Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color

Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color Summary and Analysis of Introduction and Part 1

Summary of Introduction and Part 1

Kimberlé Crenshaw begins her groundbreaking article by surveying recent developments in political organization. She notes a number of movements based on identity categories, including the civil rights movement organized primarily by African Americans and the feminist movement primarily organized by women. These movements show how members of identity categories in America are discriminated against and have unequal access to resources. At the same time, they have turned these categories into sources of “strength, community, and intellectual development.” When feminists organize around the category of “woman,” for instance, they both critique the subordination of women and work to empower women.

Unfortunately, one consequence of these powerful identity movements is that they have tended to ignore differences within groups. The civil rights movement, by politicizing race, has tended to overlook how gender also influences the experience of oppression in American society. In similar fashion, feminists have tended to overlook how racism affects the lives of women of color. This is what Crenshaw seeks to change in her article. She wants to look at how different “dimensions” of identity intersect, or influence one another. A woman of color experiences both racism and sexism, for instance; an “intersectional” approach therefore must analyze her experiences in terms of both race and sex, not just one or the other.

In Part 1, Crenshaw demonstrates the vital importance of such an intersectional approach by considering a few examples of “structural intersectionality.” For Crenshaw, structure refers to the organization of a society, including the relationships between people of different races, genders, and classes. She shows how the institutions of American society are often structured to ignore the intersection of different dimensions of identity. These institutions include everything from community organizations to the United States Congress. At every level, from the local to the national, institutions fail to accommodate and serve people who experience multiple kinds of marginalization. That means people who experience not only racism or sexism, but both.

To illustrate her claim, Crenshaw explores how institutions treat women of color who experience domestic violence or rape. Her first example is the Immigration and Nationality Act passed by Congress in 1990. This piece of legislation was designed to support immigrants who were married to and abused by American citizens. Because the legal status of these immigrants was connected to their American spouse, many immigrants felt they could not report the abuse, for fear of being deported. The Act tried to remedy this situation by letting immigrants stay in the country independent of their spouse, if they could provide evidence their spouse was abusing them. But, as Crenshaw shows, many immigrant women did not have access to the resources they would need to provide this evidence. For instance, immigrant women who do not speak English might not even know about the law or have regular access to the legal or medical institutions in which they could report abuse. Thus, the Act was likely only to help immigrants who spoke English and were wealthy enough to have access to the right resources and knowledge to report abuse. Many within the immigrant community would be neglected by the law, because the law did not take their marginalized experiences into account.

The people most neglected by the law—those who could not speak English and those who were poorer—are most likely to be women of color. In this example, the Act passed by Congress did not necessarily intend to hurt women of color. But women of color will nonetheless be hurt, because Congress failed to think intersectionally. The Act was designed with more affluent and usually white immigrants in mind. Because it did not consider experiences of women of color, or center their needs, it cannot help them.

As another example, Crenshaw considers rape crisis centers, which are designed to support survivors of sexual assault. Crenshaw shows how most of the funding for these centers comes with the expectation that it will be spent on assisting survivors through the legal system. Going to court is what rape crisis centers are supposed to do. But in poorer communities and communities of color, legal representation might not be the most pressing need for survivors. Some survivors might need housing or access to medical resources, and they may not even want to go to court. These survivors are more likely to be women of color. But rape crisis centers are not funded to provide the kinds of resources they are looking for.

In both examples, women of color are neglected by social institutions that are supposed to help them. That’s because these institutions are designed to serve women, and when they think about women, they think about white women. They don’t think about how the needs of some women might be influenced by their race or class. In turn, they end up perpetuating the subordination experienced by the most marginalized members of a society, including women of color. Their formula for social change does not fit these women's needs.

Analysis of Introduction and Part 1

Because Crenshaw’s article is a critical engagement with feminism and antiracism, it is useful to consider the histories and contexts of these separate movements. Although both have long histories in the United States, each experienced a resurgence and expansion in the second half of the 20th century, especially beginning in the 1960s. For feminism, this was sometimes called the “second wave” of feminism. “First wave” feminism, associated with the late 19th and early 20th century, was primarily concerned with legal rights including suffrage, or the right of women to vote. Second wave feminism, in contrast, expanded the range of issues included in the fight for the freedom and equality of women. Particularly focusing on issues of sex and sexuality, including access to birth control and abortion, this second wave showed how gender inequality was maintained by everyday life, not just by laws or legal inequalities. For instance, the power dynamic of relationships between men and women can also be a source of inequality.

The 1960s was also a watershed moment in antiracism, seeing the rise of the civil rights movement. One target of this movement was the “Jim Crow” laws that enforced racial segregation in Southern states. The civil rights movement achieved some forms of legal equality and desegregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But, like second wave feminists, civil rights activists continued to show how equality before the law did not translate into equality in everyday life. Racism continued to exist in social institutions, such as the police, and in the everyday examples of discrimination in the workplace and public institutions like housing and transportation. The development of recent movements like Black Lives Matter attest to the ongoing work on antiracism in the United States.

Kimberlé Crenshaw was born in 1959, a year before the decade often seen as pivotal for both feminism and antiracism. She is a student of both movements, and she is clearly indebted to both traditions of activism and thinking. In “Mapping the Margins,” she therefore has a delicate task of balancing the acts of paying the respect due to feminism and antiracism, and challenging each movement for their neglect of women of color. That is why she starts by pointing out some of the successes of feminism and antiracism. Her argument is not that the movements are failures but that their successes have not benefited everyone. She also affirms the general methods of feminism and antiracism. This is seen in her endorsement of how the movements have “politicized” issues like rape. Crenshaw, too, wants to show how issues that seemed private are actually political because of the ways in which they are created by social structures.

There is another balancing act Crenshaw is attempting in this article. That has to do with the multiple possible audiences for her writing. On the one hand, she is in conversation with community organizers and activists, as seen in her discussion of rape crisis centers. On the other hand, she is a legal scholar writing in the Stanford Law Review, and she is in conversation with other academics who may or may not be activists. She must balance the academic validity of her arguments with a desire to be pragmatic and offer concrete tactics that activists can adopt in their work. This may be one reason that, although trained in constitutional law, Crenshaw focuses on more recent laws like the Immigration and Nationality Act. This focuses attention on current affairs and the laws and institutions that activists have the immediate power to influence.

Another way Crenshaw balances her multiple aims in this article—between supporting previous work and pushing it in new directions and between activism and scholarship—is in the structure of the article. As she announces in her Introduction, the article is divided into three parts: structural intersectionality, political intersectionality, and representational intersectionality. These three parts concern, roughly, social institutions, political movements, and cultural dialogue, respectively. In this way, Crenshaw can look at the intersection of race and gender from multiple perspectives. She can zoom in and zoom out, sampling from a variety of sources. By the end of the article, she will have provided a holistic account that does not isolate culture and politics, but intertwines them into one analysis.