What Intersectionality Tells Us about That Gender Problem

A Response to Jennifer Bernstein's Essay in Breakthrough Journal

Jennifer Bernstein’s essay raises the important critique that environmentalism’s knee-jerk reaction to modernization echoes the tendency to naturalize an essential woman whose biology is connected to the nonhuman world. And yet, while it is true that many women throughout the world have experienced progress in terms of their roles in the workforce, home, and daily life, intersectional feminism tells us that we must be cautious in exchanging one essentialized category for another. In this response, we suggest thinking critically about the ways we categorize experiences, practices, and technologies, and we advise against overdetermining women one way or the other.

Using cooking as an example, Bernstein takes to task the Michael Pollan/Mark Bittman discourse around getting back to the kitchen as a way to democratize our household tasks and redefine our relationship to each other and the food we eat. The Pollan boys make a pretty compelling case on its surface, but Bernstein highlights the class- and gender-based assumptions behind who can actually make the transition from food produced by modern, industrial systems to, say, other approaches to cooking and more “natural” foods (as in, the ways authorities like Pollan and Bittman would tell us how and what to eat; Julie Guthman’s 2007 commentary on teaching food strikes a chord here).

In response, Bernstein turns to the very technology that environmentalists love to critique, which she argues can truly democratize the roles and responsibilities within (and by extension) outside of the household. The potentially liberating role that technology plays, Bernstein points out, can be good for more marginalized and diverse families, for whom “natural” foods are still out of reach. To critique these technologies wholesale reinforces the systemic inequities already in place, hidden behind a veil of healthy eating. So, Bernstein asks, what would environmentalism look like if it took these realities seriously? Well, it would support technology that benefits working-class women and families, rather than criticizing them for using it.

Bernstein certainly presents an important critique of the naturalizing character of our discourses about the environment. To say that women should “get back” to any kind of cooking reinforces a biologically driven social Darwinism that still assumes women are “naturally” connected to nonhuman nature (and as a consequence, are more caring, etc.). And if we follow this to its logical conclusion, this determinist line of thinking suggests that patriarchy is a natural part of that order too, and we must accommodate it rather than working toward smashing it. In other words, boys will be boys, and the only thing we can do is remind them that their behavior is bad, as opposed to examining the structures that reinforce and maintain inequities.

We suggest it is not only society’s discourses and choices that need to be reexamined; systemic inequality and sexism need to be deconstructed too. The story is incomplete if we just talk about specific technologies that women choose without simultaneously talking about institutions and historical context. In other words, we have the capacity to simultaneously respect women’s choices—both those who choose to use so-called modern technology and those who opt for alternative approaches to cooking—and be critical of the patriarchal systems that limit those choices.

Take the different types of women that Bernstein presents to make her argument. These actors are either the middle- and upper-class women who “choose” to use more time-intensive methods to cook for their families (with the associated positive health and social/cultural/political benefits) versus the working-class and poor women who “choose” modern technology to manage an anxious and uncertain economic life. In our view these choices are situational, and to valorize or critique one or the other is a false dichotomy, particularly if that critique is at the cost or benefit of the other.

Intersectional feminism tells us that, while women likely share some experiences, their differing roles and identities based on ideas about race or class result in divergent experiences, and thus, different choices that make sense to them. To generally valorize one choice over the other is problematic, especially without taking those experiences into account.

Bernstein’s critique doesn’t seem to cut both ways. If it is unreasonable to critique a working-class woman for choosing technology, then it seems equally unreasonable to critique the more privileged woman for choosing a time-intensive cooking approach. Valorizing the working-class woman’s technology choices feels a bit knee-jerk too. Nobody’s decisions are without histories and contexts. People do not live in a world that is a free market of choices.

We don’t disagree with Bernstein’s general point. It is elitist and sexist to critique our working-class comrades for their consumption choices, particularly if it reinforces privilege over others. But a critique is only worthy if it is pointed at our subjects of study and ourselves. To point feminism outward without pointing it back at ourselves (or the communities we are valorizing) is a form of orientalism. One community’s necessary choices do not make another community’s choices good or bad.

So what would these feminists say about the modernist/environmentalist dichotomy? Well, it is more complicated. Both systems and individual choices are implicated in socio-ecological challenges. Costs, benefits, choices, systems, and privileges should all be a part of our analysis. And fortunately we have the tools to wrestle with this. Intersectional feminism compels us to look at different choices through the diverse, intersecting identities that women embody just as we work to deconstruct the institutions and histories that limit those choices. It is our job to continually nuance these frameworks and advance a system that appropriately provides choices while simultaneously respecting how people choose to provide nourishment and sustenance for their families.

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