Feminist theory since the 19th century criticized inequality and power relations between women and men, the exclusion of women from labour markets, from social and political citizenship, from political decision-making and from cultural organisations. The political aim of the women’s movements around the globe was and still is to overcome structures, institutions, norms and discourses responsible for the discrimination of women. The gendered division of labour in capitalist societies, i.e. the inequality between wage labour and unpaid, privatised care work, but also inequality due to the generativity of women (for instance reproductive rights), family legislation and social policies, have been identified as sources of gender discrimination.
Marxist-feminist theories of the early second-wave feminism since the 1970s were aware of the “unhappy marriage” between Marxism and feminism (Hartmann 1979); Marxist theory has been side-lining women’s political claims and women’s interests by identifying them as secondary in the struggle to overcome capitalist exploitation and domination; patriarchy was seen as a “side”, or secondary, contradiction of capitalist societies. Nevertheless, early Marxist-feminist theorists (e.g. Eisenstein 1979) paved the way to integrate gender domination in a critical analysis of capitalist production and class struggle by highlighting the role of the family in capitalist reproduction. These concepts stressed the analytical interconnectedness of class and gender and demanded an emancipatory strategy targeting both class and gender for tackling their domination.
Black feminists in the US since the 1980s criticized race discrimination and claimed that anti-racism is important for any emancipatory theory and strategy (hooks 1982; Combahee River Collective 1995/1978). Referring to this literature, Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) coined the term “intersectionality” by using the metaphor of intersecting axes of inequality. The concept of intersectionality suggests the inextricable interconnectedness of different forms of discrimination and oppression – due to gender, race, class, but also sexuality, age, and religion. These structures of discrimination – and privilege – are mutually constitutive and impact on identities and social positions of people. To move beyond a “mono-categorial perspective” (Collins 2015, 5) and to develop strategies of emancipation, the interrelatedness and reciprocity need to be recognized, conceptualized and analysed. Prioritizing one of these structures of domination and social inequality – be it sexism, patriarchy, racism, classism, capitalist exploitation, or homophobia – prevents a full understanding of power constellations. Patricia Hill Collins (1986, 20) refers to this complexity as a “matrix of domination”.
Hence, the concept of intersectionality highlights the concurrence of structures of domination without claiming that they can be reduced to one cause. However, feminist theories of intersectionality claim that discrimination due to gender, class, race, and sexuality are shaped in new ways in western modernity, i.e. since the 18th century and the emergence of a capitalist mode of production and bourgeois societies. Intersectionality also points to differences between women and challenges the notion of a homogeneous group of women with similar interests.
While by the early 2000s a “blizzard” of publications on intersectionality occurred, one of the burning questions remained unanswered: how do the different structures of domination and inequality interact? In order to develop intersectionality as an analytical concept Leslie McCall (2005) identifies three different approaches: an anticategorial or deconstructive approach, an intracategorial approach, which analyses only intersections within one category, and an intercategorial approach to interlocking systems of discrimination and power, focusing on the whole complexity of intersections. While the latter is the most advanced approach, the others are also able to highlight how domination and inequality interact.
Politically, the concept of intersectionality criticizes identity politics and suggests alliances between different emancipatory and social justice movements – women’s and queer movements, anti-racist movements, and organisations of the worker’s movements such as trade unions and leftist parties. Political intersectionality therefore also suggests that ‘sisterhood’ as a political strategy of different groups of women is possible.
However, recently also exclusionary forms of intersectionality are used in political discourse – especially in order to exclude migrants in western societies: the intersection of gender and religion, for instance, is instrumentalised by right-wing actors for blaming Muslim men who are constructed as not fitting to western societies due to their patriarchal attitudes.
Moreover, the concept of intersectionality is reflected in anti-discrimination policies, such as the European Union anti-discrimination directives, implemented since the turn of the century. EU regulations target the “big six” forms of discrimination – gender, religion or belief, disability, sexual orientation, age, race or ethnic origin. Class is missing in the EU world – as social equality is seen as a problem of the member states. Criticism of intersectionality uses this example to suggest that the concept serves a neoliberal agenda and side-lines feminist and class struggles – a just critique especially in times of austerity and authoritarianism in the EU and some of its member states.