‘Feminism was never meant to be a dictatorship’

‘Feminism was never meant to be a dictatorship’: A discussion of intersectionality as an ethical orientation amongst feminist activists in London

Elspeth Wilson


This article contributes to the emerging understanding of how intersectionality operates as an ethic and ideal amongst feminist activists. Intersectionality as a theory dates back to the 1980s, and I explore how it informs the praxis of activists in 21st century UK, mainly London. It emerges as a source of conflict and ideological cleavage between younger and older feminists; a difference that can be situated in the historical exclusion of women of colour and queer women. Ultimately, the most notable finding is the unusual pedagogy of intersectionality and the lack of pedagogical tools for those wishing to learn more about it. This article suggests that intersectionality has some elitist aspects, and questions how it will expand as an ethic when there is no teaching relationship.

‘Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse’ (Sullivan, 2017).  One could be forgiven for thinking that this author is describing a kind of mind-controlling cult, rather than a feminist theory formulated to provide insight into the mutually constituted oppressions faced by black women, and many others. However, this was not the first time – nor I imagine will it be the last – that I have heard intersectionality described in such terms. While attending a political discussion group a few months earlier, I heard intersectionality described as being ‘like a religion’ by a speaker debating the motion: ‘This house has lost faith in generation snowflake.’ There was a genuine fear that the ‘minority who shout the loudest’ could threaten freedom of speech with their championing of ‘safe spaces’ (online or physical spaces that are open only to a certain group of people based on identity and/or viewpoint) and ‘trigger/content warnings’ (notations on online posts indicating content that could potentially be distressing or ‘triggering’).

Yet, intersectionality is not only a point of contention between the left and the right, but also within the feminist movement itself. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the celebrated author and feminist, was recently criticised for making comments about trans women that were perceived by intersectional feminists as questioning trans experiences of womanhood (O’Hagan, 2017). Her suggestion that trans womanhood and cisgender womanhood are different lived experiences was seen as a failure of intersectionality, although she clarified that she ‘of course’ sees trans women as real women (Smith, 2017). Adichie responded by criticising the ‘language orthodoxy’ of the left, describing intersectionality as an academic term that it is hard to engage with (O’Hagan, 2017). This incident, involving a black woman who practises intersectional feminism in many other ways, exposed the fault-lines within feminism to a much wider audience than usual and illustrated antagonisms within the movement. As will be discussed, intersectional feminism is a movement that remains niche and somewhat inaccessible; therefore, the coverage this incident garnered is an interesting example of mass exposure.

The term intersectionality was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989, p. 139) to counter the ‘tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis’. Crenshaw et al. (2013, p. 307) note that ‘prototypical subjects of antidiscrimination protection were Black men (with respect to racism) and White women (with respect to sexism)’. Intersectionality posits that individuals do not experience oppressions as discrete but rather as constructed together: black women, for instance, experience racialised sexism and sexualised racism, sometimes termed ‘misogynoir’ (Bailey, 2010).

Crenshaw lent theoretical weight to a sentiment that had been voiced for some time by many women of colour. The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977), written by a Bostonian group of queer black women, outlined the multiple oppressions black women face: ‘We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism’. The issue of exclusive, classist ‘white feminism’ was simultaneously felt in Britain as Green’s (1997) discussion of lesbian feminists in London during the 1980s indicates. Anthropology was not immune to problematically viewing aspects of identity like race, class and gender as distinct, with Moore (1988, p. 190) arguing:

… gender as difference is privileged over all other forms of difference. Other forms of difference, such as race, may be acknowledged, but if they are they tend to be treated as additive, as variations on a basic theme. To be black and be a woman becomes to be a woman and to be black. Black feminists make the point that the issue of race is not additive, that the experience of race transforms the experience of gender, and that it brings into question any feminist approach which suggests that women should be treated as women first, and only after that as women differentiated by race, culture, history and so on.

The need for intersectionality arose partly from problems with what has been termed ‘white feminism’, which at best focused solely on gender and ignored other oppressions and at worst was explicitly racist. The Combahee River Collective (1977) lamented: ‘As Black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism’. The theory has had a significant impact in academic disciplines and in the language and practice of feminist activists internationally, including in London, where my fieldwork mainly took place. My interlocutors who advocated intersectionality repeatedly criticised ‘white feminism’ – a problem that they saw as very much alive and well – as well as feminists whom they saw as failing at intersectionality. This raised the question of how feminist activists in London operate with large ideological cleavages within the movement and the differing value systems that inform different strands of feminism.

