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Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month! Yep, it is March already. A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world. Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”
Comprehensive Gender Equality
Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender. By no means have we achieved gender equality. And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.
Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.” In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex. This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.
There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality. First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group. The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked. Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general. Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.
There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.
Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability. It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women. Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism. Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.
Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.” Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen. Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).
Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions. In reality, there is no universal femininity. Rather, there are multiple femininities. Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed. This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.
Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased. “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin. There is no singular status or identity of woman. As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.
In Defense Of Femininities
Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued. In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity. Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men. You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.
My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field. Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.
Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self. On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!” I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!” (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)
These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level. In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home. Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded. Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.
As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression. As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.
For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity. Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued. Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat. As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves. (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”) True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.
It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future. Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women. We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class. And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities. For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.
To my surprise, I came across an article posted on Huffington Post yesterday that mentions “double jeopardy” — here, in the academic sense. The article reviews a study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that leaders of unsuccessful companies in a fictitious news story were more harshly criticized when they were Black women. That is, Black women faced more penalties (in this case, criticism) than Black men, white women, and white men:
In a study conducted by Rosette and Livingston, 228 participants read fictitious news articles about a company’s performance, including permutations in which the leader was black or white, male or female and successful or unsuccessful. What they found was that black women who failed were viewed more critically than their underperforming white or male counterparts — even those of the same race.
What Is “Double Jeopardy”?
I say, “to my surprise,” because a quick search for “double jeopardy” on Google yields site after site about the movie, Double Jeopardy, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd; a search on Wikipedia also yields a page about the film, as well as a few pages about the legal concept of double jeopardy. Ironically, the legal meaning of double jeopardy, in which a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, somewhat counters the academic meaning of the term. In this sense, double jeopardy refers to the additional barriers and burdens faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses (e.g., Black women) compared to their singly disadvantaged (e.g., white women and Black men) and privileged counterparts (e.g., white men).
As early as the late 1960s, the term double jeopardy came into use to highlight the unique experiences of Black women, particularly their simultaneous exposure to racism and sexism (and classism). As the second wave feminist movement made progress through the 1960s and 1970s for women’s rights, calls from Black, Chicana, and multicultural feminists, lesbian feminists, and other women who faced other forms of oppression other than sexism to attend to the diverse needs and experiences among women grew louder. Various feminist activists and scholars worked intensely to draw attention to the fact that the category of “woman” and all of its associated experiences and obstacles is not universal; many advocated for a perspective that considers the intersections among sexism, racism, and classism.
Double Jeopardy Versus Intersectionality
Over time, awareness of the full array of systems of oppression that operate simultaneously has evolved to include heterosexism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, xenophobia, and so forth. Obviously, one can be disadvantaged in multiple ways or face “multiple jeopardy,” for example, as a lesbian, woman, Latina, and working-class person. In fact, in my own research, I have found just that: among 15-25 year olds, the more disadvantaged statuses an adolescent or young adult holds (among race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class), the more forms of discrimination one faces (e.g., race and gender and sexual orientation discrimination). And, as a result, these multiply disadvantaged individuals face double or multiple jeopardy in mental and physical health; that is, partially because of their disproportionate exposure to discrimination, they face even more depressive symptoms and worse physical health than more privileged youth.
While the notion of multiple jeopardies — almost easily counted based on the number of disadvantaged statuses one holds — is still used in some research, especially in sociological work on health, it has fallen out of favor among scholars who study the intersections among race, gender, and class. This is, in part, because the idea of adding up one’s statuses, essentially adding one’s exposure to sexism to one’s exposure to racism and so on, misses the ways in which these identities and systems of oppression intersect. Or, said another way, racism + sexism + classism misses how one experiences the world as a working-class Black woman, an experience that is not merely the sum of working-class experiences + Black experiences + woman experiences. These systems of oppression intersect and mutually reinforce one another in such a way, for example, that homophobic policies like the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy harm Black women more than any other group.
Should We Do Away With Double Jeopardy?
