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2023 International Women’s Day: Inspiring women who shaped feminism in the United States

International Women’s Day will take place on Wednesday, 8 March. We took a look at the women who shaped feminism and gender equality in the United States over the last few decades.

2023 International Women’s Day: Inspiring women who shaped feminism in the United States
Marcos del MazoGetty

Feminism as an ideology has diverse interpretations across its followers, which can lead to conflicts between those with different priorities based on their understanding of gender inequality.

In the United States, a liberal variety of feminism which focuses on shattering the glass ceiling, electing women to high office, and empowering women to enter the workforce while continuing to be the group most responsible for domestic work and care, tends to be the most common interpretation.

Moving away from rhetoric on shattering the glass ceiling

Philosopher Cinzia Arruzza attacked this conception of feminism in the book she co-published with Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. “We have no interest in breaking the glass ceiling while leaving the vast majority to clean up the shards. Far from celebrating women CEOs who occupy corner offices, we want to get rid of CEOs and corner offices,” wrote Arruzza.

Feminism for these three authors is about much more than ensuring women are represented in the corridors of patriarchal power. Progressive feminists, like the authors, question the liberal logic of achieving equality by focusing so heavily on representational politics rather than those that center the redistribution of power and economic resources. Steps are made towards those goals by extending solidarity to poor women and other marginalized groups who remain excluded from centers of power and who endure and stand up against some of the most violent manifestations of the patriarchal system.

These are echos of arguments made by Angela Davis, a socialist and former member of the Black Panther Party, who, in her 1989 book Women, Culture & Politics, said it was time “to create a revolutionary, multiracial women’s movement that seriously addresses the main issues affecting poor and working-class women.”

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The problems with quota-based feminism

These authors do not believe that women in positions of high power should face discrimination. Rather they reject the notion that equality between men and women, where a select few of the latter become integrated into the power structure of the former, has any liberatory potential. This critique does not only apply to the economic sphere.

Take the US invasion of Iraq, where thousands of women and girls were murdered during US and coalition shootings, air raids, and other bombings. In 2009, the Independent, a British news outlet, reported on the findings from the Iraq Body Count research group, which found that “of those killed in air raids by the US-led coalition,” thirty-nine percent were children and forty-six percent were women. Had these bombs been dropped by women pilots, there would be no difference in the brutality of the war crimes these civilians endured.

Angela Davis spoke to the need for global solidarity and for those in the US to stand up to their government who sought to inflict violence on those without the means to protect themselves.

Many may not call these expressions of solidarity “feminist.” Experts who study feminist foreign policy argue that human rights should be the focus of international relations. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of the patriarchal system of domination in the United States expanding beyond its own borders. Very few credible objectives to protect human rights could be achieved through a military invasion, yet that option was chosen anyway. Feminism focused on liberation requires much more than fifty percent of fighter jet pilots to be women because such a quota-based conception of gender equality is still able to carry out the unjustifiable murder of civilians and the terror such actions leave in their wake.

The inclusion of men in the feminist struggle

This vein of feminism includes men who are not free from the oppressive systems brought upon by a male-dominated society.

Suicide rates among men have been between three to five times higher than those tracked for women since 1950. Gender socialization in the United States, and many other countries, teach boys not to show their emotions, express sadness or ask for help and support when needed. Living without close relationships or community can take a strong toll on the mental health of men, and some take their own lives because of it. Like other forms of oppression, patriarchy harms all members of society. Any system seeking to control a certain group must create strict rules of conduct for those carrying out that oppression.

The late bell hooks, the staunch feminist and racial justice activist, explained how feminism is not only for women and that the protection of children requires an understanding of how patriarchy harms young boys.

In Feminism Is for Everybody, bell hooks writes, boys need healthy self-esteem. They need love. And a wise and loving feminist politics can provide the only foundation to save the lives of male children. Patriarchy will not heal them. If that were so they would all be well.” Readers of bell hooks often credited the beloved author for helping to humanize men and allowing them to be seen as more than perpetrators of oppression but allies in a struggle against patriarchy.

Intersectional feminism and the legacy of Kimberlé Crenshaw

Both bell hooks and Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser follow the tradition of intersectional feminism, first conceptualized in the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective.

A Black woman, Kimberlé Crenshaw, was one of the first scholars to situate race prominently within her feminist analysis. Using the analogy of a four-way intersection, Crenshaw explained that “Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another.” Accidents can be caused when two (or more) cars hit the gas at the same time. Crenshaw places Black women at the center of the intersection, writing that “her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.”

Other scholars inspired by Crenshaw’s pioneering work have explained how sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, and class are additional compounding factors that can make the discrimination felt by certain groups much more violent and deadly.

On 26 February, Cashay Henderson, a Black transgender woman described by those who loved her as “a bubbly spirit with a down to earth, tell it like it is personality,” was murdered in her apartment in Milwaukee. The thirty-one-year-old was the third transgender person to be killed in the city over the last nine months and the sixth to be murdered in the US in 2023.

Feminism is much more than the empowerment of cisgender women and girls. Liberatory feminism must offer protection to transgender and gender non-conforming people who live under the threat of violence for the simple act of living as their authentic selves.