Intersectionality in Social Movements: How can Social Movements be Intersectional?

Published paper in Mobilization! You can find the full paper here.
Here is the abstract:

Intersectional Grievances in Care work: Framing Inequalities of Gender, Class, and Caste

How do social movements include or exclude intersectional grievances of individual participants? What do variations in framing within the movement tell us about including intersectional grievances? I address these questions by examining frames deployed by anganwadi (childcare) workers in India and their organized union’s documented demands. I utilize a systemic intersectional approach to examine two specific grievances—low wages and weakening of public provision of care—that lie at the intersection of gender, caste, class, and care work. Workers use intersectional frames to interpret grievances, as they experience intersectional inequalities of gender, caste, and class. Findings show that the union targets the state alone while workers target both state and society. As intersectional grievances are durable inequalities that traverse across the boundaries of state and society, social movement frames may need a broader prognosis that targets both state and society to include intersectional grievances.


This is the academic version but I wanted to write a note about how I came to think about this paper. This paper is based on my dissertation work on Anganwadis in India. Anganwadis are neighborhood childcare centers run by the state through a program known as Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). At the Anganwadi, children under six are legally entitled to food, supplementary nutrition, and early education. Lactating mothers and pregnant women also have access to supplementary nutrition. The ICDS has played a major role in reducing malnourishment in India. But the latest National Family Health Survey shows that the gains made in decreasing malnutrition may have reduced. Clearly, India cannot rest on its laurels.

Most studies on the ICDS focus on the critical issue of hunger and malnutrition. Other scholars, including myself, are interested in the anganwadi workers’ struggles, the structural violence in the welfare state, the role of neoliberal institutions in framing hunger and state-society dynamics. When I went to Tamil Nadu to study the ICDS in the state, my aim was to study food insecurity. I wanted to see how mothers and anganwadi workers make demands for food from the state. But in my interviews, mothers and anganwadi workers seemed to focus more about inequalities related to care and education. Moreover, they often framed it in terms of gender, class, and caste relations. Their answers reminded me of a larger question that I care about deeply.

How can social movements be intersectional?

Most people when discussing intersectionality refer to Crenshaw’s classic article. Her Ted Talk is a must-watch. In her article, Crenshaw examines intersectionality as structural, political, and representational. In the talk, she explains the concept of intersectionality through the persuasive example of a Black woman who sues her company for racial discrimination in recruitment. The judge rules against her stating that there is no evidence of discrimination against Black women because the organization has recruited Black men and white women. The judge views race and gender as separate identities, erasing the specific intersectional experience of Black women. Thus, according to Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality is primarily based on identity.

Typically, applying intersectionality in social movement studies has often meant examining the identities of the participants, what some call the inclusion model. Is the social movement inclusive of diverse voices? I have cited various scholars who study this important question. However, intersectionality can also be understood in other ways as well. Patricia Hill-Collins refers to intersectionality as a matrix of domination. Angela Davis and Elisabeth Armstrong examine intersectionality of struggles. I am interested in systemic intersectionality. Gender, class, and caste are intersecting social structures and grievances are embedded in these structures. As someone interested in grievances about care, I argue: how care is distributed in society has much to do with inequalities of gender, class, and caste.

If there is one argument I’d like for people to take from this paper, it is this – Social movements that make demands about care may need to challenge gender, caste, and class relations.

I have often wondered, and still do, how social movements can “frame” their demands in ways that create solidarity between seemingly diverse groups. Personally, I am not a fan of conversations around white fragility and am very skeptical about its potential for social movement solidarity, especially in the struggle against a powerful white ruling class. I suspect that the brand of white fragility and call-out culture individualizes our struggle. That said, I do not believe “let’s not talk about race or gender” is the way to go either. In other words, I think there is a framing issue. We need to talk about race, gender, class and caste. But how? I’d say – By framing our grievances as intersectional.

Coming back to care and the ICDS 🙂

In this article, I used an intersectional lens not with respect to people’s identities but their grievances. I examined how grievances were framed in the charter of demands of the anganwadi workers’ union as compared to how individual workers framed them. In particular, I looked at two grievances – low wages and weakening of public provision of care through privatization.

I found that individual anganwadi workers, all women, would frame their grievances regarding low wages in gendered ways :
1) They were getting paid less compared to jobs that recruited men. The ICDS in Tamil Nadu is entirely managed by women, but they are treated as part-time workers. They often compared their jobs to permanent jobs that hired men.
2) They were recruited to be anganwadi workers. But they did many other miscellaneous tasks – vaccination drives, adolescent programs, voter registration etc. They were very proud of their contribution to eliminating polio in India, but it wasn’t part of their job description. The blurring of job descriptions in care-work is a gendered phenomenon. Women are assumed to be “natural” at care-giving which often results in unpaid care-work at home and extension of under-paid tasks at work. They were supposed to be proud of doing this work for children, and they were! But perhaps, they should also be paid for it?
3) Anganwadi workers were treated as honorary workers, voluntary workers or part-time workers, but the government also promised full time child-care for mothers from 9 am to 3 pm. If the workers are paid only part-time, why are they expected to provide full time care? And how does that work?

While anganwadi workers framed their grievance of low wages as a gendered phenomenon, the union framed it largely as a cost of living issue. The Tamil Nadu union does include the issue of miscellaneous tasks in its demands. However, gender did not quite figure as much. In the paper, I also discuss some of the challenges in including gender in the framing of grievances. While the framing may have differed, all anganwadi workers acknowledged that their wages have increased over the years ONLY because of the union.

The second grievance I focused on was weakening of public provision of care. Private english medium pre-schools have sprouted all over Tamil Nadu. For the anganwadi workers, that has meant reduction in the number of children opting to come to the anganwadi. This is a cause of worry for most anganwadi workers. However, they did not see the competition from private schools simply as an issue of privatization. They framed it as a caste issue. As per the National Family Healthy Survey, children categorized as Scheduled Caste (SC) or Dalit are the predominant users of the anganwadi. Brahmin families rarely used the anganwadis. But increasingly, Other Backward Class (OBC – the intermediary caste) parents, especially economically mobile parents, are also moving their children from the anganwadi to private pre-schools. OBC parents engaged in discriminatory practices as they refuse to send their kids to anganwadis located in SC neighborhoods or when the worker is from the SC community. Some of the OBC anganwadi workers themselves discriminated against SC parents and colleagues. Thus, caste intersected with increasing privatization of education. When referring to private schools, anganwadi workers (of all castes) framed the privatization grievance in intersection with caste.

In contrast, the union charter of demands did not mention caste at all. The Tamil Nadu charter of demands did demand the closing of private schools but made no reference to caste. Although the labor union has campaigns related to untouchability, their anti-caste work seemed to be separate from their labor struggles. Their charter of demands did not frame the grievance in an intersectional way. Please read the paper for more details.

As regards to social movement theory, I make the argument that intersectional demands such as those related to gender and caste are durable inequalities that travel across the boundaries of state and society. To include intersectional grievances, union “frames” may need to expand their target to include both the state and society rather than the state alone. Refer to the paper to read more on the theoretical arguments regarding framing.

While the union charter of demands did not include caste or gender, there are leaders who are vocal about intersectional grievances. Moreover, in the 2019 version, caste did appear in the national union’s charter of demands. Thus, the union seems to be moving in the direction of framing grievances in an intersectional manner. I’ll end with my favorite quote from the General Secretary of the Anganwadi union:

There is no short cut. You have to be with the people. You have to make them feel that, yes, this is our union. You can observe Ambedkar Jayanti day but when a fellow comrade, a Dalit, is being attacked…if the trade union is not there, there is no point… You have to be with the most oppressed . . . . We cannot bifurcate social issues and class issues. It is interlinked. We have to de-class and de-caste ourselves.

Struggles related to care offer movements the opportunity to include intersectional grievances. How care is distributed in society is an indication of how social relations are structured. Social movements cannot address grievances related to care without paying attention to intersecting inequalities of gender, caste, race and class. The point is this – social relations of gender, caste, race, and caste keep wages low and jobs precarious for everyone. While making demands about care and care work, a trade union of care workers has the potential to challenge power structures that oppress minoritized groups disproportionally while affecting many others. It is through such challenges that movements can create solidarity and fight for the most oppressed among us.

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