Well, if we meant the literal experience of multiple systems of oppression — yes, we should do away with it. But, what I mean here is, if it seems the notion of “double jeopardy” misses the ways in which systems of oppression intersect, should we stop using it in the way that we understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals? Having used the concept in past and current research, it might seem I have a vested interest in calling for the continued use of the concept.
Like any good researcher, I would say the appropriateness, relevance, and usefulness of the concept depends on your research question. In health research, documenting whether multiply disadvantaged groups are at elevated risk for illness and disease necessarily calls for a comparison with singly disadvantaged and privileged groups. For example, lesbian and bisexual women’s elevated risk for obesity is identified by comparing them to heterosexual women, gay and bisexual men, and heterosexual men. But, what causes that elevated risk — factors brought on or exacerbated by sexism and heterosexism — can be said to be evidence of double jeopardy (sexism + heterosexism) and intersectionality (the intersection of sexism and heterosexism).
As such, in general, I would recommend that we need both perspectives — multiple jeopardy and intersectionality — to fully understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals and their more privileged counterparts. Even if you use only one of these two perspectives, you are contributing to what little we know about the lives and experiences of, and challenges faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses.
Over thirty years ago, Black feminist scholars and activists began emphasizing the importance of recognizing every identity and status of which each individual is comprised. We are not merely a particular gender, nor race, nor class. In fact, the crux of the perspective known as intersectionality is that we must account for the intersecting nature of our identities and statuses. For example, a full understanding of the lives of Black women cannot come from considering their lives as Black people only, as women only, nor as the sum of these two sets of experiences.
Fortunately, sociologists like myself are beginning to recognize that it is crucial to examine intersectionality in our research. But, it seems one key component of the theoretical framework of intersectionality is often overlooked. Black feminist scholars, like Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw, called not only to examine the intersections among race, gender, class, and sexual identity, but, more importantly, to focus on the intersecting and mutually reinforcing relationships among systems of oppression: racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity.
In my own research on the health consequences of discrimination, I have noticed that almost every one of the hundreds of studies on discrimination and health focus exclusively on one form of discrimination – especially racial discrimination. There is solid evidence demonstrating that one’s experiences with discrimination are consequential for one’s mental and physical health; however, these studies have not examined whether the relationship between discrimination and health depends upon the number of forms of discrimination individuals experience. Could it be the case that individuals who face sexist and racist discrimination fare worse in terms of health than those who experience sexist discrimination or racist discrimination only?
In a study I published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, I find that the answer is yes, at least among youth. Using a sample of 1,052 Black, Latina/o, and white youth aged 15-25 from the Black Youth Culture Survey of the Black Youth Project, I found five important patterns.
- First, disadvantaged youth report more frequent exposure to their status-specific form of discrimination. Black and Latina/o youth report more frequent race discrimination than white youth. Girls and young women report more frequent gender discrimination than boys and young men. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth report more frequent sexual orientation discrimination than heterosexual youth. And, youth whose families have been on welfare or state assistance report more class discrimination than youth from wealthier families.
- Generally, more frequent exposure to each form of discrimination is associated with worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms in the past month.
- Multiply disadvantaged youth (e.g., Black working-class boys, Latina lesbian and bisexual girls) report facing more forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination overall (i.e., the sum of the frequency of exposure to the four forms of discrimination).
- Youth who face multiple forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination report worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms than youth who face fewer forms and less frequent discrimination.
- Multiply disadvantaged youth experience worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms compared to their more privileged counterparts. This is due, in part, to their disproportionate exposure to multiple forms of and chronic discrimination. That is, exposure to multiple forms of discrimination contributes to these documented health disparities.
These findings reiterate the importance of examining the intersections among systems of oppression. In the case of this article, only examining racial discrimination or gender discrimination, for example, would miss that youth who are disadvantaged in more than one way face the greatest amount of discrimination. Unfortunately, scholarship and popular discussions of racism, or sexism, or homophobia in isolation from other forms of oppression continue to gloss over the experiences of individuals whose lives are constrained by multiple systems of oppression.