Mary Church Terrell, circa 1880s-1890s.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The notion of intersectionality, which refers to the interconnectedness of social categories and their influence on people and communities, is one of the fundamental ideas of black feminism. The black feminist movement evolved with the second wave of the American women’s movement in the late 1960s. bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and Elizabeth Spelman, among others, came together to create a consensus on the necessity of constructing the female subject as a monolithic and homogeneous category (Junco & Limonta 2020, 1). They argued about the failure to include intersectionality in the feminist movement and concentrated solely on the experiences of the families of middle-class heterosexual white women. This was a prejudice in feminism, failing to recognize the ways in which sexuality, race, and class pluralize and particularize what it means to be a woman.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar, is credited with coining the term “intersectionality,” in her insightful 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” which is fundamental to black feminism. Intersectionality acknowledges that individuals can be oppressed by more than one form of oppression at the same time and that various forms of oppression are interconnected and cannot be comprehended individually. For instance, a black woman may experience marginalization and prejudice due to both her race and her gender.
In larger social justice movements, intersectionality highlights the significance of amplifying the experiences and perspectives of individuals who are oppressed and frequently silenced. It acknowledges that black women’s experiences are diverse and that various black community groups may have unique challenges. Intersectionality contributes to the creation of more inclusive and representative places for activism and advocacy by elevating their voices.
When the feminist movement first emerged in the 1970s, black women criticized it for being overly narrow in its focus on the issues facing White middle-class women: “black women attacked the feminist movement in the 1970s, saying it was too limited in its concentration on middle-class White women’s problems (Cox 2023, 1).” A large number of black feminist activists disagreed with White feminist activists’ wish to work outside the home because black women had historically made up the labor force as maids, farmers, and slaves. In addition to opposing abortion, black women’s fight for reproductive rights included resistance to forced sterilizations around the time that Roe v. Wade was codified.
In order for the voices of black women to be heard, The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was established in 1896. During a period of racial and gender discrimination in the US, the NACW became a significant influence. It gave African-American women a forum to voice their particular issues and support societal change. The NACW addressed a broad range of topics, such as suffrage, employment, healthcare, and education. Its members made a concerted effort to improve their neighborhoods, create orphanages, offer scholarships, encourage career training, and fight poverty. Furthermore, their emphasis was on uplifting impoverished women because the NACW understood that black women in all social classes would be assessed and judged according to their experiences of having “the fewest resources and the least opportunity (Peterson 2021, 1).” Founder President Mary Church Terrell stated, “even though we wish to shun them…we cannot escape the consequences of their acts,” because we are bonded by racial and sexual affinities which are necessary for our (referring to black people) own survival (Peterson 2021, 1).
bell hooks, a prominent black feminist scholar, cultural critic, and author, has addressed problems regarding race, gender, class, and intersectionality in her writings and activism, making a major addition to the field of black feminism. Her research focuses on how oppressive institutions are interrelated and how intersectionality is crucial to comprehending black women’s experiences. hooks criticizes mainstream feminism for failing to adequately address the particular difficulties that black women and other oppressed communities experience. In her book, “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism,” hooks examines the marginalization of black women throughout history and the present, emphasizing the ways in which racism and sexism intersect to generate certain kinds of oppression. bell hooks has made significant contributions to black feminism that have broadened and improved the discipline. Her writings have influenced feminist theory and action, fighting against the marginalization of black women’s experiences and promoting an approach to social justice that is more compassionate, intersectional, and inclusive.
In summary, research on black feminism has illuminated the unique challenges and difficulties that black women encounter within the larger feminist movement. Black feminism highlights the value of intersectionality in comprehending the intricate interactions between race, gender, and class that shape people’s lives and exposes the shortcomings of mainstream feminism.
Almeida Junco, Y., & Guillard Limonta, N. R. (2020). The importance of black feminism and the theory of intersectionality in analysing the position of Afro descendants. International Review of Psychiatry, 32(4), 327–333. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540261.2020.1772732
Cox, Kiana. “2. Black Americans and Their Views on Feminism.” Pew Research Center Race & Ethnicity, Pew Research Center, 16 Feb. 2023, www.pewresearch.org/race-ethnicity/2023/02/16/black-americans-and-their-views-on-feminism/.
Peterson, Max. “The Revolutionary Practice of Black Feminisms.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 8 Dec. 2021, nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/revolutionary-practice-black-feminisms.
“Mary Church Terrell (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 9 Mar. 2022, www.nps.gov/people/mary-church-terrell.htm.