As a double major in strategic communication and political science, much of what I have concentrated on throughout my college career has been domestic policy, political media, and public opinion. This has led me to mostly take a social science approach to my research and work, but I wanted to push myself to explore a humanistic approach to better understand what philosophies underlie our public discourse and as a way to grow in allyship.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was one of the first pieces of feminist philosophy pieces I was introduced to, as is the case for many students. After re-reading it with more of an intersectional approach in mind, I was taken aback by its lack of inclusivity and Wollstonecraft’s diminishing of lower class and black women. One of my favorite feminist philosophers is Gloria Anzaldúa, who identified as lesbian and came from a lower class family as a daughter of Mexican immigrants living on the US-Mexico border. I specifically examined Anzaldúa’s most notable work, Borderlands/La Frontera and compared these philosophies to Wollstonecraft’s.
Both Wollstonecraft and Anzaldúa give women who are not commonly represented a means to gain representation. Wollstonecraft provided a baseline for other feminist philosophers, as she rebelled against societal expectations and defended that the woman’s ability to reason was equivalent to that of man. Even so, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman does not treat all women as equal. I will talk about the limitations that came with these perspectives in a bit, but what jarred me most about Wollstonecraft is that she explicitly demeans women who do not come from the same background as her. Her remarks are classist, as she believes that grouping women of the middle and upper classes with those of the lower class taints and affects the modesty of more privileged women. This emphasizes her close-mindedness, forgetting that the only hope for lower class women of moving up in class is through marrying a wealthier man. Likewise, Wollstonecraft makes racially offensive comments that label the oppression of slavery as insignificant. In Wollstonecraft’s feminism, only women who look and live like her are worthy of equality.
Anzaldúa approaches feminism with an intersectional lens in which all women, despite their overlapping oppressions, are granted inclusion and solace through the mestiza consciousness. She relates that everyone should be responsible for propelling the rights of all women forward, for “feminism” that does not do this cannot be defined as feminism. This is where these philosophies differ most. Wollstonecraft accepted convention when Anzaldúa used it as a tool for inclusivity. The crux of Anzaldúa’s approach centers on this mestiza consciousness that converges identities and has a tolerance for ambiguity. She calls for the abandonment of dualistic thinking as a way to create and reinterpret intersectional identities. Allyship is the responsibility of both the oppressed and the powerful. She claims that an individual with an intersectional identity should serve as the mediator to the ally, talking about the known history and brutishness of white oppression. The ally should not promote their own voice but instead amplify the voices of the marginalized through listening and learning. Anzaldúa’s inclusive theory illustrates that intersectionality can be accessible even when polarizing differences are present.
The largest challenge I faced was considering the standards of the times in which these philosophers were products of. Wollstonecraft’s claims are notably radical when recalling that the modern feminist movement did not gain traction in the United States until the mid-1800s, nearly a century after A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published. Similarly, Anzaldúa also had to bear the historical context she lived in, contrasting from what Wollstonecraft faced in 1700s Europe. With women now having the right to vote in the United States, feminism became a more popularized concept. It would be naive of me to completely discredit the battles she fought.
When Borderlands/La Frontera was released in 1987, Anzaldúa’s work came at a period in which second-wave feminism, centered on reproductive, workplace, and family rights, was transitioning into third-wave feminism, emphasizing diversity. Anzaldúa did not have to worry about making respect for women and their basic rights the focal point of her writing, given the circumstances of her time. Since Anzaldúa did not shy away from intersectionality even when it was not favored, I question Wollstonecraft’s tactics. If she fundamentally brought the concept of feminism to light, could she not have gone further to make her definition of feminism inclusive? I am not sure if we will ever know the answer to that question.