How many inequalities can the world fight at the same time?

Intersectionality can help frame the complexity of progressive politics in the context of a new transatlantic partnership.

This is the fourth in a series of articles on reframing the transatlantic relationship in the context of the election of Joe Biden, jointly published by Social Europe and the FES DC. 


Those of us who remember the excitement of the 2008 election in the United States can recall the choice at the end of the Democratic primaries as a question of what kind of history might be made: would Hillary Clinton become the first female president or Barack Obama the first non-white? It took another decade for the Democratic Party to nominate a candidate who would embody the elevation of more than one disadvantaged demographic group: the election of Kamala Harris—the first black and south-Asian woman—as vice-president was a landmark suggesting American progressivism might finally pave the way towards ‘intersectionality’ in politics.

The notion of intersectionality was coined 30 years ago by the African-American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw. For her it was a legal term, to refer to the diverse and specific forms of discrimination women may face at the intersection of other forms of oppression. Intersectionality was meant to describe better how gender and race intersect, deconstructing the preconception that ‘all the women are white, all the Blacks are men’— a way of thinking necessary for black feminist movements that have subsequently contributed to ‘third wave’ feminism.

The scope of intersectionality has since only expanded. It gained a role in describing the overlap between very different forms of inequalities, which derive from a person’s origin, class, handicap, age, sexuality or religion. Intersectionality has increasingly entered into the language of politics, integrated into mainstream discourse rather than remaining in theoretical academic debates. And intersectionality is a discussion no longer limited to the US: the term soon entered international treaties, including European Union legislative language.

But as use of the term has grown, intersectionality has been criticised for becoming too vague. Instead of opening new connections in fighting exclusion, it is criticised for blurring issues and has increasingly been implicated in misleading representations.

Step forward

Consequently, one can argue that it took at least two global financial crashes, two (or more) social mobilisations (Women’s March, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo) and a menacing Donald Trump as president before the idea of intersectionalitycould make a real step forward in politics. It should be seen in part as an answer to the abusive and violent protests that washed over Capitol Hill on January 6th.

The rioters violently seeking to restore a retrograde world in which (mostly white) men ruled resented seeing themselves as disposable or suddenly marginalised. And this resentment may further fuel reactionary radicalism, in the US and Europe, against feminism or empowerment of any historically marginalised groups.

As president, Joe Biden seems very aware of the danger but nevertheless appears determined to advance his agenda. From the European perspective, Biden’s cabinet was not a mere box-ticking exercise but an articulation of policy in and of itself: it includes more female, non-white and non-heteronormative members than any before. Pundits heralded this ‘extraordinary’ cabinet, yet it could be considered the most ordinary ever—mirroring the demography of contemporary American society.

Biden’s ground-breaking appointments included the first female Treasury secretary (Janet Yellen), the first openly gay secretary (Pete Buttigieg), the first native-American secretary (Deb Haaland), the first female director of national intelligence (Avril Haines), the first immigrant heading the Department of Homeland Security (Alejandro Mayrkas) and—in a fine illustration of intersectionality—the first openly gay and black female principal deputy press secretary (Karine Jean-Pierre). 

But personnel and human resources are not the limit of Biden’s reforms. The administration has declared the fight for justice and inclusion a priority, placing the spotlight on women and marginalised communities. And after only five months in office, its achievements look rather impressive—for instance the reversal of Trump’s policy to permit healthcare providers, in the context of the Affordable Care Act, to discriminate against gay and transgender individuals.

Women did play a major role in the election outcome: 57 per cent of women voted for Biden, compared with 45 per cent of men. Latino and black female voters proved decisive, with no less than 69 per cent and 90 per cent respectively voting for Biden, as against only 44 per cent of their white female peers.

Additionally, many women in the US struggle against non-gender-based discrimination, connecting them to other citizens who may have not voted for Biden or at all. Thus 87 per cent of voters consider racism in the US as ‘the most important problem’, while the situation of women of colour is more likely to be overlooked as the #SayHerName campaign denounces.

Therefore, the real question is not only whether Biden will succeed at being sufficiently gender-sensitive in representational terms but whether he will manage to tailor progressive policies to fit all women and gender-related concerns. Such an endeavour requires intersectional feminism.

Concrete agenda

This can create a bridge between the US and Europe, reaching a concrete agenda of progressive deliverables. While social democrats in Europe are still celebrating the new post-Trump era and remain comforted by recent impressions of Biden’s (re)commitments at the summits of the G7 and the North Atlantic Treaty Oganization, they should also define for themselves how the next two or three years of renewed transatlantic partnership could develop.

