A Brief History of Intersectionality and the Question of Class

by Shanice McBean (3rd year BA Philosophy student, activist and KCLSU Welfare officer)

Feminism is on the rise and with it, Black feminism. In the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement in America (WLM) during the 1960s and 70s the voices of women of colour were either deemed misplaced (“You belong in the Civil Rights Movement”) or ignored (“Your issues are not important here”). This is why the lightning rise of intersectionality in mainstream feminism today is a good thing. Women of colour are not only making noise, but we’re being listened to much quicker than back in the heydays of the WLM. It’s difficult to envisage feminism in 2014 that doesn’t have a strong element of anti-racism.

It goes without saying that the prominence of intersectionality has been aided by the efforts and struggles of women of colour before us. But who were they, what did they have to say, and why?

A History of Exclusion 

“Every women’s movement in America from its earliest origin to the present day has been built on racist foundation – a fact which in no way invalidates feminism as a political ideology. The racial apartheid social structure that characterized 19th and 20th century American life was mirrored in the women’s rights movement. The first white women’s rights advocates were never seeking social equality for all women; they were seeking social equality for white women”

 – bell hooks [1]

One thing we should be able to say – without controversy or equivocation – is that women’s liberation is about liberating all women from oppression. This means feminists should actively campaign for the liberation of all women. Unfortunately, this is not how feminists have operated throughout history in practice. A very good example is that of reproductive justice. One of the central aims of the WLM was to achieve abortion on demand; of course, a rallying point for all women. Not only does abortion on demand give women autonomy over their own bodies, it also affords women the ability to control how many children they have thus freeing up space for work (or leisure). Economic independence has always been, and remains, a key factor for women’s fight for independence. It allows for some economic separation from male partners, but also provides women with power at the point of production, as workers. Therefore being able to control how many kids she has is crucial to any woman’s autonomy.

Nevertheless, there was a key battle missing from the aims of the mainstream WLM’s fight for reproductive justice: the battle against sterilization. While the WLM was fighting for abortion rights, working class women – particularly black, native American and disabled women – were being scouted out by the sick hands of eugenicists, classified as ‘undesirable’ and sterilized: often without their consent. Of course, women who were being affected did rise and did campaign, but their efforts never reached the mainstream. Part of this was because the big organizations of the WLM failed to recognise this issue as a deservedly feminist one. This failure, which coupled snuggly with unchecked racism in the WLM, led to fragmentation just as the WLM was otherwise reaching its apex.

The abortion rights activists of the early 1970s should have examined the history of their movement. Had they done so, they might have understood why so many of their Black sisters adopted a posture of suspicion towards their cause. They might have understood how important it was to undo the racist deeds of their predecessors, who had advocated birth control as well as compulsory sterilization as a means of eliminating the “unfit” sectors of the population. Consequently, the young white feminists might have been more receptive to the suggestion that their campaign for abortions rights include a vigorous condemnation of sterilization abuse, which had become more widespread than ever.

– Angela Davis [2]

women race and class

‘Women, Race and Class’ by Angela Davis is a classic of black feminist literature.

It’s because of this, and much more of the same, that Black feminists began to split from the main movement and form separate Black organisations. This splintering occurred before the general decline of the WLM and move rightwards that happened towards the latter end of the 70s. Hence, in 1973 a group of Black feminists in New York break from the main movement to form the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). Only a year later a group of class-conscious Black feminists split from the NBFO because of its “bourgeois-feminist stance” and they formed the Combahee River Collective (CRC). The CRC were a major ideological pre-cursor to the concept of intersectionality.

This history of feminism highlights why you can’t discuss sexism in abstraction from race: the gendered oppression that some women face is inextricably linked to other material constructions of oppression, such as racism. The result is, for millions women, to fight for liberation from women’s oppression means to simultaneously fight for liberation from racial oppression. Capitalism contains within its very fibres various material structures of exploitation and oppression (wage exploitation, racism, homophobia, gendered oppression etc) and these structures overlap and reinforce each other. This means that for an individual “…gender is constructed and defined in conjunction with elements of identity such as race…” [3] so a feminism that isn’t also firmly against all other kinds of oppression is a hollow feminism.

The Question of Class

Intersectionality has been great at raising the banner of total liberation. But total liberation from what and for who?

Very briefly I’d like to touch on the question of class, and a misconception that exists about it amongst feminist groups. Often feminists talk about ‘classism’; classism can be summed up as income inequality, rich-man snobbery and stereotypes like ‘Chav’ that are perpetuated against working class people. Quite rightly, an intersectional framework pits us against these things.

