Intersectionality is an analytic tool through which all social relations are structured, viewed, and acted upon. The concept of intersectionality specifically as applied to violence against women is often attributed to critical race scholar Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. As an African American feminist, Crenshaw was the first to make a link between the ways the social construction of political identities such as ethnicity and gender often submerge the complex “intersections” within and between such categories. Crenshaw and others also have asserted that the notion of intersectionality sheds light upon the ways social problems are constructed because such issues occur within historical, political, and cultural contexts that cannot be extricated from or analyzed without accounting for social variables such as socioeconomic class, sexuality, age, religious affiliation, and nationality.
Specifically with regard to domestic and sexual violence, Crenshaw has argued that without a more complex analysis of the interconnections among various forms of domination and oppression, the structural dimensions of intimate violence as well as those who are both victims and victimizers cannot be well understood.
The Race-Ing of Violence against Women
Growing out of the modern-day women’s movement, feminist theorizing about violence against girls and women initially attributed the violence to gendered power relationships built upon and maintained through socially proscribed patriarchal constructions of family life, domesticity, marriage, and intimacy. Some feminist historians have suggested, however, that both the second wave of American feminism and the violence against women movement have been strongly defined by and through the race, class, and political perspectives of its main proponents—White, middle-class women. Late activist and scholar Susan Schechter, who wrote the first account of the American battered women’s movement, suggested that the norms, organizing methods, and leadership of early feminist strategists set the tone for most of the prevailing domestic violence policies and practices that are now considered “mainstream” in the United States.
The notion of intersectionality first emerged as a critique of this predominantly White feminist and particularly U.S.-based analysis of sexual and domestic violence. Intersectionality as a complementary theoretical framework to explain violence against women focuses on two major points. First, while liberal and radical feminism have placed sex and gender inequality as the central if not sole cause of the structural domination of women in society, women of color and lesbians understand misogyny as co-constructed with racial and class stratification, heterosexism, xenophobia, and other systems of oppression. Crenshaw and others have argued that the social contexts in which race, class, gender, nationality, age, sexuality, and other social-political classifications combine to create institutions of domination are not merely additive in nature, but uniquely structured as an amalgam of power, supremacy, and social control.
The second basis of intersectionality is a critique of White feminism’s claim that domestic and sexual abuse affects all women equally (i.e., all women could be raped or battered regardless of race, class, or sexuality). The predominant analysis of gender violence as a crime “against all women” suggests that whether you are the immigrant wife of a rural factory worker or the daughter of a wealthy East Coast industrialist your experience as a victim of intimate violence— including how such systems as the police, courts, social services, or medical facilities respond to you— is structured primarily or solely by your sex and gender, and not mediated by sex and gender in combination with socioeconomic class, age, sexuality, nationality, and other factors.
The Gender-Ing of Ethnic Analyses of Violence
Feminists of color have argued both that White feminists’ understanding of violence has excluded race as it intersects with gender and that the focus of communities of color on ending racism is not only dominated by the perceptions and leadership of men of color, but has precluded any analysis of how racism and sexism disproportionately affect women of color. Therefore, any attempts to interrogate violence by men of color against women (whether female victims are White or non-White) are perceived either as a betrayal of racial/ethnic identity as envisioned by ethnic male solidarity or as duplicity with White feminism (which is equated with Whiteness). Battered and raped women of color thus are forced to choose between racial/ ethnic loyalty and their safety as defined in a feminist/ White analysis of violence.
This conundrum is similarly structured for other women victims of violence who must traverse the multiple spaces of their various identities. Battered lesbians must rely upon either the politically defined but protective boundaries of lesbian identity/community or the expected safety of often heterosexist antiviolence interventions such as shelters. Immigrant rape survivors may remain silent in their ethnic communities for fear of subjecting themselves and/or their families to regressive immigration policies or instead may consent to Western medical evidentiary exams established by well-meaning sexual assault health care providers who are nonetheless ill prepared to deal with non-English-speaking victims. Proponents of intersectionality theory suggest that violence against women exists within a historical and political structure that implicates all forms of domination. Therefore, sex and gender oppression is not necessarily primary in such theorists’ analysis of intimate violence but contextualized along with racism, classism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and other institutionalized misuses of power.
In summary, intersectionality as an underlying assumption, operating principle, and organizing theory in understanding and responding to violence against women requires us to stand at multiple locations, to hold many and sometimes conflicting analyses, and to listen for distinct voices within the chorus of each victim’s story.
- Crenshaw, K. W. (1994). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of color. In M. A. Fineman & B. Mykitiuk (Eds.), The public nature of private violence (pp. 93–120). New York: Random House.
- Kanuha, V. (1996). Domestic violence, racism, and the battered women’s movement in the United States.
- In J. Edleson & Z. Eisikovits (Eds.), Future interventions with battered women and their families (pp. 34–50). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Richie, B. E. (2000). A black feminist reflection on the antiviolence movement. Signs, 25(4), 1133–1137.
- Schechter, S. (1982). Women and male violence: The visions and struggles of the battered women’s movement. Boston: South End Press.
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