This 101 series analyses the concept of intersectionality from a feminist point of view in order to understand how inequality is created by the interrelationship of different axes of oppression. This concept was first coined by the American civil rights advocate and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) in order to understand the unique form of oppression created by the interrelation between the categories of gender and race. It was then adopted by other feminist scholars to describe the ways in which different social categories –such as gender, race, sexual orientation, class, (dis)ability, etc.– intersect with each other creating different specific forms of oppression (Brah and Phenix, 2004). Within Feminist Theory, intersectionality functions as both a theoretical tool and a methodological approach to study the many different ways in which discrimination is perceived and experienced by people (especially women) of all races, classes, religions, gender identities and sexual orientations. This series will take into account some of the main intersecting axes of oppression by focusing on the specific traits of each of them separately.
'Intersectionality 101' will be mainly divided into the following chapters of the content:
2. Intersectionality 101: Gender, Race and Class
3. Intersectionality 101: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
4. Intersectionality 101: Physical and Mental Disability
5. Intersectionality 101: Body Nonconformity
6. Intersectionality 101: Ethnicity and Geographical Location
7. Intersectionality 101: Culture and Religion
8. Intersectionality 101: Age
Intersectionality 101: Gender, Race and Class
Gender, race and class are the three major axes from which the discourse of intersectionality originated. They form the 'triple oppression theory' that says that Black women suffer from three different forms of oppression: as women, as Blacks, and as members of the working-class (Lutz, 2004; 3). However necessary and useful the intersectional approach can be, it must be managed carefully in order to avoid producing the rigid and limiting schemes of identity politics. As Yuval-Davis (2006, 195) wisely notices: "Any attempt to essentialize 'Blackness' or 'womanhood' or 'working classness' as specific forms of concrete oppression in additive ways inevitably conflates the narrative of identity politics". The risk is erasing and making invisible the single lived experiences of different subjectivities –usually those of the most marginal members– who belong to the same category by constructing "an homogenized 'right way' to be its member" (Yuval-Davis, 2006; 196) instead of describing the complexity of their historically specific positionings.
However, regardless of the different possible approaches to intersectionality and the categories taken into consideration, the three original axes of gender, race and class are still perceived as the main social divisions. The data analysis of 118 British Local Education Authorities made by Gilborn and Mirza (2000) seem to confirm this claim, since they revealed that "social class makes the biggest difference to educational attainment, followed by 'race' and then by gender", and especially by their intertwined outcomes (Brah and Phenix, 2004; 81). This was already the thesis of the members of the Boston-based Black lesbian feminist organization named the Combahee River Collective who, driving inspiration from an early essay by the Afro-American scholar and activist Angela Davis (which in 1981 was included in her masterpiece Women, Race, & Class). Both of them were focused on the specific oppression of Black women and aimed at highlighting the differences between it and white middle-class women's oppression, a difference that was completely ignored by white feminists. Citing the Combahee River Collective (1977):
We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women's lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. (p. 19)
Throughout the 19th century, white American women actively took part in the abolitionist movements and protests. Most of these women belonged to the middle-class: since they did not have to work, they had time to read and become aware of their oppression as women in both private and public space. As subordinated subjectivities, they felt a strong connection and similarity between their condition of married women and that of the enslaved Blacks and, however extreme and highly inappropriate this metaphor is, this feeling first led them to found and adhere to different female associations against slavery, such as the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society founded in 1833 by Lucretia Mott (Davis, 1981; 64-70). While working inside the abolitionist movement white women became even more aware of their subordination as women in a patriarchal society. It was this raising political conscience that made them realize that men's power could be challenged and their inferior status improved. As Davis claims: "The abolitionist movement offered middle-class women the opportunity to prove their worth according to criteria that were not linked to their role as wives or mothers" (Davis, 1981; 71).
