The History of Intersectionality – What Can the Women’s Movement Learn From Its Past?

Lauren was raised in Yorkshire and is going into her third year of attempting a history degree and trying to make her way in London. When she’s not reading about 20th century Latin America or the History of Women’s rights, she spends her time listening to albums ranging from the Beatles to Lauryn Hill and usually crocheting or cooking something Italian while she does.

[Featured Image: An illustration by Laura Callaghan of three young women, representing different backgrounds, cultures and interests. Source.]

Maybe it’s the word ‘Intersectionality’ that has brought you to this article, a seemingly new phrase in feminism that I’ve noticed has lacked a formal introduction on my radar. Since 2013, the terms ‘Intersectional’ and ‘Intersectional Feminist’ have been questioned more and more. Statistically, Google searches have crept up, more articles have been clicked on (like you right now). For a theory first coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, why are we only just witnessing a revival in the acknowledgement of cross-discrimination, when this is a problem as old as every social movement? Well here it is, your very basic ‘Intersectionality 101’ course, on how women of colour have helped the women’s movement and how the women’s movement has collaborated and failed to support racial injustices. If you’d like to miss this little introduction you can skip right to the conclusion, summing up how these don’t need to be separate institutions and to be a feminist in 2021 is to involve intersectionality. 

Intersectionality is not as fresh as the labelling of the term itself – cross-movement organisation and inclusivity is an aspect of women’s rights that has and continues to be key for strengthening minority organisation. Before the birth of feminist theory and at the roots of women’s organisations, racial rights have overlapped with women’s rights. The intertwinement of the abolition of slavery with the women’s rights and organisations in the 19th century can tell us a lot about how similar contemporary organisations can help one another. 

 To start with, lets make it clear that intersectional oppression based on two or more of your social attributes are what’s known as the intersections of discrimination. Originally, the term was coined to describe the injustice of black women, laid off by a car manufacturing company, who were not permitted to bring an unfair dismissal lawsuit – because “black women” were not recognised as a class that could suffer discrimination. The women were able to bring their case to trial based on race discrimination, or gender discrimination, but not both. [2] Yet it is unquestionable that a person can be discriminated against based on race and gender, for they are undeniably connected. 

 We saw examples of intersectional discrimination against the previously enslaved Mary Prince, who wrote a book on her own experiences in 1831 titled ‘The History of Mary Prince’. Even with the freedom to write her own memoir, Prince had a responsibility placed on her as an author to not just be a slave but also a black woman too. Many were not ready to read about her sexual freedom and much of her relationships (other than her marriage) at the time, so those experiences were omitted from the book to keep her ‘sexually pure’ and to continue a concept popular in this time period, of the perfect slave, worthy of salvation. This became an important text for the total abolishment of slavery and was the first published account of slavery by any woman; today it highlights the relevance of intersectional discrimination then as well as now. [4]

Of course, anti-slavery movements in the UK have often been indebted to the work of white male writers and politicians, for example, William Wilberforce, who had his own monument erected in 1838. [5]  Historian Madge Dresser has commented that Wilberforce’s work has come to remove English ‘guilt’ about slavery. [6] You only need to look at the 2007 bicentenary celebration of the abolition of the slave trade, where only 2 out of 6 of the Royal Mails’ stamp collections portrayed black abolitionists, whilst the rest were white, to see that national memory of Britain really (really) emphasises the role of the white male in the anti-slavery movements (commonly known as whitewashing). 

This history needs addressing. The conversation has to move away from a state-imposed dialogue of “Weren’t we the ones who gave you back the rights we took away?” to the safeguarding of minority voices and actions that led to eventual legislation change. Undeniably there is a gap in national memory for black voices and rebellion during the entire 400 years of slavery. To this day there is no UK memorial to the enslaved of Britain, though schoolteacher Oku Ekpenyon has been working towards one since 2002 and is yet to have funding from the government to create it in Hyde Park. [7] This article will not speak for those voices, but will attempt to understand the academic theory of intersectionality in its groundwork form. To understand the more complex features of it as a term and action, please further read the footnotes to this article.

In the past, white women’s organisations have not always understood their privilege in relation to others; lack of cross-cultural empathy has perpetually existed. Claire Midgley emphasises the exclusivity of white middle classes as viewed through the experiences of Mary Seacole; who wrote at nearly fifty in her autobiography when nursing white women “Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?”  [8] Inclusivity within the women’s movement remains to be similarily incomplete today. Islamophobia  has sprung up with debates on wearing hijabs, burqas and niqabs in France and trans-exclusionary feminism takes place every day. The women’s movement has always been politically diverse, frequently disagreeing and debating internally. However, the advantages of the movement when it works in collaboration with mobilising other minorities are always more strengthening for every group involved. There were some positive women’s movements that coordinated anti-slavery in their own way, for example over 10,000 women economically damaged the slave trade’s bearing on domestic life, as in 1791-92 they abstained from slave grown produce, boycotting the consumption of East India sugars. [9] Though not perfect, the women’s movement had the capacity to support anti-slavery and was a strengthening force in doing so. 

To understand white women’s privilege in relation to women and non-binary people of colour is to begin understanding how you may be misunderstanding intersectional interactions in your day-to-day life and start you on a journey of decolonising your mindset. This may look like a massive task written down but it has to be done. I can’t even say I’m anywhere near wholly educated on deconstructing my years of education which glorified/Gove-ified the British Empire but combatting against misogyny and racism towards every woman is an imperative action. 

It is easy to look to historical examples of intersectional racism and avoid it glaring us in the face today but when we re-evaluate our history with contemporary views, it can often help us understand our present a little bit better. Whilst oppression used to manifest itself more commonly in the form of slavery and outright racism, today institutional racism and established racial discrimination as normal behaviours within a society or organisation is more prevalent. [10] It is your responsibility to recognise the forms of racism and intersectional repression that takes place around you. White women, for example, are only disadvantaged by their gender in relation to white men, a white woman is usually paid less than her male counterparts, but white women’s jobs pay “almost twice as much as the most popular jobs for black women”. [11] Intersectionality is both the recognition of power imbalances and action to remedy them. Intersectionality is not the taking away from one person’s struggle to emphasise someone else’s, in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s own words it is “ to make room “for more advocacy and remedial practices”. [12]

[1]https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=intersectional,intersectional%20feminism,intersectional%20environmentalism 

[2] https://www.newstatesman.com/helen-lewis/2014/02/uses-and-abuses-intersectionality

[3] https://intersectionalglam.org/2019/05/21/wilful-and-wondrous-women/

[4] https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-history-of-mary-prince-a-west-indian-slave Accessed December 2019.

[5] Madge Dresser, Set In Stone? Statues and Slavery in London(Oxford, 2007), 182.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://metro.co.uk/2019/10/22/campaigners-petition-memorial-remember-british-slave-trade-victims-10965099/ Accessed December 2019.

[8] Michelle Tusan. Review of Midgley, Clare, Feminism and Empire: Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790-1865 (H-Net Reviews, 2009), 2; http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2012/10/mary-seacole-and-black-and-white-of.html

[9] Charlotte Sussman, Women and the Politics of Sugar 1792 (California Press, 1994) 2

[10] Mina Raja, Intersectional Incidents: Harriet Jacobs and the Intersectionality of Slave Women’s Experience in Nineteenth Century America, (2019)

[11] Greenfield, Rebecca, and Jordyn Holman, Black Women’s Top Jobs Pay Half What White Women’s Do ( Bloomberg Quint, 2018) http://www.bloombergquint.com/onweb/black-women-s-top-jobs-pay-half-what-white-women-s-do​.

[12] https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination

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