CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1From the second half of the 2000s, the notion of intersectionality was suddenly imported into France in various guises. Although the concept has appeared in a wide range of social science research since then, its first uses were closely tied to the history of minority political movements, most particularly to the bubbling cauldron of the 1970s. Coined by American legal scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw at the end of the 1980s in the wake of Black feminism, the term sought to give a name to the strategic and identity dilemmas encountered in the American political space by categories of people subjected to combined forms of domination, chief among which were Black women. [1] The definition of a collective minority subject – at times a subject of struggles, at times a subject of law – was debated in two arenas in particular: the Civil Rights Movement on the one hand, and anti-discrimination jurisprudence on the other. In both cases, intersectional critique challenged the monopoly over the representation of certain subordinate groups (particularly Blacks and women) wielded by members of these groups who, dominant in other respects, presented the properties that were then perceived as the most “representative” (Black men, White middle-class women).

2At their core, theories of intersectionality addressed the hybrid question of “representation”, both as analytical description and as normative expression of specific interests. As a result, they have retained great semantic wealth, sometimes complicating the use of the concept in the social sciences. [2] Its history as well as the history of the work it has inspired demonstrate, however, that this infusion of the theoretical with the political has opened up new horizons for research, with regard to both approaches and subjects.

3Retracing the strategic genealogy of intersectionality theories thus enables us to highlight their analytical scope. Rather than proposing a metaphor of intersectionality as a “black box”, and attempting to reduce confusion by offering a more accurate definition, this article considers the practical problems the concept has sought to resolve and the specific spaces which have determined the issues at stake. This approach involves a comparative international analysis of the concept’s uses and requires a methodological awareness of the contexts surrounding its implementation. In particular, as we will see, because the field of political and legal struggles has taken distinctive forms in different countries, the intersection of relations of domination was theorized differently. The term “intersectionality” has been mobilized in the pursuit of heterogeneous objectives which have been contingent on the areas within which their promoters sought to intervene. Today, for instance, although it is mostly used in the United States as a critical alternative to the managerial discourse on “diversity”, in Europe it is more often invoked to actually support this discourse. Conversely, analogous problems were posed in parallel in the 1970s and 1980s on both sides of the Atlantic, well before the notion of intersectionality itself came into circulation in continental Europe.

4This article takes these parallel histories into account, going beyond terminological differences. It first retraces the genesis of intersectionality theories, focusing on the manner in which two specific national contexts, the United States and France, gave rise to analogous yet distinct formulations. Then, it demonstrates how the social sciences in both countries appropriated strategic problems original to the legal and political space in order to turn them into empirical research principles guiding the study of the interweaving of social relations, thereby making it possible to formulate new research subjects and methods in political science and beyond.

The strategic genesis of intersectionality: a comparative perspective on France and the United States

5Although today the question of articulating social relations of domination has largely pervaded social science research, it was initially explored in a political context with strong ties to the feminist movement. Black American women introduced this set of problems in the 1970s and 1980s, taking issue with the fact that the movement was mostly represented by White middle-class women. [3] In 1970s France, contemporary reflections on the articulation of relations of domination were also developed within the women’s movement. Yet, the strategic contexts of French and American feminism differed. A comparison of the two reveals not only the different strategies deployed by competing social movements, but also the chronology and the manner in which theories of intersectionality emerged in the field of social science in France and in the United States.

6With social movements as a starting point, strategies of representation were rapidly translated into the legal field, which has been the second main arena for theories of intersectionality in the United States. In her pioneering article, K. W. Crenshaw illustrates that the feminist movement’s difficulty in representing women situated on the wrong side of several relations of domination found its match in the legal rationales for policies against discrimination and racism. Here too, comparing France and the United States will reveal the respective legal weight of the concept of intersectionality in the two countries in relation to anti-discrimination law, which appeared early in the United States but late in France.

The American context of Black feminism: critiquing the political subject of feminism

7Theories of intersectionality emerged at the end of the 1980s, capitalizing on the critical reflections that Black feminism had been formulating since the 1970s. The movement contested the public representation of “women” as a political subject in the terms in which it had been constructed by White feminists. In a 1979 text, Adrienne Rich denounced the “white solipsism” of a mainstream movement based on the universal identification of women with one of its most privileged categories – White middle-class women. [4] According to Rich, the political representation of gender domination through the exclusive lens of a subject who was socially situated in the privileged classes prevented reflection on the different forms of subordination inflicted upon women of color, lesbians, or working-class women, whose oppression cannot be reduced to the primary figure of the patriarchal enemy. “The vision of Sisterhood evoked by women’s liberationists”, explains bell hooks, “was based on the idea of common oppression. Needless to say, it was primarily bourgeois white women, both liberal and radical in perspective who professed belief in the notion of ‘common oppression’”. [5] For Black feminism, on the contrary, it was necessary to consider how a complex power system structuring particular situations of oppression generated “multiple jeopardy” [6] at the intersection of different social relations.

8The critique formulated by American Black feminism succeeded in unsettling the representation of women as a homogenous class. It came as no surprise that it was a group of Black women who brought the issue to the table: the political centrality of race in the United States is certainly one of the reasons for the alacrity with which American feminists proposed debating the cleavages that divided them. The ideal of a perfect sorority could hardly resist such an obviously divisive racial history. Thus race, which with the Civil Rights Movement had been the key signifier of social mobilizations in the United States, to the point of inspiring the entire vocabulary of rights throughout the country, widened the critique of American feminism’s political subject. The latter was gradually reconstructed around the visibility, not only of women of color, but also of lesbians and working-class women.

9However, the pre-eminence of race relations in the field of protest mobilization in the United States proved to be a double-edged sword. The strategic dilemma faced by Black feminists found an echo in the women’s movement and set the latter’s reconstruction in motion. In contrast, despite the apparent symmetry, it failed in its critique of politics of representation within the Black Power Movement. To a certain extent, the political primacy of race protected the Black liberation movement from reconsideration of its own subject of representation.

10This was reinforced by the fact that adhesion to the Black movement did not imply family rupture. Adhesion to the feminist movement, on the other hand, could be experienced as a kind of treason or at the very least as a serious dilemma, as numerous feminists of color have reported. Furthermore, as Michele Wallace recalls from her experience as a feminist in the Black liberation movement, the necessity of overturning White stereotypes on Black inferiority required that “black men define their masculinity (and thus their ‘liberation’) in terms of superficial characteristics – demonstrable sexuality; physical prowess; the capacity for warlike behavior”. It thus “comes automatically to nationalist struggles to devalue the contribution of women”, the author notes in retrospect, “as well as gays or anybody else who doesn’t fit the profile of the noble warrior or the elder statesman”. [7] In this context, the demands of Black women in the movement (who were marginalized in auxiliary roles, from secretarial work to housekeeping) were either accused of weakening the collective struggle, or postponed until a later time.

11African-American feminists felt the guilt of their double allegiance to the struggle for Black liberation and the feminist struggle all the more strongly as they experienced the interests of these groups as antagonistic. [8] The effects of this double allegiance do not appear historically symmetrical, however. The argument that one can simultaneously be dominant and dominated within the same group could not be understood in the same way in the two liberation movements.

12Even before K. W. Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, the “intersection” problematized by Black feminism, far from referring to a purely theoretical analysis of the different relations of domination, initially constituted a collective intervention in the political debate over strategies of liberation. While it was asserted that patriarchy is not the universal shape that the oppression of women takes, the idea was essentially to shed light on the fact that certain women are not represented in the anti-patriarchal fight. This critique, strategically advanced by women of color and bolstered discursively by the centrality of the race issue, found its place much more easily in feminist movements than in Black liberation movements. American theories of intersectionality, which conceptualize and denounce the way identities formed at the crossover of different social relations tend to be excluded by movements claiming to support their struggles, are thus inseparable from the US national context and its dominant argumentative repertoires.

The heritage of Marxist thought in French materialist feminism

13The themes of domination and the articulation of power relations also arose in the strategic context of the second wave of French feminism, which developed after May 1968 in the wake of worker and student mobilizations. The construction of the class/race/ gender triptych in French feminism is very different, however, from the American model developed during the same period; in the latter, the issue of diversity within the women’s movement was clearly brought up by women of color. In France, in the context of social mobilizations largely dominated by working-class struggles and Marxist thinking, it was materialist feminists in particular who insisted on the economic exploitation to which the domination of men over women gives rise, analyzing it as a power relation comparable to others and contestable in analogous terms. [9] While this critical reflection greatly enriched theories of domination, it did not leave a place for the question of the diversity of the class of women as explicitly as did the American feminist movement. The belated development of intersectionality theories in France can be traced back to this analogue conception of domination developed in the 1970s, which still affects the debates enlivening the French feminist movement today. [10]

14Whereas race has been the critical instrument dominating mobilizations in the United States, in 1970s France class represented the primary referent of liberation movements. French radical feminism has had an ambiguous relationship with Marxist thought, comprised of both rejections and appropriations. [11] The main theorists of materialist feminism criticized the Marxist canon for making gender oppression a simple by-product of the capitalist system. In the context of the mobilizations they sought to join, feminists denounced theories of the “priority of struggles” that led to their subordination in the space of social movements. Criticizing the homogeneity of the political subject promoted by progressive mobilizations and underscoring the domination effects brought about by its essentialization, French materialists presented gender as a power relation comparable to class and race oppression. In doing so, they justified the political dignity of an autonomous women’s struggle.

15Paradoxically, given its critique of the principal subject of Marxism and movements of the left, the radical feminist movement in turn came to euphemize the question of diversity of the class of women, which it considered as equivalent to other dominated groups, and thus to other forms of liberation. Such an analogous understanding of power relationships, shaped by Marxist thought, thus led to women being considered as homogenous as a response to the Marxist movement’s failure to account for them.

16Yet, the effervescence of feminism in the 1970s did not mean that it presented a unified front. Materialists prevailed, in particular in the struggle that opposed them to the feminism of “difference”. [12] However, other currents of French radical feminism criticized the idea of a common oppression of women in the face of a homogenous patriarchy. Considering that “lesbians are not women”, [13] Monique Wittig challenged the unified character of the “woman” subject in a far-reaching critique of the materialist current, which impacted the architecture of French feminism. [14] Wittig’s argument, and that of the radical lesbians whose position she expressed, took the essentials of materialist feminism, then radicalized its conclusions. For her, to understand the sexes as classes meant that sexual, amorous, and conjugal relations between men and women amounted to class collaboration. In contrast, lesbians found themselves at the vanguard of the feminist struggle because like runaway slaves or renegades, they had managed to break away from their class. In a separate critique, the French “class-struggle” feminists insisted on the doubly subordinate position of working-class women, thereby extending the question of power relations to include those within the group of women itself. [15] Although some research explored these currents, they did not enjoy the same theoretical posterity as materialist feminism. The latter’s positioning in relation to the Marxist problematic drove it to universalize the cause and the class of women, neglecting the concrete question of the multiple forms of domination that the Black feminists had succeeded in raising in the United States.

17Thus, theories of intersecting dominations that developed in the United States and France after the 1970s did not inherit identical problematics. In France, the question of different relations of domination was formulated by materialist feminists in the form of a comparative model that was not primarily meant to explain the overlap between different systems of power relations. [16] While it made these mutually intelligible by means of analogical representations, it also tended to isolate them abstractly from one another. In this way, it prevented specific configurations formed at the crossover of different structuring axes of inequality being taken into account, as the lesbians and “class struggle” feminists had noted at the time. In the United States, the heritage of Black feminism made it possible to shift the critique from how different struggles fitted together to the internal question of a political subject of feminism. The US context allowed for the emergence of interrogations over how to construct a subject of “discourse”, an actor of mobilization and strategies of liberation that would include the experience of all women and enable consideration of the whole body of relations of oppression that affected them. [17] In the context of a more precocious and extensive academic institutionalization, [18] the American feminist movement [19] established the basis for the interrogations summarized today by the notion of intersectionality.

The influence of anti-discrimination law and jurisprudence

18Though they first emerged in the field of political movements, reflections on intersectionality also permeated the other major normative area in which, in contemporary societies, the question is raised of the definition of a “subject”: law. As an heir to Black feminism, K. W. Crenshaw analyzed, via a painstaking study of American jurisprudence, the construction of categories of public action that feed anti-discrimination policies and the fight against racism. She highlighted the logic of categorization which consists of constructing the standard case of a given discrimination around the most privileged subjects of the category discriminated against, whose distinguishing features, except the one that is the object of discrimination, are otherwise entirely legitimate. In her article “Demarginalizing the intersection of class and race”, Crenshaw describes how, during the trials relating to gender or race discrimination in the 1980s, American judges did not consider Black women to be legitimately representative of either of the two groups of victims concerned (women, racial minorities). Because they fell precisely at the intersection of two potential discriminations whose effects the judges were seeking to evaluate in the separate languages of race or gender, they were not considered relevant legal cases. Their multifaceted and multicausal inferiorization could not be exclusively attributed to only one of the major, officially recognized legal categories of discrimination that could be formally invoked in court.

19The search for proof of discrimination founded unequivocally on race or gender thus prevented Black women from bringing evidence of the discriminations that affected them. The height of irony, remarked Crenshaw, was that American constitutional categories conversely denied the benefit of a specific protection for Black women, as the judges considered that the Constitution “already” protected women on one hand, and Blacks on the other. [20] The way the problem was confronted in the legal field thus echoed the political dilemmas encountered in social movements: [21] any categorization of discrimination concerning “Blacks”, “women”, etc. runs the risk of excluding from the benefits of the legal instruments created those persons situated at the intersection of several forms of discrimination, whose disadvantaged position cannot be exclusively attributed to one among them.

20One of the conditions that made the emergence of intersectionality theories in the 1980s possible in the United States was the early establishment of anti-discrimination law, and particularly affirmative action policy, from the 1960s. African-American feminist activists entered the field of law bringing with them the same issues they had raised in the social movements in which they had taken part. Symmetrically, one might posit that the late apparition of intersectionality theories in France also had to do with the French legal context, which was much less influenced by a tradition of anti-discrimination law. It was only under the injunction of European norms in the 2000s that France equipped itself with a framework to fight discrimination. [22] Moreover, “the French invention of discrimination” [23] was rapidly integrated into a managerial discourse on “diversity” which largely euphemized legal constraints by fusing them with the language of economic interest. [24] While Anglo-Saxon discourse on diversity does not act as a substitute for public policies against discrimination but rather works alongside them, the French repertoire of diversity seems to have weakened the implementation of a repressive legal and institutional framework. [25]

21Both social movements and the law are sites within which political subjects are being constructed, the focus of struggles and negotiations, whose role is to represent collectives and advance their interests. The existence of a tradition of anti-discrimination in American law contributed to the genesis of intersectionality theories in the United States. These theories formed at the crossover of Black feminism and jurisprudential action, and took as their focus the question of subjects of domination in all their many forms. This line of questioning would appear later in France, as much because of the history of the French feminist movement and the strategic constraints which weighed upon it, as because of France’s weaker and more recently developed anti-discrimination law.

22Theories of intersectionality do not point to a simple mechanical effect by which, within certain movements, people endowed with more resources attain positions of power and representation to the detriment of others with fewer resources. They have also focused attention on the distinctly symbolic relation of exclusion by which those subjected to multiple forms of domination are marked as intrinsically not “representative” of their category. Though these questions were asked both in the United States and France, notably in the women’s movement, they only partially concerned the same groups in both countries (working class women, lesbians, or black women) and found themselves articulated in distinct terms linked to different political traditions. The strategic responses formulated in turn fed the imaginary of the social sciences in each of these national spaces, privileging the race issue in the United States and social class in France.

Intersectionality in the social sciences: from strategic theories to theoretical strategies

23The political and legal questions raised by reflections on intersectionality in the 1980s led to a renewal of sociological work dedicated to domination. This renewed interest further extends existing connections, on numerous subjects, between social analysis and political critique, in particular in the area of gender research, whose constitution as a disciplinary field is narrowly correlated with the history and academic institutionalization of the feminist movement.

