What Is Intersectionality And Why Is It Important? A Full History

Without intersectionality, social justice movements can inadvertently or intentionally leave out the most marginalized groups of people. For example, the early “original” feminist movement claimed to be a movement for women’s equality, when in reality it almost exclusively empowered white women—and often actively derailed the civil rights movement, thereby actually contributing to the oppression of Black women.

In the initial pages of their book Feminism, Interrupted, activist Lola Olufemi writes, “Feminist histories are unwieldy; they cannot and should not be neatly presented.”

In the United States, young people often learn the names of the white leaders of the suffrage movement like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But we aren’t always taught how those women sidelined and rejected the civil rights movement. Anthony has been quoted as saying, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.” Not only does this express a willingness to advocate for their movement to the detriment of others, but this is also a good example of failing to acknowledge that some women are Black people—as Crenshaw notes, effectively erasing Black women.

White suffragists also criticized the passage of the 15th Amendment to the constitution in 1870, which nominally gave Black men the vote (poll taxes and other initiatives stopped it from truly providing the right for another century, and Black people still face rampant disenfranchisement today). “You have put the ballot in the hands of your Black men, thus making them political superiors of white women,” Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, once said. “Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”

Black women were consistently pushed aside by the mainstream women’s suffrage movement. Even into the 20th century, the mainstream women’s movement continued to have a problem with race. The work of important members of the movement, like the author of The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan and her contemporaries, forced people to again evaluate the discrepancies in representation related to gender. But their movement lacked crucial consideration of the different problems faced by women of color, working-class women, and other groups of women.

As writer Arica L. Coleman wrote for Time magazine, “that feminism was also in dire need of diversity, as it was based on the cultural and historical experiences of middle- and upper-class heterosexual white women. Consequently, issues of race, class, sexuality, and ableism were ignored.”

Acknowledging the history and roots of the “original” feminist movement is crucial to understanding its core flaws and why intersectionality is so important to any social justice movement. Even modern-day women’s movements can often exclude women of color.

“Failing to acknowledge this complexity, scholars of intersectionality argue, is failing to acknowledge reality,” shared Coleman.

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