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Is feminism for everyone, or just the middle class? The movement has grown in visibility and delivered gains, but critics say that the gains aren’t evenly distributed. Social media hashtags such as #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen call out supposed activists for setting agendas that address only the concerns of a single, relatively privileged group — middle-class white women. Coverage around incidents such as the Miley Cyrus-Nicki Minaj Twitter spat and Patricia Arquette’s poorly received 2015 Oscar acceptance speech have highlighted mainstream feminism’s tendency to leave some women out of the conversation.

Over the past several years “intersectionality” has become a feminist buzzword, deployed in discussions of pop culture, political action and academic debate. Considering its recent prominence, it’s surprising to realize that the term has been around only since 1989: It was coined by legal scholar and critical theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, in a paper illustrating how black women were often marginalized by both feminist and anti-racist movements because their concerns did not fit comfortably within either group. The term “intersectionality” was used to describe how different forms of discrimination can interact and overlap, and why it was necessary for feminists to take into account the needs of women from a variety of backgrounds when considering social questions and issues to advocate for.

Although the term was originally used to describe how race and gender could intersect as forms of oppression, intersectionality has broadened to encompass a number of additional social factors — sexual orientation, nationality, class, disability and others. And more recently, the term has been used by social activists as both a rallying cry for more expansive progressive movements and a chastisement for their limitations.

But the growing focus on the concept has resulted in backlash and confusion. Some critics believe that a fixation on intersectionality resurrects and empowers “identity politics,” reinforcing harmful structures of gender, race and class that the progressive movement was meant to break down. Others say that the term is leading to infighting within the feminist movement, encouraging “privilege-checking” as a form of bullying and silencing. And yet others say that the movement for intersectionality remains all talk and no action — while the need to recognize different identities spawns thinkpieces aplenty, intersectionality still isn’t reflected in law, policy or day-to-day action. Are these concerns valid? What does intersectionality look like outside of the academy, and why — if at all — does it remain necessary?

 

Over the next few days, we’ll hear from:

Latoya Peterson, editor and publisher of Racialicious.com,

Alyssa Rosenberg, journalist and cultural critic at The Washington Post,

Brittney Cooper, professor and co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective,

Lauren Sudeall Lucas, law professor at Georgia State University,

Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal scholar and critical theorist at UCLA,

Jamil Smith, senior editor at The New Republic,

You.