No longer confined to women’s and gender studies university courses, the term intersectionality has increasingly appeared in articles in mainstream outlets from USA Today to the Huffington Post, as journalists have tried to make sense of the resurgence of feminist awareness and activism spurred by the massive Women’s March on Washington (and its sister marches worldwide) held this past January. Despite the fact that intersectionality has been gaining some traction in the press lately, there still seems to be some confusion as to what the term actually means.
Although feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw is credited with coining the term in 1989, the foundations of intersectionality was laid decades earlier by feminists of color who were frustrated by mainstream feminist organizations (e.g. National Organization for Women) that singularly focused on gender as the main source of oppression and discrimination for women. This narrow focus frequently led to the creation of political agendas that reflected the experiences and needs of white, middle-class, heterosexual women while ignoring issues that were important to other groups of women.
Intersectionality was originally the rejection of the idea of a universal women’s experience; the argument was that a white woman’s experiences with sexism will be fundamentally different than that of an African American woman because of race. Intersectionality has since expanded as a framework. It is a tool that helps us understand how gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and the many other aspects of our identities interact to shape the social, cultural, economic, and political inequalities, oppressions, and privileges that we all—including women, men, transfolks, white people, people of color, etc.—experience.
Many people mistakenly believe that intersectionality is only about addressing the discrimination of marginalized social groups, but in reality most of us experience a complex mixture of inequality and privilege. It is quite possible for an individual person to experience sexism and homophobia while simultaneously having white and class privilege. Intersectionality challenges us to confront the ways in which we have advantages and how those advantages may mitigate the effects of any oppression we may encounter. It also forces us to confront how we may even be complicit in the oppression of others because of the privileges we have.
As supporters and advocates of reproductive and sexual justice, it is imperative that we incorporate intersectionality into our political work and the services we provide. This may mean, for example, pushing to raise the minimum wage or supporting legislation that protects immigrants, even though these issues may not on the surface seem like “traditional” reproductive health issues. It may mean providing childcare services for patients at clinics. If we don’t take these issues into account, it would be a disservice to all of the communities we serve and support.
Kimala Price is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Co-Director of the Bread and Roses Center for Feminist Research and Activism at San Diego State University. A scholar-activist at heart, she has been actively involved in the reproductive rights and reproductive justice movements for nearly 25 years. She currently serves on the board of directors of Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest.