Intersectionality is an analytic framework which attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society.[1] Intersectionality considers that various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are interwoven together. While the theory began as an exploration of the oppression of women of color within society, today the analysis is potentially applied to all social categories (including social identities usually seen as dominant when considered independently).

Historical background

External video
Women of the World Festival 2016
Kimberlé Crenshaw – On Intersectionality via Southbank Centre on YouTube[2]

The concept of intersectionality is intended to illuminate dynamics that have often been overlooked in feminist movements and theory.[3] As articulated by bell hooks, such an approach "challenged the notion that 'gender' was the primary factor determining a woman's fate".[4] This exploration stemmed from a historical exclusion of black women from the feminist movement that had been challenged since the 19th century by black feminists such as Anna Julia Cooper. The movement led by women of color disputed the idea, common to earlier feminist movements, that women were a homogeneous category who shared the same life experiences. This argument stemmed from the realization that white middle-class women did not serve as an accurate representation of the feminist movement as a whole.[5] Recognizing that the forms of oppression experienced by white middle-class women were different from those experienced by black, poor, or disabled women, feminists sought to understand the ways in which gender, race, and class combined to "determine the female destiny".[4]

Historically, the idea of intersectionality has been connected with terms such as feminism, black feminism, and womanism. Intersectionality is woven within these other ideologies because of the need to understand how there are connections between disparities, which traditionally have not been studied. These dynamics are more complex than simply recognizing either race or economic status alone as a contributing factor for inequality or discrimination. Intersectionality works to identify how multiple factors and identities relate with each other to create social inequality and oppression.

First wave feminism focused on gaining political equality between men and women; however, racial inequality was a factor that was largely ignored by the movement. Consequently, early women's rights movements are often seen as exclusively pertaining to white women's membership, concerns, and struggles.[6] Third wave feminism is noted for its efforts to understand the multiple layers of oppression present within injustice towards women. Third wave feminism notes the lack of attention to race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity in early feminist movements, and provides a channel to address political and social disparities.[7] Since these factors were previously ignored, they were seen as struggles that were independent of each other. Intersectionality is a concept that recognizes the failure to address these issues in early social justice movements. Leslie McCall argues that the introduction of the intersectionality theory was vital to sociology, claiming that before its development there was little research that specifically addressed the experiences of people who are subjected to multiple forms of subordination within society.[8]

The term also has historical and theoretical links to the concept of "simultaneity" advanced during the 1970s by members of the Combahee River Collective, in Boston, Massachusetts.[9] Members of this group articulated an awareness that their lives, and their forms of resistance to oppression, were profoundly shaped by the simultaneous influences of race, class, gender, and sexuality.[10] Thus, the women of the Combahee River Collective advanced an understanding of African-American experiences that challenged analyses emerging from Black and male-centered social movements, as well as those from mainstream white, middle-class, heterosexual feminists.[11]

Other writers and theorists were using intersectional analysis in their work before the term was coined. For example, Chicana feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa's work is described by Gloria Wekker as exemplifying how, "Existent categories for identity are strikingly not dealt with in separate or mutually exclusive terms, but are always referred to in relation to one another"[12]. Wekker also points to the words and activism of Sojourner Truth as an example of an intersectional approach to social justice.[12]

Feminist thought

Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the theory of intersectionality to feminist theory in 1989 by becoming the first person to use this word in this context of feminism.[13][14]The first use of the term was in a seminal 1989 paper written by Crenshaw for the University of Chicago Legal Forum, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics".[15][16] In her work, Crenshaw discussed Black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and of being a woman considered independently, but must include interactions between the two identities, which frequently reinforce each other.[17]

In order to show that women of color have a vastly different experience from white women due to their race and/or class and that their experiences are not easily voiced or pinpointed, Crenshaw explores two types of male violence against women: domestic violence and rape. Through her analysis of these two forms of male violence against women, Crenshaw claims that the experiences of women of color consist of a combination or intersection of both racism and sexism.[18] Because women of color are present within discourses that have been designed to address either race or sex, but not both at the same time, women of color are marginalized within both of these systems of oppression.[18]

In her work, Crenshaw identifies three aspects of intersectionality that affect the visibility of women of color: structural intersectionality, political intersectionality, and representational intersectionality. Structural intersectionality deals with how women of color experience domestic violence and rape in a manner qualitatively different from the ways that white women experience them. Political intersectionality examines how feminist and anti-racists laws and policies have paradoxically decreased the visibility of violence against women of color. Finally, representational intersectionality delves into how pop culture portrayals of women of color can obscure the actual, lived experiences of women of color.[18]

The term gained prominence in the 1990s, particularly in the wake of sociologist Patricia Hill Collins's further development of Crenshaw's work in her writings on black feminism. Crenshaw's term replaced her previous coinage "black feminist thought," and "increased the general applicability of her theory from African American women to all women".[19]:61 Much like Crenshaw, Collins argued that cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society, such as race, gender, class, and ethnicity.[20]:42 Collins described this as "interlocking social institutions [that] have relied on multiple forms of segregation... to produce unjust results".[21]

Collins sought to create frameworks to think about intersectionality, rather than expanding on the theory itself. She identified three main branches of study within intersectionality. One branch deals with the background, ideas, issues, conflicts, and debates within intersectionality. Another branch seeks to apply intersectionality as an analytical strategy to various social institutions in order to examine how they might perpetuate social inequality. The final branch formulates intersectionality as a critical praxis to determine how social justice initiatives can use intersectionality to bring about social change.[22]

The ideas behind intersectional feminism existed long before the term was coined. For example, in 1851 Sojourner Truth delivered her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, in which she spoke from her racialized position as a former slave to critique essentialist notions of femininity.[23] Similarly, in her 1892 essay, "The Colored Woman's Office", Anna Julia Cooper identifies black women as the most important actors in social change movements, because of their experience with multiple facets of oppression.[24]

Though intersectionality began with the exploration of the interplay between gender and race, over time other identities and oppressions were added to the theory. For example, in 1981 Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa published the first edition of This Bridge Called My Back. This anthology explored how classifications of sexual orientation and class also mix with those of race and gender to create even more distinct political categories. Many black, Latina, and Asian writers featured in the collection stress how their sexuality interacts with their race and gender to inform their perspectives. Similarly, poor women of color detail how their socio-economic status adds a layer of nuance to their identities, ignored or misunderstood by middle-class white feminists.[25]

According to black feminists and many white feminists, experiences of class, gender, and sexuality cannot be adequately understood unless the influence of racialization is carefully considered. This focus on racialization was highlighted many times by scholar and feminist bell hooks, specifically in her 1981 book Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism.[26] Feminists argue that an understanding of intersectionality is a vital element of gaining political and social equality and improving our democratic system.[27] Collins's theory represents the sociological crossroads between modern and post-modern feminist thought.[20]

Marie-Claire Belleau argues for "strategic intersectionality" in order to foster cooperation between feminisms of different ethnicities.[28]:51 She refers to different nat-cult (national-cultural) groups that produce unique types of feminisms. Using Québécois nat-cult as an example, Belleau acknowledges that many nat-cult groups contain infinite sub-identities within themselves. Due to this infinity, she argues that there are endless ways in which different feminisms can cooperate by using strategic intersectionality, and these partnerships can help bridge gaps between "dominant and marginal" groups.[28]:54 Belleau argues that, through strategic intersectionality, differences between nat-cult feminisms are neither essentialist nor universal, but should be understood as resulting from socio-cultural contexts. Furthermore, the performances of these nat-cult feminisms are also not essentialist. Instead, they are strategies.[28]

Similarly, Intersectional theorists like Vrushali Patil argue that intersectionality ought to recognize transborder constructions of racial and cultural hierarchies. Patil recognizes the effect of the state on identity formation: "If we continue to neglect cross-border dynamics and fail to problematize the nation and its emergence via transnational processes, our analyses will remain tethered to the spatialities and temporalities of colonial modernity."[29]

Marxist feminist critical theory

Collins's intersectional theory and its principles have a wide range of applicability in the sociological realm, especially in topics such as politics and violence (see, for instance, Collins, 1998). The struggle faced by Black women in the economic sector, for example, demonstrates how the interrelated principles of Collins's theory come together to add a new dimension to Marxist economic theory. Collins used her insight and built a dynamic theory of political oppression as it related to Black women in particular.

