The premise of intersectionality theory, first articulated by feminists of color, is that social differentiation is achieved through complex interactions between markers of difference such as gender, race, and class. In order to comprehend how an individual’s access to social, political, and economic institutions is differentially experienced, it is necessary to analyze how markers of difference intersect and interact.
In the 1970s feminist theory could be divided into different perspectives based on the identification of the root of women’s oppression. Liberal feminists identified unequal access to existing economic and political systems, whereas radical feminists named patriarchy, the control of women by men, as the key oppressive system. Marxist and socialist feminists, following the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, believed that capitalism was the main determinant of women’s oppression. Socialist feminists engaged in active debates on the relationship between class and gender oppression, some arguing that women constituted a sexual class that functioned within the capitalist framework. Others, such as Betsy Hartmann, posited a dual-systems theory or a capitalist patriarchy in which patriarchy was viewed as a system of oppression anchored in material conditions (e.g., the institution of marriage, property ownership) acting alongside the relations of class. Issues of race and sexuality were largely absent from these debates.
Although second-wave feminists challenged traditional scholarship for positioning the experiences of men as universal, black feminists and lesbians critiqued these feminists for excluding issues of race and sexuality from feminist analysis, thus falsely universalizing the experiences of middle-class heterosexual white women. In the late 1970s only a few authors, mostly women of color, were writing about gender, race, and class as interconnected systems of oppression. The Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminist activists from Boston, is widely credited for first theorizing the interconnections between gender, race, class, and sexuality. In “A Black Feminist Statement” (1983) they outline how they view gender, race, class, and sexuality as connected: “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. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives” (p. 210). An intersectional approach complicates analyses of power relations that give priority to one element of identity.
Although intersectionality theory emerged in the 1970s, its roots can be traced back to a speech delivered by Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883), a black woman who had been a slave, at the 1851 Women’s Rights Conference in Akron, Ohio. In this passage, she articulates how her identity is shaped not only by her gender, but also by her race and class: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place. And ain’t I a woman?” (Painter 1996, p. 165). According to Avtar Brah and Ann Phoenix (2004), “Sojourner Truth’s identity claims are thus relational, constructed in relation to white women and all men and clearly demonstrate that what we call ‘identities’ are not objects but processes constituted in and through power relations” (p. 77).
In the early twenty-first century, intersectionality theory received wide support from social science researchers. Many researchers adopted intersectionality theory in their development of research questions, methodologies, and analysis. Some researchers who used this approach framed the intersections of gender, race, and class as additive so that a black woman would be seen as facing a “double jeopardy” due to the combined impact of gender and racial inequality. Elizabeth Spelman (1988) argued that treating interlocking systems of oppression as additive implies that processes of gender, race, and class are separate entities, and it ignores how these factors interact to shape lived experience. Intersectionality approaches the concepts of gender, race, and class as social constructions that vary across geography and time; markers of difference are not viewed as static traits, but as processes that are (re)produced in the daily actions of people.
Both qualitative and quantitative researchers have taken up intersectionality theory in their investigations into the workings of social reality, although qualitative approaches have far outnumbered quantitative studies. Marlene Kim (2002) applied an intersectionality framework to her quantitative investigation of how gender and race processes affect the wages of women in the United States. Her research indicates that black women face a “race penalty” in that when all factors are considered, they earn 7 percent less than white women in the same industries. Feminist economists Rose M. Brewer, Cecelia A. Conrad, and Mary C. King (2002) point out that there are many challenges of applying an intersectionality framework to the empirical investigation of social differentiation: “Even as we increasingly understand the mutually constitutive nature of color, caste, race, gender, and class, analytically, as categories of analysis and identity, the project remains difficult” (p. 5). Quantitative research studies tend to address issues of gender independent of race or class.
An important quantitative research project was conducted by Leslie McCall (2001), who analyzes the impact of gender, race, and class on wage inequality in four U.S. cities with different local economic contexts: Detroit, Miami, St. Louis, and Dallas. By combining an analysis of case-study and large-scale survey data, McCall demonstrates that gender and racial inequality have different consequences in different contexts; in some instances, a decrease in gender inequality is accompanied by an increase in racial inequality between women. She identifies configurations of inequality as a term to describe the shifting interactions between gender, race, and class. These configurations “reveal that in no local economy are all types of wage inequality systematically and simultaneously lower or higher; complex interactions of various dimensions of inequality are the norm” (p. 6). Her analysis is an important development in understanding the relationship between relations of gender, race, and class.
Researchers who use intersectionality theory present a more sophisticated, nuanced understanding of the workings of power relations. Susan Stanford Friedman (1995) proposed a framework of “relational positionality” that acknowledges how “the flow of power in multiple systems of domination is not always unidirectional. Victims can also be victimizers; agents of change can also be complicit, depending on the particular axis of power one considers” (p. 18). Sherene Razack (1998) argues that “it is vitally important to explore in a historical and site-specific way the meaning of race, economic status, class, disability, sexuality, and gender as they come together to structure women in different and shifting positions of power and privilege” (p. 12). The research of intersectionality theorists makes an important contribution to the social sciences; it is now considered incomplete scholarship in women’s studies or cultural studies for a researcher to undertake an analysis of gender relations without consideration of how race and class relations are also implicated.
SEE ALSO Capitalism; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnic Enclave; Ethnicity; Feminism; Gender; Identity; Immigration; Inequality, Gender; Inequality, Racial; Liberalism; Nationalism and Nationality; Power; Race; Racism; Social Movements; Truth, Sojourner; Women; Women’s Movement
Brah, Avtar, and Ann Phoenix. 2004. Ain’t I a Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality. Journal of International Women’s studies 5 (3): 75–86.
Brewer, Rose M., Cecelia A. Conrad, and Mary C. King. 2002. The Complexities and Potential of Theorizing Gender, Caste, Race, and Class. Feminist Economics 8 (2): 3–18.
Combahee River Collective. 1983. A Black Feminist Statement. In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, 210–219. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. 1995. Beyond White and Other: Relationality and Narratives of Race in Feminist Discourse. Signs 21 (1): 1–21.
Kim, Marlene. 2002. Has the Race Penalty for Black Women Disappeared in the United States? Feminist Economics 8 (2): 115–124.
Painter, Nell Irvin. 1996. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: W. H. Norton.
Razack, Sherene H. 1998. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Spelman, Elizabeth. 1988. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.