The history of feminism is storied, and there have been many movements and theorists that have spearheaded its agendas in many ways. Intersectional feminism is the belief that many different social ideas (such as gender, race, class, and religion) impact the way that people perceive themselves and are perceived by others. And, in the era of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and #SayHerName, intersectional feminism is more important than ever.
This kind of feminism may sound complicated, but it’s not too hard to grasp once you think about it. For example, a black woman might be discriminated against both because she is black and because she is a woman. A white woman might encounter problems because of her gender, but wouldn’t experience the same sexism because she doesn’t have to deal with racism.
Here are 8 individuals who embody the thoughtful, tenacious spirit of intersectional feminism.
1. Kimberlé Crenshaw
Let’s start with the woman who coined the term “intersectional feminism.” Kimberlé Crenshaw is a scholar and civil rights advocate who wanted to put a name to the many kinds of discrimination that women and people of color face.
Part of what inspired Crenshaw was a Missouri court case called DeGraffenreid v. General Motors. A black woman named Emma DeGraffenreid sued General Motors, saying that the company discriminated against both women and black workers. This made it nearly impossible for black women to get jobs there.
However, DeGraffenreid and her fellow black women didn’t win that case. According to the court, they couldn’t say they’d been discriminated against because of race and gender.
In Crenshaw’s eyes, the court’s opinion was beyond ignorant. Crenshaw herself experienced both types of discrimination, and she noticed that they often combined to create even worse discrimination. When she became a law professor, she started using the term “intersectionality” to refer to the thing that the Missouri court said didn’t exist: a “way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power” in every form.
Since then, Crenshaw has continued to teach law, give TED talks, and help push #SayHerName – a campaign that shows how black women are also subjected to police violence – into the spotlight.
2. Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox is a trans actress who has just as many accolades for her talent as she does for her LGBT+ activism. While she’s most popular for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black, she’s also produced The T Word, a documentary about trans teens, and she’s spoken frequently about what it means to be a trans woman of color.
Cox has a ton of firsts to her name: first trans woman nominated for an Emmy, first trans person on the cover of Time, producer of the first trans documentary to win a daytime Emmy, first trans actress to pose nude for Allure. She’s gracefully corrected people as influential as Katie Couric, who asked Cox and fellow trans woman Carmen Carrera intrusive questions about genital reconstruction surgery during an interview, about the discrimination that trans women of color face.
After a trans activist was arrested in Phoenix, Ariz., on an inaccurate prostitution charge, Cox stated, “This really support systematically the idea that girls like me and Monica are less than [others] in this country.”
If acknowledging that isn’t intersectional feminism, then what is?
Chrystos is a Native American writer who identifies as two spirit, and their poetry is just as well-known as their activism on the part of other two spirit and Native individuals.
Two spirit is the Native American concept of a third-gender role, so it’s related to LGBT+ rights, but is not the same. Two spirit individuals are usually formally recognized by elders of their tribe and sometimes fill certain ceremonial roles that no one else can. The term isn’t widely known, but Chrystos and their work have shed more light on being two spirit in the United States.
Chrystos, who is Menominee, is the author of poetry collections like Not Vanishing and In Her I Am. They also contributed to landmark anthology This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, a collection all about intersectional feminism.
Here’s an excerpt from one of their poems, “I Walk in The History of My People:”
“In my marrow are hungry faces who live on land the whites don’t want
In my marrow women who walk 5 miles every day for water
In my marrow the swollen faces of my people who are not allowed
This kind of powerful, blunt, rhythmic language is what Chrystos is all about. It’s what they use to illuminate the pain and the joy of being a Native person who doesn’t fit into the gender and sexuality boxes of Western culture.
Do you wish you knew a song that made it feel good to be a woman? Not just good, actually, but incredible? If so, give a listen to the music of female rapper/flutist/activist Lizzo.
Lizzo uses her socially conscious music to spread a message of self-love – especially self-love for black women – that’s so catchy it feels like the most natural idea in the world. Songs like “Good As Hell” and “En Love” feature lyrics about her joy in being a plus-size woman of color. In Lizzo’s world, women are always good enough, black is always beautiful, and the more there is of a person to go around, the better.
Lizzo is also vocal about politics. She’s a supporter of Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood, among other causes, and she performed at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
“The most exciting part about ,” Lizzo said two years ago, “is that we have so many strong women of all ethnicities and sexualities crunching this wave of feminism that are going to be fighters on the front line, from Beyoncé to Ava DuVernay.”
Who wouldn’t want to follow someone this fearless and positive?
5. Bell Hooks
Writer, teacher, and thinker bell hooks is synonymous with intersectional feminism, and there’s a reason for that: she’s helped define feminism, which can be a topic difficult to describe. “Feminism is rooted in neither fear nor fantasy…it is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression,” she wrote in Feminism is for Everybody, a short, easy-to-understand book that lays out hooks’ feminist theory.
bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins to a black, working-class family in Kentucky in 1952. When she grew up, she became an English professor and took on a shortened, lowercased version of her great-grandmother’s name, Bell Blair Hooks. In 1981, she published Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, in which she explained that black women are subjected to the double hammers of racism and sexism.
Though ‘white feminism,’ or feminism that doesn’t acknowledge the experiences of women of color, may seem like it’s only recently been a topic of discussion, hooks has been criticizing white feminism since the 1980s. She writes in her books that the voices of women of color have been marginalized for centuries. Intersectional feminism is one way of addressing that marginalization.
bell hooks has written in most genres, from essays to poetry to children’s books, so there’s no excuse for missing out on her writing.
6. Audre Lorde
Poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) reminded Americans during the Civil Rights movement that black women were a key part of the fight for racial equality. Her poems, essays, and speeches have reminded generations of feminists that the battle for equality is not for one particular group. Women, people of color, and LGBT+ individuals all deserve to be treated the same.
In her well-known poem “Coal,” Lorde wrote,
“Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth's inside
Take my word for jewel in your open light.”
Like many of the people on this list, Lorde is also known for being an activist who advocated tirelessly for intersectional feminism. She’s famous for writing that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
In other words, breaking down harmful gender dynamics without also acknowledging racism and homophobia is ineffective. That idea is a key part of intersectional feminism.
7. Frederick Douglass
Yes, there is a man on this list! You probably know Frederick Douglass as one of the most well-spoken abolitionists to argue for the freedom of enslaved blacks in the United States, but he also believed strongly in women’s rights.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland around 1818. In 1838, he escaped and made his way to New York city. Douglass became a preacher who both wrote and spoke about the equality of all people, including men, women, blacks, whites, and Native Americans. He’s famous for writing an autobiography that portrayed the injustices of slavery.
That’s not all, though. Douglass believed that freedom for slaves was linked to freedom for women. He befriended many early suffragettes, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and was the only black man present at the Seneca Falls Convention. While there, he spoke passionately about why men and women of all races should be permitted to vote.
If women were denied the right to vote, Douglass argued, “not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”
Though Douglass and Stanton later had a political falling-out, Douglass remained in favor of equal rights for all for the rest of his life.
8. Gloria Anzaldúa
Like many others on this list, Gloria Anzaldúa was a poet who used language to assert the worth of her identity. She identified as Chicana (that is, Mexican-American) and queer, and her famous collection of poetry and prose, Borderlands, contains Anzalduá’s opinions about the boundaries (both hidden and seen) between groups of people.
Anzaldúa was born on the Texas side of the Mexican-American border in 1942 and died in 2004. She became a teacher and feminist lecturer once she graduated college, and she edited This Bridge Called My Back (which featured work by Chrystos, also on this list) alongside Cherríe Moraga.
In her poem “To Live in the Borderlands,” Anzaldúa wrote,
“To live in the Borderlands means
the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off
your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart
pound you pinch you roll you out
smelling like white bread but dead;
To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.”
Anzaldúa believed that identity was fluid, that many identities could exist within the same person at once, and that each identity was equally valid. That makes her a great example of an intersectional feminist.
Throughout the history of feminism and all its many movements to fight social inequality in the patriarchy we live in, there have been feminist theorists fighting for gender equality and against gendered politics. But feminism is more than about inequality of the genders. It's not just fighting gendered issues in the patriarchy we live in, but it's fighting the many ways women face sexism and racism and other forms of discrimination in daily life. Theorists have come to define feminism as meaning equality for all voices — the voices of women with both physical disabilities and mental disabilities, women in the LGBTQ community, women of color and all women regardless of race and class, age and sexuality.
Elizabeth Ballou is a content marketer at Clutch, a research, ratings, and reviews company in Washington, D.C. She writes about digital marketing. She also writes for The Manifest. When she's not working, she's listening to too many podcasts and reviewing theater and video games for various media outlets.