IN THIS PAPER I EXAMINE the genealogy of “intersectionality.” More specifically, I look at the history of the conceptualization of “diversity” as consisting of the interaction of multiple “categories of social difference,” for example race, class, gender, etc.1 “Intersec- tionality” turns out to be only one of several attractive yet flawed concepts deployed over the past 80-plus years to represent such social
1 For the sake of manageability, I base my discussion on U. S. examples and history. I leave aside as well certain thorny problems of ideology, although I mostly agree with Martha Gimenez, who writes (in a private communication, January 26, 2017):
I think a reference to a “history of the conceptualization of diversity” needs to bring up some considerations of the way the emergence of “diversity,” as a concept, was also concomitant to the process of cultural- izing inequality, oppression and exploitation. The notion of diversity, I believe, is part of the process of obfuscation [of] the political nature of feminist theories and theories of racial and ethnic oppression, exclusion and exploitation, reducing their claims and objectives to integration in the occupational and educational institutions.
The concern for diversity leaves behind a focus on structural changes that could benefit the group and replaces it with upward mobility for the few.
(See also Benn Michaels, 2006; Fields, 2000, 118; Ahmed, 2012; Cabrera, 2006; and James, 2016.)
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heterogeneity. I conclude with some suggestions for developing a more adequate approach to conceptualizing “diversity.”
The Standard Account
Black feminist scholars invented the notion of “intersectionality” in the late 1980s. It then went on to become the dominant way of conceptualizing “diversity” in and beyond the academy. Here, from Wikipedia, is a typical introductory discussion:
Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by Ameri- can civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It is the study of overlapping or intersecting social identi- ties and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Inter- sectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physi- cal illness as well as other forms of identity. These aspects of identity are not “unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather . . . reciprocally constructing phenomena.” The theory proposes that we think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity.
This framework can be used to understand how systemic injustice and social inequality occur on a multidimensional basis. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society — such as rac- ism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and belief-based bigotry — do not act independently of each other. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination. (“Intersectionality,” 2017, accessed March 4, 2017.)
Thus the intersectional framework is said to be able to deal with both personal identity and structural issues of privilege, oppression, and justice.
The invention of the concept of intersectionality occurred in the context of a massive expansion of a new academic field, women’s stud- ies. Along the way, a somewhat mythological tale of the development of second-wave feminism became standard. According to this account,
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second-wave feminism emerged in the 1960s and 70s as a monolithic white middle-class phenomenon that ignored race and class. Only in the 1980s, the myth continues, when black women entered the academy and forcefully challenged white-dominated feminism, did things change. African American feminist scholars — for example, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and many others — took the lead in this introduction of race into feminist analysis. In some cases they tackled class as well. Their hard-fought leadership under the banner of “intersectionality” was at last able to break with the errors of so-called white feminism.
In the 1980s and after, this chronologically confused account became hegemonic among white as well as black feminists, even those who should know better. But it is deeply problematic. First, it simplifies the history of the very complex evolution of second-wave feminism, which developed in multiple strands and not entirely from within academia. As a matter of fact, and as I discuss further below, socialist– and Marxist–feminists2 always paid attention to class; how could they not! And race usually played a role in their analyses as well.
There is also a methodological point here: history is always com- plex and multi-layered, and we should be wary of single-note stories. An account can be hegemonic without entirely silencing alternative voices. Likewise, an account that is hegemonic at one time can lose its dominant position at another. This last is what happened, I believe, to socialist–feminist analyses in the decades leading up to the heyday of intersectionalism.
Another problem with the standard account is that it can blind us to historical evidence that contradicts the story. In other words, it functions like a Kuhnian paradigm, threatening to make any data that doesn’t fit the standard account invisible. Let me call it the “white feminism” paradigm. Like all paradigms it has some validity, but overall it skews the history, with serious effects.