However, no Black woman was present at the first assembly for women's rights organized in 1848 at Seneca Falls by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Davis, 1981; 82). The "Declaration of Sentiments" written and signed by the women and men at Seneca Falls, addressed topics such as the institution of marriage and its negative consequences on women's economic and moral independence, but it was only focused on white middle-class women's experience while completely ignoring the dramatic conditions of both working-class and Black women (Davis, 1981; 87-99). The first feminist movements were thus born out of a racist and classist background that worsened with time until a net fracture: white feminists chose to actively hinder Black men's right to vote –which, in their opinion, would have made them superior to white women– unless the same right was first conceded to them; consequently, the Equal Rights Association –founded in 1866 in New York with the aim to carry on the struggles of both (white) women and Black people (men)– was dissolved (Davis, 1981; 105-122). From that moment on, white suffragists of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1890) openly took racist and classist positions in order to gain political support to their cause. By showing loyalty and support to capitalist and imperialist politics while remaining silent in front of the lynching and murder of thousands of Blacks, women's fight for their right to vote slowly turned into one means to preserve white supremacy (Davis, 1981; 151-168).
White women's reluctance to accept that the battle for the liberation of Black people could momentarily have the priority over their own interests, extended also to lower-class women's struggles, which they never fully embraced. For white middle-class women, " 'the woman' was their priority, but clearly not all women" (Davis, 1981; 185). Nonetheless, despite white suffragists' denial to acknowledge Black women's contribution to the suffrage cause and their harsh critique of white working-class women who did not immediately join the campaign, both these categories of women have a long history of pioneering political activism. Already in the 1820s, long before the Seneca Falls congress, working-class women were protesting against their double oppression as women and workers by organizing strikes and presenting petitions through the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association founded in the 1840s (Davis, 1981; 88-90). However, until the beginning of the 20th century –when they realized that vote could be the means through which they could claim their rights–, working-class women were too busy dealing with their daily issues –wage, working conditions and hours– and also perfectly aware that political equality did not mean economic equality to join the fight for women's right to vote (Davis, 1981; 184-187).
On the other hand, although Black women's clubs (founded before the Civil War of 1861-1865) had a strong suffragist soul, they were never included into the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Despite this refusal, Black women continued to support women's right to vote and, contrary to white women, they did it also with the support of Black men, one above all W. E. B. DuBois (Davis, 1981; 188-194). The main difference between white women's associations and Black women's clubs was the awareness of the latter of the need to oppose both racism and sexism. Black women's clubs were indeed born out of the dramatic urgency of defending their people against the violent racists acts perpetuated against them, from lynchings to rapes, from the 1890s onward. If white feminists' consciousness was created as distinct from and oppositional to that of white men, for Black women it was not that easy to stand against "their" men: white feminist identified themselves first and foremost as women, while Black feminists could not prioritize neither their womanhood nor their Blackness cause they were oppressed by both these conditions at the same time. As explained by Crenshaw (1989):
Although patriarchy clearly operates within the Black community, presenting yet another source of domination to which Black women are vulnerable, the racial context of a political consciousness that find themselves makes the creation of a political consciousness that is oppositional to Black men difficult. (p. 162)
White feminism was (and is) not enough to speak on behalf of every woman. Feminists' attempts to expose and dismantle patriarchy by identifying and criticizing the traditional stereotypes used to justify the disparate social roles assigned to men and women were not enough to explain and dismantle also the unique form of domination of Black women (Crenshaw, 1989; 155). Common statements generally made by white feminists on the fact that women are seen as weak and passive while men are seen as strong and independent do not apply to Black people: on the one hand, since Black women have always worked outside the house both during and after slavery, they have never been seen as neither passive nor weak; on the other hand, Black men are not viewed as powerful, as the myth of the "pathological matriarch" proposed in texts like the Moynihan report (1965) clearly shows (Crenshaw, 1989; 156, 163).
The inadequacy of white feminism to describe women's universal experience becomes blatant when it comes to the discourses on rape and abortion. If it is true that rape is a way in which white male regulate white women' sexuality, the same is not true for Black women since "historically, there has been absolutely no institutional effort to regulate Black female chastity" (Crenshaw, 1989; 157). Furthermore, this analysis of rape entirely ignores its use as a weapon of racial terror: "When Black women were raped by white males, they were being raped not as women generally, but as Black women specifically. Their femaleness made them sexually vulnerable to racist domination, while their Blackness effectively denied them any protection" (Crenshaw, 1989; 158). Indeed, just as white men accused of raping a Black woman were protected by the judicial system –for it was considered virtually unthinkable to do so–, white women were morally restored only when the rapist was a Black man, while no restoration was ever given to Black women victims of sexual abuse. This led to both the hypersexualisation [the attribution of sexual or erotic characteristics to someone or something to an extreme or inappropriate degree] of Black women –which consequently normalizes their sexual abuse– and the myth of the Black man as a "natural born" rapist and a great danger for (especially white) women' safety.
