2021 Abstracts Stage 3

Intersectionality in Marlena Shaw’s Woman of the Ghetto

Olivia Maddocks, 2021, Stage 3

This dissertation looks at he concept of ‘intersectionality:’ the territory of my project. The object of the project is a song by Marlena Shaw: an American jazz, blues and soul singer who began her career in the 1960s. The song is called Woman of the Ghetto and will be used for the purpose of this project as an interpretative work of art that provides a means of understanding intersectionality as a concept. Briefly, intersectionality refers to the way in which individuals belonging to multiple marginalised social groups experience an entirely unique form of discrimination. In other words, a poor black woman like the protagonist of Woman of the Ghetto would experience discrimination in a totally different way than a black man or a white woman or, to some extent, the middle class would. It is perhaps best understood as different layers of discrimination. The Woman of the Ghetto becomes the living embodiment of intersectionality as she sings and scats a first-hand account of the day to day struggles of a poor black woman in 1970s America.
I chose to pair my passion for soul music with an intersectional approach after studying feminist philosophy during the second year of my degree. An introduction to some of the key figures within contemporary feminist philosophy encouraged me to think about issues surrounding the categories of sex and gender differently. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that the roles men and women have conventionally assumed (so men going out to work to provide for their family and women staying at home to bring up their children) are, with time, undergoing changes. This led me to really reconsider my own lived experience as a young woman. I now can recognise less obvious oppressive sexist values that are more often than not a product of structural oppression as opposed to independent acts of discrimination.
These changes in gender roles have prompted many contemporary feminist philosophers to evaluate assumptions around sex and gender issues. These have influenced my research for this project almost entirely. Simone de Beauvoir was one such influence and I will be using aspects of her work to, again, further my understanding of Woman of the Ghetto as a first-hand account of intersectional oppression. De Beauvoir, in her The Second Sex writes of how women are perceived as ‘Other’ by men and are therefore unable to assume their own subjectivity. This is the source of women’s oppression and in my project I intend to argue that intersectionality is essentially the combination of the othering of women combined with the othering of black people to create a unique double-binded discrimination. I think De Beauvoir’s account of the source of women’s oppression is entirely convincing. She successfully shows how the male monopoly on subjectivity is historically problematic, but also a fundamental flaw in the potential to liberate women. Denying women the subject position necessarily entails a denial of their responsibility for their own actions. It is easy to see how this then becomes problematic for existentialists, as when women are confined to certain gender roles and limited to live out sexist ideals an existentialist would believe that they are living in ‘bad faith’ and ignoring the fact that all human beings are immutably free. I will then provide a discussion on how an intersectional feminism is therefore so crucial for existentialists like de Beauvoir herself in liberating all women, and not just middle-class white ones.
Ultimately finding that there are indeed some limitations to her account of the historical oppression of women, the remaining part of the paper proposes a slight revision of de Beauvoir’s work that takes inspiration from black feminist philosophers including bell hooks and Audre Lorde in order to carve out a space for otherwise unheard black voices. This is necessary for a fully-inclusive feminism that caters for the Woman of the Ghetto and all other women in a similar position.

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