13 May 2017

Why (and How) Real Intersectional Feminism Must Challenge the Overton Window

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Is intersectional feminism just white feminism dressed up in intersectional appearances and vocabulary?

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The recent rise of intersectional feminism is indeed encouraging, both from a whole of humanity perspective and from a personal perspective, as an Asian woman. But there are a few questions I must ask. Firstly, is intersectional feminism as practiced right now truly intersectional enough? Secondly, why wasn’t feminism intersectional from the beginning? Thirdly, will feminism continue to be more and more intersectional with time, or is it all just a passing fad?

I have been thinking about these questions. And I realized that they all have a common theme: the Overton Window.

Let’s begin with the second question, because that would lead us straight to the concept of the Overton Window. Why wasn’t feminism intersectional from the beginning? Minority and queer women and their stories have always been there, after all. It was just that, well, the mainstream didn’t pay attention. Sometimes it was just casual racism and dismissal. Other times the exclusion was more intentional and malignant: the historical transphobia of second wave feminism was a good example. Either way, the views and voices of minority and queer women were considered either fringe and unimportant (in most cases) or even unacceptable (especially in the case of trans voices), and shoved out of the way of mainstream attention. It should also be noted that, just twenty or so years ago, it was very difficult for the average white, straight and cis feminist to even be aware that these other voices even existed.

Which brings me onto the concept of the Overton Window.

The Overton Window refers to the ‘window’ which contains the ideas a particular society believes to be relevant and fit for mainstream consumption and discussion. Outside the Overton Window are ideas that are considered fringe or even dangerous, and should be excluded from mainstream discussion. Policing of the Overton Window is done collectively, and often unconsciously. Also, over time, the area covered by the Overton Window can change: for example, marriage equality was firmly outside the mainstream West’s Overton Window just thirty years ago, yet it is firmly within the Overton Window nowadays.

In the feminist world, the arrival of intersectional feminism means that minority and queer voices have finally arrived in the Overton Window of feminism. It may have taken more than 100 years, but the Overton Window has finally included at least some of these voices. This means that, for the first time, those who only pay attention to mainstream feminism have become aware of the diversity of women’s concerns, lived experiences, and the ideas that they have inspired. This, in and of itself, is something that should be celebrated. However, while 100 years late is still better than never, it really isn’t ideal. If not for the limitations of the Overton Window, these voices would have been part of our collective feminist discussion and awareness right from the very beginning.

Moreover, a progressive view of the human condition dictates that, whatever perspective about the world we have now, and however much it is an improvement over previous perspectives, there is still plenty of imperfection and room for improvement. Thus, the current Overton Window is a limitation on our possible consciousness, just like the Overton Window of thirty years ago, even if the current Overton Window is somewhat wider and sits to the left of the old one, and thus allows more voices and perspectives to be heard. If we had no Overton Window at all, all voices and perspectives would be able to be heard simultaneously, right now. If the Overton Window could be smashed today, awareness that would have otherwise waited for another century to come could arrive this year. Therefore, a real intersectional feminism must challenge and attempt to smash the Overton Window.

But how can the Overton Window be challenged, and eventually smashed?

Let’s look at this from another angle. In a society without an Overton Window, all voices and views would be deemed equally valid and acceptable, as long as they come from a sincere position. Therefore, if we want to bring about such a society, we have to first move to adopt that perspective ourselves. We need to stop labelling views as moderate or extreme, mainstream or fringe, or even Left or Right. Each person’s lived experience gives them a way of seeing things, and as long as their concerns and ideas are sincere and not bigoted, there shouldn’t be anything preventing their voice being part of our collective conscience.

Some people may say that intersectional feminism, as it is currently practiced, already adopts the aforementioned worldview, through the prioritization of minority voices and the dedication to listening to these voices in an open-minded way. But unfortunately, as it is currently practiced, intersectional feminism does not always live up to this ideal. Which leads us back to our first question. Is intersectional feminism as practiced right now truly intersectional enough? Or is it, at least sometimes, just white, straight and cis feminism dressed up in intersectional appearances and vocabulary?

I know that this is going to be uncomfortable, but someone has to say it.

While ethnic and queer voices have indeed received prominence, as an Asian woman I have found that the kind of minority voices that have been given prominence are those that the predominantly white feminist establishment have found acceptable. In other words, even while practising intersectional feminism, these establishment gatekeepers are using aspects of the current feminist Overton Window to judge the acceptability of minority narratives.

Being from a different cultural background often means that there are plenty of differences in views, due to a difference in lived experience. For example, many ethnic minority women are quite religious. I know for a fact that many religious minority women find that mainstream feminism is sometimes not respectful of their religious beliefs, and this has also become a barrier for these women to participate in feminism. Many ethnic minority women also value family life and family ties quite a lot more than the average white woman. Again, this does not always sit comfortably with mainstream white feminism and its emphasis on women’s economic independence. I am telling you all this from the perspectives of women I personally know. Yet these voices have been dismissed by the gatekeepers of mainstream feminism, because they contain ideas and perspectives that do not fit in feminism’s current Overton Window.

I know that mainstream feminists are perhaps scared that ethnic women’s religious views may challenge the movement’s commitment to pro-choice politics, or that the family relationships angle may challenge the narrative of economic empowerment. But this still sounds like one of the favorite arguments of trans-exclusionary feminists: that the inclusion of trans women would somehow threaten the movement’s commitment to pursuing equality for cis-women. In reality, the world is not as black and white or limited as these arguments imply. Just as feminism can be broad enough for the concerns of both cis-women and trans-women, I’m sure feminism can be broad enough for those who want to be a high-powered career woman, a stay-at-home mom, or anything in between. I’m also sure that the feminist movement can stay politically pro-choice while acknowledging every woman can have her own religious beliefs and practices, as long as they don’t demand that others abide by it too.

I will leave you with this thought: the Overton Window is often unchallenged because the familiar feels more comfortable than the unfamiliar. It is also easier to just live within the Overton Window, as to challenge it requires an active, conscious effort. But the Overton Window will always exclude the voices and lived experience of some. Is this something we can accept, in intersectional feminism?

p.s. I think the answer to the third question will ultimately depend on if there is a real effort to smash the Overton Window. So-called intersectional feminism that still maintains an Overton Window controlled by the white, straight and cis establishment is not sustainable in the long run.