Intersectionality and the History of Knowledge

On March 6, 2016, at the height of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton or someone on her campaign posted a tweet about intersectionality. Commenting on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the accompanying diagram depicted the various issues that had intersected to cause the crisis. This was a curious moment, as a theory with roots in radical feminism was brought to the center, part of a modish interest in intersectionality as an explanatory framework for understanding contemporary America.[1] Indeed, where her main primary challenger was positioned as a more economically progressive choice, Clinton’s supporters often claimed (with varying degrees of sophistication) that in an intersectional sense she was the more properly anti-establishment candidate, over the white male Bernie Sanders.[2] Had Clinton won in November, this discourse of intersectionality would probably have been a main theme of her presidency. That this seemingly centrist liberal set of ideas can be traced to the radical wing of second wave feminism, the New Left, and even Marxism, adds to the curiosity of its move to the political mainstream.

In Intersectionality: An Intellectual History, Ange-Marie Hancock provides an instructive genealogy of such thinking, going as far back as the nineteenth century.[3] Women such as Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897), author of one of the few female slave narratives published contemporaneously, recognized the ways in which gender intersected with other forms of oppression and categories of difference. So did the prominent African American abolitionist Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797–1863). Hancock excavates such thinking in more obscure figures as well, including Maria Miller Stewart (1803–1879), an abolitionist and early women’s rights activist, and Winnifred Eaton (1875–1954), a mixed-race Chinese British novelist.

Jumping forward to the 1960s and its long aftermath, Hancock goes through the work of groups such as the Combahee River Collective, active from 1974 onwards; the National Third World Gay and Lesbian Conference of 1979; and a large number of Latina feminists who struggled to have their concerns addressed within the Latino/a community. All started to think in more systematic ways about the nexus of gender and race, a ferment produced by the failings of contemporary white feminists (who tended to ignore the importance of race in favor of an undifferentiated sisterhood of all women) and of male African American and Latino activists (who downplayed the relevance of sexism). Highlighting the centrality of class to earlier “intersectionality-like thinking,” the Black Women’s Liberation Group addressed white liberal feminists in the 1970s thus:

We don’t think you are going to understand us because you are a bunch of little middle-class people and we are poor black women. The middle class never understands the poor because they always need to use them as you want to use poor black women’s children for yourself. (44)

Likewise, in 1972, the Chicana feminist Elizabeth Martínez described race, class, and gender as three interconnected “faces of the same enemy” (89). By the 1980s, this body of thought coalesced into intersectionality, best exemplified in Audre Lorde’s classic essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1984) and in the work of the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Hancock identifies two projects at the heart of intersectionality: restoring visibility to women and to people of color and rethinking the relationship between race, class, and gender as categories of difference. Hancock talks of how intersectionality can be seen as a kind of intellectual property, one that only some scholars have a right to access (16–27). As she examines this notion, she modifies it to say that intersectionality scholars do not literally own their conceptual apparatus, but they are stewards to it, safeguarding its proper use. But as she moves away from property, she approaches something that still feels a lot like property: “The notion of stewardship … is explicitly interested in the common good of the firm or organization” (22). How much does this shift actually accomplish? After all, Hancock stays with an understanding of intersectionality that says only certain scholars are allowed access; stewards are not unlike gatekeepers who get to decide who is allowed in (or out).

In tracing the development of intersectionality, Hancock critiques the “additive logic” of some its practitioners (61). Audre Lorde called this additive logic the “hierarchy of oppression.” Elizabeth Martínez has similarly criticized the “Oppression Olympics,” in which oppressions are added to the same vessel in a simplistic manner, as if they were inert ingredients that did not interact with each other in complex ways (97). Hancock points out that the problem with this “additive logic” approach is the assumption that race can be severed from gender. She also notes how this idea of severability may be a product of the academy’s division of labor. Sociologists study class, gender theorists study gender, and those in ethnic studies and African American studies departments focus on race. But there is no department of “race + gender + class” (104). As a solution, Hancock develops Manulani Aluli-Meyer’s idea of intersectionality as a “holographic epistemology” in which race, class, and gender can be understood in their full three dimensions and their full interconnectivity (119). Instead of seeing race simply as a thing that is piled upon gender or class, Hancock concludes that “the interstices, rather than the subjugated standpoints themselves are the focus of intersectionality-like thinking” (141). In other words, intersectionality is not the study of race and class and gender, but of the linkages among all three and of the impossibility of separating them.