 My research took place in 2016 with both feminists who described themselves as striving for intersectionality and those who did not – indeed, many criticised certain aspects of intersectionality, particularly its inclusive stance towards sex work and trans women. I conducted participant observation with a feminist group for older women, a ‘fourth-wave’ feminist group and a solidarity group campaigning for abortion rights in Ireland. I also visited the Feminist Library. I interviewed numerous activists whom I met through events, and others to whom I was introduced by my contacts. Most of the activists with whom I spent time were London-based, although I conducted three in-depth interviews in Scotland as, until recently, I was involved in the feminist community in Edinburgh. Having some geographical breadth revealed the broader networks within which London-based activists are embedded as I discovered similar hopes and concerns amongst their Scottish counterparts.

This article considers the nature of intersectionality as an ethical project. I take positionality as an ethnographic concern on the part of my interlocutors as well as a methodological one on my own part. I later consider positionality analytically, problematising both it and the contrasting ethic of detachment. Considering a kind of feminism based on a difference of identity but not opinion links to an exploration of the ways in which intersectionality is an ethical orientation – albeit a pedagogically unusual one. I argue that, ethically speaking, intersectionality is uncommon in that there is a distinct lack of pedagogical tools for the uninitiated, thus complicating the view that it is ‘like a religion’ because, unlike more traditional ethical stances, it can often be structurally inaccessible to the uninitiated (Sullivan, 2017).


Discussions of positionality in anthropology centre around the anthropologist’s place in the field and beyond and what effects this has on how they describe their ethnographic material (Watson, 1999). As Watson (1999, p. 4) notes, ‘we use ourselves and our own personal experience as primary research tools’. This recognition has recently produced much self-reflection, leading to accusations of self-indulgence and opaqueness (Lindholm, 1997). However, discussions of positionality are an unavoidable ethnographic aspect of my area of study. Positionality relates to intersectionality and to feminist activism more generally because of the debates that have arisen out of the shift away from an emphasis on the sameness of women towards a focus on their differences. Intersectional activists foreground the position of the subject through ideas of privilege and oppression, believing that the world is experienced differently depending on one’s identity. Ideological cleavages are accentuated, particularly regarding sex work and the inclusion of trans women, often playing out between generations. Highlighting the differences between women has heightened a situation in which activists make demands on themselves and others about what kind of feminist they are, meaning that positionality became at once an ethnographic and an analytical concern in my fieldwork.

On a sunny July afternoon, I attended the monthly meeting of Sage[1], an activist group for self-described ‘older feminists’, where the topic of discussion was pornography. As this was one of the first events I attended, I was (naïvely) keen to try and remain as ‘neutral’ as possible and to perform my role as an ethnographer ‘properly’ – a concern that became a key focus in my research. I had been in touch to gain permission to attend as a younger woman and to let them know about my intended research topic, yet it was clear as soon as I arrived that any attempt to remain a ‘step back’ would present challenges.

Having arrived early, I sat on a bench in the outside area and was accosted immediately by a confident woman who introduced herself as Maria, a ‘Marxist from Islington’ and was keen to know ‘what kind of feminist’ I was. She questioned me about my views, particularly on transgender women – although she used the word ‘transsexuals’ – and wanted to know more about my research, astutely identifying herself, rather than just feminism as a concept, as the object of study.[2] Upon hearing that I was interested in solidarity and conflict, she asked if I had interviewed ‘Germaine’, referring to Germaine Greer, the famous ‘second-wave’ feminist who has angered many other feminists by refusing to accept trans women as women. Greer had been at the centre of a ‘no-platforming’ controversy at the Cambridge Union, where the university’s Women’s and LGBT+ Campaigns wanted her invitation revoked because of her contentious views, and she represented a symbolic touchstone in the ideological cleavages I wanted to explore (Morgan, 2015). For some, she was a heroine who had devoted her life to helping ‘biological’ women whilst to many others she represented all the negative aspects and closed-mindedness of 20th century feminism. Maria informed me that her daughter was involved in activism too, with a spiritual, feminist organisation named ‘Scarlet Tide’, which she implied also did not see trans women as women – a claim I found interesting, given that most of the younger women I encountered welcome women to the movement regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth.

