Feminism: An Intersectional Approach

Intersectional feminism is the most appropriate paradigm of modern feminism in which to critique the oppressive institutions borne from enlightenment reason. This thesis will be maintained by analysing intersectional feminist arguments in light of a critique of enlightenment reason (critical social theory) and how it leads to various forms of oppression. Should this paper find that intersectional feminism is in fact not the most appropriate paradigm in which to critique oppressive institutions then, it will make further suggestions. Feminism as a movement is divided. There are many different strands that have emerged in recent years which include but are not limited to radical, liberal, Marxist and socialist feminism, relational, postmodernism, third-wave feminism as well as cultural and eco-feminism. All of these different strands have their own advantages but, as branches of this movement, are inadequate to properly address gender inequality in the twenty-first century.

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One of the main concerns with the divide in feminism is that this causes a rift between prominent exponents and the movement as a whole is wanting as it lacks power due to the absence of consensus. However, there is an underlying ideological thread that ties them all together. Traditionally, feminism has been understood simply as (i) being critical of patriarchal domination and (ii) using “gender” or “women” as the metric of analysis (Hooks, 1984:51). In light of this definition it becomes clear how easily feminism can be widely interpreted. Thus, the author claims that feminism should be practiced and understood as being intersectional and that if feminism is not intersectional then it does not take into account that the form of domination over women is also dominating other aspects of society: race, ability, class, language, sexuality, and appearance. This paper will take shape following these steps: (a) a discussion of other forms of less appropriate feminism and an historical view of the different waves of feminism, (b) other forms of oppression that occur from deep, underlying societal domination, and how they occur, (c) a discussion of the critical elements of the theory of intersectional feminism and how it aims at human emancipation (critical social theory) and lastly, (d) why intersectional feminism above all others? What makes it dynamic and accessible in a contemporary, globalising world? “Contemporary feminism is characterised by its diversity of purpose, but the reliance on the internet is a constant” (Munro, 2013:22).


 Many of the concepts that will be used throughout this paper need clarification due to the nature of interpretation. For the purposes of this paper critical social theory will be defined as a school of thought that is a reaction against Enlightenment Reason and therefore highlights and promulgates the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture. The group of theorist that popularised critical theory have often come from the Frankfurt School. It is a school of social theory and philosophy that is seen in accordance with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt. It was founded during the interwar period. The School was home to Western Marxist nonconformists. Thus, the synergy between feminism and critical social theory is that both critique economic inequality that has come about due to an unequal distribution of resources. Additionally, many of the inequalities seen today that are critiqued by critical theorists and feminists alike are said to be borne from enlightenment reason or the ‘age of reason’. This was both a movement and state of mind and spanned a period from the awakening of the European interest in science during the 17th century and drew to a close with the ‘unreason’ of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. A central element of this movement was the use and celebration of reason in the hopes of humans being able to understand the universe and its laws as well as improving one’s own condition, things are not left to fate and destiny.

So, what is intersectional feminism? Intersectionality is an analytical outline whose aim is to identify how interconnecting systems and structures of power (oppressive institutions) affect those who are most marginalized in society. This is often promulgated by Critical Theorists who maintain that oppressive institutions are interconnected and cannot be explained and understood independently from each other. Examples of oppression: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc. Thus, intersectional feminism recognises that gender inequality is in fact not a symptom of sexism and rather affected by a deep underlying cause in society that has created other forms of oppression and domination. An example of intersectional feminism is this: a white male reaps the benefits of both race and gender whereas, a black, lesbian woman is oppressed on the grounds of race, gender and sexuality

Feminism, according to author and social activist bell hooks, is unfortunately defined as aiming to make women “the social equals of men” (Hooks, 1984:51). If women should aim to be equals, then which men do they want to be equal to? Not all men are equal in the world which is currently dominated by “white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structures” (Hooks, 1984:51). Hooks explains that the absence of a definitive definition for feminism indicates an increasing “disinterest in feminism as a radical political movement” (Hooks, 1984:51). This concern of Hooks’ may be sorted out if the definition of feminism be extended to include intersectionality.


