In December of 1851, Sojourner Truth gave feminism’s first speech regarding intersectionality:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? (Truth 1851)
What she means by “Ain’t I a woman” is that sure, she may be black, but that’s not the only thing which defines her. She’s a woman too, and she’s a mother and former slave as well. This is what intersectionality is: A theory about the ways all people’s experiences of life are created by the intersection or coming together of multiple identities, including race, ethnicities, social class, familial background, and so on (Shaw & Lee 2010). Feminism has thoroughly embraced this concept, as is evidenced by how often the above poem, Ain’t I A Woman, is still referenced today. In fact, every form of social justice has learned to intensely value intersectionality, because by it’s very definition, it connects all of them together. Feminism is connected to the LGBTQ movement, because many women aren’t straight, and the LGBTQ movement is connected to the movement against racism, because LGBTQ people come from different ethnic background. And that movement is connected to the movement against domestic abuse, which is connected to women’s birth control rights, and so forth. It’s all connected, and it’s all because of the concept of intersectionality.
Beyond integrating all the movements into one another, intersectionality can be used as a tool for social justice in several different ways. First, it makes it easy to recognize that all identities are multifaceted. It’s like Sojourner Truth was saying. Yes she is black, but that’s not the full extent of what makes her who she is. I, for example, am white, but I’m also female, straight, and cisgender. I’m American and I grew up in a highly educated, middle-class family in a college town. Basing my identity off of only one of those traits would greatly degrade who I am as a person, and would also open the door for stereotypes about the single trait.
This is another way intersectionality helps social justice: by discouraging stereotypes and discrimination. If you were considering nothing about my identity except that I am a young white woman, you might assume I like to wear Ugg boots. But in reality, I would never wear Ugg boots because I grew up around a lot of artistic people who taught me how to express myself through my clothes, and there’s simply no message I want to send to the world by wearing them (No offense to people who like Ugg boots. They’re really comfy. But we both know they’re basically the least attractive and least interesting form of women’s footwear available). You might also assume that, since I’m young, that I’m not very cultured–even though I’ve traveled out of the country six times and speak three languages.
This is what intersectionality is used for–understanding that one trait does not define a person. And this is why feminists love the term so much. According to intersectionality, being a woman doesn’t mean you’re delicate. It doesn’t mean like you to wear dresses, or think Ryan Gosling is sexy, or enjoy pumpkin spice lattes. All those things might be true, but it could be true for thousands of different reasons. In essence, being a woman is no more significant to your identity than anything else that makes you you. Which means a woman can be or do anything that a man can be or do, and vice versa. Intersectionality is a way of embracing how everyone is different, and at the same time, have to potential to be the same. Which certainly goes well with social justice, doesn’t it?
Lee, Janet and Shaw, Susan. Women’s Voices, 2010.
Truth, Sojourner. Ain’t I A Woman, 1851.