What is Feminism? Who Gets to Be a Feminist?

WOCMarch2017What is feminism? Who gets to be a feminist? These two questions have been circling my mind for months now, maybe even years. Most recently, two interconnected events challenged me to respond to these questions. The first event was a session at NASPA, a student affairs professional conference, and the second the Women’s March of 2017. The NASPA session I attended was entitled “Digital Feminism: Using Social Media and Intersectional Feminism for Transformative Education and Personal Education.” Whether intentional or not, this session inserted itself into conversations about what feminism consists of and what feminists looks like by implying that feminism is fostered in public spaces like the classroom and worksites. Thus, also insinuating feminists carry a level of educational attainment or exposure to professional training. Additionally, the session asked participants to reflect on  how digital sources influenced their personal perceptions of the Women’s March of 2017, which I consider to be a monumental yet controversial moment in U.S. feminist history.

I, like many other women of color, was skeptical about participating in the March due to its single-dimension approach to oppression. The March appeared to be a cisgender, white women’s march against sexism. And I felt uncomfortable with this feminist approach to oppression because I thought it would require that I leave my race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other identities at the corner as I walk alongside white women and men on the streets of Tucson fighting against sexism. An immigrants rights and feminista leader’s, Laura M. Bohorquez Garcia, public Facebook reflections on the March captured my frustration. She described how the issues of white, cisgender feminism were centered in the march, how men received praise for their participation, and Black women were not honored for their continual acts of resistance to not only sexism but racism and other forms of oppression. To coalesce the contradicting feelings of disappointment and empowerment experienced at the March, Laura writes, “ I am fighting for all womxn even though they are not all fighting for me. I marched for the womxn who put their bodies on the line before me and those that were exhausted of white feminism. This brings me peace” (Bohorquez Garcia, 2017). As I try to make peace with my decision to also march on January 21 of 2017 with “all womxn even though they are [and were] not all fighting for me,” I find myself turning to the scholarship written by women of color.

Women of Color & Intersectional Feminism

Hill Collins (1989), Anzaldúa (2007), Crenshaw (1989), and Delgado Bernal (1998, 2001; Calderón, Pérez Huber, Malagón, & Vélez, 2012) are four of the many revolutionary scholars who have written to life the poetic, harsh, and transformative realities of women of color in feminist struggles. To understand why these women articulate an intersectional approach, it is important to understand the detrimental impact of taking a single-axis analysis of oppression. Crenshaw’s (1989) critique of Critical Race Theory insisted that taking purely a critical race approach to the law would erase the gendered and sexual realities of Black women.  She states the single-axis analysis framework that dominates feminist theory and antiracist politics often erases the experiences of Black women by focusing on the privileged members of the woman identified group and Black identified group. In essence, white women become the center point of feminist inquiry and Black men the focus of antiracist politics. For Black women and women of color at large, one’s gender, sex, and race cannot be disentangled from one another. A women of color walks into every room carrying all of these identities simultaneously. Does her intersectional identities make her not a real feminist? Or does her existence and experience complicated notions of feminism as unidimensional?

Anzaldúa’s book titled Borderlands La Frontera offers a Chicana-centric approach to intersectional feminism by expanding conversations about the U.S.-Mexico border beyond a focus on the material consequences of nation-state boundaries to include dialogues about the symbolic borders straddled by Chicanas. Her work touches on the use of Chicano Spanish language in predominantly white spaces as acts of resistance, need to blur notions of duality embedded in conversations of the oppressed versus the oppressor, and contributions of a Chicana feminist counterstance to all forms of oppression.

Many scholars have applied her work to a range of disciplines to illustrate the versatility of Anzaldúa’s feminist contributions. Within the field of education, Delgado Bernal (1998, 2001) proposes a new methodological and conceptual framework of Chicana feminist epistemology (CFE) that is influenced by Anzaldúa’s work. Delgado Bernal challenges how and who defines what knowledge and truth mean. In particular, Delgado Bernal (1998) and her colleagues Calderón, Pérez Huber, Malagón, and Vélez (2012) illustrates how knowledge and truth formation within the academy need to honor the lived experiences of women of color. CFE is an intimate and vulnerable approach to the development and enactment of the research process because it asserts a place in research and scholarship for Chicanas’ cultural intuition. Cultural intuition is the unique viewpoint that a Chicana brings to the research process. This intuition is grounded in the multiple subjectivities of a Chicana and pulls from her personal experience, professional experience, literature on a topic, and the analytical research process itself (Calderón et al., 2012). The experiences of Chicanas are honored in the CFE framework and seen as essential in the construction of knowledge and truth.

Hill Collins (1998), like Anzaldúa, asserts that the intersections of subordination and resistance that women of color experience are meaningful contributions to the intellectual and material manifestations of feminism. Hill Collins challenges notions of who fits the feminist mold by insisting that the experiential knowledge of Black women provides them with great wisdom that cannot be taught in a classroom or school. When describing the first dimension of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology, she argues that there are two forms of knowing–knowledge and wisdom. Experience is identified as the key element distinguishing knowledge from wisdom. Hill Collins (1989) writes,

The use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them [knowledge and wisdom], has been key to Black women’s survival. In the context of race, gender, and class oppression, the distinction is essential since knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate (p. 759).  

She illustrates that feminism operating from an Afrocentric epistemology is more than an understanding the systemic markers of oppression but also consists of the material impacts of intersectional forms of oppression. Her work problematizes notions that feminism is grounded in the knowledge formation of formally educated women. She asserts that this knowledge formation holds little credibility without the theory being validated by the flesh or experiences of Black women living and resisting oppression in their daily lives.

FeministS and FeminismS in the Flesh

Delgado Bernal’s (1998) Chicana feminists epistemology, Hill Collins’ (1989) Afrocentric feminist epistemology, and the other feminists of color mentioned in this post highlight a critical understanding of feminism that acknowledges the lives of women have been experienced differently by way of their other intersecting identities. In fact, the intercentricity of race and racism in the lives of women of color requires feminisms’ that blur dichotomous notions of identity and assert intersectional analysis and resistance. These feminists provide us multiple examples of feminism in the flesh. Their work and concurrently their acts of resistance show us that there is no one definition of a feminist or feminism. Feminisms are acts of theory in the flesh to destabilize patriarchy, capitalism, and racism. And feminists look like you, Brown and Black women. Feminists look like our mothers who never had the privilege of going to college and caregivers who single-handedly led our household and kissed us goodnight. Feminists are those individuals who are constantly engaging with the two questions proposed at the inception of this piece. And feminists are those who build an intersectional analysis and resistance to patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism and other -isms that dehumanize our bodies, minds, and spirits. While my last couple statements are not intended to provide a prescriptive list of criteria for how you engage your feminism, I write them and this blog as an offering to you. I offer this reflection in hopes that it makes you think critically about your answers to these two questions. Who are the feminists in your lives? And how are they living out their feminism in the flesh?


Anzaldúa, G. (2007). Borderlands, la frontera: The new mestiza (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Bohorquez Garcia, L. M. (2017, January 23). My reflections on the past few days on two things: 1) DACA and 2) Womxns March [Facebook status post, restricted to friends list]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/laura.bohorquezgarcia/posts/10102053549806780

Calderón, D., Delgado Bernal, D., Pérez Huber, L., Malagón, M., & Vélez, V. N. (2012). A Chicana feminist epistemology revisited: Cultivating ideas a generation later. Harvard Educational Review, 82(4), 513–539.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, (1), 1–31.

Delgado Bernal, D. (1998). Using a Chicana feminist epistemology in educational research. Harvard Educational Review, 68(4), 555–579.

Delgado Bernal, D. (2001). Learning and living pedagogies of the home: The mestiza consciousness of Chicana students. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(5), 623–639. http://doi.org/10.1080/09518390110059838

Hill Collins, P. (1989). The social construction of Black feminist thought. Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14(4), 745–773.


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