Intersectionality’s Black Feminist Origins

By: Takeia R. Johnson

Kimberlé Crenshaw did not invent the concept of “intersectionality.” She did, however, coin and popularize the term itself.

Intersectionality did not begin at the moment that it was named. Its core ideas formed within the context of social movements of women of color. Since Black people’s forced removal to the United States of America, enslavement, and subsequent abolitionist work and emancipation, Black women have articulated the ideas central to today’s understanding of intersectionality. From the beginning, Black women were intentional about politically positioning themselves to fight for the rights of all by centering the standpoint of the most marginalized group. While racial justice projects centered the experiences of Black men and gender justice projects sought the political and social equity of white women, Black women were forced to respond to their exclusion from these movements. 

Intersectionality’s core ideas appeared in several important texts before Crenshaw is credited with coining the term. One of the first articulations of intersectional ideas comes from the works of Black women former slaves. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman used their experiences as slaves to express the uniquely oppressive conditions of other Black women slaves. Brittany Cooper, PhD, professor, writer, and activist, calls this Black feminist genealogy proto-intersectionality (2015). Cooper’s analysis of how the ideas of intersectionality preceded its naming showed how Black women recognized and labeled the intersecting oppressions of race, class, and sexuality.

In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper articulated how patriarchy interacts with racism (and other systems of power) to disadvantage Black women in ways that cannot be known or understood by white women. Mary Church Terrell’s A Colored Woman in a White World (1940) called the experiences of living in the world as a Black woman a “double-handicap.” Around the same time, while in law school Pauli Murray referred to the legal disenfranchisement of Black women as “Jane Crow.” Years later, as an attorney in the 1970s, Murray published “Constitutional Law and Black Women.” This essay can be seen as a preview into critical race theory. In the 1970s, Frances Beale articulates “double-jeopardy,” Beverly Lindsay furthers this concept with “triple jeopardy,” and then the Combahee River Collective decreed that “major systems of oppression are interlocking” and they create “the conditions of our lives” (1995, 232). All of these texts arose in social movement contexts.

It wasn’t until 1989 and 1991 that Kimberlé Crenshaw, in her capacity as a law professor and social justice advocate, used the term “intersectionality” to identify the unique legal experiences of Black women in society. In a pair of essays, Crenshaw first analyzed a gap in legal theory and precedent that misunderstood or outright ignored Black women’s distinct experiences of employment discrimination. The second article further explained the systems of violence that are uniquely experienced by Black women and other women of color and the ways that the law and society are ill-equipped to see and address these systems of violence.

Intersectionality’s Black feminist origins cannot be ignored or misappropriated because it demonstrates “the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed” (Crenshaw, 1991: 1245). Because U.S. Black feminism has been very visible in the emergence of race/class/gender studies into the academy, Black feminism provides an “important lens on intersectionality as a ‘traveling knowledge’ project” (7). The concept of travel knowledge is as theories travel across domains, they lose their originality and critical stance. Collins, Bilge, and Nash all address Said’s traveling theory (1983) and the relationship of how intersectionality’s institutionalization is affected by its travel across disciplines and movements. Whether travel across fields and disciplines is the cause of the erasure of Black feminist thought in intersectionality is a point of contention among critics of the theory.

Stay tuned to learn the various definitions of intersectionality and why defining the theory should be used when devising strategies for social change.

References

Beale, Frances. 1970. “Double Jeopardy.” Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought 154–155.

Cooper, Anna J. 2000. The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including a Voice from the South and Other Important Essays, Papers, and Letters. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Cooper, Brittney. n.d. “Intersectionality.” Published online September 27, 2015 (https://www.academia.edu/15810756/Intersectionality).

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 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 1989:139.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6):1241–99.

Murray, Pauli. 2018. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. Liveright Publishing.

Murray, Pauli and Mary O. Eastwood. 1965. “Jane Crow and the Law:  Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” George Washington Law Review 34(2):232–56.

Terrell, Mary Church. 1940. A Colored Woman in a White World. GK Hall.