When more women had arrived – about twelve in total, ranging from their 50s to 94 – we moved inside to a slightly stuffy room with chairs in a circle. Like everyone else, I paid £5 to contribute to the venue, inducting me into the group as a contributing participant. The meeting lasted all day, with an ‘outside’ speaker, Clara, occupying the morning by giving a talk on internet pornography and its harmful effects. During her talk, the revulsion at the topic became palpable, with several attendees threatening to leave if Clara continued to read graphic extracts from Gail Dines’ (2010) controversial book Pornland. As online pornography is a relatively recent phenomenon, the women were keen to hear a younger person’s point of view – how had porn affected my life, were the statistics true, did prepubescent children really get exposed to hard-core sex scenes? Melted into the background I had not and it became clear to me that my ethnography of activism would see activists demand that I situate myself within the ethnography. Earlier notions of ‘neutrality’ suddenly seemed problematic – although, upon reflection, they would point me towards a deeper consideration of why positionality and detachment were of such central concern to my interlocutors.

Positionality was also foregrounded by those who proudly professed their commitment to intersectionality as I found out from my fieldwork that occurred after this initial visit to Sage. This was unsurprising given that at the heart of intersectionality is the idea of reflecting on one’s privilege; it is a rejection of the idea and ideal of detachment.

Having been involved in feminist activism in Cambridge and Edinburgh, I had built up a circle of contacts before I embarked upon my research. I was invited to a workshop on ‘blackness’ at a feminist political conference by Honor, an acquaintance who had recently undertaken a short-term contract conducting research for a political organisation working towards ‘gender equality’. She was very open about her frustration with the ‘white feminism’ on display and felt that within the organisation the term ‘woman’ was homogenised and race ignored, as were the needs of men of colour, particularly black boys. Whilst she clearly wanted me ‘on side’ as an ally against the members and colleagues who had been a sorry disappointment, her negative experience and the damage caused by ‘white feminists’ also made me consider my place as a white woman writing about a black feminist theory.

As Moore (1994, p. 116) notes, focusing extensively on the ethnographer’s place in the discourse risks navel-gazing and poses a ‘danger of hearing about the anthropologist at the expense of hearing about others’. Yet, when informants not only wanted me to align myself with their views but also saw any attempt to remain above the fray as impossible, failing to reflect on my place as an ethnographer would mean failing to properly engage with an ethnographic discussion around intersectionality that I wanted to explore. In the current feminist activist climate, a failure to consider my position, especially given recent criticism of ‘white feminism’, would be to miss an opportunity to engage with how my informants saw the world. To them, I could never be merely an observer because there was no such thing. Intersectionality as a theory posits that everyone exists in a web of cross-cutting lines of privilege and oppression; there is no way of existing outside the web.

Green (1997, p. 4) argues that representing events ‘exactly’ as they happened is:

impossible to achieve perfectly, as I will have always seen things and heard people with my eyes and ears, which are inevitably attuned to paying more attention to some factors than others in my efforts to untangle the complexity of things going on around me. This kind of limitation, however, should not stop one trying.

Although my indebtedness to black feminism in being able to write about intersectionality at all must be acknowledged, striving for an ethic of detachment is still methodologically important and is of ethnographic interest because my interlocutors repeatedly brought up their belief in its impossibility.

I am definitely included in the Combahee River Collective’s statement, as are all feminists (and indeed all people) who are white, regardless of whether they or others would identify (them) as ‘white’ feminists. Inescapably, there are knotty issues when writing an article as a white woman that is only possible because of the intellectual labour of black women. This adds an extra layer to any discussion of positionality, although I hope I am pointing out problems with engagement with intersectionality rather than the important, and indeed, crucial critique of the feminist movement’s historical and continued exclusivity and racism.

