Intersectional feminism considers the intersecting social structures of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and age, among others, as interrelated and shaping one another.
Intersectional feminists reject the idea that all women experience oppression and gender inequality in homogenous ways.
Additionally, they recognize that women rarely experience the oppression of a single factor. Using intersectional feminism moves beyond viewing gender inequality through one lens and views it as complex interactions among various structures.
Intersectional feminism believes that other feminist perspectives describe a false universality of women”s oppression, based on the experiences of western, middle-class white women.
Different groups of women will experience oppression differently and each of these experiences needs to be understood using intersectional theory.
Intersectionality is a term that investigates ‘how intersecting power relations influence social relations across diverse societies as well as individual experiences in everyday life’ (Collins & Bilge, 2020).
In feminist theory, intersectionality looks into how women”s complex and intersecting experiences contribute to gender inequality.
For example, a working-class woman may experience oppression in two ways: for being a woman and for being working-class.
Further oppression can be added if the woman is also an ethnic minority, disabled, or homosexual. Each of these structures shapes a person and makes them experience unique inequalities.
The history of intersectional feminism
The term ‘intersectionality’ was first used by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw recognized that there were many different kinds of intersecting oppressions in the world, meaning that individuals had their unique challenges and dilemmas because of these intersectional factors.
In her paper titled ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,’ Crenshaw primarily focused on the oppression faced by black women who experience social inequality in two ways: first, for being a woman and second, for being black (Crenshaw, 1989).
To illustrate this oppression, Crenshaw used an example of a black woman who felt discriminated against being hired for a job based on her intersecting factors.
However, the company’s employer argued that she could not have been discriminated against based on race since the company hired black people (black men). They also argued that she could not have been discriminated against for her gender since the company hired women (white women).
Crenshaw understood that there is a lack of societal understanding about the many ways people can be oppressed and how these factors interconnect. Thus, black women’s oppression is ignored or disregarded due to this lack of knowledge.
Although intersectional feminism was not named until much later, ideas of intersectionality existed for a long time.
In 1851, abolitionist Sojourner Truth gave her famous speech at a women’s rights convention entitled Ain’t I a Woman? . In this speech, she noted how the oppression faced by white and black women differs.
She explained how white, middle-class women are traditionally treated as delicate and needing help from men, while black women have been vilified and subjected to racist abuse.
In the 1970s. A group of black feminists formed a group called the Combahee River Collective. They recognized the double oppression of sexism and racism that black women face, which is integral to the distinction between their movement and ‘white feminism.’
Patricia Hill Collins has also contributed to intersectional feminism by arguing that race, class, and gender comprise interlocking systems of oppression, or what she termed a ‘matrix of domination.’
This means that it is not only women who are dominated and subordinate to men but also women of color and those from a lower social class (Collins, 1990).
How is intersectional feminism different from other types of feminism?
Intersectional feminism broadens the scope of feminist issues since it considers the differences between women rather than treating women as an all-encompassing group.
Early feminist movements may often be labeled as ‘white feminism’ since the issues and experiences of white women were at the forefront. In contrast, the other intersecting factors that make up different groups of women were rarely considered.
These feminist movements can be criticized by intersectional feminism for being too focused on the experiences of primarily white, western, and middle-class women.
For instance, while the women’s suffrage movements of the first wave of feminism were instrumental in granting women the right to vote, the voting rights of the working class and minority ethnic groups were mostly ignored.
A book that was instrumental in the second wave of feminism is Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique written in 1963. The target audience for this book was middle-class housewives who were dissatisfied with their lives of completing housework and childcare.
One of Friedan’s proposals for women was to hire domestic workers to perform household chores while working their jobs. However, this book fails to account for many black and working-class women who would not have been able to afford to hire help, many of whom were the domestic workers for middle-class white women.