24In the 1970s, debates around the “priority of struggles” laid the emphasis on those relations of domination that echoed the major battles targeted by social movements in the political space. Groups and individuals likely to be simultaneously adopted by distinct movements saw their position analytically represented as a crossover of previously hypostatized social relations (“racism”, “sexism”). The effects of the latter were supposed to add up arithmetically, resulting in a “double oppression”. Intersectionality theories claim to break away from this analytical matrix by shifting the view towards power configurations in which individuals’ social features play out in more complex ways, notably allowing unexpected compensations. This ambition encourages a historical and contextual approach to domination, using concrete situations as a starting point. Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker propose thinking of social relations as “situated accomplishments”, meaning matrices in which the categories of race, class, and gender are constantly renewed and stabilize their meanings in situations of interaction. [26]

Race and gender in the context of slavery

25In the United States, the simultaneous analysis of race and gender relations, as a departure from the arithmetic paradigm, played a major role in renewing the study of domination. Research in New Slavery Studies, and especially Southern Women’s History, on slavery and post-slavery society cast light on configurations of domination that forced a break from classical feminist analysis of gender oppression. [27] Following the work of Angela Davis and other African-American authors, Elsa Dorlin recently suggested that, in the American middle-classes of the late nineteenth century, femininity could not be understood as the simple “inversion” of masculine characteristics. [28] The role, qualities, and attributes that characterized the White mistress of the house – one of which, the lady of charity, would for a long time remain the naturalized archetype of what a woman should be – did not construct themselves so much in opposition to the master of the household as to the black servant (housewife vs. household). Rather than simple opposition to the masculine norm, femininity represented the reverse product of racialized domesticity.

26African-American feminist theorists such as Michèle Barrett showed how the term “patriarchy” was profoundly ill-suited to an understanding of the world of slavery in the United States. [29] How can we describe the privileges of masculinity and the traditional features of patriarchy in a universe where men enjoyed practically none of the traditional prerogatives of masculine domination? A man who was not a landowner, who did not provide for the household and failed to control the marital relationship is a paradoxical figure of domination who cannot be subsumed into the overly general concept of patriarchy. [30] In the organization of American planter society, men carried out sewing, cleaning, and cooking work that remained symbolically attached to feminine roles: “How then, in view of all of this, can it be argued that Black male dominance exists in the same forms as White male dominance? Systems of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism have systematically denied positions in the White male hierarchy to Black men and have used specific forms of terror to oppress them.” The role of women in the world of slavery is no less paradoxical, revealing a partial reversal of their position as dominated subjects. Angela Davis wrote in the early 1970s that, by feeding their family, women produced the only form of non-appropriated work in a society dominated by the planter. [31] By flaunting her arms marked by labor and proclaiming that she was no less strong and had been no less mistreated than a man, militant abolitionist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) could claim a position of equality with the class of men. [32]

27Lessons from these analyses of American planter society are numerous. Firstly, it is clear that that the specific configuration of slavery provided the conditions for a relative reversal of gender roles, with women escaping – imperfectly of course – patriarchal domination in its classic conceptualization founded on the experience of White middle-class women. In sociological terms, the lesson is even more important as it underlines the limits of the cumulative paradigm of domination developed in the 1970s: “Slavery and gender domination seem at first glance to mutually reinforce one another, but we can also to a certain extent show that slavery tempers the domination of men over women slaves, or that gender attenuates in part the pressure of slavery on Black women.” [33] The painstaking description of how a remorseless system of domination modifies ordinary social relations to the point of partially overthrowing them demonstrates that separate gender or race relations acting unilaterally according to a negative arithmetic do not exist, even were those absolutized entities to be eventually combined at a later analytical stage with other forms of domination.

Class and sex, from factory to school

28In France, numerous sociological studies on the articulation of gender and class relations have analyzed mechanisms of domination as complex configurations that resist descriptions in terms of the imposition of independent social properties. The classic work of Danièle Kergoat on female workers, notably, is particularly illustrative of a desire to escape the reduction to which Marxist theories of the 1970s subjected social relations between the sexes, considered as by-products of class oppression. Kergoat shows on the contrary that the condition of female workers forms an “integrated system” in which the effects of capitalism are not experienced in the same way by men and women. [34] Class and sex cannot be added to one another as independent properties but mutually construct one another in capitalist wage society: “We see clearly here how the sexual division of labor shapes forms of work and employment and, reciprocally, how flexibilization can reinforce the most stereotyped forms of relations between the sexes.” [35]

29Work on gender and class relations at school has also contributed to showing how certain social properties can reconfigure themselves in a particular institutional context. In their study of girls in the French school system, Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet retraced the way in which the “handicap” of the feminine condition at school was gradually subverted after the 1960s. [36] Girls, brought up to be girls, found themselves in tune with the requirements of docility, conformity, and meticulousness in a school system that rewards submission to the demands of the institution. Conversely, the gender identity of boys, forged in the values of conflict, competition, even defiance in the face of authority, impeded their success, in a system in which institutional demands and social gender identity found themselves misaligned. However, the impact of social class moderated this situation which disadvantaged boys in the school system: the higher the socio-economic status of the boy, the less the culture of conflict with school seemed valued. For boys with a privileged socio-economic status, masculine education’s agonistic culture can even become a resource, whether it is focused on school life itself (exercises, exams, competition for grades, etc), or mobilized when negotiating career path choices. The case of the school system thus shows how the articulation of social relations can result in variable configurations which lead to differentiated mechanisms of compensation and success.

The classes of sexuality

30Whilst we find numerous works on the intersection of class, race, and gender relations long before the formulation of intersectionality theories, studies exploring the articulation of different social relations with sexuality primarily emerged only in the early 1990s. Gender and sexuality historians sought especially to understand the formation of sexual identities in the context of the economic, social, and urban transformations of capitalism. [37]

31In Gay New York, [38] US historian George Chauncey shows how, in the space of a few decades, between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the transformations of American capitalist society formed a matrix of interlinked identity constructs of class, gender, and sexuality. In the nineteenth century, the middle-class man was still defined by the fact of single-handedly providing for his family, via his membership of an exclusively male workspace and his independence in the eyes of other men. This identity expressed gender, sexuality, and class at the same time, with masculinity remaining powerfully associated with the image of the independent and responsible worker. This very identity configuration found itself in crisis at the end of the nineteenth century because of the radical transformation in the production system. Changes in American capitalism led to the widespread introduction of the wage system which destabilized the ideal of men’s independence and removed them from work environments most directly linked to physical effort, while the entry of women into the labor force troubled male exclusivism. The gender identity of middle-class men consequently entered into crisis.

32The working class did not experience these changes as early as the middle class; indeed, the blue-collar working world remained exclusively male for a longer period of time and continued to draw upon a tradition of resistance to bosses and cultivate an agonistic culture of the masculine; hence the discrepancy between the working classes and the middle classes concerning the social acceptance of, and meaning given to, sexual relations between men. If working-class men tolerated sexual relations with other men for longer than did middle-class men, it was in large part because those relations – on the condition however that their partners adopt a feminine position and identity – did not challenge their virile identity. The same was not true however in the middle classes, where men saw their masculinity cast into doubt by the transformations of their work environment and invested in exclusive heterosexuality as the new cornerstone of their gender identity.

Intersectional performance as an object of political science

33The epistemological questions developed around the concept of intersectionality have made extensive contributions to empirical work conducted in social and political science in recent years. Whether they breathed new life into classic themes by questioning the entanglement of power relations, or developed new objects of study, approaches to intersectionality seem to have imposed themselves as a new toolbox for social science, to the point of partially redefining its methods. [39] In the same way that the sociology of collective action, in its methodological approach, inherited political puzzles developed by the actors of the social movements it studies, the analysis of public policy was notably enriched by the dilemmas of intersectionality as they were posited by anti-discrimination law activists. Some studies of European public policy have taken the intersectional critiques expressed since the 1980s by groups mobilized around the representation of multiple dominations, and reformulated them into instruments of evaluation and analysis. [40] European anti-discrimination law as a whole has found itself reassessed via the critique of public policy instruments and ways of approaching the fight against inequality. [41]

34But intersectionality does not only refer to a fixed position or identity: it can also function as a political argument or mode of self-presentation. How is “intersectionality” then mobilized? Are the political rhetorics used different depending on the context? What are the effects of these “intersectional performances”, both in the successes and failures of movements for emancipation and in the reconfiguration of hierarchies internal to political organizations? If political sociology has increasingly focused on the racial variable within more classic analyses of gender domination, [42] recent studies have also pointed to the strategies of legitimization and conquest used by social actors to convert initially handicapping sets of features into political capital in public space. [43] Contemporary debates around the definition of legitimate figures of representation for immigrant women illustrate the diversity of new “conflicts of representation” which emerge when someone tries to speak on behalf of intersectional categories. In recent years, a rich field of research has developed that studies which types of legitimacy the media, political, and legal spaces in Europe confer on intersectional minorities (for instance, women from Muslim backgrounds) according to the ways in which these minorities formulate their identities (“veiled woman”, “beurette” [woman of Maghrebi descent born in and living in France], “queer of color”, etc.). [44] The sociology of social movements has made particular use of these approaches, widening the spectrum of the race/class/ gender triptych to encompass sexuality. [45] Paying attention to multiple configurations of power relations has led scholars to interrogate the composition of mobilized groups and the construction of causes and claims within the strategies of social movements. [46] Furthermore, Joan Scott in the United States and Didier Eribon in France have shown how identification with one minority or another, rather than merely resulting from objective belonging, or being pre-political in nature, could be determined in part by the subjects themselves, constantly negotiating their potential strategic affiliation to several groups or several experiences of domination depending on the historical configuration in which they find themselves. [47]

Intersectionality and the political sociology of the dominant

35For the past several years, empirical studies have considered an ever larger spectrum of relations of domination, seeking always to demonstrate specific configurations of power. The class/race/gender triptych has been continuously extended to include the analysis of other social relations whose structuring nature is recognized today, both on the formation of identities and on the crystallization of collective antagonisms. This tendency is especially found in the accent placed on age or sexuality, as anthropological research has suggested that these two axes of power and differentiation could prove more determining, in certain configurations, than other properties such as class or sex. [48] The path traced by the interrogation of theories of intersectionality can be taken further in one direction: the question of the study of the dominant.

36Research on intersectionality until now has primarily explored the position of the dominated, which it took as the fulcrum for thinking about the multiplicity of power relations, enlarging the notion of domination and envisaging possibilities of resistance. The embedding of the theoretical into the political logically led to the exclusion of the intersectional position of the dominant from the scope of the analysis: if each individual strictly speaking is situated at the intersection of social relations (a rich, heterosexual, able-bodied White man is no less “intersectional” than a poor, lesbian, and disabled Black woman), for the most part only the dominated poles of these relations have constituted the object of analyses in terms of “intersectionality”. Yet, in the same way that studies dedicated to race and ethnicity have progressively taken into account the necessity of analyzing “Whiteness”, i.e. the dominant position, [49] intersectionality theories may also be applied to the analysis of the situation of the dominant, defined by the intersection of privileged social properties.

37Historian Robert Dean thus studied the place of masculine gender identity in the production of the ruling class in the United States in the twentieth century and the manner in which it weighed on the foreign policy of the Cold War. [50] In a recent work, Julian B. Carter explored the role of sexuality in the reconstruction of White American “normality” in the twentieth century. [51] In Europe, comparing France and the Netherlands at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Eric Fassin showed the distinct ways in which the dominant “majorities” of these two countries rely upon the stigmatization of ethnic and religious minorities to construct themselves at the vanguard of a paradoxical sexual modernity, one which is both progressive and reactive. [52]