First, although the debate about multilateralism and reform of global institutions isn’t new (indeed it is already somewhat institutionalised), there should be a stronger focus on empowering UN Women, as the agency for an intersectionalstruggle. This year will see UN Women’s three-year strategic plan expire and its five priorities should be re-evaluated with a robust new agenda—backed by the US and European states ready to abide by their pledges and put in place adequate indicators enabling measurement of progress. Such an agenda should include among its priorities empowerment of LGBT+ people and indigenous women and girls.

Secondly, both sides should step up their commitments from the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The past two years saw some momentum build around the 25th anniversary of Beijing, which remains the most progressive blueprint for gender equality. But given the slow progress since, the Generation Equality Forum with its action coalitions, culminating in Paris last week, has provided a key vehicle to revive efforts and instal the intersectional approachmore firmly, while bolstering national agendas to achieve transformative change.

The EU used to lead by example here, ensuring in the first decade after the Beijing conference a progress report as an agenda item at each European Council meeting. Perhaps that is a pattern to restore and make a new tradition for all EU-US summits.

Thirdly, there are many issues on both sides of the Atlantic which should be put (or put back) on the table. In the context of the pandemic and even more its aftermath, it is crucial to interrogate progressivism, including feminism, with closer attention to those at the margins to pursue more inclusive politics.

Although available data on Covid-19 suggest the male fatality ratio has been higher, more disaggregated data are vital to understand how it has affected different groups of women. Death rates have been higher among poor and marginalised communities, with female fatalities over-represented in the old age cohort and women—especially women of colour—suffering to a great extent the indirect consequences of the pandemic, in terms of its economic impact (the ‘she-cession’) or reduced access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

There can be no more procrastination around providing global public goods, such as healthcare infrastructure, or taking the Convention on Domestic Workers more seriously. Over 70 per cent of infected healthcare workers have been female and women comprise a similar proportion of the domestic labour force—many of whom have lost their jobs or had their working hours drastically cut during the pandemic.

Energy needed

Fourthly, as there remains less than a decade to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, a renewed transatlantic partnership could generate badly-needed energy to maintain their ambition. Primarily, there is a problem with indicators—which, if they are standard and regular, do not include any interconnections.

The SDGs should address how many women and how many women of colour have been pushed into poverty by the pandemic, how many women and LGBT+ people have experienced sexual and physical abuse, and how many women (and from where) die because of lack of access to clean water or clean fuels and technologies, while playing such a vital role within their communities. Much can be done on this together.

Fifthly, while the Biden-Harris ticket and Biden’s cabinet are inspirational, this should only be a starting point to encourage others to think about how they can improve. Even if change takes time—and, in many cases, there is a need to change the political culture and wait for subsequent elections—much can be done right away. Now is a good moment to show that change in the US is having a greater impact elsewhere with the upcoming COP26 climate-change summit.

Last time, only one in five delegation leaders were women, which is scandalously low and at odds with the composition of the climate strikes and the demographics of climate-refugee groups. With only a few months left until Glasgow, there is still time to make a difference.

Finally, while the return to intersectionality in the US can unleash progress in the fight for equality and justice on the global level, the Biden administration should remain an inspiration for Europeans in other ways. As the Conference on the Future of Europe is in full swing, with the aim of giving voice to citizens, now is the time to ensure we move from unidimensional to converging social struggles.

Progressive actors must ensure that politics is crafted not only for but with and by those at the margins. The EU Social Summit in Porto, despite great expectations, became a telling example of how a (mainly white, middle-aged, male) crowd of policy-makers can agree on ways to reduce social and economic inequality while deleting explicit references to ‘gender equality’ from the declaration, under pressure from two governments infamous for their anti-feminist policies.

Europe can and must do better, showing that since 2008 it has learnt that one cannot fight multidimensional problems with one-dimensional solutions. In that sense intersectionality may be the long-awaited answer—provided it doesn’t fall into the trap of being too unfocused or just lip-service, and instead is used to make the struggles for empowerment and opportunities for all coherent and mutually reinforcing.

Ania Skrzypek is director of research and training at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies. She is author of more than 80 published works.

Laeticia Thissen is the gender-equality and women’s-rights policy analyst at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies.

This article was first published on Social Europe.

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