You might be familiar with the story of Sarah Reed. In January 2016, Reed, a 32-year-old working-class black woman with severe mental-health difficulties, was found dead in her cell at London’s Holloway prison. This wasn’t the first time that Reed had been failed by our country’s public institutions. In 2014, she was violently attacked by a police officer who accused her of shoplifting. The humiliating incident was caught on film and, while the officer was convicted of common assault, he only received community service. Then, in 2015, while being detained under the Mental Health Act, Reed claimed she was the victim of an attempted rape. She was subsequently charged with grievous bodily harm for defending herself. It was at this point that Reed was sent to Holloway prison. There, she was denied the medication that helped stabilise her mental illness, which stemmed from the death of her nine-month-old daughter, in 2003. Despite concerns and pleas from Reed’s family about her deteriorating mental health, Reed’s medication was not reinstated and she was held in Holloway prison.
But you might not be familiar with the case, because, while the state failed Sarah Reed on multiple occasions, her story is not unique and the statistics reflect her experiences. In 2015, 256 people died in English and Welsh prisons and, since 1990, there have been more than 5,600 people who have died while incarcerated. Seventy per cent of women held on remand while awaiting trial, like Reed, do not subsequently get a prison sentence. A study from UCL and King’s College London found that some 40% of mentally ill women had been subjected to rape or attempted sexual violence. In addition, an inquiry from 2015 also found that: “Though there isn’t a higher prevalence of mental illness among this group, people from the UK’s African-Caribbean communities are 50% more likely to be subject to detention under the Mental Health Act via police referrals than their white counterparts.”
As shocking as these statistics are, they are not surprising. In fact, they are a means of highlighting the racism, classism, mental-health stigma and inequality faced by Britain’s most marginalised communities, often communities of colour. What’s even more disappointing is that Reed’s case, and the issues around her death, were hardly taken up by feminist activists. In fact, rarely do we see the sexual violence and police brutality experienced and inflicted upon black women’s bodies considered as feminist issues – both here in the UK and in the US.
In 1989, the black feminist legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, coined the term "intersectionality". Crenshaw wanted us to use intersectionality as a means to understand the way that oppressive structures intersect with our marginalised identities, causing poor women, women of colour, Muslim women and other marginalised women to face a double or triple bind of oppression.
The sad result of the mainstream British movement’s inability to be intersectional means the most marginalised and vulnerable women – women like me – are being failed
Sadly, it seems that mainstream British feminism is not concerned with adopting intersectionality. Instead, prominent British feminists often take up frivolous issues around “female empowerment” and “girl power”, focusing on the experiences and lives of white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class or rich women, and ignoring the ways their black and brown, disabled and/or transgender sisters are shackled by multiple forms of oppression.
Perhaps the most pertinent example of British feminism’s failure to be intersectional is the recent debate around the Gender Recognition Act, which has meant that, since 2004, trans people in the UK have been able to legally change their gender with a gender recognition certificate. The GRA was the first law in the world allowing someone to change gender without surgery. The recent consultation addressed simplifying the process so that more trans people could use it.
However, in the media, the debate sometimes played into extreme transphobia. For example, The Guardian released an editorial arguing that trans rights “collide” with cis women’s rights and that equality for trans women “could adversely affect other women”. It also argued that allowing trans women access to public spaces would threaten cis women’s safety. These arguments are dangerous, because they ignore research that confirms trans people are not a threat to cis people’s safety, and that, in fact, trans people, especially trans women of color, are disproportionately attacked, while rates of depression and HIV are at crisis levels.
So, why does it matter that intersectionality remains at the forefront of feminist activism? Because the sad result of the mainstream British movement’s inability to be intersectional means the most marginalised and vulnerable women – women like me – are being failed, and our suffering is going unnoticed.
But there is a way to make it better – and it starts with a commitment to intersectionality and an acknowledgement that racism, police brutality, detention and deportation are feminist issues, too. When we talk about women getting the vote, we can question which British women won the vote in 1918. Was it white women only? Did women of colour have equal access? When we talk about sexual assault, we can make sure that people working in the service industry, immigrant women and disabled women are heard. And when we talk about cuts to domestic-violence services, we can recognise that it hits poor women and women of colour the hardest. By thinking beyond the default, we can begin to work towards a feminism that works for all women.