Women’s Studies is rooted in the analysis of gender oppression, but by no means solely addresses gender. A large thrust of feminist scholarship seeks an intersectional critique, one that studies overlapping systems of oppression and domination. Intersectionality was largely developed by women of color whose experiences at the margins of race and gender led to their path breaking influence on Women’s Studies.
A look back
In 1970, Frances M. Beal articulated the unique form of exploitation Black women endure. At the time, the Black Power Movement fostered men who were militant and misogynistic, while the Women’s Movement housed feminist women blinded behind white privilege. Despite the possibilities of the women’s liberation movement, Beal reminded Black women that “Any white woman’s group that does not have an anti-imperialist and antiracist ideology has absolutely nothing in common with the black woman’s struggle” (350). Black women were left to choose between misogyny in the Black Power movement and racism in the feminist movement, a choice rife with political liabilities. In “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female”, Beal summons Black women to pursue education as a means to reach a newfound revolution, one that empowers Black men and Black women equally.
Beal’s lucid expression of intersectionality hit the academy before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989. Despite Beal’s passionate call for new systems, the 1990s saw Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins critiquing similar singular dynamics. In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”, Crenshaw argues that a practice of intersectionality theory will lead to successful practices of identity politics. By analyzing domestic and sexual violence, Crenshaw contends that to be Black and to be a woman is an experience greater than the sum of race and gender. She acknowledges the limits of identity-based politics while also locating the potential of grounding differences within intersectional analysis.
Similarly, in “Some Group Matters: Intersectionality, Situated Standpoints, and Black Feminist Thought” Collins advocates for a standpoint theory that is situated within lived experience. Standpoint theory argues, "group location in hierarchal power relations produces shared challenges for individuals in those groups… common challenges can foster similar angles of vision leading to a group knowledge or standpoint that in turn can influence the group’s political action” (201). Collins is careful to distinguish standpoint theory from intersectionality theory in order to develop a specific paradigm for Black feminist thought. In particular, Collins introduces a discussion on the intersection of race, gender, and economic oppression Black women face. By analyzing how Black women are uniquely limited within the capitalist political economy, Collins echoes Crenshaw’s claim that identity politics must exist within the intersections.
For Crenshaw and Collins, intersectionality was a means to ground identity differences in order to pursue political change. By challenging race and gender essentialism, both Crenshaw and Collins promoted an identity politics where group solidarity inspired collective political action. Identity-based politics such as the Black Power movement and the Feminist movement frequently found failure because some identities were privileged while others were excluded. To combat these failures Crenshaw and Collins advocated for more sophisticated tools of analysis able to examine Black women’s experiences. Theoretical frameworks such as intersectionality theory and standpoint theory were their requests for Women’s Studies to analyze gendered oppression on multiple axes of race and class. Feminist scholarship was heavily geared towards an analysis of women who were White, middle-class, and heterosexual. Women’s Studies often critiqued for serving this essentialized group of women was now equipped to move into more critical directions.
“What has happened here”
Today, intersectionality remains one of the key theoretical frameworks in Women’s Studies. While intersectionality has been a major thrust in feminist scholarship since the 80’s, it has recently entered the realms of both mainstream feminism and the more traditional disciplines in the social sciences such as Sociology, Psychology, and Communications. As intersectionality has proliferated outside of Women’s Studies, Women’s Studies scholars have begun to critique this central tenet. The concepts of entanglements and assemblages and the burgeoning field of affect theory offer decisive critiques to intersectionality’s theoretical framework. Theoretically, intersectionality aims to critically assess the overlapping systems of oppression that affect individuals and societal formations; one major deficiency of intersectionality, however, emerges in its practice. Intersectional scholarship and politics are often reduced to an “add – race/class/gender/sexuality – and – stir” phenomenon. In doing so, intersectionality fails to look beyond identity and thus is unable to account for the ways in which feeling and ontology affect individuals.
Patricia Clough asserts that studies of affect both create new grounds for examining societal sensations and return critical theory and cultural criticism to bodily matter. However, throughout the recent proliferation of affect studies many scholars have found it difficult to materialize affect. Despite this challenge, affect theorists argue that studying viscerally charged attachments are crucial to the dialectic between individual embodiment and contemporary socio-cultural analyses.
At a moment when intersectionality is proliferating on multiple terrains, Women’s Studies ought to engage in affect theory’s commitment to fusions and multiplicity. In her 1992 piece “What Has Happened Here’: The Politics of Difference and Women’s History and Feminist Politics”, Elsa Barkley Brown urges for a nonlinear and asymmetrical view of history. If culture is a means to perceive the textures of the social world, then, as Barkley Brown argues, African American culture offers an opportunity to acknowledge the multiple histories converging at any given moment. To illustrate historical multiplicity, Barkley Brown introduces the concept of “gumbo ya ya”, a creole term denoting a moment when multiple voices are spoken at once. Gumbo ya ya signifies both chaos and array. Women’s Studies ought to engage in some gumbo ya ya. Rather than solely acknowledging difference, Women’s Studies in general, and intersectional work in particular must engage in a deeper analysis of affective embodiments, one that alters our binary perspectives and allows us to see how a focus on the visceral offers something that identity doesn’t. Rather than name and still our identities, let’s greet the perpetual motion and disarray of assemblages and affect with an embrace of gumbo ya ya. A little chaos and madness can be a good thing.
Barkley Brown, Elsa. “What Has Happened Here’: The Politics of Difference and Women’s History and Feminist Politics.” Feminist Press 18 (1992): 283-312.
Beal, Frances. “Double Jeopardy,” in Toni Cade Bambara, ed. The Black Woman: An Anthology; and in Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood Is Powerful (New York: Vintage, 1970). Pp. 340-353.
Clough, Patricia T. “The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia and Bodies, Theory, Culture, Society 25:1 (2008).
Collins, Patricia Hill, “Some Group Matters: Intersectionality, Situated Standpoints, and Black Feminist Thought,” Ch. 6 in Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota; 1998). Pp. 201-228.
Crenshaw, Kimberle, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review (July 1991), 1241-1300.
Puar, Jasbir. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press.