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In recent years, the feminist movement has made significant strides towards inclusivity and diversity, championing the rights and voices of women from varied backgrounds and experiences. However, as the conversation around intersectionality (how multiple identities interact to create unique experiences of discrimination) deepens, it becomes increasingly clear that certain groups remain on the peripheries of these conversations. Among these overlooked communities are women with intellectual disabilities, whose unique perspectives and challenges often go unheard within the discussion around feminism. While feminism prides itself on advocating for equality and justice for all women, the question arises: Is feminism truly inclusive if it fails to adequately represent and address the needs of disabled women?

Critiques of feminism’s inclusivity are not new. For decades, scholars and activists have pointed out the movement’s historical oversight of marginalized groups. Although recognition of intersectionality and the pioneering work of disabled Black feminists have significantly contributed to bridging this gap, there’s a prevailing sentiment that the broader feminist movement has yet to fully embrace women with intellectual disabilities. Their experiences with oppression are multifaceted and intersects with gender, disability, and oftentimes, other facets of identity, such as race and socioeconomic status, yet their voices are scarcely reflected in mainstream feminist dialogues.

We conducted a series of qualitative interviews with eight women with intellectual disabilities across the provinces of Alberta and Ontario, offering them a platform to voice their perspectives on feminism, whether they identify with the feminist movement; and if the issues significant to them are reflected within the broader conversations about feminism and feminist activism. Uniquely positioned at the intersection of disability studies and gender studies, our study stands out as the first of its kind to specifically center and elevate the insights of these women.

Our pilot study revealed striking disparities in terms of awareness and interpretations of feminism among the participants. For some participants, the concept of feminism was entirely new terrain. Erin, for instance, candidly admitted her unfamiliarity with the term, stating “I don’t know, I haven’t heard of it [feminism] before.” Conversely, others like Mariah possessed some grasp of feminism, explaining “Feminism means having the same rights as everyone and being treated though, like everyone should be treated equality or equally.”

Despite varying levels of familiarity with feminism as a construct and as a political movement, a common thread emerged: most participants had sought to enrich their understanding of feminism prior to the interview through the Internet or conversations with trusted individuals in their lives. For instance, Charlotte shared, “we went online and learned a little, a little bit about or did because I knew some of kind of what it is […] like, not sure I understood it at the beginning. But like my worker was able to explain it to me.” While these endeavors often led to a basic recognition of feminism’s advocacy for women’s rights equal to those of men, the depth of understanding remained varied.

Although many participants resonated with feminist principles of equality and justice, a deeper dive into feminism was not always a priority for participants. For some, this was explained as resulting from feeling excluded by mainstream feminist movements. This sentiment of being overlooked in mainstream feminism was a common thread, vividly illustrated by Erin’s call for the voices of disabled women to be acknowledged and respected within the feminist movement. “I know there’s a lot of girls that have disabilities, and it’s like, you know, they’re [feminists] ignoring us,” Erin lamented.

Interestingly, most participants – even those with a fuller understanding of feminism – did not label themselves as feminists. Instead, participants such as Kaitlyn shared her conviction in self-advocacy, which, in her view, aligns with feminist ideals. “I just like to stick up from our right and believe in myself and be the person I am,” she declared.  This could be explained because prior to this exploratory study, most participants were unfamiliar with the term “feminism” and instead opted to identify with organizations and movements that were inclusive of services, mobilization, and representation of women with intellectual disabilities. We speculate that although participants strive to achieve equality, they do not see feminist organizations as acknowledging or including their experiences.  

Nevertheless, through our discussions, most participants revealed their active engagement in feminist practices, showcasing how they champion their rights and those of others, even without formally identifying with the feminist movement. For example, Erin and Jennifer defined independence as a self-sufficient way of life, not confined by societal expectations or reliance on men. Jennifer expressed:

I guess you could say that I’m a strong I’m also independent. So, I’m very independent. I don’t. Well, I do depend on people, but I can get majority and around by myself […] this means like I’m strong on my own, like I don’t need that male support. Like some people are like they depend on the male to do everything.

The emphasis on independence reflects not only a desire for self-sufficiency but also the recognition of the power and necessity of voicing one’s needs and rights, especially in spaces where they might otherwise be overlooked. Ingrid’s experience exemplifies this dynamic interplay between personal agency and broader advocacy. As she navigates her role as a mother and an advocate, she confronts challenges that extend beyond her immediate circumstances, identifying systemic issues affecting women at large.

I’m advocating for my daughter too, because there’s things that I see that he doesn’t see. And I see it with women, too, there’s things that are things going on with women, and then when I say something, I get in trouble for it. But I’m still advocating for. If we don’t advocate for ourselves, nothing is going to be done.

Ingrid’s words not only highlight her commitment to advocacy but also illuminate the broader implications of her actions, which aim at fostering change not just for her daughter but for women experiencing similar struggles. Ingrid identified the collective struggle experienced by women, and illuminated the ways in which solidarity becomes a critical resource, offering emotional sustenance and a sense of community. According to Ingrid, having a robust network of women friends is invaluable:

Where if like if I’m down. I just reach out to my friends in the group that I have, and then they bring me back up. If they’re down. If they need to vent, they come to me, or they come to any of the people in our group.

This reciprocal support system not only empowers individuals like Ingrid but also reinforces the collective resilience of the group, enabling members to uplift each other through challenges and advocacy efforts.

Through the conversations we had with the women participating in our study, it was made clear that women with intellectual disabilities perceive feminism as both a personal and collective strength. They aspire to be recognized and included within the broader conversations about feminism, seeking to redefine the movement as one that fully embraces diversity and champions the rights of all women. This study reveals a profound need for the feminist movement to extend its embrace. By doing so, it will not only champion the rights of a wider constituency but also enrich its narrative with the diverse experiences of women with intellectual disabilities.


Alan Santinele Martino, Assistant Professor, Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary. @AlanSMartino

Ann Fudge Schormans, Professor, School of Social Work, McMaster University

Arielle Perrotta, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary

Anna Couillard, Undergraduate Student, Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary

Clodagh Perras, Undergraduate Student, Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary

Molly Johnson, Undergraduate Student, Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary