March is Women’s History Month. In honor and celebration of Women it is important for us to stop and recognize all the freedoms we take for granted. Once upon a time women were nothing more than chattel to be owned, sold, and traded. Since then women have had to fight and negotiate for every privilege taken for granted by white men. Similarly, not all women of all classes, all races, and all orientations have been granted these rights equally. With that in mind, let us look at what we have accomplished and what we still need to accomplish.
Revolutionary Life: Black Panther Women Tribute (n.d.) from http://theestrogenproject.tumblr.com/post/20531733520/revolutionary-life-black-panther-women-tribute
In 1976 five African American women took General Motors to court. General Motor’s “last hired-first fired” policy led to the termination of all but one female African American employee. These women looked around and realized that this was not a company-wide hit, it was not even a significant hit for African Americans within the company; this large lay-off was a devastating blow for female African Americans. These women sought to sue General Motors (GM) not for discrimination against females nor discrimination against African Americans, but discrimination against female African Americans. This sort of discrimination has been coined sex-plus discrimination because they identified as women plus African American.
Unfortunately, as the law stood at the time and still in most cases today, discrimination may only call for action in instances of “race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively either, but not a combination of both.” With that being said, it was up to these women and their legal counsel to identify either discrimination of African Americans or discrimination of women within GM’s “last hired-first fired” system. GM was able to provide evidence of hiring white women, even years prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Acts, which countered their claim for sex discrimination. According to the courts, the race of the women hired and promoted within the company was not of importance-only that GM was not discriminating against women as a whole. Similarly, GM was not found to be guilty of racial discrimination because they could provide evidence of hiring and promoting African American males. In order to claim sex and race discrimination, the courts would have had to recognize a new minority classification, African American females. The court opposed the creation of any new classifications proposing that, “the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, [would] clearly raise[*] the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.” If the women had been able to show that they had been victims of discrimination because they were black or because they were women they would have had a case, but because GM was not discriminatory against white women nor black men, the women had no legal case.
Because society largely refuses to acknowledge the multiple facets of one person’s identity, these women’s efforts went unrecognized and unrewarded. These women were more than just women and more than just African Americans. These women could not be understood as simply African American nor simply as women; these women were who they were because they were African American and women.
According to the double jeopardy hypothesis persons who identify with multiple subordinate-groups experience the prejudices and setbacks of both minorities (e.g., being black and a woman or being Latino and gay). The women attempting to sue GM, not only had to face the difficulties and prejudices of being African American (i.e. characterized as dirty, lazy, subordinate, etc.) but also the prejudices of being a women (i.e. intellectually inferior, subordinate, hysterical, etc.). A study conducted in 2006 found that minority women experienced more frequent and severe harassment overall than white males, minority males, and white females further supporting the double jeopardy hypothesis. Because these people do not represent the popular stereotype for either minority, they experience intersectional invisibility. They go on to explain intersectional invisibility as the marginalizing of these non-prototypal individuals within already marginalized groups which creates an acute social invisibility. It is because of this social invisibility that many sex-plus discrimination cases have not had greater successes. In DeGraffenreid v General Motors, the women were not protected under the Civil Rights Act due to their dual enrollment to two minority groups. As the legal discrimination frameworks currently stand in the United States, those with a single disadvantaged identity are more protected than those with two or more disadvantaged identities.
Almost thirty years later and sex-plus discrimination lawsuits are still being denied. March should be a time where as women, as activists, and as Americans, we look back and rejoice for the causes we have won and appreciate the sacrifices that have been made. It should also be a time where we reflect on what still needs to be done and how we plan to approach the future. DeGraffenreid v General Motors should remind us that feminism is not simply about women’s rights and equality, but about the equality for all permutations and combinations of people. Equality has not been reached, but instead is still an ideal to be sought after and worked towards.
Rachel McDonough, Christine Sheppard and Cierra Jonik (c) March 2015
‘Feminism is worthless without intersectionality and inclusion’ http://www.ceraunavoltalamerica.it/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/feminism-intersectionality-320×414.png