As will be discussed, many feminist activists strive for an ethic of intersectionality that is fundamentally at odds with the idea of detachment. In engaging in a discussion about positionality and ethics, I hope not to be too navel-gazing but tentatively aspire to what Watson (1999, p. 14) suggests is the most important aspect of reflecting on one’s position in the field: ‘the information it contains about the changing circumstantial context in which the discipline continues to operate which in turn affects the nature of the discipline itself’. My attempts at detachment revealed insights into intersectionality as an ethical orientation that would not have arisen had I not also deeply considered my position in the ethnography. It was ultimately through the contrast between detachment and positionality that I came to see the structural differences between an attempt to remain ‘neutral’ and an attempt to constantly situate oneself.

Intersectionality and its ethical orientation

The majority of the younger activists I spoke to regarded intersectionality as something for which one is constantly striving but which can never be fully achieved. I noticed repeatedly how closely activists’ rhetoric fitted with the theoretical discourse surrounding intersectionality. Crenshaw et al. (2013, p. 304) explain, ‘Put another way, there is potentially always another set of concerns to which the theory can be directed, other places to examine which the theory might be moved, and other structures of power it can be deployed to examine’. Jasmina was a well-known young activist who had been frustrated by the ‘white feminism’ displayed in high-profile campaigns. They described intersectionality as a gradient where the end goal could never be reached – or perhaps more accurately one which lacked an achievable end goal as lines of oppression are always shifting and thus so is activists’ intersectional praxis. Their thoughts mirrored those of the academic literature, using similar language to describe a work in constant progress. Partly this was because of practical concerns – it was a continual struggle for activist groups to find accessible, affordable venues – but it was also an ideological viewpoint because, for Jasmina, no-one could ever ‘truly understand’ intersectionality. Because no-one’s lived experience can include all possible axes of oppression, there is an ever-present learning curve. Yet, just because one can never properly understand this does not mean that there is no onus on the individual to try. Indeed, the further away they are on the gradient in terms of privilege and lack of understanding the more they should strive to correct this – in so far as this is possible.

For the activists I met, intersectionality was an ethical orientation; something that there was a moral imperative to work towards and a value that was dearly held. Green (1997, p. 144) discusses how, amongst lesbian feminists, failing to have the ‘correct’ discourse could lead to social sanctions, with one informant remarking ‘there was a strong tendency that if you put one foot wrong, you were damned for the rest of your life. And of course, that’s very frightening’. Similarly, my interlocutors felt a fear of ‘getting it wrong’, suggesting that there was a social and moral duty to try to be as intersectional as possible. People’s fear of sanctions was not always viewed positively by activists (although this worry was largely expressed privately). Nadia, an author and expert on violence against women, voiced discontent about what she saw as a form of demonisation within the feminist movement, and described her preference for ‘calling in’ rather than ‘calling out’. By this she meant attempting to educate someone if they made an error in their language or expressed an idea that was ‘problematic’, rather than just ‘calling them out’ on their mistake – in other words, pointing out the issue without offering help to improve.

Roshini, who continued to work on the anti-street-harassment campaign that Nadia had once been involved in, and worked for a male-dominated technology start-up as her day job, expressed similar sentiments. She described how the campaign was experiencing a lull in terms of numbers on the committee, but that a new young woman was enthusiastic. Roshini noted that she often did not use the ‘right’ language, particularly on trans issues, but was eager to be educated and thus the more experienced activists were willing to help without reacting too harshly. Whilst many activists expressed concern or embarrassment about making mistakes, there was a certain level of willingness to forgive as long as the person in question was committed to self-transformation and fashioning along intersectional lines. Whether it was displayed more or less severely, there was a motivation amongst activists to get others to think about intersectionality and to shape their discourse, their thinking and ultimately themselves in ways that were more acceptable. Yet, as will be discussed below, the unusual nature of intersectional pedagogy meant that often the directionality of this change had to come from individuals rather than being taught or explained. This was largely because activists did not want to expend energy educating those who were already seen as privileged when they felt that they had the tools to educate themselves; activists made demands of others that were rooted in their own need for ‘self-care’.

Like all ethical orientations, intersectionality is not something that one acquires overnight; it requires much work and effort. McDonald (2014) discusses how medical students acquire an ethic of ‘objectivity’ when dissecting human bodies. They learn to ‘distance’ themselves and see the bodies as cadavers in the classroom, an ethic that teachers – and other students – foster, telling anyone who is not detached enough to ‘get a grip’. Similarly, Candea (2010) describes how behavioural biologists at the Kalahari Meerkat Project cultivated an embodied detachment in an attempt to influence the animals’ behaviour as little as possible with human engagement.

Clearly, detachment is something that is taught and learnt. In the same way, activists devote time and energy to learning how to make their activism as intersectional as possible. Yet here, the pedagogical focus is on the self working on itself to achieve ethical transformation, rather than interacting with other people or institutions. Laidlaw (2014, p. 11) remarks that anthropology has highlighted ‘the ways in which ethics as the making and remaking of the self are interactive social processes, and therefore equally and at the same time the making and remaking of others’. However, many of the intersectional activists I spoke to had become ‘socially aware’ – or, as they often put it using African-American vernacular English, ‘woke’ – through digesting information on intersectionality from the internet.

Samira’s experience of learning from a high-profile Twitter argument illustrates that social media is often not that ‘social’ when used for educational purposes. She had been involved in feminist activism at her university and was now involved with working-class feminist groups in London, and saw the incident as a ‘critical juncture’ in her feminism which caused much internal reflection. The disagreement involved feminist author Caitlin Moran, who had interviewed Lena Dunham, creator and star of Girls. When asked if she had queried Dunham about the lack of racial diversity in the programme, Moran replied: ‘Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it.’ This incident remains well-known in what my informants described as ‘social justice circles’ (those with an interest in liberation politics) and gathered some media coverage at the time, bringing the concept of ‘white feminism’ into the mainstream – at least for a moment (Adewunmi, 2012). Whilst there was engagement with other media, both social and otherwise, the focus was on an individual acting by themselves, on themselves. Indeed, there was often an explicit emphasis on the importance of not expecting an interactive educational experience because this was thought to place unreasonable demands on others’ time and energy.

This type of self-education is different from what occurs in other activist circles. Howe (2013) describes the discussion groups run by lesbian activists in Nicaragua in the hope of helping other lesbian and bisexual women to become bien educada on topics including gender, sexuality and rights. Not all the debate Howe witnessed was at a particularly high academic level, but lesbian activists genuinely wished to impart knowledge to others, even – or especially – those with less educational privilege. For the Nicaraguan activists, this commitment of time and energy was viewed positively, whereas for intersectional activists this expenditure of personal resources is the very reason why many do not want to educate others. Although sometimes feminist activists interested in learning about intersectionality had sympathetic and patient mentors such as Roshini, often people were left largely independent until they had acquired the knowledge to, as one activist put it, ‘get in the room’ without being ‘problematic’. The same activist, Tilly, suggested that the pedagogical tools of intersectionality contribute to a kind of educational elitism, because, to be able to engage in self-education, a certain level of pre-existing education is at the very least helpful in understanding what are often complicated concepts.

The advantage of educational privilege was especially apparent in relation to language, where many activists used words such as ‘demisexual’, ‘cissexism’ and ‘cultural appropriation’, which are not necessarily readily understood upon first hearing. Indeed, an activist for LGBT+ rights told me that they had once been told to Google a term they did not know, only to be unable to find clear information on its definition even online. For a practice so concerned with language and terminology, amongst the intersectional feminists with whom I worked there was a surprising lack of emphasis on dialogue as a way of learning. As will be discussed further below, detachment provides an interesting contrast because ‘rational’ debate is an important part of learning to be detached. Where there are explicit teaching opportunities, such as in medical schools, detachment, ironically, is arguably less structurally inaccessible than intersectionality. Certainly, some groups, such as white men, find it far easier to be read as ‘objective’ but the irony remains that some activists felt that intersectionality had become what it never wanted to be in the elitism of its lack of pedagogy.

Laidlaw (2014, p. 216) states that: ‘Ethics, as self-formation, intrinsically includes a practice of inquiry, and presupposes … an initial disjunction or difference between the self and one’s teacher or exemplar, but this must be a disjuncture or difference of a kind that is capable of being transcended through learning’. Intersectionality differs from this image in two ways. Firstly, there are no clear teachers because people engage in teaching only when they have the inclination and the energy. It is not the sanctions for missteps that are unusual but the fact that there is a distinct lack of pedagogical tools to help the uninitiated acquire the ethic. Indeed, at times, practices such as ‘no-platforming’ create an inverse pedagogy by which people are actively blocked out. Secondly, the very point of intersectionality is that difference cannot be transcended, as standpoint theory states that one cannot achieve true comprehension of the lived experience of an oppression which does not affect oneself (Harding, 1987; Hartsock, 1987).