W. E. B. Du Bois theorized that the intersectional paradigms of race, class, and nation might explain certain aspects of black political economy. Collins writes: "Du Bois saw race, class, and nation not primarily as personal identity categories but as social hierarchies that shaped African-American access to status, poverty, and power."[20]:44 Du Bois omitted gender from his theory and considered it more of a personal identity category.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes expands on this by pointing out the value of centering on the experiences of black women. Joy James takes things one step further by "using paradigms of intersectionality in interpreting social phenomena". Collins later integrated these three views by examining a black political economy through the centering of black women's experiences and the use of a theoretical framework of intersectionality.[20]:44

Collins uses a Marxist feminist approach and applies her intersectional principles to what she calls the "work/family nexus and black women's poverty". In her 2000 article "Black Political Economy" she describes how the intersections of consumer racism, gender hierarchies, and disadvantages in the labor market can be centered on black women's unique experiences. Considering this from a historical perspective and examining interracial marriage laws and property inheritance laws creates what Collins terms a "distinctive work/family nexus that in turn influences the overall patterns of black political economy".[20]:45–46 For example, anti-miscegenation laws effectively suppressed the upward economic mobility of black women.

The intersectionality of race and gender has been shown to have a visible impact on the labor market. "Sociological research clearly shows that accounting for education, experience, and skill does not fully explain significant differences in labor market outcomes."[30]:506 The three main domains in which we see the impact of intersectionality are wages, discrimination, and domestic labor. Those who experience privilege within the social hierarchy in terms of race, gender and socio-economic status are less likely to receive lower wages, to be subjected to stereotypes and discriminated against, or to be hired for exploitative domestic positions. Studies of the labor market and intersectionality provide a better understanding of economic inequalities and the implications of the multidimensional impact of race and gender on social status within society.[30]:506–507

Key concepts

Interlocking matrix of oppression

Collins refers to the various intersections of social inequality as the matrix of domination. This is also known as "vectors of oppression and privilege".[31]:204 These terms refer to how differences among people (sexual orientation, class, race, age, etc.) serve as oppressive measures towards women and change the experience of living as a woman in society. Collins, Audre Lorde (in Sister Outsider), and bell hooks point towards either/or thinking as an influence on this oppression and as further intensifying these differences.[32] Specifically, Collins refers to this as the construct of dichotomous oppositional difference. This construct is characterized by its focus on differences rather than similarities.[33]:S20

Standpoint epistemology and the outsider within

Both Collins and Dorothy Smith have been instrumental in providing a sociological definition of standpoint theory. A standpoint is an individual's unique world perspective. The theoretical basis of this approach views societal knowledge as being located within an individual's specific geographic location. In turn, knowledge becomes distinctly unique and subjective; it varies depending on the social conditions under which it was produced.[34]:392

The concept of the outsider within refers to a unique standpoint encompassing the self, family, and society.[33]:S14 This relates to the specific experiences to which people are subjected as they move from a common cultural world (i.e., family) to that of modern society.[31]:207 Therefore, even though a woman—especially a Black woman—may become influential in a particular field, she may feel as though she does not belong. Their personalities, behavior, and cultural being overshadow their value as an individual; thus, they become the outsider within.[33]:S14

Resisting oppression

Speaking from a critical standpoint, Collins points out that Brittan and Maynard claim "domination always involves the objectification of the dominated; all forms of oppression imply the devaluation of the subjectivity of the oppressed."[33]:S18 She later notes that self-valuation and self-definition are two ways of resisting oppression. Practicing self-awareness helps to preserve the self-esteem of the group that is being oppressed and allow them to avoid any dehumanizing outside influences.

Marginalized groups often gain a status of being an "other".[33]:S18 In essence, you are "an other" if you are different from what Audre Lorde calls the mythical norm. "Others" are virtually anyone that differs from the societal schema of an average white male. Gloria Anzaldúa theorizes that the sociological term for this is "othering", or specifically attempting to establish a person as unacceptable based on a certain criterion that fails to be met.[31]:205

Individual subjectivity is another concern for marginalized groups. Differences can be used as a weapon of self-devaluation by internalizing stereotypical societal views, leading to a form of psychological oppression. The point Collins effectively makes is that having a sense of self-value and a stable self-definition not obtained from outside influences helps to overcome these oppressive societal methods of domination.

In practice

Intersectionality can be applied to nearly all fields from politics,[35][36] education[8][24][37] healthcare,[38][39] and employment, to wealth and property.[40] For example, within the institution of education, Sandra Jones' research on working class women in academia takes into consideration meritocracy within all social strata, but argues that it is complicated by race and the external forces that oppress.[37] Additionally, people of color often experience differential treatment in the healthcare system. For example, in the period immediately after 9/11 researchers noted low birth weights and other poor birth outcomes among Muslim and Arab Americans, a result they connected to the increased racial and religious discrimination of the time.[41] Some researchers have also argued that immigration policies can affect health outcomes through mechanisms such as stress, restrictions on access to health care, and the social determinants of health.[39]

Additionally, applications with regard to property and wealth can be traced to the American historical narrative that is filled "with tensions and struggles over property—in its various forms. From the removal of Indians (and later Japanese Americans) from the land, to military conquest of the Mexicans, to the construction of Africans as property, the ability to define, possess, and own property has been a central feature of power in America ... [and where] social benefits accrue largely to property owners".[40] One could apply the intersectionality framework analysis to various areas where race, class, gender, sexuality and ability are affected by policies, procedures, practices, and laws in "context-specific inquiries, including, for example, analyzing the multiple ways that race and gender interact with class in the labor market; interrogating the ways that states constitute regulatory regimes of identity, reproduction, and family formation";[42] and examining the inequities in "the power relations [of the intersectionality] of whiteness ... [where] the denial of power and privilege ... of whiteness, and middle-classness", while not addressing "the role of power it wields in social relations".[43]

Social work

In the field of social work, proponents of intersectionality hold that unless service providers take intersectionality into account, they will be of less use for various segments of the population, such as those reporting domestic violence or disabled victims of abuse. According to intersectional theory, the practice of domestic violence counselors in the United States urging all women to report their abusers to police is of little use to women of color due to the history of racially motivated police brutality, and those counselors should adapt their counseling for women of color.[44]

Women with disabilities encounter more frequent domestic abuse with a greater number of abusers. Health care workers and personal care attendants perpetrate abuse in these circumstances, and women with disabilities have fewer options for escaping the abusive situation.[45] There is a "silence" principle concerning the intersectionality of women and disability, which maintains an overall social denial of the prevalence of abuse among the disabled and leads to this abuse being frequently ignored when encountered.[46] A paradox is presented by the overprotection of people with disabilities combined with the expectations of promiscuous behavior of disabled women.[45][46] This leads to limited autonomy and social isolation of disabled individuals, which place women with disabilities in situations where further or more frequent abuse can occur.[45]


Strong focus on subjective narratives

According to Rebecca Reilly-Cooper intersectionality relies heavily on standpoint theory, which has its own set of criticisms. Intersectionality posits that an oppressed person is often the best person to judge their experience of oppression; however, this can create paradoxes when people who are similarly oppressed have different interpretations of similar events. Such paradoxes make it very difficult to synthesize a common actionable cause based on subjective testimony alone.[47]

Some commentators have claimed intersectionality can demonstrate a narrative of disadvantage with regards to black women's pay relative to other groups considered statistically to be underprivileged.[48] Other narratives, especially those based on multiple intersections of oppression, are more complex.[49]

Incomplete class analysis

Intersectional theory sees class as just another intersection, while economic class has a far more complex relationship with other marginalized identities. Marginalized people typically earn less than non-marginalized people, meaning marginalized people are more likely to be economically oppressed as well. In this sense economic class is a mechanism of oppression, not just another intersection. For this reason, many marginalized groups can find common cause fighting economic oppression. Coatoan said "To say that poor people of color, queers, or immigrants are not interested or not profoundly impacted by the economy, and instead interested only in reaffirming their identities within existing hierarchies of power, is to work within a rigged zero-sum game for the liberation of a particular oppressed identity at the expense of all the others."[50] Michael Rectenwald accuses intersectional theorists of furthering a neoliberal agenda by discussing only the distribution of resources within our current system of income inequality, without questioning income inequality itself.[51][52]

Encouraging paralysis in attempting perfection

Rekia Jibrin and Sara Salem argue that intersectional theory creates a unified idea of anti-oppression politics that requires a lot out of its adherents, often more than can reasonably be expected, creating difficulties achieving praxis. They also say that intersectional philosophy encourages a focus on the issues inside the group instead of on society at large, and that intersectionality is "a call to complexity and to abandon over simplification... this has the parallel effect of emphasizing 'internal differences' over hegemonic structures."[52][lower-alpha 1] Writing in the New Statesman, Helen Lewis adds that in emphasizing internal differences over hegemonic structures, and having complex and at times contradictory recommendations, it can create paralysis because it is not very accessible. "People are not perfect, and they do not have unlimited time and resources. I've given the example of disability, because I think most people would agree that obviously, any public meeting should be accessible to wheelchairs. But what about the deaf? The blind? Should a group of feminists starting their own meet-up in a university hall enlist someone proficient in sign-language in case that's needed? Should they print their leaflets in braille?"[53] Hannah Wilder says that this also complicates building alliances, because imperfect humans cannot live up to the standard intersectionality promotes, and may stop attempting intersectionality for this reason.[54] Chris Black has argued that this effect can create a broader political problem building intersectional alliances or mass movements.[55]


The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in a speech at the Manhattan Institute, criticized the theory by saying:

[In intersectionality] the binary dimensions of oppression are said to be interlocking and overlapping. America is said to be one giant matrix of oppression, and its victims cannot fight their battles separately. They must all come together to fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male. This is why a perceived slight against one victim group calls forth protest from all victim groups. This is why so many campus groups now align against Israel. Intersectionality is like NATO for social-justice activists.[56]

Alan Dershowitz derided the theory of intersectionality as the "phoniest academic doctrine I have encountered in 53 years" in academia, during a lecture at Columbia University. Dershowitz sees the concept as an oversimplification of reality that makes LGBT activists stand in solidarity with advocates of Sharia, even though Islamic law denies the rights of the former. He feels that identity politics does not evaluate ideas or individuals on the basis of the quality of their character. Dershowitz argues that in academia, intersectionality is taught with a large influence from antisemitism. He states that Jews are actually more liberal and supportive of equal rights than many other religious sects.[57]

Chloé Valdary considers intersectionality "a rigid system for determining who is virtuous and who is not, based on traits like skin color, gender, and financial status". Valdary also states:

Intersectionality's greatest flaw is in reducing human beings to political abstractions, which is never a tendency that turns out well—in part because it so severely flattens our complex human experience, and therefore fails to adequately describe reality. As it turns out, one can be personally successful and still come from a historically oppressed community—or vice versa. The human experience is complex and multifaceted and deeper than the superficial ways in which intersectionalists describe it.[58]

In a review of intersectionality [59], Christian Alejandro Gonzalez attempts to offer “a fair presentation as well as a careful rebuttal of it.” He calls intersectionality “an all-encompassing philosophy that advances a unique politics, metaphysics, aesthetics, and epistemology, as well as its own (rather bizarre) interpretation of history. It is effectively a secular religion” that is “philosophically incoherent, sociologically mistaken, historically illiterate, and...politically dangerous” and that involves “[v]ehement opposition to capitalism, a rejection of objective truth, a dogmatic commitment to the politics of identity, the replacement of religion with an all-embracing political theory, a subtle (and at times not so subtle) hatred of groups perceived to be dominant, an inability to disagree with others in good faith, and a willingness to dismiss opponents as racists and sexists.” About a book by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge on the topic, he writes “They care not for the sort of complexity that is the subject of literature—war, family, and other imponderables of the human condition. They are interested only in the complexity of social inequality....”

Lack of ideological diversity

Helen Pluckrose argues that intersectional feminism primarily draws on far-left ideologies and ultimately ends up excluding women, working-class people, people of colour, LGBT and disabled people who do not share similar political views. Pluckrose also states that these groups are politically diverse and that they often have views that are incompatible with intersectional feminism, or alternatively, they express opinions that it is intolerant of, as it violates intersectional stereotypes of these marginalized groups. Pluckrose argues that proponents of intersectional feminism aren't representative of the groups they claim to represent but rather that "It is clearly misguided to assume that by listening to intersectionals, we are listening to women, people of color, LGBTs and the disabled. We are, in fact, listening to a minority ideological view dominated by people from an economically privileged class who have had a university education in the social sciences and/or the necessary leisure time and education to study intersectionality, critical race theory, queer theory and critical analyses of ableism."[60]

Similarly, Davis (2008) asserts that intersectionality is ambiguous and open ended, and that its "lack of clear-cut definition or even specific parameters has enabled it to be drawn upon in nearly any context of inquiry".[61]

Ruth Wisse argued that intersectionality is a "coalition of self-declared victims" who have very little in common with one another. In her reading, disproportional support for Palestinian nationalism is part of the glue that holds intersectionalists together. This is because focusing on more urgent causes (such as the massive civilian casualties in the Syrian Civil War) risks dividing internationalists.[62]

Compared to abiding religious faiths

Intersectionality's premises have been characterized by some libertarian-leaning skeptics as manifested similarly to religious faith. Notably, for example, public intellectual Andrew Sullivan has argued that intersectionality manifests itself "almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained—and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., 'check your privilege,' and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay."[63][64] David A. French also agrees with Sullivan's conclusion, equating intersectionality's proponents to extremist Christian fundamentalists.[65]


Researchers in psychology have incorporated intersection effects since the 1950s, long before the work of Patricia Hill Collins. Psychology incorporates these effects via the lenses of biases, heuristics, stereotypes, and judgements. Psychological interaction effects span a range of variables, although person by situation effects are the most examined category. As a result, psychologists do not construe the interaction effect of demographics such as gender and race as either more noteworthy or less noteworthy than any other interaction effect. In addition, oppression can be regarded as a subjective construct when viewed as an absolute hierarchy; even if an objective definition of oppression were reached, person-by-situation effects would make it difficult to deem certain persons or categories of persons as uniformly oppressed. For instance, black men are stereotypically perceived as violent, which may be a disadvantage in police interactions, but also as physically attractive,[66][67] which may be advantageous in romantic situations.[68]

Psychological studies have shown that the effect of multiplying "oppressed" identities is not necessarily additive, but rather interactive in complex ways. For instance, black gay men may be more positively evaluated than black heterosexual men, because the "feminine" aspects of gay stereotypes temper the hypermasculine and aggressive aspect of black stereotypes.[68][69]

See also



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  3. Thompson, Becky (Summer 2002). "Multiracial feminism: recasting the chronology of Second Wave Feminism". Feminist Studies. 28 (2): 337. doi:10.2307/3178747. JSTOR 3178747.
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    • Hull, Gloria T.; Bell-Scott, Patricia; Smith, Barbara (1982). All the women are White, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave: Black women's studies. Old Westbury, N.Y: Feminist Press. ISBN 9780912670928.
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