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What is Intersectional Feminism?

Feminism has been around for many years, but you’ve likely seen the term “intersectional feminism” becoming more common. At various women’s rights protests, perhaps you’ve even seen signs reading, “It’s not feminism if it’s not intersectional.” What does that mean? In this article, we’ll explore the origins of intersectional feminism, the important figures, and the pitfalls that come with the term’s increasing popularity.

Intersectional feminism is a type of feminism focused on the fact that systems of oppression impact people differently based on their race, class, ability, sexuality, and other characteristics. While “mainstream feminism” may focus only (or primarily) on gender or sex, intersectional feminism understands that oppression is an interlocking system.

The origin of intersectional feminism

Where did the term “intersectional feminism” come from? It comes from the term “intersectionality,” which legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined in 1989. For decades, Crenshaw has worked on race and civil rights, specifically critical race theory. In the 1980s and 1990s, Crenshaw challenged the idea that law was naturally neutral and objective. In her research, Crenshaw found that enduring issues like the racial wealth gap could not be explained unless the systems themselves were biased. Race wasn’t only the factor, however. In 1989, Crenshaw described her theory of intersectionality in the paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.”

The paper included an analysis of the 1976 case DeGraffenreid v. General Motors. In that case, five Black women filed a class action Title VII suit, saying that General Motors had discriminated against them as Black women. However, the court said the women couldn’t combine their claims. The women were told to choose either a racial or sex discrimination suit. The court was saying Black women did not face any specific challenges because they were Black women. They essentially had to choose between being Black or being women. In her analysis, Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain the discriminations faced by Black women like the ones in the General Motors case. If we want to understand power, we have to understand how systems target those with intersecting identities.

Consider taking an online course on Feminism and Social Justice to learn more.

Early intersectional feminists: Sojourner Truth, Francis Harper, and Ida B. Wells

Intersectional feminism as a term may be fairly young, but Crenshaw was not the first person to explore the concept. Women like Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Ida B. Wells knew all too well what it was like to live with intersecting identities. Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist who escaped slavery in 1826. In 1844, she joined an abolitionist organization and in 1851, she gave a famous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, speaking specifically about equal rights for Black women. While the transcription of “Ain’t I A Woman” likely does not reflect Truth’s speaking style or her exact words, it makes clear how her fight for equal rights is bound to her experiences as a Black woman.

Truth’s contemporary, Francis Harper, who was the most popular Black poet of her time, faced racism in the women’s rights movement. At the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, Harper stood and said, “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent…You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.” The leaders of the white suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, did not support the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. They were horrified at the idea that Black men – who they described in blatantly racist terms – would get to vote before white women. Because of the group’s racism, Harper left to form the American Woman Suffrage Association. While the mainstream women’s rights movement focused on educated white women at the expense of others, feminists like Harper worked to achieve rights for all women.

Ida B. Wells, who was born in 1862, became famous as a journalist exposing the prevalence of lynchings in the South. She began focusing on the murders in 1892 following the lynching of her friend and his business partners. Using her investigative skills, Wells found that horror stories about Black men raping white women were lies used to justify violence against Black people. Despite threats to her life, Wells continued to spread awareness about lynchings while traveling in America and Europe. Her campaign sparked big results; anti-lynching laws in the South were passed while there was a drop from 235 lynchings in 1892 to 107 in 1899. Wells was also deeply involved in the women’s rights movement and confronted the racism she found there. At a Washington parade advocating for women’s rights, Black women were told to march separately from everyone else. Not willing to be segregated, Wells refused. Her feminism could not be separated from her commitment to anti-racism and experiences as a Black woman.

Modern intersectional feminism: The Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks

In the 1970s, a group of Black feminist lesbian socialists formed the Combahee River Collective. They had found that neither the feminist movement – which was dominated by white women – nor the Civil Rights movement was empowering Black women. In 1977, the group released a statement that can only be described as a distillation of intersectional feminism. In the introduction, the Collective states that they are “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” and that the major systems of oppression are “interlocking.” Later, the statement reads “We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.” Those simultaneous experiences are key to understanding intersectional feminism’s significance. While the group disbanded in 1980, it has had a huge influence on intersectional, inclusive community organizing.

Audre Lorde (1934-1992) who described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” is many people’s first introduction to intersectionality. Her work, like Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, digs deep into intersectional identities and Lorde’s experiences with sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and more. Like Francis Harper and Ida B. Wells before her, Lorde challenged white feminists of her time. In one of her most famous essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde writes:

“If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of color?” (Source)

Born in 1952, bell hooks wrote her first book Ain’t I A Woman while in college. It wouldn’t be published for another decade, but by the end of her life in 2021, bell hooks would be one of her time’s most beloved writers and cultural critics. She chose her name with its lowercase letters because she wanted people to focus on her ideas, not her. One of her main ideas focused on the term “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” which she used to describe the interlocking systems of power. While she’s considered an important figure in intersectional feminism, her theory is a bit different because it names the source of discrimination and violence. In that way, it clarifies what intersectional feminism is ultimately about: oppressive systems. hooks’ work continues to empower feminists, activists, Black women, and many others.

The pitfalls of popularity

Intersectional feminism’s historical and current importance is hard to ignore. As Kyla Schuller writes in The Trouble With White Women, “intersectional feminism rejects white feminism’s biopolitical mandate to advance oneself through disposing others.” It encourages activists to understand how power works and who it targets the most intensely. However, it’s also hard to ignore how terms like intersectional feminism get warped or watered down. This loss of meaning often comes down to ignorance about definitions. Some think intersectional feminism focuses on individual identities, so that people with multiple marginalized identities are automatically more “intersectional” than those who are cis, white, and straight. This turns intersectional feminism into a debate about who is more discriminated against. Intersectionality is not about individuals and individual identity. It always refers to systems of power and their impacts.

People can also lose sight of intersectional feminism’s radical roots as the term becomes more popular. Today, you can find “intersectional feminist” T-shirts at retailers like Walmart and Amazon, as well as countless products like stickers, mugs, notebooks, and more. Calling oneself an intersectional feminist is trendy in progressive spaces, but how many people understand the theories and history? Capitalism loves co-opting feminist aesthetics and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing a T-shirt with a feminist slogan, it doesn’t embody the purpose of the intersectional feminist movement.

Must-read intersectional feminist texts

If you want to learn more about intersectional feminism, below are some essential texts. Alternatively have a look at these essays about feminism.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis
On Intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins
Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings
Feminism is for Everyone by bell hooks
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa
Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.