On Intersectionality, Empathy, and Feminist Solidarity

Peace and Justice Studies 18 (2):14-36 (2008)
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Naomi Zack's Inclusive Feminism: A Third Wave Theory of Women's Commonality (2005) begins with an original reading of the paradigm shift that ended U.S. second wave feminism. According to Zack there has been a crisis in academic and professional feminism since the late 1970s. It grew out of the anxieties about essentialism in the wake of white feminist's realization that our understandings of "sisterhood" and "women" excluded women of color and poor women. This realization eventually lead to the movement's foundational collapse in the early 1980s. Regrettably, for Zack, feminists did not rally to reconstruct the foundations of the movement on more solid inclusive grounds. Instead we abandoned the idea that all women share something in common and for the next three decades allowed questions of difference to frame feminist politics. Zack is deeply troubled by this shift. Feminism's flight from essentialism occurred before the movement had a clear account of how universal advocacy for women's interests might be maintained. Her project in Inclusive Feminism is to explain the motivation behind the shift from commonality to intersectionality, to outline its harmful effects, and to reclaim the idea that all women share something in common (2005, 2). To accomplish this Zack careful retools essentialism in ways that simultaneously acknowledge women's differences and dodge what she perceives to be intersectionality's fragmenting effects. I want to address two facets of Zack's project: her critique of intersectionality and her effort to ground a feminist empathy-based solidarity in women's commonalities. Since Zack does not offer her readers an extensive account of what it means to think and work intersectionality, I begin by outlining the basic premises of the foundational literature. Next, I explore her reasons for rejecting this popular approach by replying to her two strongest claims against intersectionality: (1) that intersectionality complicates the category woman by multiplying genders beyond necessity, and (2) that intersectionality has a segregating effect on feminist political movements. I explain how Zack's thinks her relational essentialism [the FMP category] can effectively resolve intersectionality's fragmenting effects by providing a common foundation for an empathy-based feminist solidarity. I argue that inclusive feminism generates an oversimplified account of empathy and thus fails to engage the tensions among feminist movements that intersectionality makes visible. I conclude that her view requires a more robust epistemology of empathy if political solidarity is to be grounded in the FMP category.



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