Racial tensions in the second wave of feminism echoed many of the divides in the early movement for women’s suffrage. Although many early suffragists were staunch abolitionists, the split over the 14th and 15th Amendments spilled into early organizing for the women’s vote. Similarly, many women of color involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Chicano/a Movement were doubly alienated, as they experienced sexism within the Civil Rights Movement and Chicano Movement, and racism from within the women’s movement. Queer women, and in particular queer women of color, also felt excluded from the mainstream of larger movements for equality.
Towards a Theory of IntersectionalityA number of women, such as Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldúa began to write about the intersections of race, class, and gender in women’s lives. In 1974, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, among others, formed the Combahee River Collective, a radical, Marxist feminist group devoted to addressing the needs of black lesbians. The group, which released the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977, saw themselves as a necessary political intervention to the feminist movement. They analyzed the roots of black women’s oppression under capitalism, and argued for reorganizing society based on the collective needs of those who are most oppressed. The Combahee River Collective argued that oppression can be a source of political radicalization and encouraged black women to become political in personal and collective ways.
The Combahee River Collective asserted that “Black women could not quantify their oppression only in terms of sexism or racism, or of homophobia experienced by Black lesbians,” but that they were “not ever a single category, but it was the merging or enmeshment of those identities that compounded how Black women experienced oppression.” This theory of interlocking oppression was further developed by Black feminist scholars such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, and refined into the theory of intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw. The importance and legacy of this work is vital and evidenced today.