A similar discourse can be made on the debate about women's fight for reproductive rights. As Davis (1981; 255) states, "birth control, the possibility of individual choice, safe contraceptive methods, as well as abortion if necessary, are all fundamental requirements for women's emancipation". Nonetheless, abortion had a different meaning for white/middle-class women and Black/working-class women. It is indeed not by chance that the latter was for the most part absent in the feminist campaign for abortion rights (Davis, 1981; 255-277). Although this fact has been mainly explained with the excessive weight of racism on Black women, or even with their alleged lack of consciousness related to this issue, the truth has to be found in the ideological grounds behind the movement for birth control. Black women could have never ignored the importance of legalize abortion, since they were the main users of its illegal and self-made practice: during slavery, many of them chose abortion rather than giving birth to a slave, and sometimes they even recurred to infanticide [the intentional killing of infants or offspring] (Davis, 1981; 257-258). However, there is a difference between the claim for the right to abortion and the incentive to get one.
At the beginning of the campaign for women's reproductive rights, the legalization of abortion was presented as a valid solution to the many poverty-related issues, without absolutely considering the position of the many women who could not have children due to their social and economic conditions. Black and poor women had indeed to recur to permanent sterilization when not directly forced to do it "as a means to prevent the proliferation of 'inferior classes' and as an antidote to race suicide", as the US president Theodore Roosevelt called the birth decrease among white American women (Davis, 1981; 262-264). Citing Davis (1981; 264): "What was claimed as a 'right' by the privileged ones ended up being interpreted as a 'duty' for the poor ones". All these examples underline the necessity for feminist theory to analyse and consider how gender identities are never neutral but always influenced by other factors of which race and class are among the most discriminatory. Until white liberal feminism do not start to adopt an intersectional and transnational perspective by acknowledging the diverse and specific forms of resistance as well as the needs and desires of every woman –even and foremost the most marginal and oppressed ones– it will never be able to include and speak to and for all of them.
Brah, A., Phoenix, A., (2004). Ain’t I A Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality, Journal of International Women's Studies, 5(3), 75-86.
Combahee River Collective, (1977), in How We Get Free. Black Feminisn and The Combahee River Collective, Edited and Introduced by Keeanga-Yamahtta, T., Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2017.
Crenshaw, K., (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8, pp. 139-67.
Davis, A., (1981), Donne, razza e classe [Women, Race & Class], Edizioni Alegre, Roma, 2018.
Lutz, H., (2014). Intersectionality’s (brilliant) career – how to understand the attraction of the concept?, Working Paper Series “Gender, Diversity and Migration”, No. 1.
Yuval-Davis, N., (2006). Intersectionality and Feminist Politics, European Journal of Women’s Studies, SAGE Publications (UK and US).
Cover Image: Wang, L. (n.d), [Illustration], https://uclpimedia.com/online/confronting-and-dismantling-white-privilege
Fig. 1: “Barbara and Beverly Smith Photograph" (2017), #APeoplesJourney: African American Women and the Struggle for Equality, JEB (Joan E. Biren), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-ws/what-intersectionality-video-breaks-down-basics-180964665/
Fig. 2: Chamberlain, B. (n.d), Mural of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M'Clintock, and Frederick Douglass. [Digital Art]https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/db6efeb77b584ff898c7941243d97e10
Fig. 3: Denman, N., Suffragette Women, [Digital Art] New York Times for Kids, 2020, http://noadenmon.com/illustration
Fig. 4: Holland, J. (n.d), Illustration, https://newrepublic.com/article/167399/how-does-reproductive-justice-sex-education-universal-childcare-food-security-win