Intersectionality: What Is It? How Can It Help Us?

To the Teacher:
 

Feminism was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2017.  The dictionary’s definition of feminism is twofold:

1. “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”

2. “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” 

Intersectionality was another word recognized by Merriam Webster in 2017. Merriam Webster called it a “word we’re watching.” The Merriam Webster definition of intersectionality is:

“the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.” 
 

The word was added to the dictionary in April of 2017, even though it’s been around since the late 1980s, when civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in a paper to help explain the oppression of black women. While all women are oppressed as women, Crenshaw argues that it is important to recognize that some women’s oppression is compounded by racism.  This compounded oppression, moreover, disproportionately places women of color in the ranks of the working class and poor.  Crenshaw and others have argued, as a result, that race and class must be central to the movement of women’s liberation if it is to be meaningful to women who are most oppressed. 

Of course intersectionality was a lived reality before Crenshaw coined the term in 1989. But creating a term for the interconnected and compounded oppressions of gender, race and class and allowed the dynamic to come into focus and be discussed in ways it hadn’t before.
 

Photo: Sign from the NYC Women's March, January 2018.

 



Gathering
 

Write the word intersectionality on the board.  Ask students if they’ve heard of the term.  Do they know what it means?  Consider taking it apart into “inter” and “section.”  Consider what an intersection in the road is.

Elicit and explain that intersectionality refers to the “complex, overlapping effects of multiple forms of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, and classism.” 

The term was coined in the late 1980s by civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw to help explain the oppression of women of color, as different from the oppression of women in general (including white women), and different also from the oppression of people of color in general (including men of color).  Crenshaw and others since her have pointed to the compounding oppressions experienced by women of color.
 


 

Video Clip: Explaining Intersectionality
 

Show the following Teaching Tolerance video clip to introduce intersectionality to your students: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6dnj2IyYjE

Invite students to turn to a neighbor to discuss the video using some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this clip?
     
  • How did Kimberlé Crenshaw come to coin the term “intersectionality?
     
  • What are your thoughts about the term?  Why do you think it’s important to have words to describe people’s experience?
     
  • According to the video “intersectionality refers to the reality that we all have multiple identities that intersect to make us who we are.”  What are some of the identities portrayed in this video? 
     
  • How do these intersecting identities work out for Jerry, Fatima and Gretta?
     
  • According to the video “intersectionality” gives us a way to talk about the “oppressions and privileges that overlap and reinforce each other.”  Why could this be useful? 
     
  • How does it relate to the video we just watched?
     
  • How do you see intersectionality relating to the people in your life/the people in your community?

 


 

Intersectionality & the Women’s March in 2017 and 2018

 

Reading 1


Distribute the first handout and invite students to read it. (Download the pdf handout here, or see it below.) 

Split your class into small groups of 3-5 students and invite them to discuss the handout after reading it, using some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the article you just read?
     
  • How does it relate to the notion of intersectionality we’ve been exploring today?
     
  • What does the article say about feminism?  White feminism?  Black feminism?  Intersectional feminism?
     
  • How did different women feel unwelcome or excluded from the march?
     
  • What does the article say about longer-term goals of the march?
     
  • What does the article say about solidarity and unity?
     
  • What does the article say about opportunities for learning and growth?

Reconvene the class and ask students from each group to share their responses to some of the questions. Clarify any misconceptions you can, and record any questions that need further exploration.

 

Reading 2


Distribute the second handout and invite students to read it. (Download the pdf handout here, or see it below.) 

In the same small groups of 3-5 students, invite them to discuss the handout after reading it, using some or all of the following questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the article you just read?
     
  • How does it relate to the notion of intersectionality we’ve been exploring today?
     
  • How does the article compare the Women’s March on Washington from last year with the Power to the Polls chapter of the movement this year?
     
  • What does the article say about feminism?  White feminism?  Black feminism?  Intersectional feminism?  Do different groups have different responsibilities?
     
  • What does the article say about strategic organizing?
     

Again reconvene the class and ask students from each group to share their responses to some of the questions. Clarify any misconceptions you can, and record any questions that need further exploration.

 


 

Closing


Ask students to turn to a partner to discuss what they learned about intersectionality today.  Ask a few students to share out.

 


 

Handout 1: 
The Women’s March, January 2017


The notion of intersectional feminism received increased attention early in 2017, as energy around the Women’s March on Washington picked up. The march, which began organically as a grassroots effort on Facebook, was criticized almost immediately for failing to include women of color among its organizers. 