Whilst people’s experience of the world undoubtedly differs depending on factors such as gender, race, and class, there is a question of how intersectionality will expand as an idea and an ethical practice if there are few pedagogical tools to help the uninitiated engage – particularly those without educational privilege. It is thus an ethical orientation that risks floundering on the tension between activists’ understandable wish to preserve their energy and resources and their simultaneous desire to expand the movement.


Intersectionality as an ethical orientation contrasts with my initial attempt to represent my time spent with feminist activists in a relatively detached fashion, as introduced at the beginning of this article. This contrast is important because of the extent to which intersectionality foregrounds positionality, but also because the contrast (itself arguably the artefact of a somewhat detached anthropological voice) allowed me to gain greater insight into intersectionality as an ethical position, and its similarities to and differences from detachment than I would have if I had abandoned the project of ethnographic detachment altogether.

It is not simply detachment as a method, with all its acknowledged weaknesses, that helped my understanding of the thinking and actions of my informants but the process of striving for it. This both mirrored and at times clashed with their own striving – such as when I tried to avoid labelling my position on trans inclusion with members of Sage. Both intersectionality and detachment are ethical orientations that take work to (attempt to) achieve, yet they are also, in many ways, opposed. As Anderson (2003, p. 6) notes, ‘When I refer to the cultivation of detachment, I am referring to the aspiration to a distanced view’ – in the same way that activists are aspiring to an intersectional view. However, it is not just that intersectionality rejects neutrality as impossible – because anthropologists like Green (1997) recognise it is problematic too – but rather that intersectional theory argues that there is no point in aiming for this ideal even in imperfection. As Anderson (2001) suggests, detachment has been seen by many feminists as a masculine ethic that hides privilege under the idea of the ‘view from nowhere’ (Nagel, 1986, cited in Anderson, 2001, p. 5). An ethic of detachment is therefore anathema to intersectional activists because intersectionality is premised on the idea that everyone’s view comes from somewhere, depending on their privilege, and that this should never be denied. This is the essence of intersectionality, both in theory for academics and in practice for activists; it demands a discussion of positionality due to the constant reflection on one’s place in discourse and in life generally.

In describing her intention to examine detachment, Anderson (2001, p. 4) states that, with regards to works of Victorian literature, she will ‘explore in a sustained way what it means to cultivate a distanced relation toward one’s self, one’s community, or those objects that one chooses to study or represent’. Whilst attempts at detachment have been derided, Anderson (2001) argues that it has its virtues and just because it must be situated does not mean that it should be dismissed altogether. As she notes, following Taylor (1989, cited in Anderson, 2003, p. 32), detachment is one stance amongst others, but it usefully allows for disengagement in an attempt to see clearly – although it is a very different way of seeing clearly than that envisaged by intersectionality, where clarity comes not from distance but from coming closer to others’ experiences.

For me, detachment has been important in providing insight into the process of ethical self-transformation in which intersectional activists are constantly engaged; detachment is not just something that allowed me access to ethnographic content, but the ethical process of trying to be detached enables a structural contrast between two forms of ethical practice. Attempting to inhabit a detached stance allowed the contrast to emerge. As Robbins (2015, p. 123) notes, a sense of detachment occurs when anthropologists fail ‘to participate, or to participate fully’ in the field – yet this failure can help make one a better ethnographer. ‘Anthropologists quite self-consciously have to balance detachment and attachment’ (Robbins, 2015, p. 123) and thus, even when striving for detachment, there is an awareness that it is not fully realisable when living and working in the field. In a sense, this awareness results in being somewhat detached from detachment too, meaning that both positionality and detachment are objects of analysis, allowing insight into how intersectionality operates as an ethical orientation at odds with detachment.

Candea et al. (2015) argue for the need to take detachment seriously in ethnographic terms, but it is possible to do this whilst using it as a tool to examine something else ethnographically, in this case positionality. Carrithers (2015, p. 172) describes the ‘doubleness – or duplicity? – of consciousness characteristic of fieldwork, where one participates with apparent sincerity but also stands apart inwardly to observe’. For me, this standing outside highlighted the difference between detachment and intersectionality because of the unusual lack of pedagogic tools in the latter.