And yet Hancock’s own approach at times belies this. Hancock’s book is a study of intersectionality, but it is also a product what is now called intersectionality. Many of the groundbreaking works on intersectionality in the 1980s and early 1990s were written by feminist scholars of a radical or Marxist inclination for whom class was important. Yet class does not appear at all—or has been rendered less significant—in more recent works. The tacit consensus seems to be that one does not really need to “know” class to be able to have knowledge of race or gender. Hancock herself notes that “race and gender … are all too often presumed to represent the entirety of intersectional work” (129). As even Hancock’s book shows, it has become standard practice in certain intersectional circles for class to wither away. Indeed, specific mentions of class were absent, or at the least held to one side, in the pro-Clinton turn to intersectionality. That class has dropped out of certain strands of intersectional analysis has fed into recent left critiques of the entire concept, ranging from the sophisticated to the scattershot.[4] Hancock notes the abandonment of class and other Marxian concepts but consciously avoids explaining it:

Critiques of capitalism and imperialism have previously been part of intersectionality-like thought, but these critiques have dropped out in important ways, as opposed to having been missing in the first place. Importantly, this ebb and flow of attention to certain kinds of categories is generally unaccounted for by scholars who make this critique. (56)

Whatever about certain problems in certain applications of intersectionality, though, it remains a useful conceptual model—a model that can and should be brought into mutually beneficial exchanges with history in general and the history of knowledge in particular.

The standard visual representation of race, class and gender—used in many an introductory-level undergraduate gender studies class—seems to offer much in terms of a dynamic understanding of all three vectors, with their clean lines swooping in together. Yet this approach is fraught with problems. Focusing on specific moments in which they supposedly intersect, this simple conceptual apparatus says little about the prior history of gender, race, or class. Indeed, Hancock talks of “intersectionality’s own tendency toward ahistoricity,” which she deploys to explain the manner in which intersectional theorists often “crown one or two royal founders of the field,” while ignoring all those (often women of color) who laid the necessary intellectual groundwork. At the same time, this ahistoricity explains how intersectionality often understands race, class, and gender. They figure as ahistorical forces presumably present in all societies rather than as malleable phenomena that came into history at a certain time and can take leave of it too.

There is also a problem of relative weighting. Do gender, race, and class everywhere and always have the same value in the gender + race + class equation? Hancock argues that intersectionality, done right, should not be charged with “categorical hegemony” (199). A sophisticated approach to intersectionality will avoid seeing any one category as dominant, with the “holographic epistemology” variant of intersectionality providing a three-dimensional model with which to imagine all three rising and falling in relative weight at any time (119). There are of course pitfalls lurking here. Accepting that racial categories, say, might diminish in importance at certain moments can be a slippery slope to ignoring race altogether; witness how easy it is for class to disappear from the equation. Yet a sophisticated epistemology of intersectionality requires this dynamic mobility and fluidity.

