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Past & Present: Intersectionality

As the calendar changes from February to March, many of us are aware that we move from celebrating Black History Month to Women’s History Month. However, this abrupt shift reflects more the arbitrary way we mark the passage of time than lived experiences that more frequently push against arbitrarily drawn timeframes and structures of analysis. As a scholar of women and gender history, the move from Black to Women’s History months presents the perfect opportunity to discuss intersectionality.

In 1989, scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw became the first person to use this term in the context of feminism. Crenshaw argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood completely unless we consider both racial and gendered identities, simultaneously. Additionally, intersectional feminism challenges feminist movements to consider the ways that racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation and identification, and other factors, such as class, region, ability, or age might affect women’s lives and, therefore, present different rights-based needs.

While Crenshaw first applies the term “intersectionality” to feminism, she builds on women’s lived experiences and feminisms of the 19th and 20th centuries. Abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth; members of the lesbian organization, Lavender Menace; and authors bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa all challenged social justice movements to stop separating gender from racial, ethnic, economic, and sexual identities in order to understand more fully women’s lives. By seeing the many ways that women do not fit into a single mold, my students, thirty years removed from Crenshaw’s initial statements, are the fruit borne of expanding the academic scope beyond the status quo of the white and middle class.

As we move into March’s celebration of women’s history, it is my hope that you, too, do not try to focus only on gender, but instead take an intersectional approach and consider the full range of women’s experiences as they simultaneously live and lived them.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.