This section constitutes a discussion of the diverse forms of feminism that the author considers less appropriate than the intersectional approach, as well as an historical view of the different waves of feminism. ‘The first wave’ of feminism developed after early liberal thought and started to gain popularity in the late 19th century. It was followed shortly by ‘the second wave’ which spanned the 1960s (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:295). Much of the discussions on feminism at the time were critiques of the social contract and how it had structural flaws which continue to perpetuate unequal opportunities for employment for women today. John Stuart Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Jean Jacques Rousseau were early exponents of the move away from the belief that women were “less rational by nature” (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:295). The focus was on the economic inequalities and how it confined women to the domestic sphere, deepening the gendered public/private divide.

Third Wave Feminism

The current wave of feminism, ‘the third wave’, uprooted the ideas of the previous waves which promulgated that “gender constituted a fundamental divide in all societies” (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:300). Instead, the third wave confronted the notion that gender is a global and undifferentiated basis of inequality and stressed the significance of class, ethnicity and culture in trying to understand the differences among women’s situations all over the world. During this third wave many new and diverse forms of feminism have developed: radical, liberal, Marxist and socialist, relational, postmodernism, cultural, third world and eco-feminism.

Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminism cannot be encapsulated by one single definition however, the key concerns are associated with the “achievement of public citizenship and legal equality with men” (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:301). This is based on the conception that men and women can do the same tasks and are fundamentally the same. There are a few concerns here. The first is that the engendered ideas about women’s place in the world differ from community to community and can only be ‘unlearnt’ through education as they are the consequence of socialisation. The second concern is that liberal feminists believe that “social change is attainable within the confines of existing social and political order” (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:302). This is a naive conception of feminism as it does not take into account that the ‘existing social and political order’ is not democratic and free of bias. The social order may seem like it is fulfilling the promises of enlightenment reason however, it is in fact continuing to entrench gender stereotypes.

Marxist and Socialist Feminism

Feminism in this vein came to prominence during the 1960s. Marxist and socialist feminism maintains that class is the key feature of fragmentation of power and oppression that dominates society. Thus, sexual oppression is seen to be merely a dimension of class power. This means that it instead does not establish “autonomous bases for subordination” (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:304). Socialists focus is on class (capitalism) but also sex (patriarchy) where the patriarchy is seen as a system of gender based subjugation that is both historically and materially rooted. The benefit of socialism is that the exponents aim to abolish all forms of oppression and they aim to do this through transformation of the state and family dynamics (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:306). The only concern with socialist feminism is the heavy reliance on ‘left’ wing politics which is in contestation with the right and may struggle to garner support.

Postmodern Feminism

This strand of feminism rejects the notion of a pre-existing foundational truth. All claims to truth are uncertain.  The proponents of this strand focus on the creation of the self-identity or the ‘subject’. This is understood as being the result of one’s culture, history, language and social practice (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:313). The strength of postmodern feminism lies in its rejection of defining ‘women’ as a static or fixed and that it cannot be defined exclusively in relation to men or “in terms of ‘common’ experiences” (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:313). Thus, context and deconstruction play important roles in the practical application of postmodern feminism. The major concern here is that feminists of this strand often deny the potentiality of a universal foundation of critique which limits the reach of the practical implementation.

Third World Feminism

Third World feminism is impossible to designate to one approach. It is however a move in the right direction as it tries to take into account the experiences of women in the third world from diverse backgrounds which includes “race, class, culture and third world religions” (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:315). The way to identify third world feminists is not in terms of existentialism but rather in the way they approach, and battle against, the ‘isms’. For example, sexism, colonialism and imperialism. One of the key trends that bundles third world feminists together is that they view the world from a paradigm of “simultaneity of oppression as fundamental to the experiences of social and political marginality” (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:316). The dominant strand of third world feminism is postcolonial which is associated with postmodernist feminism. This notion of feminism is practical in nature and aims at emancipation from gender identity and alleviating domestic abuse but has not been successful thus far in truly coming closer to equality of opportunity in social and economic terms. The power of this form of feminism is also limited due to the inconsistencies between laws in the private and public sectors. Many private households still practice religion and culture that does not inspire gender equality even if the law promotes it (Roederer & Moellendorf, 2004:316).


The oppression that people may face comes in many shapes and sizes. People may be oppressed based on their skin colour, gender, age, culture, language, ability, sexual orientation, class, level of education and appearance, etc. These things that can bias one person towards another are all linked intricately and often go hand-in-hand rather than each person experiencing only one in isolation. This concept, as explained above, is known as intersectionality, see the graphical representation below. This oppression comes from a deep, underlying societal domination and occurred as a result of the enlightenment reason. Humans, through their domination over nature through science, began to dominate one another in an endless battle to reach the top of human hierarchy.