Just as activists have striven for intersectionality, the ethic of detachment that I have in part tried to cultivate methodologically was acting on myself, as I consciously tried to maintain distance from the activists I worked with (although, just as my interlocutors were never fully intersectional, nor was I ever fully detached). Dave (2012, p. 25) notes that ‘For an ethnographer of activism, the space between participant and observer is a highly perilous place – the expectations are high, as are the research consequences of not meeting them’. Yet, for me, the research consequences of looking at positionality ethnographically by means of partial detachment were positive because it allowed the pedagogical contrast that I have outlined to emerge. Laidlaw (2014) argues that ethnography can mirror the structure of pedagogy, with the ethnographer learning from, as well as about, their informants. Ironically, I learnt how difficult it can be to learn about intersectionality and thus interact with it as an ethical project without a significant amount of educational privilege.



The ethnographic centrality of positionality to my research was apparent from the moment Maria looked at me suspiciously before the Sage meeting and demanded that I place myself within a strand of feminism. This was further evidenced by my intersectional interlocutors in their discussion of the privilege and identity of themselves and everyone around them. Ideological cleavages centred around the gender identity of trans women and the morality and legality of sex work. Whilst these debates were important for activists in and of themselves, they were also proxies for wider value-laden considerations about how one should live and practise feminism. These arguments were frequently ascribed by activists to differences between ‘waves’ of feminism, but with hindsight they are better characterised as differing ethical stances.

Understanding the ethical orientation of intersectionality can help unravel conflict and solidarity within the feminist movement because it provides insights into the moral nature of the debates with which activists are engaged. The stakes are high because intersectionality makes moral claims, not only on activists but on everybody, to reflect on their privilege and work to counteract its effects as far as possible. To fail at intersectionality (or to fail to try) is to be unethical. What makes intersectionality a particularly interesting ethical practice is its unusual pedagogy, which results in difficulties in engagement, particularly for those who exist outside university/academic feminist circles.

Thinking about detachment as an ethical project in itself allowed me greater insight into how intersectional activists engage in ethical self-transformation. The structural contrast between the two positions became clear due to the lack of interactive educational opportunities for my interlocutors, and illuminated the unusual pedagogy that is apparent in intersectionality, in contrast to practices of detachment. Although intersectional feminist activists wanted to transform the world through their self-transformation, the conversion of others was often difficult and, indeed, not an explicit aim of many activists.

Anthropology has recently started to understand detachment not just as an analytical concern but also as an ethnographic one (Candea et al., 2015; Stasch, 2009). My discussion of intersectionality contributes to this, not only by taking the opposite of detachment – positionality – as an ethnographic object, but also by contrasting the two. A key area of future interest is the examination of how an ethical project with such a conception of pedagogy will grow despite being hostile to mistakes and providing few avenues to learn how to correct them. Considering positionality through detachment is one way to think about this because it throws what is strange and interesting about intersectionality – the lack of pedagogical engagement with other people and institutions – into sharp relief in comparison to another ethical project that is both similar and different. Ultimately, both intersectionality and detachment are constructed and cultivated as ethical ideals but exist in opposition to each other, with the latter in an unachievable struggle to transcend and the former in an unachievable struggle to situate.


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[1] All names of activists and organisations have been changed, and any identifying features left out or changed.

[2] ‘Transsexual’ has generally been replaced with the word ‘transgender’ in trans-inclusionary feminist circles, and I have never heard feminists who expressed a commitment to intersectionality using the former term. Guidelines provided in 2014 by the US National Centre for Transgender Equality suggest that ‘transgender’ should be used more widely as many trans people find ‘transsexual’ to be ‘overly clinical’. It must be noted that some trans people continue to use ‘transsexual’, with Serano (2007) sticking to the word because she thinks that any new term will probably also come to be regarded as problematic.


Having graduated from the University of Cambridge last year with a BA in Social Anthropology and Politics, Elli is currently studying for an MPhil in Gender Studies at Trinity College Dublin. Her main research interests lie in medical anthropology with a gender focus and she is keen to pursue a PhD looking at the criminalisation of HIV transmission. In her spare time she volunteers for causes such as campaigns for reproductive justice and improved sex education, and eventually hopes to become a non-clinical expert in public health.

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