2 It is not possible to separate a socialist from a Marxist feminism as they were practiced in the 1970s. I therefore use the term socialist feminism inclusively, generally following contempo- rary U. S. usage. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, the term “women’s liberation” was current, intended to demarcate the younger and presumably more radical branches of the women’s movement from the so-called bourgeois feminism of the National Organization for Women. Within the women’s liberation movement socialist feminists formed a distinc- tive tendency. By the late 1970s, the term “women’s liberation,” with its connotation of a radical transformation going beyond equal rights, was being replaced by the term feminism. Feminism was now a broader term than it had been earlier, perhaps reflecting the declining importance of distinguishing branches within the women’s movement.
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The Historical Record
So what “really” happened? And why does it matter that we correct the historical record?3 To answer these questions we have to go back beyond the 1980s to the 1960s and even before. In the 1960s and 70s, socialist–feminist activism and analyses were important forces within the emerging women’s movement. Many socialist feminists argued that three systems (or dimensions of difference, or whatever) — race, class, and gender — interact in peoples’ lives, whether or not they are aware of it. The systems were usually taken to be simultaneously interacting and inextricably intertwined in a matrix of privilege and domination.
There was also the implication that race, class, and gender are somehow comparable phenomena, and of equal weight or impor- tance. By assuming that the various dimensions of the race/class/ gender framework are comparable, even equivalent, socialist–feminists were making a political statement that was important at the time: namely, that no one element of the trilogy could be put forth as prior. Thus race/class/gender thinking among socialist–feminists could distinguish itself politically and analytically from radical feminism (which was said to put gender first), on the one hand, and traditional socialism (which generally put class first), on the other. In a period of intense activism this political position counted for a great deal.
Race/class/gender quickly became a mantra, a set of factors always to be attended to and codified in political slogans, position papers, lists of demands, etc. And to the extent that feminism moved solidly into the academy in the course of the 1970s and after, race/class/gender had to be reflected in articles, journals, titles, curricula, and textbooks. As a framework for analysis as well as political action, race/class/gender — also known as “the trilogy” — seemed to be new and powerful.
In other words, race/class/gender thinking did not originate in the activities of black feminist scholars during the 1980s. Rather, it emerged alongside the women’s and other social movements of the 1960s and early 70s. Indeed, many of women’s liberation’s earliest
3 I first tried to correct the historical record in an article published 25 years ago in the Journal of Women’s History (Vogel, 1991). As here, I challenged the mythic origin story and questioned why it had become ideologically dominant, even among progressive feminists. To no avail. Only recently are studies and analyses with more accurate accounts of developments in the 1960s and 70s appearing. See especially Evans, 2015; Giardina, 2010; Collins and Bilge, 2016, ch. 3; and Taylor, 2017.
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activists had themselves participated in the civil rights/black liberation and antiwar movements. My own trajectory can provide an example: in 1964 and ’65 I worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinat- ing Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi; in the North I supported the antiwar movement and enthusiastically joined the women’s liberation movement as it got off the ground in the late 1960s. Not surprisingly, I used the race/class/gender model in my first two feminist articles (Vogel, 1971; 1974).
As time passed, the race/class/gender analytical framework expanded to include other factors that could play a role in privilege or oppression: ethnicity, sexuality, geography, religion, culture, gender identity, ability/disability, and so on. Somewhat embarassingly, the race/class/gender framework was beginning to look like a laundry list. In addition, the more factors that were named, the more interactions had to be examined, posing serious issues of manageability.
By the 1980s, many of the oppositional social movements of earlier decades had come under various kinds of attack, including violent repression. Yet the women’s liberation movement, now called femi- nism, survived and even grew. And the new generations of students and scholars entering the academy in the 1980s and after included many who had never participated in a social movement or thought much about the phenomenon of “diversity.” This, in my view, was the setting for a rewriting of the history of the 1960s — first by the media and then by feminist academics themselves. How much more exciting it must have felt to set the most significant historical turning points into one’s own timeline.
How did we get from the immensely popular concept of race/ class/gender to the immensely popular concept of intersectionality? Why did one mantra replace the other? In my opinion it wasn’t just the interventions of Crenshaw and other black academics, important though they were. It was the context in which they took place. Some- thing about that context must have made intersectionality particularly attractive and race/class/gender less so (see also note 1, above).