Figure 1: Collin’s Matrix of Domination (Source: Intersectionality and the Matrix of Domination, 2016)

Nancy Fraser (Yuval-Davis, 2006:200) claims that gender and race are bivalent collectives which slice through the “redistribution and recognition spectrum” where, on the other hand, class is associated with the “redistributive model and ‘despised sexualities’” (Yuval-Davis, 2006:200). It is important to remember that these generalisations are based on historically specific incidences and are not integrally sound in all circumstances. They are also constantly undergoing processes of modification.  To conclude this brief section, the acknowledgement of the need for intersectionality has allowed it to be brought to human rights discussions and to be included in the gender mainstreaming division (Yuval-Davis, 2006:204). Thus, the complete “diversity of women’s experiences’” needs to be taken into account in order “to enhance women’s empowerment” (Yuval-Davis, 2006:204).


Critical social theory has a constant tension between theory and praxis. This paper’s thesis is that intersectional feminism is the most appropriate form of feminism in which to critique oppression borne from enlightenment reason and it attempts to take into account all forms of potential domination. The limitations of this paper are that it does not explore the practical implementation of intersectional feminism. This being said, all other forms of feminism are limited on the basis that they are not diverse enough to satisfy the ‘global woman’. Intersectional feminism is thus most in line with critical social theory on the basis that it explores enlightenment reason as the cause for the deep, underlying forms of societal domination and observes the engrained structural concerns associated with this.

Critical Social Theory and Human Emancipation

Feminism that is not intersectional consequently appears to be white, female, supremacy and does not aim for human emancipation (Hooks, 1984:52). This type of feminism was a necessary evil as it began discussions on gender inequality. So far the root of the problem has not sufficiently been explored. Intersectional feminism is not merely a criticism of white, female, supremacy but instead it strives for emancipation from the disappointing promises of the enlightenment reason whereby domination over people, based on a myriad of diverse factors, continues to be entrenched into the structural features of the societies that we live in.  These factors enabled intersectional feminism to gain traction in the 21st century as it is more dynamic and accessible in a globalising world (Munro, 2013:22).


Drawing on the theoretical framework of critical theory and the Frankfurt School, it becomes clear that intersectional feminism is in fact the most appropriate paradigm of feminism to use in which to critique oppressive institutions borne from the enlightenment reason. This is due to the fact that the intersectional approach can apply to the ‘global woman’ and takes into account how sexist oppression and other forms of oppression are all borne from the same cause, the enlightenment reason. Liberal feminism is flawed due to its naïve view of where domination stems from and also is naive in its conception of the existing political order. Marxist and socialist feminism are attempting to be intersectional and include class as a means of domination worth studying but they are limited on the grounds of its reliance on ‘left’ wing politics to substantiate the feminist arguments. Postmodern feminism is concerning as the advocates deny an important issue which is that without a universal conception little to no constructive criticisms can be made. And the last strand that was dealt with, third world feminism. This notion of feminism may be enticing as it appears to be practical and has proven to have made strides in reducing domestic abuse but it is not helpful in criticising enlightenment reason and the origin of oppression. As stated before, the scope of the paper is too brief to give an analysis of whether intersectional feminism is the panacea to gender inequality but it would be important to observe how effective it is in practice. Often the tension between theory and praxis proves difficult.


Hooks, B. 1984. Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression, in C. McCann & S-K. Kim (eds). Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. New York: Routledge. 51-57.

Intersectionality and the Matrix of Domination. 2016. Collin’s Matrix of Domination [Online]. Available: https://rampages.us/sloanesmith/2016/12/06/intersectionality-and-the-matrix-of-domination/ [2018, October 19].

Munro, E. 2013. Feminism: a fourth wave? Political Insight, 4(2):22—25.

Roederer, C., & Moellendorf, D. 2004. Jurisprudence. Cape Town: Juta and Company (Pty) Ltd.

Yuval-Davis, N. 2006. Intersectionality and Feminist Politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3):193–209.

Cover Photo: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/intersectional-feminism-gender-equal-world

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