Intersectional Black Lives Matter protestor holding up sign that says "Asians for Black Lives"

What is Intersectional Feminism? A Definitive Guide

Please note that this post contains references to domestic violence.

In the last few years, have you heard the word “intersectionality” thrown around but never gotten quite clear on what it actually means?

Perhaps you’ve heard the motto “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” (originally proclaimed by Flavia Dzodan) and now you’re not so sure if your feminism has been “bullshit” all along.

Depending on who’s using the word, intersectionality is used to refer to:

  • A scholarly theory
  • An advanced level of wokeness
  • Black women
  • Anyone who is ‘multiply marginalized’
  • A critique of white feminists and white feminism

In this post, I’ll cut through the conflicting and confusing accounts of intersectional feminism and provide an in-depth overview of intersectionality theory, what its practice involves, and how you can raise your consciousness in the struggle against the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Intersectional feminism is an intellectual and political movement that identifies and challenges the ways interlocking systems of oppression impact social life, exemplified in the struggles of women of color.

Intersectionality theory was developed by legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who showed how the law was inadequate to recognize and redress the intersection of gender and racial discrimination that disadvantages Black women in the United States. Crenshaw’s work aims to challenge anti-discrimination legislation and its limitations in accounting for the specific and particular concerns of Black women.

The idea that Black women are subjected to both gender and racial injustice has deep roots in Black women’s activism that can be traced as far back as the 1850s. At the same time, contemporary activists have taken the word ‘intersectionality’ and adapted it beyond Crenshaw’s theorization in diverse and creative ways.

This post will take an in-depth look into what intersectionality means, its rich history in Black feminist thought and activism, how to be an intersectional feminist, and the criticisms of intersectional feminism.

At the end of the post, I’ll also recommend some further resources to continue your intersectional feminist education.

You may want to download this comprehensive post as a PDF that you can print and read offline.

what is intersectional feminism printed

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Creator of intersectional feminism, Kimberlé Crenshaw, giving a speech at a podium
Photograph by Mohamed Badarne

In 1989 while Kimberlé Crenshaw was an acting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School, she published a groundbreaking piece entitled, ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics’ in the University of Chicago Legal Forum.

‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex’ looked at three Title VII cases in which Black women faced challenges when they brought discrimination charges against their employers. The most well-known example was DeGraffenreid v General Motors where in 1976, five Black women alleged that General Motors discriminated against Black women. Evidence presented at the trial revealed that General Motors didn’t hire Black women before 1964 and all the Black women hired since lost their jobs in a major layoff.

Under the law, the court could not consider the combination of race and sex discrimination experienced by the former employees. The Black women were forced to argue that their case was either race or sex discrimination. Yet because General Motors hired Black men and white women, the Black women had no case and consequently received no protection from the law.

The analogy Kimberlé Crenshaw used to describe the distinct vulnerability of Black women gave rise to ‘intersectionality’ theory:

Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.

Just two years later, Kimberlé Crenshaw followed up her first article with another powerhouse piece called, ‘Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color’, published in the Stanford Law Review. She extends her first article by adding class and immigrant status to the multiple oppressions faced by poor women of color in the United States.

In her second piece, Crenshaw visited battered women’s shelters in communities of color in Los Angeles. She saw the consequences of gender, racial, and class disadvantage among the women of color at the shelters that trapped them within cycles of unemployment and poverty.

Immigrant women were also acutely vulnerable. As the law mandated that immigrant spouses had to remain “properly married” for two years before they could apply for permanent residency, immigrant women felt bound to stay with abusive partners for fear of being deported.

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality did not go viral overnight. Her two articles stayed within legal studies until sometime in the 2010s when intersectionality really took off within and beyond academia.

In April 2017, intersectionality was officially added to the dictionary.

Crenshaw never claimed to have ‘discovered’ the idea that gender, race, and class oppressions intersect. Her 1989 article acknowledged the inspiration behind her theorizing among pioneering Black women thinkers and activists and she repeats in her 1991 article that her theory is not proposed as some “new, totalizing theory of identity”.

