The Black Feminist Who Argued for Intersectionality Before the Term Existed
In the late 1800's, scholar Anna Julia Cooper was already calling attention to the fact that Black women face a unique set of struggles due to overlapping racism and sexism.
Anna Julia Cooper. Image by Broadly. Photo via Wikimedia commons.
At the core of calls for the Women's March to prioritize women of color and conversations around trans inclusion in the #MeToo movement, “intersectionality” has finally come to be widely known as the necessary foundation for true feminism. The term, coined by scholar and activist Kimberle Crenshaw in the 1980s, offers a framework for thinking about the mechanics of race, class, and gender-based oppressions. Crenshaw describes intersectionality as a way to understand “the way in which many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice.”
But while Crenshaw was the first to use the term, intersectional approaches to understanding struggle and oppression can be traced back to at least a century ago. In the early 1900s, Black feminists such as Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Burroughs, and Fannie Barrier Williams were already schooling folks on the ways in which patriarchy, racism, and sexism intertwine in America. Among them, too, was Anna Julia Cooper, a Black feminist trailblazer, and one of the first to formally introduce the concept of intersectionality.
Cooper is believed to have been born in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina to relatively poor parents that had once been slaves. From an early age, she developed a passion for teaching and learning. Her ambition led her to earn a doctorate at the Sorbonne in 1925 and hold several leadership roles at educational institutions. Like many women activists and reformers of the 19th century, she was a part of the club movement, and worked with other Black women to address issues such as domestic violence and educational inequality.
In her 1892 collection of essays, A Voice from the South, Cooper sent out an radical call for a version of racial uplift that centered Black women and girls. She made a “plea for the Colored Girls of the South” in which she argued, “There is material in them well worth your while, the hope in germ of a staunch, helpful, regenerating womanhood on which, primarily, rests the foundation stones of our future as a race.”
"The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class,—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity."
Although it may seem (hopefully) obvious to some today, Cooper asserting at the time that the intersection of race and gender is something that should not be overlooked was extraordinary. She made it known that Black women had unique experiences that were best expressed through their own voices, and argued that racial progress could not be defined solely through Black men’s perspectives nor through the lens of white male experts.
“Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me,’” Cooper wrote.
Cooper also challenged white feminists to broaden their notion of liberation to include women of color and Black men. She wrote in A Voice, “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class,—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity. Now unless we are greatly mistaken the Reform of our day, known as the Women’s Movement, is essentially such an embodiment, if its pioneers could only realize it…”
Cooper’s work spans more than five decades; she continued to write nearly up until her death in 1964 at the age of 105. And yet her work isn’t widely known—a fact that speaks to the ways in which the very overlapping oppressions that she fought against likely affected the canonization of her work. Scholar Shirley Moody-Turner has called attention, for example, to the troubling resistance that Cooper faced from African-American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who regularly rejected her work for publication in The Crisis, an African-American magazine he edited in the 1920s and 30s.
In recent decades, Black feminists and historians have argued that the omission of women like Cooper from Black intellectual history is the result of both racist and sexist attitudes that dictate what counts as activism and scholarship. In her book Beyond Respectability, scholar Brittney Cooper urges us to “approach Black women’s long history of knowledge production with the same kind of trust” and attentiveness as we might the established canon of white thinkers like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.
Indeed, Anna Julia Cooper’s words still resonate with many conversations happening today, ranging from mass incarceration , to reproductive justice, to Black feminists’ valiant efforts to call attention to the vulnerability of Black girls. While Cooper never used the word “intersectionality,” her work captured the spirit of this explosive concept that has become so critical to feminism today.