Commentary Race

Learning Intersectionality: A Process

Erin McKelle

Although the reproductive rights movement and the broader feminist movement have become increasingly intersectional, there is still much work to be done in centering the issues faced by women who are not white, economically advantaged, heterosexual, and cisgender.

Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.

I started blogging about reproductive rights issues during high school, and a lot of the feedback I received from editors and feminist peers was based around a lack of inclusivity. At first, I felt defensive, as most people do when they get called out. But as I thought more critically about my writing, I realized that the knowledge and sources I was pulling from weren’t intersectional.

The books I was reading, the research I was doing, and the people I was quoting on reproductive rights relied on assumptions that reproductive health-care issues affected women in more or less similar ways. There weren’t nearly enough distinctions made between women with privilege on the basis of race, class, and ability, among other things, and women without some or all of those privileges.

Intersectionality is a term used to signify the acknowledgement and critical analysis of the multiple systems of oppression and privilege involved in identity. So, for instance, a woman of color’s experiences of oppression differ markedly from that of white women, as they deal with both racism and sexism; and it must be further acknowledged that each of those women face other interlocking systems of oppression and privilege, including but not limited to sexuality and gender identity.

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Although the reproductive rights movement and the broader feminist movement have become increasingly intersectional since the late ’80s, when the term was introduced into the public discourse with help from Kimberlé Crenshaw, there is still much work to be done in centering the issues faced by women who are not white, economically advantaged, heterosexual, and cisgender (which means that you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth).

The trans* community (those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) especially needs more inclusion in these conversations. Likewise, including more intersectional analysis for women with disabilities, LGB women, and the intersex community is equally important.

When people are omitted from conversations about reproductive rights and justice, there’s not a picture of the full extent of oppression in our society. These omissions are often supported by a strategic history of disinclusion. For example, prominent second-wave feminists displayed open antipathy toward transgender individuals. Gloria Steinem famously pointed to Renee Richards, a transgender woman athlete, as “a frightening instance of what feminism could lead to” in 1977 (although in more recent times, she’s apologized for comments like this). Another example would be Annalee Newitz’s “Gender Slumming,” a popular essay that seeks to invalidate transgender identities by questioning their status as a minority. This was all on the heels of TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), or feminists who do not support the inclusion of trans identities into feminism or society. TERFS have been active in promoting transphobia, one example being how they worked to curb health-care access for transgender folks in the 1980s.

Old habits can die hard.

In terms of the health care aspect of reproductive rights, it’s important that providers not base their practice in assumptions about gender and sexuality. Too much of our language around sex, biology, and reproduction relies on an assumption of cisgender and heterosexual identity. Every time I go to my general practitioner (or even to a clinic to get some medicine for a pesky sinus infection) I’m asked if I use contraception and/or condoms when I have sex. What if I’m having sex with another woman, or what if I’m intersex or a trans woman? How does that fit into the tiny box of “normalcy” that’s been created by our society? Because I have cis and heterosexual privilege (not so much because I identify as heterosexual, but more because my sexual behaviors are generally heterosexual), these questions are easy for me to answer and don’t cause me to have to out myself or risk not being treated because of my identity. If I didn’t have this privilege, I know I wouldn’t feel like I was in control of my reproductive health care.

Another important intersection that needs to be pioneered is physical access to facilities. Poor women, who are  disproportionately women of color, face some of the biggest obstacles in practicing their right to choose, since choice in this country comes with a big price tag. Ninety-five percent of counties in the United States that have shown patterns of persistent poverty exist in rural areas. This includes Athens County, Ohio, where I attend college—it is one of the poorest counties in Ohio. This, combined with the fact that living in rural areas means you are probably further away from an abortion provider, puts rural dwellers seeking pregnancy termination services in a double bind. Eighty-two percent of counties in the United States don’t have abortion services, and a study from the Guttmacher Institute found that 74 percent of the women in rural areas who had abortions had to travel more than 50 miles to get to their nearest clinic. Clearly, more work needs to be done in terms of access.

Living in a rural college town has taught me that the act of choosing is often only really an option for the privileged; your right to choose often comes down to how many dollars are in your bank account. As a result, those who have low incomes are often the ones who shoulder the burden of restrictive, anti-choice policies.

The high costs that come with pregnancy termination services in this country, for example, don’t allow everyone to have the same opportunity to choose. The average first-trimester abortion costs $470 (which doesn’t account for traveling fees associated with mandatory waiting periods or other unnecessary abortion restrictions that make it exorbitantly more expensive for women to get an abortion), which if you are living in poverty or have a low income can be a price you cannot afford to pay. I know many women living in Athens wouldn’t be able to afford an abortion on their own, considering not just the direct costs, but also the indirect ones.

If you receive Medicaid benefits, you often cannot get any coverage for an abortion, as it is illegal for federal funds to be used for this purpose under the Hyde Amendment. The only way to receive funding as a Medicaid recipient is through your state—each state has different laws about how their state Medicaid dollars can be used. One in four women who qualifies for Medicaid, however, cannot afford to pay for an abortion and must carry her pregnancy to term.

What all this means is that we need to think bigger, and insist others do the same.

When conversations around reproductive health care have an assumed audience (white women with class privilege), many voices get left out. Feminists with privilege have to collaborate with those of marginalized identities in their various communities to create a more intersectional movement. It’s not about creating a token seat at the table for marginalized women—that is, women with other marginalized identities—but rather about having those seats be open for them to sit on.

Beyond just a seat at the table, though, bringing in intersectionality means that all of our perspectives will be broadened, no matter our identity, since there will not be one assumed point of view that speaks for all. When we break down the ways in which hierarchies of privilege recreate themselves, even in feminist spaces, we can stop reinforcing the hierarchy altogether. We can push beyond needing inclusion or representation, because our movement will be filled with it. We won’t need to work with models that are based in patriarchal constructs, because we will be smashing the patriarchy by letting those whose voices are most silenced be heard.

Just as I am learning to be more intersectional—it’s a process, not an overnight transition—others probably are too. I invite you to follow me in challenging your thinking about identity and privilege and learn how you can become an ally to marginalized voices.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

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“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”