This changed as a more diverse team of women stepped up to help coordinate the effort. After the initial criticism, organizers took care to highlight the experiences of women of color and undocumented immigrant women.

But all this opened up discussions about race, racism, and the often unexamined privileges that white women enjoy. What would true solidarity and unity in the women’s movement really mean?

The march, which took place just one day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, brought up strong feelings, especially among women of color, about the fact that 53% of the white women who voted, had voted for Trump. A vocal segment of black feminists questioned the march organizers’ call for solidarity across racial lines, when white women hadn’t made enough of an effort to even win over a majority of their own ranks in the election.  And where was the solidarity when, in the words of Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garcia, “our people are being killed in the streets, jobless, homeless, over-incarcerated, undereducated”?

The discussion and debate caused some white women to voice discomfort. But the march’s national organizers saw the conversation as an important one that needed to be had.

“This was an opportunity to take the conversation to the deep places,” said Linda Sarsour, a march organizer who is Muslim and who heads the Arab American Association of New York. “Sometimes you are going to upset people.”

Said Anne Valk, the author of “Radical Sisters,” a book about racial and class differences in the women’s movement: 

If your short-term goal is to get as many people as possible at the march, maybe you don’t want to alienate people… But if your longer-term goal is to use the march as a catalyst for progressive social and political change, then that has to include thinking about race and class privilege.
 

Despite the changes in the march’s leadership and stated focus, the 2017 march was still seen by many as centering mostly on cisgender, straight, white, middle-class women and their issues. These issues include breaking the glass ceiling in corporate America (that is, getting more women promoted to executive positions), and getting a women elected President.  (Note: the word “cisgender” or “cis” refers to people who exclusively identify with their sex assigned at birth. The term is used to call attention to the privilege of people who are not transgender.)

Said Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA:

In times like this, there is a real danger that feminism itself can function in an exclusionary manner by marginalizing less powerful and less privileged women and allies – the very people who most need feminism today.
 

That said, the 2017 women’s march on Washington, and sister marches around the country, packed a massive punch of resistance.  Along the way, there were opportunities for learning, for growth, and for harnessing the power of that punch in the run up to the 2018 women’s rallies and marches that followed. 

 


 

Handout 2:
The Women’s March & Power to the Polls, January 2018


Throughout 2017, Women’s March organizers worked to keep the momentum going and make the movement more inclusive.  That momentum was helped along by the powerful #MeToo movement, which caught fire in October 2017, leading millions of women across the world to expose and demand an end to sexual harassment and abuse.

The 2018 Women’s March events, which once again drew masses of people into the streets in cities across the U.S. (and beyond), called not only for an end to sexual abuse and violence against women, but also for reproductive rights, LGBTQIA rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and environment justice.  Women of color once again led the way. “This is a movement where we're trying to get people to understand that we must follow women of color, where trans folks and indigenous folks and other marginal people must be at the center,” said Women’s March co-chair Carmen Perez. “It can be hard for the people used to being in charge to step back.” 

The events also kicked off the next chapter of organizing, which activists called “Power to the Polls.” The aim: to get women and their allies out to vote in the 2018 midterm elections to support progressive candidates running for seats in the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and state and local government.  (The mid-term elections include primary elections in each state, followed by a national general election on November 6, 2018.)

Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour told Elle: “We’re working on a ten-city tour of voter engagement and registration to bring training, momentum, and capacity building to local communities.”  The goal, she said, “is to see headlines on November 7 reading … ‘It was women's political strategy that won back the House and the Senate.’”  She added:  "We are going to the polls to support progressive candidates who uphold our platform and values. Everyone will be held accountable to that progressive platform … even Democratic women.”

For strategic reasons, the main event this year was held in Las Vegas, in the key battleground state of Nevada.  The Women’s March organization sponsored a “Power to the Polls” rally in Las Vegas on January 21, 2018. Organizers said they aimed to mobilize disenfranchised communities in other battleground states like Nevada. Speakers at the event, including Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (who coined the term “intersectionality”), emphasized the particular struggles of immigrants, members of the LGBTQIA community, and women of color.

“Stand up for me, white women. Come to my aid,” Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory said in a speech. “You say you want to be my friend? I don’t want to hear it from your mouth. I want to see it when you go to the polls at the midterm elections.”

And so as people marked the anniversary of the historic Women’s March on Washington, intersectional feminism took center stage in events across the country.  Women of color took charge and led the way. 

Said Sarsour:  “We need all tactics, all strategies, all hands on deck. And this is a moment where we have to all come to the place that, unity is not uniformity. But we can all still be aligned by mission, and hopefully we'll meet on the other side where there's justice.”