However, the staggering fame of intersectionality has, at times, drowned out the rich Black feminist history that always challenged women of color’s unique oppressions.

History of Black and Women of Color Feminist Thought

Sojourner Truth in high-backed chair holding knitting
Sojourner Truth (1870)

The core sentiments of intersectionality could be heard when former slave, Sojourner Truth, allegedly proclaimed to the crowd at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, “Ain’t I a woman?”

By the 1890s, Anna Julia Cooper was writing:

gender is raced, race is gendered, and both are shot through with questions of national identity, regional influence, class status, and more.

Intersectional feminism (even though it wasn’t called that at the time) built formidable coalitions during the 1960s and 1970s. Operating under banners like ‘Third World feminism’, radical women of color rallied against the intersecting oppressions of patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and rising US imperialism.

In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a coalition of Black lesbian feminists operating in Boston, Massachusetts between 1974–1980, produced a powerful manifesto that advanced an intersectional vision. In what they called A Black Feminist Statement, the Collective proclaimed:

We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.

Non-Black women of color were also inspired by intersectional politics and helped advance its struggle throughout this period.

Chicana feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa, who grew up in South Texas as a daughter of poor farmworkers, explored how people navigated the crossings between multiple social worlds of culture, national, language, class, sexuality, and colonization.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s poetic writings suggested that women of color’s ability to navigate between different worlds was a gift (la facultad).

gloria anzaldua chicana activist intersectional feminism
Photograph by K. Kendall

Indian feminist Chandra Talpade Mohanty also brought together race, nation, colonialism, class, gender, and sexuality to analyze the complex and unique experiences of women of color around the world.

A year before Kimberlé Crenshaw published her article, ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex’, sociologist Deborah King proposed the theory of multiple jeopardy to describe how gender, racial and class oppressions interact in the lives of Black women.

Intersectional Feminist Activism

Intersectional feminism was certainly not confined to academia. Its social justice aims were propelled among women in color on the streets.

The Combahee River Collective who drafted that killer manifesto served its local community in Boston by attending to issues of domestic violence, reproductive rights, and food access in poor neighborhoods.

Organizations such as Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA), which has operated in California since 1983 embrace an intersectional approach in advancing the interests of Asian immigrant women subordinated by gender, race, class, and language disadvantage.

Even looking further back in history, we can find examples like the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. This radical group formed in 1914 to fight for working women’s rights throughout the First World War.

Their members included working-class women and women of color whose contributions to the women’s liberation movement have historically been sidelined.

Unlike other suffragette groups, the Federation advocated for universal suffrage.

As factories closed and food prices rose, the members of the Federation led community action to support those impacted by the war. Their initiatives included opening a volunteer-run children’s health clinic, distributing milk to starving infants, and running canteens that served nutritious food at cost price. They even recruited a small ‘People’s Army’ of supporters who defended the members against police brutality.

I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me. It is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving.

Sylvia Pankhurst, founding member of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes

What Does It Mean to Be Intersectional?

An intersectional feminist brings into their activism a recognition of the ways privilege and oppression intersect in complex, ever-changing ways in our lives.

Mari Matsuda, the first tenured female Asian American law professor in the United States, suggests an intersectional approach can be guided by the practice of ‘asking the other question’:

When I see something that looks racist, I ask, “Where is the patriarchy in this?” When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, “Where is the heterosexism in this?” When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, “Where are the class interests in this?” Working in coalition forces us to look for both the obvious and non-obvious relationships of domination, helping us to realize that no form of subordination ever stands alone.

A core belief of intersectional feminism is that none of us are free until all of us are free.

In practice, that means we must check our privilege while we struggle against the interlocking systems of power in our local contexts — imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and patriarchy.

As an Asian woman working in academia, gender and racial injustice are often foremost in my mind, but practicing intersectional feminism means I need to remain self-reflective and self-critical about the ways my activism may marginalize LGBTQIA+, disabled, and working-class people.

This inclusion is not about simply making marginalized people feel welcome through small, performative gestures such as adding a rainbow border around my profile picture. Intersectionality is about identifying and challenging structural oppression. My commitment to queer politics, for example, must include systemic and ideological battles against all forms of heteronormativity like gender binaries and the traditional family.

Intersectional feminism understands that social categories like gender and race are not monolithic, even though there are strategic advantages to uniting under common political identifications like ‘women of color’.

Within this banner of ‘women of color’, there are cracks and fissures that threaten our solidarity. For example, imperialist tendencies can lead educated middle-class English-speaking women of color in the Global North to speak for (and speak over) women of color in the Global South.

Under the white gaze, my light-skinned privilege as an Asian woman of Chinese descent grants me privileges over my darker-skinned friends. Colorism (prejudice against darker-skinned people of color) along with anti-Blackness are evils that all of us need to challenge within ourselves and our political movements.

Beyond White Feminism

Activists tend to use “intersectional feminism” nowadays as a shorthand to describe a feminist politics that goes beyond traditional (read: white, Western, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied) ideas about feminism.

When I say “white, Western, middle-class, etc. feminism”, I do not mean individuals who identify as feminist and happen to be white, Western, middle-class, etc. The blame for social injustice doesn’t lie with individuals. The root cause of social injustice is systems of power.

White feminism is the practice that claims to support gender equality while perpetuating racial injustice through upholding white power and privilege.

Examples of white feminists can be found among the early American suffragettes. Although the women’s suffrage movement in the United States originally came out of the anti-slavery movement, the movement later used racism to fuel their aims and agenda.

The first woman to serve in the Senate, Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, said: “I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all”.

Meanwhile, Black abolitionist men like Frederick Douglass fiercely argued for women’s suffrage.

Indeed, many ‘white feminists’ do also identify as white. After all, white people stand to gain the most from white power and privilege, but their racial identity is not what makes them a white feminist. It’s the racism.

There is no such thing as white feminism. Because if it’s white, it’s not feminism. It’s either talking about all women, or it’s not.

Gloria Steinem

So in that respect, non-white people can technically be ‘white feminists’ if they pander to white power and support white supremacy.

The idea of people of color supporting white supremacy may seem counterintuitive, but it’s more common than you might think.

In white societies, we’re told that we’ll be rewarded if we maintain the status quo. Obedient people of color are praised as ‘the good ones’ while those of us who dare speak against racism — ‘the bad ones’ — are repeatedly told we’re too loud, too angry, and too threatening.

Public anti-racists report the ways they’re frequently confronted with abuse, hate, and death threats. When we put our lives and livelihoods on the line every day we choose to challenge racial injustice, it’s no wonder some of us would rather play it safe.

White feminism thus achieves its aims by keeping it too dangerous, too costly, too difficult, and too painful to fight for anti-racism.

Criticisms of Intersectionality

One reason scholars speculate why intersectionality may have become so popular is its vivid analogy of traffic crossing in different directions. Kimberlé Crenshaw has an incredible gift for communicating intellectually complex ideas in an accessible and relatable way.

More cynically, some Black feminists have also wondered if ‘intersectionality’ has been more attractive to mainstream white culture because it’s seen as being less threatening than its precursors.

The Combahee River Collective called the source of social injustice “interlocking systems of oppression”. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins called it the “matrix of domination”. And cultural critic bell hooks goes one step further and names four intersecting systems of Euroamerican power in the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.

Each of these examples place power front and center in the way that the word “intersectionality” itself does not.

Even though Kimberlé Crenshaw is clear in her courageous critique against sexism, racism, and classism in her writings, ‘intersectionality’ has been used in some bizarre ways with very little resemblance to Crenshaw’s original ideas.