Finally, depicting gender, race, and class as cleanly separate may do real harm to the historical record. History is replete with cases where class and race are difficult if not impossible to parse out from each other: Jews and Armenians as ethnically-defined trading classes in medieval Europe and the Middle East; the not dissimilar status of South Asians as a separate trading class in the British Empire; the ways in which languages of race and languages of class draw on one and the same vocabulary, as recently unpacked by the literary scholar Saree Makdisi.[5] In one of the most seminal explorations of class, one that has influenced much of the sociology and ethnography of class, Friedrich Engels discussed the “condition of the working class in England” in terms of seeming racial distinctness:

It is not surprising that the working class has gradually become a race wholly apart from the English bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie has more in common with every other nation of the earth than with the workers in whose midst it lives. The workers speak other dialects, have other thoughts and ideals, other customs and moral principles, a different religion and other politics than those of the bourgeoisie. Thus they are two radically dissimilar nations, as unlike as difference of race could make them.[6]

As a conceptual model that always treats race and class as ontologically separate, intersectionality, as much as it might explain specific incidents of class + race + gender prejudice, confuses all this messy history. More than that, the real problem in speaking of race and class as separate phenomena is that historically the vocabulary of one has been used to discuss the social experiences of the other. To the extent that knowledge is bound up with language, it might not be possible to separately know race or class in any real sense. Similarly, Judith Butler has famously argued that the trouble with “gender” is that it may not actually exist in any coherent sense separately from other identities.[7] A point worth recognizing is that it may not be possible to actually know gender, race, or class as isolated categories in any epistemologically satisfying sense.

So how can a historian know gender? An intersectional history that brings knowledge of gender into conversation with knowledge of race and class offers one solution. And there are myriad examples of how knowledge of gender has historically been understood with and through knowledge of race and class. In one of the more creative pieces of prose styling in the otherwise staid language of Capital, to give one illustration, Marx talked of how “all fractions of the ruling-classes” in England, “landlords and capitalists, stock-exchange wolves and shopkeepers, Protectionists and Free-traders, government and opposition, priests and freethinkers, young whores and old nuns,” were united by “the common cry for the salvation of Property, Religion, the Family and Society.”[8] Similarly, in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx talked of how “property, family, religion, order” are the “watchwords of the old society” that the bourgeoisie sought to defend.[9] At times of revolutionary ferment, threats to the class-order are often understood as threats to a racial and gendered order.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke aired his anxieties about the “new persons” who wield a “new power” after 1789. Race (or at least an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish conception of racial outsiders) bubbled beneath this counter-revolutionary surface. The newly empowered leaders of the revolution, seizing property and replacing gold with paper money, are “like Jew brokers contending with each other who could best remedy with fraudulent circulation and depreciated paper the wretchedness and ruin brought on their country by their degenerate councils.” There is an upset to the “natural” social order, a disturbance in the regime of property ownership, and unnerving changes in the monetary system, all of which Burke understood in quasi-racial terms: “The next generation of the nobility will resemble the artificers and clowns, and money-jobbers, usurers, and Jews, who will be always their fellows, sometimes their masters.”[10] Burke compared the new leaders in France to “a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage.”[11] Like those people who escaped slavery (as he imagined them), the revolutionaries displayed no ability to exercise liberty in a “responsible” manner.

Gender was part of this mix, as manifested in Burke’s publicly addressed letter of 1796, published under the title “A Letter to a Noble Lord,” which tied together the themes of social order and the proper gender order:

The revolution harpies of France, spring from night and hell, or from that chaotick anarchy, which generates equivocally “all monstrous, all prodigious things,” cuckoo-like adulterously lay their eggs, and brood over, and hatch them in the nest of every neighbouring State. These obscene harpies, who deck themselves, in I know not what divine attributes, but who in reality are foul and ravenous birds of prey (both mothers and daughters) flutter over our heads, and souse down upon our tables, and leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal.[12]

Marx once labelled Burke a “celebrated sophist and sycophant” who was “in the pay of the English oligarchy.”[13] Yet the work of both thinkers points (albeit in very different ways) to how knowledge of class and of the social order collapses into that of gender and race.

