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date: 26 July 2017

Intersectionality and Political Ambition

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Historically, feminism and women’s studies movements have sprung from a shared recognition of exclusion or oppression of women as a group and, as such, have tended to take women as their subject. Yet defining the boundaries and contours of the group can prove difficult and divisive. Who defines the group “women”? Which women? For what purpose? Who gets left out?

In the United States, in the mid-19th century, suffragists advocated for greater rights (including the extension of the vote) for women, by which they usually meant women of European/Caucasian descent. While the conflict described by intersectionality probably was evident in earlier moments and movements, our first record in this country is when former slave Sojourner Truth chastised the delegates of the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in May 1851, for excluding her on the basis of race—“Ain’t I a woman?”

All major feminist movement waves and organizations in this country have had to grapple with Truth’s immortal question. Although the term “intersectionality” itself was not used until popularized in 1991, by a law review article by Kimberle Crenshaw, the concept has a deep and rich history, mostly through powerful writings by many feminist black women. Race and gender, these thinkers have argued, are not simply additive; they are “intersectional.” One cannot understand the experience of black women by looking at the experience of white women and adding in elements of black men. The combination of race and gender changes the experience of both for the individual.

Since Crenshaw’s article, and especially after 2000, the term “intersectionality” and the concept it defines have become a central part of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in academic circles and of feminist movement organizations in the real world. Although the term originally referred to the intersection of race with gender, it has expanded to include other forms of identity. The central metaphor for the concept as it has come to be used could be seen as the asterisk; each of us has a multiplicity of identities (race and gender, but also age, class, religion, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and more). The “self,” or subject, lies at the intersection of these many axes of identity.

Difficulties continue to arise, however, in finding coherence in both theoretical and empirical works adopting an intersectional perspective. Should the concept be tied to its original understanding of the overlap between race and gender? Which race? With each additional axis of identity that we examine in a scholarly way, we gain specificity, but perhaps lose some generalizability. Taking into consideration all aspects of identity that define a whole person would be nearly impossible across any group. (Even a collection of young gay male Native Americans would likely have all kinds of differences that go far beyond their initial similarities.) Pushed to its logical extreme, the concept of intersectionality can threaten a feminist politics that seeks to take the group called women as its subject.