Kimberlé Crenshaw’s essay, which criticized feminism for implicitly identifying “women” with “white women,” came out shortly after another groundbreaking work that also challenged the unity of “women” as a category. That other work, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), is often see as one of the founding texts of what has come to be called queer theory. As both queer theory and intersectionality were developed within a year of one another, and because both took as their starting point a critique of feminism, they are useful to compare.
Butler begins Gender Trouble by stating, “For the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued” (1). Butler shares with Crenshaw, then, an understanding of feminism as a form of identity politics that is done by and for some category of “women.” This category forms the “subject” of feminism, but Butler argues “the feminist subject ought not be the foundation of feminist politics” (6). This is partly because there is no universal category of woman, since gender means different things in different cultures and in different times. In fact, the category is made by the very system of patriarchy that feminism seeks to overthrow. Therefore, using “woman” as the foundation of feminism is actually antithetical to its aims. Instead, Butler argues for exploding the category of “woman” by showing it is neither necessary nor natural. Different practices like drag, for instance, in which a person we thought of as a “man” performs as a “woman,” reveal that our gender categories have no basis in reality. Butler calls these kinds of subversive practices “parody.” The point of parody is that it reveals there is nothing essential to gender, and exploding the meanings of gender provides a way out of its confines.
Crenshaw acknowledges a similar viewpoint in the conclusion of “Mapping the Margins,” where she discusses “antiessentialist” approaches. Antiessentialism, like Butler, believes there is no core essence to gender. Gender is socially constructed, rather than given by nature. But Crenshaw does not, as Butler does, give up on identity categories. Her turn to “coalitions” is meant to retain categories while still understanding their internal differences. Thus, the category of “woman” is not universal, and the experience of all women is not the same. Instead, “woman” is a coalition of different kinds of women, including white women and Black women, who have similar political goals even if they do not have identical “essences.”
Crenshaw and Butler therefore come to feminism with a similar critique. Crenshaw, coming from the perspective of critical race theory, thinks the “subject” of feminism—women—has been under-theorized, and has tended to reduce feminism to the issues that matter to white women. She wants to center the voices of those who are marginalized within feminism, namely women of color. Butler also thinks “woman” is an incoherent category. But her strategy is to exploit that incoherency rather than to build coalitions within it. In the end, Butler’s theory is more metaphysical. That means it’s interested in the nature of reality, in particular what gender “really” is if it is not something natural in the world. In contrast, Crenshaw is more political. Writing in a law review, she wants theories that have immediate political application to the issues facing women of color in real life. For this reason, she thinks it is useful to hold onto categories like race and gender as long as these categories center the voices of those most marginalized within it.