White feminism needed a jolt into the reality of the less privileged if it was going to be relevant to most women's lives and the term 'intersectionality' was attributed to American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 although the concept had been around for a while.
Intersectionality is based on intersecting oppressions, most prominently the intersection of sexism and racism in the lives of black women. The concept was originally based on the systemic economic oppression of one group by another (class being the other obvious example) but grew to include further categories of prejudice, such as sexual orientation and ability.
Within liberal feminism, the list of oppressions has since grown to potentially include any factor which puts an individual woman in an advantageous position in regard to any other woman ('thin privilege' for example). Privilege/lack of privilege at a personal level has gradually gained precedence over the structural oppression of women at a group level as the only acceptable angle of feminist discourse.
Any critique based on the oppression of women as a class has become outlawed if applied to situations involving women of a more oppressed group; those with protected status are off-limits: for example when Meghan Murphy applied a critique based on 'objectification of women' to a published photo of black trans actress Laverne Cox posing naked, Murphy was charged with both racism and transphobia, and an attempt was made to silence her.
Two protected groups in particular now dominate liberal feminist discourse: sex workers and trans women, neither of which actually meet the intersectionality criteria. 'Sex worker' is a term which includes brothel /escort agency owners, hardly qualifying as an oppressed group. 'Prostituted women' would work as an intersecting oppression, but this is a term that liberal feminism rejects. A movement which prides itself on inclusion excludes the most vulnerable women: the majority in prostitution, along with trafficked and exited women.
Trans women as a group also fails, as women's oppression does not intersect with being born biologically male and socialised as a man. Subsequent identification as a woman does not change that central fact. Liberal feminism protects the right to self-identification above the right to safe space for (again) the most vulnerable women and girls: those who have experienced male sexual violence for example, who might reasonably feel the need for women-only space.
These two categories are sacrosanct. Any questioning is effectively silenced with the labels 'whorephobic' or 'transphobic;' trans issues may be discussed only from a position of 'cis privilege' and the voices of a minority of individual sex workers override any structural criticism of the sex industry.
For an overall picture of priorities in feminism today I did a quick analysis of 109 articles published in the online blog Everyday Feminism during a six week period from April 1st. Intersectional categories came out at Race: 26 articles; Class: 2; Lesbians get a paltry 1 article; Bi-sexual, Queer, Asexual and Intersex get 9 between them and Transgender gets a whole 15 posts to itself.
General categories include Violence at 10 posts, only 2 posts on Work, Parenting at 6; Sex: 9; Love: 6; Self-worth: 7 and Body: 18.
The difference in the balance and content of these articles is striking: articles on race examine and reference political campaigns, struggles and demonstrations in the public arena and are focused on action for change. Articles on trans people focus on their rights and include lists of rules for non-trans people. The articles for women, in contrast, are overwhelmingly focused on individual issues and personal change and transformation.
In case the message isn't clear, Everyday Feminism provides readers with a helpful pop-up advertisment for their 'Self Love course' which will enable you to 'free yourself from toxic self-talk and give yourself the love you deserve.' Women heal yourselves!
All women are disempowered and disenfranchised in this world, encouraged on the one hand to continually check privilege to avoid offending another group, and on the other, to view low self-worth as a matter of individual responsibility rather than as an issue of systemic oppression.
In liberal feminism, the oppression of women has become only a relative disadvantage amongst an increasing number of disadvantageous positions in society, and it is the one aspect of oppression which is minimised in relation to others. In reality, within any distinct group, whether advantaged or marginalised, men have power over women. Being female is the oppression that overrides all others and in failing to recognise that, we lose our common connection across all groups of women. The very issue that binds us together in understanding, solidarity and support has been lost: when women are not central to feminism we are disempowered as a class and the position of all women is weakened.