The Metaphysics of Intersectionality Revisited
by Holly Lawford-Smith and Kate Phelan
In this episode, Holly Lawford-Smith reads her academic paper, The Metaphysics of Intersectionality Revisited, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy. Lawford-Smith co-authored the paper with Kate Phelan, a lecturer of philosophy at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
Holly Lawford-Smith is an Associate Professor in Political Philosophy in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She works in social, moral, and political philosophy, with a particular interest in feminism, climate ethics, and collective action. Most of her current research is centered on the conflict of interests between gender identity activism, on the one hand, and both women’s rights, and lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) rights, on the other hand.
In February 2021, she launched a website, www.noconflicttheysaid.org, that invites women to contribute anonymous stories “about the impacts on women of men using women-only spaces”. For her views on the significance of biological sex in women’s experiences of oppression, Lawford-Smith has been the target of transactivists’ ire, with students and staff at the University of Melbourne staging a protest against her. In addition, an open letter denouncing Lawford-Smith as “inciting hatred” was circulated last year and received nearly 3000 signatures, with the endorsement of over 170 academics and professors.
In May, she published her debut book titled Gender-Critical Feminism, which analyzes the new view of gender that has emerged in recent years an ‘identity’, a way that people feel about themselves in terms of masculinity or femininity, regardless of their sex.
According to Lawford-Smith, women are socialized to conform to norms of femininity (and sanctioned for failure), and masculinity and femininity exist in a hierarchy in which femininity is devalued. This view, she argues, helps us to understand injustice against women, and what we can do about it.
Leading up to her book’s publication, members of the Oxford University Press USA Guild launched a petition calling for its cancellation. The Guild’s petition claims that publication of the book will “embolden and legitimize the views of transphobes and contribute to the harm that is perpetrated against the trans community globally.”
In response to the petition, David Clark, Managing Director of Academic Publications for Oxford University Press, issued a letter defending the book, and stated, “We are confident that Gender-Critical Feminism offers a serious and rigorous academic representation of this school of feminist thought. We will continue to represent a wide range of feminist philosophy in our publishing.”
In this paper, The Metaphysics of Intersectionality Revisited, Lawford-Smith articulates some of the ways that intersectionality is being interpreted to the detriment of the women’s movement, and attempts to clarify the history behind the concept.
“The insights of early black feminists on this topic were original, imaginative, and important, and they pointed to an urgent gap in social justice-oriented theory and politics,” say Lawford-Smith and Phelan.
“Here we are not questioning their significance, but rather the way the concept of intersectionality has been taken up in contemporary mainstream feminism, both inside and outside the academy. The idea of ‘intersectionality’ has assumed enormous cultural importance, but is variously deployed in ways that seem far from what its originators had in mind.”
“For example, the @UN_Women Twitter account (the account of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or UN Women for short) has tweeted a definition of feminist as ‘a person who believes in & stands up for the political, economic, and social equality of human beings’. Human beings. Not ‘women’.”
Ultimately, Lawford-Smith and Phelan conclude that “there is no reason for feminism to take up oppression on the basis of other features of identity as its cause. It would be perfectly consistent for feminism to be about sex and sex-related oppression.”
In sum, feminism ought to center women and girls, and should do so on the basis of sex.