Perhaps intersectionality, like “diversity,” seemed better able to include everything in an accessible and nuanced way, while at the same time preserving the autonomy of the specific systems within the unity of intersectionality. By contrast, race/class/gender, much less the laundry list, may have seemed too clunky, too assertive, in the age of postmodernism and deconstruction.
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Another attractive characteristic of intersectionality when com- pared to race/class/gender is that it elides the powerful words race and class — with their ability to conjure not only oppression but also violence and mayhem, and their implicit gestures towards social justice and structural change. Much better to obscure the meaning in those conservative decades. I’m thinking about funding sources, tenure committees, and so forth, as well as young scholars looking to find a place in the academy.
Up to this point I have argued that the conceptualization of “diver- sity” in terms of a race/class/gender framework was common among left-wing women’s liberationists during the 1960s and 70s. But where did it come from? Was it invented, as were other women’s liberation concepts — for example, “sexism,” “femicide,” and “Ms”? Or did the women’s liberation movement inherit it?
I think it very likely that the race/class/gender conceptualization that became popular in the 1960s derived from a century-old tradition, transmitted in the lived experience and activism of African American women. I find the evidence for this hypothesis in the work and writings of Maria Miller Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Pauli Murray, and others. These women activists — often cited by intersectionality writers as interesting but unconnected forerunners — could actually have been the bearers of a living black feminist tradition that was later carried forward in Fran Beal’s 1969 article on “double jeopardy,” the 1977 Combahee River Collective statement, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 piece on intersectionality, and so on (Beal, 1970; Combahee River Collective, 1977; Crenshaw, 1989).
Black and white women active in the U. S. Communist Party surely played an important role in this transmission. According to historian Kate Weigand, in the 1930s and 1940s “Communist publications regu- larly used the terms ‘triple burden’ and ‘triple oppression’ to describe the status of black women” (Weigand, 2001, 99; see also McDuffie, 2011). Other terms included “triple exploitation” and “double job.” Perhaps the foremost exponent of race/class/gender thinking before the 1960s was Claudia Jones, a prominent black leader of the CPUSA and of the Congress of American Women (Boyce Davies, 2008, 2011; Lynn, 2014).
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In my own experience as a budding Marxist–feminist activist and scholar in the 1960s,4 the race/class/gender analytical framework seemed familiar, and immediately available to me. It was not something I had to think deeply about, much less invent. Could I have picked up the framework from my left-wing parents?
In short, black feminists were right to credit Crenshaw and other black scholars as leaders in the effort to foreground intersectionality in the 1980s, but they missed an opportunity to root their contribution more deeply in the historical context of black women’s lives.
Non-historians might ask why it matters that we get the history right. Maybe I’m just being picky? I think it matters above all for what is lost when we get history wrong. As I have already mentioned, we miss a lot when we buy into the “white feminism” paradigm. We overlook the importance of the many black women activists who over more than a century forged a tradition of resistance. We neglect the role of the U. S. Communist Party and of the Congress of American Women. We give short shrift to the contributions of individual com- munist and left-leaning activists and writers, both white and black.
Other stories are also obliterated by the “white feminism” paradigm. It leads us to forget that some of the white women who were active in the black liberation movements of the 1960s also participated in the found- ing of the women’s liberation movement. In addition, the leadership supplied by black women like Pat Robinson — who in 1960 formed the Mount Vernon/New Rochelle women’s group that attracted a range of working-class black women — disappears. The “white feminist” paradigm further marginalizes the importance of the activism around welfare rights, which was a feminist as well as a class-based issue and movement that also began well before the heyday of second-wave feminism.
Without access to the full historical background of the 1960s and ear- lier, we are left with a disturbing tale of hostility between black and white feminist academics suddenly emerging in the 1980s. We can do better.