38As we have seen, in a break with analogical conceptions of domination, intersectionality theories have taken care not to consider the position of the dominated as a mere accumulation of handicaps and on the contrary insisted on contexts enabling compensations and reversals. One can take the same analytical approach to studying the dominant as not simply actors accumulating favorable positions. For instance, Shari Benstock analyzed how in lesbian literary and artistic circles among high society American expatriates in Paris during the first half of the twentieth century the stigmatized sexual orientation of the protagonists interacted in different ways with their social class, sometimes provoking active resistance to the rise of fascism in Europe (such as from Djuna Barnes, Sylvia Beach or Nancy Cunard), sometimes producing open support for fascist causes (from Gertrude Stein, Nathalie Barney, or Romaine Brooks). [53]

39* * *

40Combining “issues” rather than realities, theories of intersectionality share with the rest of feminist production an intertwining of different epistemological registers (the analytical and the normative) and different spaces of problematization: social movements and their strategic controversies, the legal debate and its implications for everyday life, the academic microcosm and its often excessively self-referential conceptual sagas. This intertwining is not without confusion, nor misunderstandings. The injunction to analytically combine a plurality of relations of domination could seem redundant if it only concerned concrete realities, which are already “intersected” by definition – for instance, race is always gendered, and gender is always racialized.

41But all empirical research inherits previous problematics and the analytical directions that come with them. Far from being epistemological interferences that the social sciences should eliminate in order to operate rigorously, political debates on complex dominations actually offer the opportunity for the social sciences to engage in a critical debate with their own history. Moreover, if previous scientific paradigms owed their sometimes overly arithmetic approaches to the ways in which national fields of progressive political struggles were structured at the time of their formulation, inversely contemporary sociological research’s success in converting intersectional intuitions into empirical research principles could very well contribute to forging new alliances and fueling new emancipations. [54]


  • [1]
    Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics”, in University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, 139-67.
  • [2]
    For recent syntheses, see Leslie McCall, “The complexity of intersectionality”, Signs, 30(3), 2005, 1771-800; Sirma Bilge, “Théorisations féministes de l’intersectionnalité”, Diogène, 225, January-March 2009, 70-88; and Kathy Davis, “Intersectionality as buzzword: a sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful”, Feminist Theory, 9(1), 2008, 67-85.
  • [3]
    These questions had already been raised in the nineteenth century at the intersection of movements for the abolition of slavery and the suffragist movement: Barbara Smith (ed.), Home Girls. A Black Feminist Anthology (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983). For a more recent approach, see also, Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought. Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990). For an overview in French of the principal contributions to the literature on Black feminism, see Elsa Dorlin (ed.), Black Feminism. Anthologie du féminisme africain-américain 1975-2000 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008).
  • [4]
    Adrienne Rich, “Disloyal to civilization. Feminism, racism, gynephobia”, in On Lies, Secrets and Silence. Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York: Norton, 1979).
  • [5]
    bell hooks, “Sorority: political solidarity among women”, in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), 43.
  • [6]
    Deborah King, “Multiple jeopardy, multiple consciousness: the context of Black feminist ideology”, Signs, 14(1), 1988, 42-72.
  • [7]
    Michele Wallace, “Introduction”, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (New York: Verso, 1999), xix-xx.
  • [8]
    “At the time”, explains Wallace, “the difficulty was that you weren’t supposed to talk about both racial oppression and women’s oppression at the same time” (“Introduction”, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, xvii). See also Gloria Hull, Patricia B. Scott, Barbara Smith (eds), All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. Black Women’s Studies (Old Westbury: Feminist Press, 1982).
  • [9]
    See notably Christine Delphy, L’Ennemi principal 1. Economie politique du patriarcat (Paris: Syllepse, 1998), and L’Ennemi principal 2. Penser le genre (Paris: Syllepse, 2001); Colette Guillaumin, Sexe, race et pratique du pouvoir (Paris: Cote-Femmes, 1992); Nicole-Claude Mathieu, L’anatomie politique. Catégorisations et idéologies du sexe (Paris: Cote-Femmes, 1991).
  • [10]
    Cathie Lloyd, “Rendez-vous manqués: feminisms and anti-racisms in France”, Modern and Contemporary France, 6(1), 1998, 61-73; Elsa Dorlin, Marc Bessin, “Les renouvellements générationnels du féminisme: mais pour quel sujet politique?”, L’Homme et la société, 158, 2005, 11-25; Éléonore Lépinard, “Malaise dans le concept. Différence, identité et théorie féministe”, in “Féminisme(s). Penser la pluralité”, Cahiers du genre, 39, 2005, 107-35, and “The contentious subject of feminism: defining women in France from the second wave to parity”, Signs, 32(2), 2007, 375-403.
  • [11]
    Francoise Picq, Libération des femmes. Les années-mouvement (Paris: Seuil, 1993); Claire G. Moses, “Made in America: ‘French feminism’ in academia”, Feminist Studies, 24(2), 1998, 241-74; É. Lépinard, “The contentious subject of feminism…”; Laure Bereni, “Accounting for French feminism’s blindness to difference: the inescapable legacy of universalism”, paper given at the symposium on “Feminism/s without borders: perspectives from France and the United States”, New York, New York University, 16 October 2009.
  • [12]
    See on this point the critique by Christine Delphy from the “Psycho et Po” movement in her article “The invention of French feminism: an essential move”, Yale French Studies, 97, 1995, 166-97.
  • [13]
    Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind (Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1992).
  • [14]
    The most well-known of these consequences is the rupture in 1980 between radical lesbians and the radical feminists constituting the editoral committee of the journal Questions féministes. This rupture led to the birth of the journal Nouvelles questions féministes whose first editorial on this topic appeared in issue 1, March 1981. For a collection of enlightening texts on the content of debates of this period, see section 6 of Claire Duchen (ed.), French Connections. Voices from the Women’s Movement in France (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 78-110.
  • [15]
    See, for example, “Femmes, genre, féminisme” in the collection Les Cahiers de critique communiste, March 2007, notably the contribution of Josette Trat, “L’histoire oubliée du courant ‘féministe lutte de classes’”.
  • [16]
    In the introduction to her work La matrice de la race, Elsa Dorlin pays homage to the work of Colette Guillaumin who in L’idéologie raciste sets racism and sexism on equal footing. Dorlin proposes, however, to go beyond the comparative perspective by demonstrating that race and sex relations are “inextricably linked from a historical point of view” (Elsa Dorlin, La matrice de la race. Généalogie sexuelle et coloniale de la nation française (Paris: La Découverte, 2006), 12).
  • [17]
    On the shift of strategic questions in the feminist movement, see Nancy Fraser, “Multiculturalisme, antiessentialisme et démocratie radicale. Genèse de l’impasse actuelle de la théorie féministe” in “Féminisme(s). Penser la pluralité”, Cahiers du genre, 27-50.
  • [18]
    For a chronological overview of the “academic sites” in which the problematic of intersectionality gradually developed, see Ann Denis, “Intersectional analysis. A contribution of feminism to sociology”, International Sociology, 23(5), 2008, 677-94.
  • [19]
    The question of internal diversity within the feminist movement is put forward not only by Black feminism but also by “chicano” feminism. Gloria Anzaldua elaborates the concept of “mixing” to think about multiple identities in her influential work: Borderlands/La Frontera. The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987). See also Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism. Black, Chicana and White Feminists Movements in America’s Second Wave (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). For a philosophical approach to the question of the political subject of feminism, see Elisabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Women. Issues of Exclusion in Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).
  • [20]
    Cf. notably DeGraffenreid v. General Motors and Moore v. Hughes Helicopter, Inc. analyzed by Crenshaw in “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex…”. See also Ann Morning, Daniel Sabbagh, “From sword to plowshare: using race for discrimination and antidiscrimination in the United States”, International Social Science Journal, 57(183), 2005, 57-74.
  • [21]
    Following the Critical Legal Studies movement that denounced the biased neutrality of law in the 1970s, advocates of Critical Race Theory attacked the effects of the law’s naturalization of racist prejudices in the 1980s. See notably: Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, Kendall Thomas (eds), Critical Race Theory. The Key Writings that Formed the Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2001). See also the overview article by Christian Poiret, “Articuler les rapports de sexe, de classe et interethniques. Quelques enseignements du débat nord-américain”, Revue Européenne des migrations internationales, 21(1), 2005, 195-226.
  • [22]
    Primarily the law of 16 November 2001 and the creation of the Halde (Haute autorité de lutte contre les discriminations et pour l’égalité; High Authority in the Fight Against Discrimination and For Equality) in December 2004.
  • [23]
    Didier Fassin, “L’invention française de la discrimination”, Revue française de science politique, 52(4), 2002, 403-23.
  • [24]
    For a comparison of “diversity” and anti-discrimination, as well as for a comparison of the American and French legal systems, see the “Usages de la diversité” issue in the journal Raisons politiques, 35, August 2009.
  • [25]
    See Laure Bereni, “‘Faire de la diversité une richesse pour l’entreprise’. La transformation d’une contrainte juridique en catégorie managériale”, Raisons politiques, 35, August 2009, 87-106.
  • [26]
    Candace West, Sarah Fenstermaker, “Doing difference”, Gender and Society, 9(1), 1995, 8-37.
  • [27]
    Southern Women’s History contributed to the critique of the concept of “sisterhood”, which referred to solidarity and uniformity among the class of women, an understanding based on the notion of the common oppression by gender. A few years later, the work of Black historians would allow this same concept to be critiqued inside the planter’s household, as well as the argument that female slaves and planters’ wives were appropriated in the same way.
  • [28]
    Elsa Dorlin, “Dark Care”. De la servitude à la sollicitude”, in Patricia Paperman, Sandra Laugier (eds), Le souci des autres. Ethique et politique du care (Paris: EHESS, 2005), 87-97. On this approach to planter society as a configuration, see also Elisabeth Fox-Genovese’s pioneering book, Within the Plantation Household. Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
  • [29]
    Michèle Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today (New York: Verso, 1980).
  • [30]
    See in particular Céline Bessière, “Race/classe/genre. Parcours dans l’historiographie américaine des femmes du Sud autour de la guerre de Sécession”, Clio. Histoire, Femmes et Sociétés, 17, 2003, 231-58; Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Random House, 1981); Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman. Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1989 [1st edn 1985]); Hazel Carby, “White woman listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood” in John Solomos (ed.), Theories of Race and Racism (New York: Routledge, 2000), 389-403.
  • [31]
    See A. Davis, “Reflections on the Black woman’s role in the community of slaves”, The Massachusetts Review, 13(1-2), 1972, 81-100; and Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class.
  • [32]
    Cited as an epigraph in Elsa Dorlin’s article “Corps contre nature. Stratégies actuelles de la critique feministe”, L’homme et la société, 150-151, 2003-2004, 47-68.
  • [33]
    C. Bessière, “Race/classe/genre…”, 244-5.
  • [34]
    Danièle Kergoat, “Ouvriers = ouvrières? Propositions pour une articulation théorique de deux variables: sexe et classe sociale”, Critiques de l’économie politique, 5, 1978, 65-97, and Les ouvrières (Paris: Le Sycomore, 1982).
  • [35]
    Danièle Kergoat, “Division sexuelle du travail et rapports sociaux de sexe”, in Helena Hirata, Françoise Laborie, Hélène Le Doaré, Danièle Senotier (eds), Dictionnaire critique du féminisme (Paris: PUF, 2000), 35-44 (43).
  • [36]
    Christian Baudelot, Roger Establet, Allez les filles! Une révolution silencieuse (Paris: Seuil, 2006 [1st edn 1992]).
  • [37]
    For an overview, see Steve Vallocchi, “The class-inflected nature of gay identity”, Social Problems 46(2), 1999, 207-24.
  • [38]
    George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
  • [39]
    See the attempt to combine concepts of political science and gender studies proposed by Gary Goertz and Amy Mazur: Politics, Gender, and Concepts. Theory and Methodology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  • [40]
    Hae Yeon Choo, Myra Marx Ferree, “Practicing intersectionality in sociological research. A critical analysis of inclusions, interactions and institutions in the study of inequalities”, Sociological Theory, 28(2), 2010, 129-49; Emanuela Lombardo, Petra Meier, Mieke Verloo, The Discursive Politics of Gender Equality. Stretching, Bending, and Policymaking (Oxford: Routledge, 2009).
  • [41]
    Mieke Verloo, “Multiple inequalities. Intersectionality and the European Union”, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3), 2006, 211-28.
  • [42]
    For example, Catherine Achin et al., Sexes, genres et politique (Paris: Economica, 2007).
  • [43]
    Regarding political sexualization of gender roles, see Catherine Achin, Elsa Dorlin, “Nicolas Sarkozy ou la masculinité mascarade du President”, Raisons politiques, 31, 2008, 19-45; or regarding the exemplary case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali feminist who built her career in the Netherlands and today lives in the United States: Eric Fassin, “National identities and transnational intimacies: sexual democracy and the politics of immigration in Europe”, Public Culture, 22(3), 2010, 507-29.
  • [44]
    See notably Nacira Guenif-Souilamas, Eric Macé, Les féministes et le garçon arabe (La Tour d’Aigues: L’Aube, 2004); Anastasia Vakulenko, “‘Islamic headscarves’ and the European Convention on Human Rights: an intersectional perspective”, Social Legal Studies, 16, 2007, 183-99.
  • [45]
    Around the concept of “sexual revolution” in particular, see Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi, Olivier Fillieule (eds), Résistances et protestations dans les sociétés musulmanes (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2003).
  • [46]
    For an overview, see Olivier Fillieule, Patricia Roux (eds), Le sexe du militantisme (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2009).
  • [47]
    Joan Scott, “The evidence of experience” Critical Inquiry, 17(4), 1991, 773-97; Didier Eribon, Retour à Reims (Paris: Fayard, 2009).
  • [48]
    Works dealing with the articulation of sexuality with other social relations are now innumerable, in particular within postcolonial literature. On age, see the special issue “La tyrannie de l’âge” in the journal Mouvements, September 2009, and in particular the roundtable “Age, intersectionnalité, rapports de pouvoir” with Christelle Hamel, Catherine Marry, Marc Bessin, Catherine Achin, Samira Ouardi, and Juliette Rennes, 92-101.
  • [49]
    David Roediger (ed.), The Wages of Whiteness. Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 2007); Peter Kolchin, “Whiteness studies: the new history of race in America”, The Journal of American History, 89(1), 2002, 154-73; Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters. The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Gabriele Griffin, Rosi Braidotti, “Whiteness and European situatedness”, in Gabriele Griffin, Rosi Braidotti (eds), Thinking Differently. A Reader in European Women’s Studies (London: Zed, 2002), 221-36; Ladelle McWhorter, “Where Do White people come from? A Foucaultian critique of Whiteness studies”, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 31(5-6), 2005, 533-56.
  • [50]
    Robert Dean, Imperial Brotherhood. Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (Amherst: University of Massachussets Press, 2001).
  • [51]
    Julian B. Carter, The Heart of Whiteness. Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
  • [52]
    Eric Fassin, “National identities and transnational intimacies…”.
  • [53]
    Shari Benstock, “Paris lesbianism and the politics of reaction, 1900-1940”, in Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (eds), Hidden from History. Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (New York: Meridian, 1989), 332-46.
  • [54]
    We warmly thank Laure Bereni for the critiques she was kind enough to formulate on the first version of this article.