Nevertheless, feminists, even Black feminists, often neglect the other understanding of ‘class’ and that’s the one defined in terms of exploitation of labour. Under this conception, you are part of the working class if your labour is exploited by the capitalist class for profit. Because it is not common sense for feminists today to think of class in this way “most Black feminists acknowledge the systemic roots of racism and sexism but place far less emphasis than Marxists on the connection between the system of exploitation and oppression.” [4] This, I’d argue, leads us again to missing key aspects of oppression, but, also, a central source of agency.

This notion of class – as exploitation for profit – is the key source of misery for many people, particularly women, world-wide. It is the very machinery of capitalism and class exploitation at the heart of most issues that affect working class women globally: jobs, pay equity, working conditions and welfare are but a few. But class exploitation also precipitates gendered violence and plays a far greater role than young feminists today acknowledge. To give a very clear example we can look to the Export Processing Zones of the Global South. Tithi Bhattacharya explains:

The use of cheap female labor within special “economic zones” free from the labor laws of the country in which they are based, was first tried in South Korea during its “economic miracle.” Economist Alice Amsden argues that the key to South Korea’s success was the wage gap between male and female labor. These zones mimic in truly macabre ways the contours of the home under capitalism. Like homes they are private, shielded from social and state scrutiny, produce items of social provisioning (clothes, shoes, food processing, toys) by female labor, and are secret theaters of rampant violence. 

Women working in EPZs are subject to widespread verbal abuse, unpaid overtime, sexual harassment, forced sex, and physical violence. Women applying for these jobs have been forced to take health tests, including pregnancy tests, and examined naked and asked questions such as “Do you have a boyfriend?” and “How often do you have sex?” In Kenya, more than forty EPZs employing more than 40,000 workers produce close to 10 percent of the country’s exports. Here the job competition between men and women results frequently in women being forced to have sex, despite HIV risks, in order to secure a job. International Labor Rights Fund revealed that 95 percent of Kenyan women facing workplace harassment do not report the crime; women working in the EPZs formed 90 percent of the women studied in this report. [5]

In EPZs the violence of sexism and abuse goes hand in hand with the exploitation of women as cheap sources of labour; sexual violence is used to boost profit by disciplining the work force and driving down wages. We shouldn’t think of this process as isolated from us here in the UK. Domestic abuse is known to increase during economic crisis and times of austerity, and crisis and austerity are currently knitted quite neatly into the fabric of neo-liberal capitalism. But importantly, the goods produced off the back of abuse in EPZs are bought and sold for the profit of very rich people in Europe and the United States.

Nevertheless, a flipside: class exploitation affords women an important level of agency. The labour of working people makes the world go round. Collectively organising labour, and removing it through striking, can be both a liberating experience but can affect real change. We only have to look to the Grunwick dispute, where migrant women organised, ran, and led a 2 year strike and, as workers, took their liberation into their own hands.

It’s a disaster the radical and powerful history of women as working class fighters (who often fought alongside men) has more or less been wiped from feminist consciousness. Feminism needs to be removed from the cosy confines of an ideology that is consistent with capitalism and placed into the radical framework of a movement that wants to totally revolutionise society. If intersectionality is to mean what it claims it means, this part of women’s history needs to be reclaimed and feminists need to begin locating key areas of struggle in their workplaces.

jayaben desai

Jayaben Desai was a leading striker during the Grunwick dispute that lasted 2 years, 1976-1978

What does this mean for us?

The fantastic thing about intersectionality is it raises the banner of liberation for all women, be they black women facing sterilization, university women at the sharp end of lad culture or Indian women in EPZs. However we have to start putting these theoretical conclusions into practice.

For example, cleaners at King’s – who are very likely to be migrant women with children – are fighting for the living wage; we need to support their campaign. Our support needs to be more than a nod in their direction: it needs to be a show of student solidarity with workers and a celebration of people willing to fight for change.

Women throughout history have fought for a completely new vision of society; one without exploitation, one without oppression. Feminists today should follow in their tradition, but we can only do so by positioning ourselves against every injustice and actually fighting like we care.


  1. Page 124, ‘Ain’t I a Woman’, 1982, bell hooks
  2. Page 215, ‘Women Race and Class’, 1981, Angela Davis
  3. Page 175, ‘Inessential Woman’, 1988, Elizabeth Spelman
  4. ‘Black Feminism and Intersectionality’ – Sharon Smith
  5. ‘Explaining Gendered Violence in a Neo-liberal Era’ – Tithi Bhattacharya


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