Models and Lenses
Finally, let me offer some thoughts about the utility of such concepts as race/class/gender and intersectionality. I view them as
4 Lillian Robinson (1978) provides a vivid account of what it was like to do this kind of schol- arship while participating in the emerging women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and early 70s.
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primarily descriptive. That is, they provide a conceptual framework for describing and investigating “diversity,” but by themselves they do not explain anything. Strictly speaking, then, they are imprecise and some would argue against using them.
Nonetheless, I think these concepts can still be useful as first approximations. They offer an attractive, if inadequate, way to talk about the relationships among multiple “dimensions of difference” such as race, class, and gender. And for those new to the issues, they can function as consciousness-raising mechanisms. For instance, a project of the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture discusses intersectionality as a way to get “beyond single issues and identity politics.” Specifically, “intersectionality is both a lens for seeing the world of oppression and a tool for eradicating it.” The project also presents case-studies of successful human rights tactics developed and deployed using its “strategic toolkit.”5 I would not want to be the person chastising these activists for using an incorrect concept.
In the long run, Marxist–feminist efforts to conceptualize “diver- sity” require more than a new metaphor or buzzword (Davis, 2008). Half a century after socialist–feminists began to think about these issues, we live in a changed political and theoretical landscape. Rela- tively few feminists today would identify as socialist–feminists. Even fewer would consider themselves Marxist–feminists, but those who do have access to a vivid international Marxist discourse that was completely missing earlier.
I think we can at this point move beyond some of the earlier conceptualizations. I would start by discarding the assumption that the various dimensions of difference — for example, race, class, and gender — are comparable. Willy-nilly, this comparability assumption leads to an interest in identifying parallels and similarities among the categories of difference, and a downplaying of their particulari- ties. Likewise, it can suggest that the various categories are equal in causal weight.
Once we jettison the comparability model, we can break out of the tight little circle of supposedly similar categories. Our theoretical task would then be to focus on the specificities of each dimension and to develop an understanding of how it all fits — or does not fit
5 https://www.newtactics.org/intersectional-human-rights-organizing-strategy-building- inclusive-and-transformational-movements
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— together. Out of this process could come a lens, or perhaps several lenses, with which to analyze empirical data.6
In thinking about class, we have a huge body of literature, going back to Marx himself. Traditionally, that literature ignored issues of gen- der and race, assuming that class was the fundamental dimension. More recently some progress has been made in recognizing the distinctive role of class without entirely rejecting other dimensions. Martha Gimenez (2001; 2018), for example, has long argued that the trilogy should be discarded, wishing to replace it with a “return to class, acknowledging the class nature of American society and the relations of oppression that fragment it.” Writing from a political science perspective, Victor Wallis (2015, 604) explores “the structural distinctiveness of class domination as compared with intersecting structures of oppression framed by race, gender, sexuality, or other criteria.” In other words, it is becoming pos- sible, even acceptable, to recognize class as key while at the same time incorporating analyses of other factors.
For gender, the starting point could be “Social Reproduction The- ory,” a new perspective that is still in the process of being developed. My book Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (1983, 2013)7 has been dubbed the foundation for Social Reproduc- tion Theory. In what follows I sketch some of the elements of Social Reproduction Theory, as best I understand it.
The term “Social Reproduction” comes from Marx, of course, but also from my discussion of a “social reproduction perspective,” which I opposed to a “dual systems perspective” (Vogel, 2013, 133–136, and passim). Social Reproduction Theory is said to offer a “unitary” perspective on the question of women’s oppression. The word “uni- tary” appears only in the book’s subtitle (Toward a Unitary Theory); it is completely absent from the text. Nonetheless, colleagues feel very strongly that “unitary” is a meaningful characteristic of Social
6 For the metaphor of theory as a lens, see Vogel, 2000; reprinted in Vogel, 2013, 183–198. For my view of theory as necessarily abstract and disjunct from empirical investigation, see ibid., esp. 184–195.