Forged in the United States in the 1980s, the notion of intersectionality sought to provide an umbrella term for the strategic and identity dilemmas faced by categories of persons suffering from combined forms of domination. This article retraces the comparative genealogy of the notion in the United States and in France since the 1970s, and describes how its appropriation in social scientific inquiry allowed the reformulation of what were normative problems specific to the politico-juridical sphere into principles of empirical investigation. Increasingly used in France since the mid-2000s, the notion of intersectionality has led to the exploration of new objects and the development of new research agendas, especially within political science.

Alexandre Jaunait
Alexandre Jaunait is associate professor of political science at the University of Poitiers, adjunct professor at Sciences Po Paris, and co-editor-in-chief of the journal Raisons politiques. His thesis focused on French medical deontology (Comment pense l’institution médicale ? Une analyse des codes français de déontologie médicale (Paris: Dalloz, 2005)), and his current work explores the theory and sociology of gender, as well as sociology of law. He published (with Laure Bereni, Sébastien Chauvin, and Anne Revillard) Introduction aux Gender Studies. Manuel des études sur le genre (Brussels: De Boeck, 2012)
Sébastien Chauvin
Sébastien Chauvin is tenured assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, researcher at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR), and director of the Amsterdam Research Center for Gender and Sexuality (ARC-GS). His gender- and sexuality-related publications include (with Laure Bereni, Sébastien Chauvin, and Anne Revillard) Introduction aux Gender Studies. Manuel des études sur le genre (Brussels: De Boeck, 2012); and (with Arnaud Lerch), Sociologie de l’homosexualité (Paris: La Découverte, 2013). His work also deals with the sociology of mobilizations, and immigration, labor, and social stratification issues
Translated from French by 
Claire Morel
Uploaded on on 03/03/2014
Distribution électronique pour Presses de Sciences Po © Presses de Sciences Po. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait