The importance of intersectionality during Women’s History Month
Regarded as the founder of women’s history studies, historian Gerda Lerner once said, “Women have always made history as much as men have, not ‘contributed’ to it, only they did not know what they had made and had no tools to interpret their own experience. What’s new at this time is that women are fully claiming their past and shaping the tools by means of which they can interpret it.”
It is because of this sentiment that Women’s History Month was established, honoring women who are too often erased from our history textbooks. Still, despite its foundational themes of equality, activists have noted that the celebration overlooks women of color as well as trans and queer women, raising the question: is this national holiday founded on feminism truly inclusive of all women?
The celebration of Women’s History Month began with former President Jimmy Carter issuing a national declaration in 1980 to honor American women through a National Women’s History Week. In the following years, the National Women’s History Project successfully petitioned Congress to extend the celebration to the whole month of March. Now, the National Women’s History Alliance selects yearly themes for Women’s History Month. Reflecting the tireless work of female first responders and frontline workers, the 2022 celebration has been titled “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” The NWHA said this theme is “also a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history.”
While many women embrace this time to honor their shared accomplishments, others question if the celebration embraces intersectionality. Dr. Nneka Dennie, co-founder of the Black Women’s Studies Association shared her thoughts on the holiday in a 2021 New York Times article.
“I see this perhaps less as a moment of celebration, and more as a moment of acknowledgment,” Dennie said. “We need to acknowledge the unique forms of violence that trans women face. We need to acknowledge how incarcerated women and women immigrants detained at the border are experiencing a reproductive crisis. We need to acknowledge that raising the minimum wage to $15 will more effectively support working mothers. Celebrations are fine, but celebrating doesn’t mean we’ve crossed a finish line.” This finish line evokes a country and society where white feminism ceases to marginalize people of color.
“The goal of white feminism is not to alter the systems that oppress women — patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism — but to succeed within them,” journalist Marie Sollis said in her feature on Koa Beck’s book White Feminism.
The pandemic only further exacerbated this inequity.
According to researchers Jahdziah St. Julien and Emily Hallgren for New America, “With brute force, COVID-19 took a sledgehammer to white feminism’s illusions of progress to expose a harrowing reality: despite decades of feminist organizing, women are still sinking under the weight of inequality at work and at home.”
While the theme of “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope,” honors women’s triumphs and losses of the pandemic, it doesn’t truly acknowledge the drastically inflated unemployment rates of Black and Latinx women in 2021. By not recognizing the racial inequities women of color endure, white women, sometimes unknowingly, perpetuate lateral oppression. This term refers to a marginalized group disparaging another repressed group. Similar to concerns regarding a lack of intersectionality, others believe that American history months can be inherently stereotypical.
“In part, I’m skeptical because they encourage us to see things in terms of stereotypes. During Black History Month, folks are often focused on the standard heroic figures—many of whom are black men and the women who gain prominence because of their connection with them,” Alison Piepmeier said in a New York University Press article. “And during Women’s History Month, we’re often focused on white women, with the occasional woman of color thrown in to mix things up.”
Still, the holiday’s questioning intersectional characteristics could, in fact, illustrate a greater need for an established period of recognition.
In the same New York Times article, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland commented, “Though we have more Native women serving in Congress, a woman of color in the vice president’s office, and women making moves across the country, we still have to recognize that the disadvantages that we face are created by a system designed to keep us out, and that, coupled with systemic racism, makes Women’s History Month all the more important.”
In order to truly honor the intentions of Women’s History Month, we must celebrate all female-identifying individuals and how we have and continue to make history.