Moving from a history of elite thought to a history of quotidian knowledge, and from dramatic moments of revolutionary change to banal everyday life, this fuzziness of race, class, and gender remains. Again, there are myriad examples. In my own research, I’ve traced the ways that Irish nationalists and Zionists simultaneously understood their achievement of political sovereignty as a recovery of male strength, a revivification of decadent racial tendencies, and the re-construction of full national normality.[14] Mrinalini Sinha has described how conceptions of “manhood” in colonial societies were based on a particular relationship to property, so that Indian men, for example, were marked as deficient on racial, class, and gender grounds all at once.[15] Stephanie Coontz has shown how, in popular memories of the American past, a restrictive heteronormative gender order is married to a whitewashed vision of male property ownership.[16] This nostalgic vision was—and is—part of a broader knowledge of race + class + gender in America, in which conventional middle-class property ownership is simultaneously perceived as a marker of whiteness and manliness. Indeed, while Hillary Clinton was making a tilt toward intersectionality, Donald Trump, of course, was promising to “make America great again,” a sentiment that tapped into a racial nostalgia held by those voters upset by eight years of a Black presidency, anxieties about the decline of bourgeois opportunity at home and military strength overseas, and a seemingly ever-present crisis of masculinity. An intersectional history of knowledge can do important work in showing how all these perceptions of race, class, and gender are inseparable.

Aidan Beatty holds a PhD in International History from the University of Chicago and is currently an Irish Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellow at Trinity College Dublin.


  1. From the same day, see also “We face a complex, intersectional set of challenges. . . .” https://twitter.com/HillaryClinton/status/706670045410299904.
  2. For examples, see Claire Foran, “Hillary Clinton’s Intersectional Politics,” The Atlantic, March 9, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/hillary-clinton-intersectionality/472872/; Courtney Enlow, “An All-Caps Explosion of Feelings Regarding the Liberal Backlash Against Hillary Clinton,” Pajiba, May 18, 2016, http://www.pajiba.com/politics/an-allcaps-explosion-of-feelings-regarding-the-liberal-backlash-against-hillary-clinton.php; and Emer O’Toole, “The Strong Case for Hillary Clinton,” The Irish Times, April 11, 2016, https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/emer-o-toole-the-strong-case-for-hillary-clinton-1.2602314. For a more fully rounded argument, see Katha Pollitt, “Why Bernie Didn’t Get My Vote,” The Nation, May 4, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/why-bernie-didnt-get-my-vote/.
  3. Ange-Marie Hancock, Intersectionality: An Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  4. Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Trump to Tumblr and the Alt-Right (London: Zero Books, 2017), chap. 5; Frankie Gaffney, “Identity Politics is Utterly Ineffective at Anything Other than Dividing People,” Irish Times, May 19, 2017, https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/identity-politics-is-utterly-ineffective-at-anything-other-than-dividing-people-1.3087639.
  5. Saree Makdisi, Making England Western: Occidentalism, Race, and Imperial Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  6. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England [1844], ed. David McLellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 135 ( “Results” chapter).
  7. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2006) esp. 6 and 196.
  8. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. I, The Process of Production of Capital [1887] (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954), 370–71 (chap. 10, sec. 6).
  9. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852] (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 25 (chap. 1).
  10. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (London: Penguin: 1986) 91, 136, 138 (original emphasis).
  11. Burke, Reflections, 123.
  12. “Letter to a Noble Lord,” February 1796, in Daniel E. Ritchie, ed., Further Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992), 291. The addressee was the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, a close ally of Burke’s.
  13. Marx, Capital, 306 and 711n2 (chap. 13, “Co-operation”).
  14. Aidan Beatty, Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884–1938 (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016); Aidan Beatty, “Zionism and Irish Nationalism: Ideology and Identity on the Borders of Europe,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 45, no. 2 (2017): 315–38, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03086534.2017.1294237.
  15. Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 5.
  16. Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2016).
Suggested citation: Aidan Beatty, “Intersectionality and the History of Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, August 18, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/08/18/intersectionality-and-the-history-of-knowledge/.