Misunderstanding and Misusing Intersectionality

One of the most common misunderstandings of intersectionality is that it is about counting how many identities someone has. The more ‘minority’ identities they have, the more ‘intersectional’ they are. This notion is usually expressed by people who fear that queer disabled working-class Black Indigenous women and non-binary folx will gain power. (Like that’s a bad thing.)

Intersectionality is about how identities relate to wider interlocking systems of power. So by understanding how Black women face gendered racism or racialized sexism helps us to identify the fundamental failures of antidiscrimination law. It’s not an exercise in racing to count how many disadvantages someone can claim in the Oppression Olympics.

Misunderstanding intersectionality as just being about individual identity is pretty widespread. Even some very established organizations and websites will define intersectionality in this way.

I think why this perspective is so popular is because most people in our society are used to thinking of identity as something innate and universal, also known as an “essentialist” view of identity. 

Intersectionality takes on what’s known as a social constructionist view of identity. This means that rather than seeing identities like gender, sexuality, and race as biological traits, it understands how what it means to be a man/woman/non-binary/straight/queer/white/Black are informed by cultural ideas.

Related to the idea that intersectionality is about individuals, some well-meaning people unhelpfully offer new forms of intersectionality. You might hear them say, “everybody talks about gender, race, and class, but what about left-handed people, people who wear reading glasses, Geminis, and environmental vegans?”

Intersectionality then becomes about finding people with combinations of quirky attributes rather than the systems of power that produce and reproduce social injustice.

There is also some concern with people who eagerly adopt “intersectional” as a slogan for performative wokeness. They suspect it’s a better, or at least more trendy, form of feminism, but they’re not really sure why.

They proudly call themselves intersectional feminists even as they perpetuate racism, colorism, classism, casteism, homophobia, transphobia, and/or ableism. This creates confusing misinformation out there about what intersectionality is and what it stands for.

Understandably, some women of color have decided to break with intersectionality, feeling the movement has been colonized by ignorance.

Intersectionality quickly becomes meaningless when we use it from a place of vanity. Foundational to intersectional feminism must be continual learning, reflection, and growth.

no justice no peace intersectional feminism
Photograph by John Vicente

Conclusion

Intersectional feminism is an evolving and exciting movement grounded in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality and extending the pioneering activist legacy of Black women and women of color around the world.

Intersectional approaches to feminism are profoundly solidaristic. It’s committed to honest and compassionate consciousness of our privileges, and seeks to direct whatever power we have towards uplifting those who are marginalized and oppressed. An intersectional politics believes that none of us are free until all of us are free.

Due to the vagueness of the word, intersectionality has sometimes been misunderstood and misused in ignorant and dangerous ways. Being an intersectional feminist requires continual learning and dialogue in community to hold ourselves to account.

This post has deconstructed the multiple meanings and misunderstandings of intersectionality in hopes of providing clarity about how to cultivate an intersectional practice in your feminism. At the same time, I hope the stories of incredible women throughout history and around the world have inspired you along your journey towards social justice.

Intersectional Feminism Reading Challenge

For 2021, I’m hosting an intersectional feminist reading challenge where you’ll get to choose a set of books to read through the year to deepen your understanding of intersectional feminism.

Participating in this reading challenge allows you to join a community of fellow readers and myself as we share our struggles towards social justice. Click here to join the #IntersectionalReads challenge!

Learn More

I’ve compiled a list of my favorite books on intersectionality as well as some of the writers referenced in this article if you would like to learn more.

5 Must-Read Intersectional Feminist Books for Beginners

On Intersectionality: Essential Writings by Kimberlé Crenshaw

Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality by Jennifer C. Nash

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa

A Voice From the South by Anna Julia Cooper

The story about the East London Federation of the Suffragettes also features in my book, Redeeming Leadership: An Anti-Racist Feminist Intervention.

To see a much more comprehensive collection of all the books, articles, children’s literature, poetry, videos, and podcasts on intersectional feminism I recommend, please visit the Readings and Resources page of this blog.

Please let me know if there are any other books on intersectional feminism that you might recommend I read and add to the list above.

Featured image by Mike Von

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