woman, and so on. The more memberships you can claim in “oppressed” groups, the more aggrieved you are, and the higher you rank.

Ben Shapiro, “What is Intersectionality”

Intersectionality is actually something completely different, and almost as simple to understand. The term as used today was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Coming from a legal background, Crenshaw describes how different oppressions can work together to be more than simply additive. This means that for example, a black woman may face additional barriers compared to either black people or women when viewed in isolation. Crenshaw’s example of this is a factory where an equal number of jobs for black and white people are offered. If however, all the jobs for black people just happen to be for black men, black women suffer an oppression on the basis of being both black and women. Generally, people have no objections to this simple theory of Intersectionality.

Audre Lorde

In my experience, this is the idea of intersectionality that is practised in left-wing circles. I’m an activist who worked on the marriage equality campaign in 2017, and who currently works in the union movement. The right-wing intersectional strawman does not manifest within those organisations.

One criticism and feature of intersectionality is that it doesn’t make any specific calls for action. This is perhaps a surprise to those who view it as a woke bogeyman. Crenshaw herself lays this out:

Still, as Crenshaw told me, “plenty of people choose not to assume that the prism [of intersectionality] necessarily demands anything in particular of them.”

The conservatives I spoke to understood quite well what intersectionality is. What’s more, they didn’t seem bothered by intersectionality as legal concept, or intersectionality as an idea. (I asked Shapiro this question directly, and he said, “the original articulation of the idea by Crenshaw is accurate and not a problem.”) Rather, they’re deeply concerned by the practice of intersectionality, and moreover, what they concluded intersectionality would ask, or demand, of them and of society.

“The intersectionality wars”

It is perhaps no surprise to you, the reader, that in her book “Gender-Critical Feminism” (previously discussed here) the author Holly Lawford-Smith spends most of her time denouncing intersectionality, as conceived of by the right. She spends 17 pages in her chapter on intersectionality (“Is Gender-Critical Feminism Intersectional?”, page 143 to 160) fighting the ghost of the right wing conception of intersectionality. She then mentions Crenshaw’s conception (which is by far the most applied form) and discusses her conception for three and a half pages (161 to 164). In these three-and-a-half pages, Holly argues that including intersectional oppression in feminism would create “a risk of fragmentation and a risk of over-burdening the group so that its energies are spread too thinly and it can accomplish nothing.” (pg. 162)

Holly argues for a movement “focused on women as women” and believes that intersectionality and feminism cannot effectively mix. She provides specific examples of how movements to decide what to include in their project:

Similarly, women with intellectual disabilities are raped or sexually assaulted at a substantially higher rate than people without intellectual disabilities. We can ask whether men with intellectual disabilities face the same issue. If they do, this is a disability issue, not a feminist issue. But they don’t—the rate is 7.3 per 1,000 for women, and 1.4 per 1,000 for men, with disabilities. The rate for men with intellectual disabilities is lower than the rate for women without. So this is a feminist issue, too…

Consider also the cases where the same tests reveal the issue not to be a feminist one. Police violence against African American people in the United States affects black men more than black women; it is a race issue, not a feminist issue (although sexualized police violence affects black women more than black men, and so is a feminist issue). Building access for people with physical disabilities affects men and women with physical disabilities equally, and so is a disability issue, not a feminist issue. HIV awareness and protection affects gay men more than gay women, so is an LGB issue, not a feminist issue. Kosher food requirements affect all Jewish people equally, so are a Jewish issue, not a feminist issue. And so on…

Climate justice is an everyone issue, not a feminist issue.

(pg. 158)

This supposedly objective calculus feels clinical, but on closer examination brings with it, its own biases. Holly confidently states that HIV is a LGB [sic] issue rather than a feminist one. This is probably because HIV is an issue she places with “gay men”. However, in the country with the largest HIV prevalence in the world, Eswatini, HIV is more prevalent amongst women. Women in Eswatini are more likely to have HIV than men who have sex with men, and particularly, women who are sex workers are affected. Is Holly’s supposedly objective calculation about what ought to be included in feminism, actually objective? Would Holly’s feminism appeal to a woman in Eswatini where “HIV awareness and protection” is “not a feminist issue”? And—perhaps the biggest question—if there’s the possibility of different feminisms for women that aren’t like Holly, is an objective singular feminism, unilaterally defined by a philosopher, actually possible? The World Health Organisation reported in 2006 that 64% of deaths in Eswatini were caused by HIV/AIDS, and the life expectancy for women had dropped to 39 mostly as a result of this. It may be that it is not possible for women in Eswatini to participate in a feminism that considers HIV prevention an “LGB issue”.

HIV Death Rates Our World in Data: HIV / AIDS

Holly is mostly concerned with feminism being “stretched too thinly, by having too much asked of it.” (pg. 159) I’d like to propose a different risk for any movement—that the movement focuses on issues so narrowly that it appeals to a very limited set of people. “Building access for people with physical disabilities” may not be a feminist issue for Holly, but it will prevent women from participating in feminism. If trans women and men are becoming an increasing segment of the population, a feminism that excludes them or patronises them will become narrower and narrower. If enough minority concerns are shaved away, there will be no-one left. Early in her book Holly complains about an International Women’s Day list of demands that says “Justice for people with disabilities” is one of its goals (pg. 3). Holly complains that the word “women” only appears three times in the list of demands. Perhaps Holly would prefer if this said “Justice for women with disabilities”. Perhaps Holly is envisioning a series of sex-segregated access ramps, at only the facilities where meetings for feminists are held. But perhaps an easier and more appealing project for women is justice for people with disabilities.

One of the key realisations brought about from an understanding of intersectional oppression is that feminist action is at its base buttressed by the ability of women to take action, and that the capacity to do so can differ based on geography, class, race, sexual orientation, etc. Giving someone the ability to participate in feminism can be very different for a working class disabled trans woman than a white lesbian associate professor of philosophy who works at an institution where there are no first nations people on staff in the Law faculty. While women like Julie Bindel bemoan the “liberal” feminism that has arisen, her, Holly, and her ilk, are chasing the ghost of an anachronistic white feminism that appeals to basically nobody. What Holly and Julie may be seeing is the inclusion-of-and-listening-to of minorities in mainline feminism today and interpreting that as a “hierarchy of oppression”—but what they are seeing is actually not just a reasonable moral measure, but also a self-preserving one, from people that recognise that a strong feminism is an inclusive one.

To turn Holly’s logic back on her—she spends an awful lot of her time in her book on feminism talking about lesbians. By most accounts lesbians are only around 1% of the adult population. I personally think that the treatment of lesbians is a valid feminist issue (not that I have any authority to universally/objectively say so), but if we look at lesbian issues from the perspective of issues that affect women, they are by far a minority. It seems like it’d be difficult to argue that lesbianism is a feminist issue, and not an LGB [sic] issue. When Holly talks about LGB [sic] issues, she’s using a term that only 3% of queer residents of TERF island (the UK) use (hence the [sic]). When Holly outlines some issues that she thinks objectively belong in feminism, out of the five she lists, “Female sports” is the fourth (pg. 156). Only a third of women participate in a “sport related activity” once a week or more. Even if all those were competitive team sports, and even if all those women cared to misgender trans people, it still would only be a minority issue for women. By Holly’s own calculation, many of the issues she deigns right for feminism, may be stretching it too thin.

The hard truth that Holly and others may need to digest is that trans women strengthen the feminist movement, and that we need a feminism for cis women alone as much as we need an exclusive feminism for white or straight or nationalist or able bodied women (which is to say: not at all). There’s little to no evidence that feminism would benefit from being cis-exclusive, and even less to suggest that Holly’s metrics for including issues in feminism are of any use at all. Holly says she speaks for a feminism “for women”, but she speaks for a feminism obsessed with bathrooms, lesbians, “prostitutes”, and women’s sports, while most women are struggling with a cost of living crisis and low wages. It’s starting to sound like a movement constructed for the benefit of wealthy white cis women.

It may be that a lack of an understanding of intersectionality actually leads to the deficiencies that harangue the TERF movement at every turn. At one point, Holly compares the Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab to sex workers who defend the conception of sex work as work (pg. 70). If Holly spent any time “stretching feminism thin” by talking to Muslim women, she may learn that there are various positions on the hijab, and there is no solidarity with Muslim women without that nuance. What Holly may be approximating in her project is the kind of limited solidarity that white women in America experienced in 2016 when they helped elect a pussy-grabbing president. This realisation may be helpful to explain how Holly ended up speaking at a rally organised at least in part by an islamophobe and a Member of Parliament who has described safe pregnancy termination as “a terrible evil”. These deficiencies may explain why, when Holly was doing the important work of feminism at that rally, she and the rest of her fellow speakers failed to criticise—or even mention—the Nazis standing on the steps beside them.