7 At the time of its initial publication in 1983, Marxism and the Oppression of Women received little notice. (Ferguson and McNally  set the book’s poor reception in historical context.) Thirty years later, in 2013, Brill and Haymarket reissued it in a new edition that includes two additional texts. One is the excellent introduction by Susan Ferguson and David McNally, “Capital, Labour-Power, and Gender Relations.” The other is an article I published in 2000, “Domestic Labor Revisited,” with the intention of making some of my arguments more ac- cessible. Republished in this form, Marxism and the Oppression of Women has been drawing a great deal of interest, not least in its role as a basis for Social Reproduction Theory.
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Reproduction Theory. They cling to it, I suspect, for two reasons. First, it marks a definitive rejection of the dual-systems theorizing that dominated even socialist–feminist thinking for so long. And second, it promises a theoretically unified solution. As Tithi Bhattacharya (2013) puts it, “The most important insight of social reproduction theory is that capitalism is a unitary system that can successfully, if unevenly, integrate the sphere of reproduction and the sphere of production. Changes in one sphere thus create ripples in another.”
Ferguson and McNally (2013, xxiii) emphasize the book’s origi- nality in its reading of Marx:
Rather than grafting a materialist account of gender-oppression onto Marx’s analysis of capitalism — and running into the methodological eclecticism that plagues dual-systems theory — Vogel proposes to extend and expand the conceptual reach of key categories of Capital so as to rigorously explain the roots of women’s oppression. . . . [She] probes theoretical absences in Capital, places where the text is largely silent [and] thus pushes Capital’s own conceptual innovations to logical conclusions that eluded its author and generations of readers.
The power of Social Reproduction Theory is, I believe, that it theorizes the lives of working-class women within the overall capital- ist accumulation process. Yes, “class” — or better, the capitalist accu- mulation process — is key, but so long as capitalism depends on the labor power of human beings, “class” and “gender” have materialist foundations and an intimate link to one another.
Not so for “race.” “Race” has always struck me as the most prob- lematic of the elements in the so-called trilogy. Here I think we need to begin by using Barbara Fields’ analysis of “race” in the U. S. context as ideological.
Racial ideology supplied the means of explaining slavery to people whose terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights, and, more important, a republic in which those doctrines seemed to represent accurately the world in which all but a minority lived. Only when the denial of liberty became an anomaly apparent even to the least observant and reflective members of Euro-American society did ideology systematically explain the anomaly. . . . Race explained why some people could rightly be denied what others took for granted: namely, liberty, supposedly a self-evident gift of nature’s God. (Fields, 1990, 114.)
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To say that “race” is ideological does not mean that it isn’t real — indeed, powerfully real, as historians have demonstrated and as we in the United States experience every day.
This discussion reveals yet another way the notion of a trilogy of comparable factors falls short. Race, class, and gender are in no way comparable ontologically. The term “class” is a shorthand indicator pointing towards the realm of capitalist accumulation, where labor power is consumed and surplus value produced. To the extent that biological processes contribute to the reproduction of labor power, “gender” intersects with “class” but is not logically necessary to it.8 Both “class” and “gender” can be analyzed in the abstract, forming part of the system of capitalist accumulation understood at the theoretical level. But “race” stands apart — more real and at least as damaging in our daily lives, I think — than either class or gender.
c/o Science & Society 33 Flatbush Avenue, 4th Floor Brooklyn NY 11217 / USA email@example.com
Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Beal, Frances M. 1970. “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” Revised from 1969 pamphlet. In Sisterhood is Powerful, ed. Robin Morgan. New York: Vintage Books.
Benn Michaels, Walter. 2006. The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Bhattacharya, Tithi. 2013. “What is Social Reproduction Theory?” https:// socialist- worker.org/2013/09/10/what-is-social-reproduction-theory
———. 2015. “How Not To Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class.” Viewpoint Magazine. https://www.viewpointmag.com/ 2015/10/31/ how-not-to-skip-class-social-reproduction-of-labor-and-the-global-working-class
Boyce Davies, Carole. 2008. Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
———, ed. 2011. Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment. Banbury, Oxfordshire, England: Ayebia Clarke Publishing.
Cabrera, Nolan L. 2008. Review of The Trouble with Diversity, by Walter Benn Michaels. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 4:1.
8 For examples of how the reproduction of labor power does not necessarily require biological processes, see Vogel, 2013, chs. 10 and 11.
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Collins, Patricia Hill, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
Combahee River Collective. 1995 (1977). “A Black Feminist Statement.” In Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York: The New Press.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Practice.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 89, 139–167.
Davis, Kathy. 2008. “Intersectionality as Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspec- tive on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful.” Feminist Theory, 9:1, 67–85.
Evans, Sara M. 2015. “Women’s Liberation: Seeing the Revolution Clearly.” Feminist Studies, 41:1, 138–149.
Ferguson, Susan, and David McNally. 2013. “Capital, Labour-Power, and Gender Relations: Introduction to the Historical Materialism Edition of Marxism and the Oppression of Women.” Pp. xvii–xl in Vogel, 2013.
Fields, Barbara J. 1990. “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America.” New Left Review, 181 (May–June), 95–118.
Giardina, Carol. 2010. Freedom for Women: Forging the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1953–1970. Gainesville, Florida. The University Press of Florida.
Gimenez, Martha. 2001. “Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Tril- ogy.” Race, Gender & Class, 8:2, 22–33.
———. 2018 (forthcoming). “Intersectionality: Marxist Critical Observations.” Science & Society, 82:2 (April).
“Intersectionality.” 2017. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Intersectionality. Accessed March 4, 2017.
James, Marlon. 2016. “Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity. Or, Why We Should Try an All-White Diversity Panel.” http://lithub.com/marlon-james-why-im-done- talking-about-diversity
Lynn, Denise. 2014. “Socialist Feminism and Triple Oppression: Claudia Jones and African American Women in American Communism.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 8:2 (Fall), 1–20.
McDuffie, Erik S. 2011. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Robinson, Lillian S. 1978. Sex, Class, and Culture. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta, ed. 2017. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books.
Vogel, Lise. 1971. “Modernism and History.” (With Lillian Robinson.) New Literary History, 3:1 (Autumn), 177–199.
———. 1974. “Fine Arts and Feminism: The Awakening Consciousness.” Feminist Studies, 2:1, 3–37.
———. 1983. Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
———. 1991. “Telling Tales: Historians of Our Own Lives.” Journal of Women’s History, 2:3 (Winter), 89–101.
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———. 2000. “Domestic Labor Revisited.” Science & Society, 64:2, 151–170. Reprinted in Vogel, 2013, 183–198.
———. 2013 (1983). Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. Re- vised edition. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill/Boston, Massachusetts: Haymarket.
Wallis, Victor. 2015. “Intersectionality’s Binding Agent: The Political Primacy of Class.” New Political Science, 37:4 (December), 604–619.
Weigand, Kate. 2001. Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Intersectionality: A Young Scholar Responds
SHANA A. RUSSELL
BY THE TIME I STARTED graduate school in 2008, intersection-ality was the primary pedagogical approach for humanities and social science scholars. This is certainly still true. It is the kind of thing one might find in department brochures and on academic association websites. When I first encountered the term, as an MA student at a private, majority-white women’s college in Massachusetts, I thought it was simply another term for inclusivity. “Intersectionality” made space for women like me in graduate programs. It is the reason that the relevance or rigor of my research on black working-class women is not questioned. Credit for this achievement belongs to the black women who fought for the inclusion and legitimacy of this kind of work in academic spaces. In the years since I began graduate school, I have had the distinct privilege of meeting some of these women who told me that their aims were simple. They wanted to see themselves and their histories in scholarly literature. And in that sense, if my own work is any illustration, they succeeded.
With this in mind I’d like to offer an answer to the question alluded to by this forum: what is intersectionality? The term was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw as a vehicle for assessing social dimensions of difference (race, class, and gender) within a juridical context. It has since lost its contextual specificity. In academic and social justice circles, the term has been expanded and now asserts that the aforementioned sociopolitical categories (in addition to sexuality,