In 1989, the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw used the term "intersectionality" for the first time to describe the multiple avenues of discrimination that people face when their identity encompasses a number of minority categories, connected to things like race, gender, class and sexuality. Crenshaw may have coined a name for the feminist sociological theory, but her work built upon a rich history of ideas. Now, a new video by the National Museum of African American History and Culture breaks down the ABCs of intersectionality, exploring the long legacy of women who shaped contemporary ideas about intersectionality, as they fought for equality both as African Americans and females.
“Consider an intersection made up of many roads,” Crenshaw says during the video. “The roads are the structures of race, gender, gender identity class, sexuality, disability. And the traffic running through those roads are the practices and policies that discriminate against people. Now if an accident happens, it can be caused by cars traveling in any number of directions, and sometimes, from all of them. So if a black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from discrimination from any or all directions.”
The metaphor is a handy introduction to the discussion of multiple oppressions, which has been articulated as far back as early women's liberation luminaries such as Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became a prominent abolitionist and women’s rights activist. In 1851, she delivered a stirring speech at a women’s convention in Ohio, titled “Ain’t I A Woman?,” in which she declared woman had been coded to stand specifically for white woman for too long.
"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere,” she said. “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?”
The video goes on to explore the contributions of women like Anna Julia Cooper, a 19th-century scholar and educator who spent her life advocating for the agency of African America women, and groups like the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a human rights organization that galvanized black women to march on Washington in 1951, as well as the Combahee River Collective, a group of black, queer feminists who were among the first to include sexuality in discussions about multiple oppressions.
Check out the full video above to get a better understanding of African-American women’s contributions to the struggle for full equality—a fight that continues to the present-day.