Liberal feminism can be criticized by intersectional feminism for overlooking how the intersections of race, social class, sexual orientation, and ability, among others, are interwoven to create different levels of women’s oppression. Many liberal feminists believe that the issues facing white, mostly western women are issues that all women face.
Liberal feminists may celebrate a high number of white women in positions of power while ignoring that other women who are non-white, of different sexual orientations, and disabled do not hold these positions.
Marxist feminism is intersectional because it considers how women experience two forms of oppression. First by being a woman, and second by their social class.
However, the Marxist feminist theory did not initially consider the other intersections that can oppress women. For instance, a black working-class woman would have different experiences in a white capitalist society than a white working-class woman.
Why is intersectional feminism important?
Intersectional feminism recognizes that women do not experience oppression in the same way. Women with different ethnicities, religions, sexualities, social classes, abilities, and ages cannot be assumed to all experience sexism similarly.
The intersectional perspective of feminism understands that women cannot be reduced to single categories. Their lives are multi-dimensional and complex.
Intersectional feminism has provided a stronger understanding of how oppression uniquely affects women. Theorists of intersectionality insist that one cannot understand how women are disadvantaged through one form of oppression unless their other intersecting factors are also considered.
Likewise, social inequality, problems, and injustices are less visible if factors such as gender, race, and social class are analyzed separately.
Intersectional feminism does not just apply to marginalized groups of women. Social structures which disadvantage certain groups will also privilege other groups (Weldon, 2008).
Social relations are so complex that nearly everyone is privileged in some ways while simultaneously being disadvantaged in others. A lesbian woman who is white is privileged for being white but faces oppression for being a woman and not heterosexual.
Moreover, a woman of a high social class is privileged for being wealthy, but she may have a disability that disadvantages her.
How much someone is oppressed or privileged by their social structures also depends on the situation and context. Thus, through intersectional feminism, there is a stronger understanding of how complicated individuals and society are.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a criticism of intersectional feminism?
While intersectional feminism tries to avoid putting women into singular identity boxes, it still tends to put people into categories. While the groups may be more complex, intersectionality still groups people based on identity markers, e.g., black women or disabled women.
Therefore, intersectional feminism may not always consider that each woman has a unique experience, and there would likely be an infinite number of shared characteristics that separate women into smaller and smaller groups until there may only be one person that fits into a new category.
Perhaps everyone’s societal experience is so unique that they cannot be classified so simply.
Who are some key intersectional feminists?
Aside from Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term ‘intersectionality,’ there are many other noteworthy intersectional feminists.
One of these is Angela Davis, who incorporated intersectional feminism into her book ‘Women, Race, & Class’ before the term ‘intersectionality’ was coined. In her book, she considers how black women have been oppressed based on being black, women, and of a lower social class (Davis, 1981).
Audre Lorde has also contributed to intersectional feminist understandings by arguing that women were too complex and their experiences too different for a single feminist agenda. She referred to herself as a ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,’ embracing her intersectional identities.
How can feminist research incorporate intersectionality?
When conducting feminist research, an intersectional approach can be used not to exclude a large majority of women or try to fit their experiences into the same group as women who are very different from them.
When collecting data from research, applying an intersectional approach means that factors such as gender, class, and disability, among others, are considered. This data can be obtained to create a more specific and in-depth analysis of how these factors influence the data. Feminist research should be more accurate as a result.
However, researchers should not make generalized assumptions for each intersectional factor based on quantified data.
Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought in the matrix of domination. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, 138 (1990), 221-238.
Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2020). Intersectionality. John Wiley & Sons.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. In Feminist Legal Theories (pp. 23-51). Routledge.
Davis, A. Y. (1981). Women, race, and class. Vintage.
Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essay and Speeches. The Crossing Press Feminist Series. Berkeley: Freedom.
Weldon, S. L. (2008). Intersectionality. Politics, Gender and Concepts: Theory and Methodology, ed. Gary Goertz and Amy G. Mazur, 193-218.