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date: 22 January 2020

Intersectionality and the History of Psychology

Summary and Keywords

As a conceptual and analytic framework, intersectionality has informed, and can transform, how scholars approach psychology and its history. Intersectionality provides a framework for examining how multiple social categories combine in systems characterized by both oppression and privilege to affect the experiences of those occupying the intersections of these social categories. The concept has its origins in the writings of Black feminists and critical race theorists in the 1970s and 1980s. Since that time, many critical debates about the definition, uses, and even misuses of intersectionality have been put forward by scholars in many fields. In psychology, the uptake of intersectionality as a methodological and epistemological framework has been undertaken largely by feminist psychologists. In this context, intersectionality has been used as both a logic for designing research, and as a perspective from which to critique the perpetuation of intersectional oppression latent in mainstream psychological research. In addition, intersectionality has also been applied to writing histories of psychology that attend to the operation of multiple intersecting forms of oppression and privilege. For example, historians of psychology have taken up intersectionality as a way to approach the intersections of scientific racism, sexism, and heterocentrism in the history of psychology’s concepts and theories. Intersectionality also has the potential for generating a more sophisticated historical understanding of social activism by psychologists. Finally, given that extant histories of psychology focusing on the American context have rendered the contributions of women of color largely invisible, intersectional analysis can serve to re-instantiate and foreground their experiences and contributions.

Keywords: intersectionality, historiography, gender, race, Black feminism, critical race theory


Among the conceptual frameworks that feminists have devised for unravelling the relationships among social identities, structural factors, and power, the concept of “intersectionality” has had a particularly wide reach across disciplines and has been particularly influential in the social sciences (Carbado, Crenshaw, Mays, & Tomlinson, 2013; Davis, 2008). In fact, Black feminist scholar Brittany Cooper has called intersectionality “the most visible and enduring contribution that feminism, and specifically black feminism, has made to critical social theory in the last quarter century” (Cooper, 2016, p. 385). At its broadest, intersectionality denotes how the different forms of oppression that throttle a wide array of marginalized social groups are not orthogonal but interactive; individuals who are marginalized on multiple axes of social difference (where an axis represents a single category of difference, such as race or ability) may experience the forms of subjugation that characterize the social reality of each one of those differences separately, but they also occupy a qualitatively unique social location that is specific to the intersection of those differences.

In its original articulation by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989, 1991) intersectionality drew attention to the ways structures (e.g., the legal system) and social movements (e.g., feminism and antiracism) had typically been predicated on single-axis modes of difference, thus occluding, omitting, and even working against the rights and experiences of those in the intersections, namely Black women. Calling these forms of intersectional analysis “structural” and “political,” respectively, Crenshaw carefully showed how policies, interventions, and movements designed to ameliorate the effects of racism or sexism alone would be insufficient to address the needs of women of color affected by the interaction of both forms of oppression. As Cooper (2016) wrote, “As an account of power, intersectionality attended to the particular forms of subjugation and subordination that characterized black women’s intersecting and multiplicative . . . experiences of racism and sexism within the law” (p. 386).

This way of thinking about the implications of social group membership undermines normative social scientific methodology because it complicates the possibility of representing group membership as a stable variable (see Else-Quest & Hyde, 2016a). Intersectionality has thus become a valuable lens for exploring the experiences of groups who have remained invisible to the social scientific gaze, a phenomenon that Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach (2008) call “intersectional invisibility.” It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a perspective from which one can look beyond group identity toward a notion of identity as a sociohistorical contingency that is constituted by relations of power. It invites a consideration of how ideologies of gender, race, class, and sexuality function together to structure relations of domination and privilege. It thus also transforms how people think about and write history and, as discussed here, the history of psychology.

This article has three aims. First, it introduces intersectionality and outlines the definitions and debates that exist around intersectionality as concept/framework/tool. Second, it conveys the history of intersectionality’s influence in the field of psychology itself, with a focus on the North American, and specifically the U.S., context. The uptake of intersectionality into psychological research and theorizing has obviously occurred in many places outside this context. There have been important elaborations of intersectionality from decolonial feminist (Kurtiş & Adams, 2017) and transnational feminist (Grabe & Else-Quest, 2012) perspectives. The decision to focus on U.S. psychology and its history was guided by the authors’ areas of primary expertise and the constraints of approaching this topic transnationally given the space limitations of a single article. The article outlines the trajectory of U.S. psychology’s gradual uptake of intersectionality, including its conceptual forerunners, which some scholars have called “intersectionality-like thinking” (Hancock, 2016) or “proto-intersectionality theorizing” (Cooper, 2016). Third, it considers the historiographic issues that intersectionality poses in general, and for writing the history of U.S. psychology specifically, giving several examples of intersectional histories of psychology. Thus the article aims to provide both a history of intersectionality in psychology as well as an examination of how intersectionality as an analytic framework can be used to generate intersectional histories of psychology.

Defining Intersectionality

Defining intersectionality is no simple task. The concept has been developed across the works of numerous authors, published over multiple decades. A detailed understanding of intersectionality comes from engaging with the breadth of these works. This section selectively reviews texts that articulate intersectionality as a concept that goes beyond the demarcation of ever more specific identities and instead clarifies how the single-axis focus of social institutions (including social justice movements) creates conditions that tune out individuals who experience marginalization on multiple axes. It also discusses how intersectionality has been taken up in psychology specifically. When did psychologists begin to make use of this concept? How did they transform it to make it intelligible to their discipline? In responding to these questions, the article offers the perspective that psychology has adopted two separate but commensurable uses of intersectionality. In one, intersectionality is an ethical framework that guides researchers to apply the conventions of psychological methodology to questions about the personal and social experiences of multiply marginalized individuals. In the other, it is an epistemological position that is used to query the ways that the discipline of psychology contributes to the interlocking oppression of marginalized groups. The former use of intersectionality corresponds to an approach to research that Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall (2013) called “centrifugal,” while the latter corresponds to an approach they named “centripetal.” The article offers examples of how psychologists have taken both approaches separately and together.

Before looking at how intersectionality has been taken up in psychology, it is important to define the term in the context of its origins. Law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw debuted the term “intersectionality” in 1989, in an article called “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (Crenshaw, 1989). The article elucidated an erasure that occurred at the point where feminist and antiracist movements converged: At the level of mainstream influence, the focus of feminism defaulted to the interests of White women, and antiracist activism mostly addressed the marginalization of men of color. As a result, neither movement adequately confronted the issues that were typical to the social experience of women of color. This was reflected in the types of policy changes that occurred in response to antidiscrimination activism. Crenshaw cited legal cases wherein Black women faced obvious discrimination as employees and applicants for corporations, but the corporations were not held legally accountable because their treatment of White women and Black men seemed to uphold laws that prevented discrimination based on gender and race. Alternatively, Black women who brought class-action cases against their workplaces were permitted to do so on behalf of their gender or their race but not as a unique multiaxial class, undermining the very terms under which their cases constituted discrimination. Each case Crenshaw presents contains its own details that, when read together, nuance the definition of intersectionality and enumerate the permutations in which multiaxial discrimination can take form. In some instances, by claiming their intersectionality in court, Black women risked nullifying their case by virtue of being an unrecognized class; in others, their intersectional status disqualified them from representing the interests of Black men (Crenshaw, 1989).

Crenshaw (1989) forwarded her observations of this failure of the legal system as a provocation to all movements for social liberation: Activists must realize that a single-axis orientation perpetuates inequalities that exist within their demographic of focus because it looks for oppressive practices that occur within a priori social categories instead of looking for the individuals that are subjugated most harshly at a given moment in time. Redirecting the activist gaze from demographics to on-the-ground problems would render a more demographically complex image of those at the center of oppression than has historically fit within the categories of “feminism” and “antiracism” (Crenshaw, 1989). Lorde (1984) had presented a similar sentiment five years earlier in an article called “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”:

What are the particular details within each of our lives that that can be scrutinized and altered to help bring about change? How do we redefine difference for all women? It is not our differences which separate women, but our reluctance to recognize those differences and deal effectively with the distortions which have resulted from ignoring and misnaming those differences. (p. 22)

Here, Lorde responded to the attestation that White, middle-class feminists had failed to hold space for women whose race and class differences shifted the focus of their social critique away from gender alone. She highlighted that difference brings substance to feminism; that activists’ subject matter should be drawn not from the genre of activism under which they operate but from the content of their own lives, opening up the possibility of registering problems that exist at diverse intersections of gender, race, age, class, sexual orientation, ability, and so on. Through Crenshaw and Lorde, intersectionality emerged as a tool for seeing beyond single-axis thinking not by creating new multiaxial categories but by attending to grassroots problems to examine how they constituted a fusion of multiple subjugations.

Crenshaw, Lorde, and other critical race theorists of the 1970s and 1980s such as Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier of the Combahee River Collective attacked the boundary that kept feminism contained to gender-based social analysis because a gender-exclusive feminism could not and did not recognize their experiences as Black women. The original structuring of intersectional methodology is thus tied to the history of Black feminism as a movement whose politics were constructed to be “anti-racist, unlike those of White women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men” (Combahee River Collective, 1978, p. 363). Prior to the introduction of the term “intersectionality,” Black feminist scholarship in part entailed spotlighting Black women’s lived experiences, which, to be properly contextualized, had to be conceptualized outside of conventional activist discourses that treated gender and race as separate classifications that compete for priority (Cole, 2009; Nash, 2008). Landmark books such as Women, Race, and Class (Davis, 1983), Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Hooks, 1981), When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (Giddings, 1984), and All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (Hull, Bell-Scott, & Smith, 1982) scanned African American history for stories that exemplified the ways that Black women were expected to serve in White-led feminist action while sidelining issues of racial inequality and in Black male-led antiracist action while sidelining issues of patriarchy. They used these stories to theorize Black womanhood as an insurgent intersection of identities that exposed the interlocking nature of oppression at every turn (not just in terms of race and gender but also class, sexuality, and other dimensions of social difference).

This strategy was carried forward into work that was done under the heading of intersectionality proper. Black Feminist Thought (Collins, 1990) looked at the ways that Black women’s history of marginalization was also defined by their sexuality, class, and citizenship and argued that their existence at differing intersections of oppression pointed to a single overarching “matrix of domination,” a term Collins introduced to invoke the notion that society is held together by an interrelated network of discriminatory practices. Roberts’ (1997) Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty argued that the set of issues that constituted reproductive rights was established to meet White women’s expectations of sexual liberty; meanwhile Black women’s reproductive health concerns were actively discredited through a history of medical racism and sexuality-based racial fear-mongering. And whereas before the 1990s, the discussions that influenced the development of intersectionality mainly occurred in Black feminist circles (with exceptions, such as Anzaldua’s [1987] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza and Moraga and Anzaldua’s [1981] This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, which collected writings of women of color whose diverse races and ethnicities were broadly conceptualized as “Third World”), intersectionality has increasingly been taken up outside of the specific site of Black feminism. For example, Simpson (2014, 2017) examines the way that political/economic colonialism and gender violence functioned as an integrated system for dominating the Indigenous people of North America, and Rahman (2010) explains how the gay Muslim identity is invisiblized as “impossible” (p. 952) in the context of an American ideology that equates queer identity with an ethnocentric understanding of Western geography. Though expansive in the range of identities that can be included under the heading of intersectionality, intersectional scholars are united by the method of “[asking] the other question” (Matsuda, 1990): When one form of oppression seems salient, their intention is to probe the extent to which other oppressive social structures are collaborating.

Critical Debates

Since intersectionality has risen to become a central framework of feminist thought, several debates pertaining to its reach and rigor have surfaced. One prominent debate centers around the question of “Who does intersectionality actually include?” Given the historical origins of intersectionality within Black feminism, some have argued that the term has taken on a connotation of attending specifically to the social location of African American women, or of giving preference to the intersection of race and gender over other social categories. Nash (2008) observes that, by virtue of the prominence that Black women’s narratives have held as a strategy for undermining the discursive divide between gender and race, intersectional scholarship has slipped into a habit of treating Black women as a monolith devoid of internal difference. According to Nash, categories such as age, class, sexuality, and ability disrupt the internal consistency of the “Black woman” category, but, given its history, intersectionality more regularly connotes an existence at the intersection of gender and race. While maintaining that intersectionality is not inherently bound to this limitation, Carbado (2013) acknowledges that intersectionality has not commonly referred to any configuration of gender and race but specifically to configurations that included disadvantage in each domain. Therefore, scholars have more readily identified women of color (also reflecting a preference for a binary concept of gender) as an intersectional population than they have White women and men, reinforcing a scheme in which whiteness and maleness are normative and difference is deviant.

Intersectionality has also been criticized for generating a proliferation of identities based on the multitudinous combinations of social categories to which individuals can belong. Identifying people at the intersection of each one of their social locations has been said to have the paradoxical effect of reducing them to individuals, a challenging outcome for social justice movements that rely on the power of group solidarity (Calás, Ou, & Smircich, 2013). It has also been said to disrupt solidarity by initiating a dynamic that has been named “the oppression Olympics” (Hancock, 2011). Hancock describes the oppression Olympics as a zero-sum game wherein marginalized groups get mired in competition to prove their deservingness of activist resources. She claims that a competitive orientation toward group differences essentializes those differences and prevents the type of collectivity that enables social action.

Intersectionality scholars have invested significant effort into combatting identitarian readings of their work, occasionally by trying to reformulate intersectionality itself as a study of “mobile subjectivities” (Calás et al., 2013), “assemblages” (Puar, 2012), and “dialogical standpoint theory” (Yuval-Davis, 2012). These efforts constitute attempts to reroute the discourse of intersectionality from a focus on how identities are positioned alongside each other to how identity differences become facts through the complex interplay of power structures (Kwan, 1996). This latter view foregrounds the ontological assumption that identity, though functionally real, is a social construct. Understood in these terms, intersectionality is not a prompt to restructure society around the needs of particular essentialized identities but to use multiply marginalized identities as points of departure for examining the dynamics that crystallize privilege and oppression in the form of social structures (Kwan, 1996).

Finally, scholars have also criticized the open-ended and amorphous quality of intersectionality, charging that it has become a buzzword that lacks precision and rigor. Is it a theory, a concept, or an analytic tool? Should it be used primarily to theorize individual experiences and identities, or is it better conceptualized as a property of social structures? Davis (2008) argues that, paradoxically, it is precisely this vagueness, an alleged weakness, that has accounted for intersectionality’s wide uptake and effectiveness as a tool for feminist scholarship.

Intersectionality in Psychology

Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall (2013) present a useful terminology for the processes through which intersectionality takes on influence across disciplines. They term one process “centrifugal.” Here, intersectionality travels outwards from Black feminism and is reinterpreted by the field in which it lands. Intersectional questions are asked and answered using the methods and discourses of a respective discipline. The contrasting process is “centripetal.” In the centripetal process, members of a discipline take on intersectionality as a framework for critiquing the methods and discourses that make up the received view of their discipline. They thus operate on the margins of their discipline and take the stance that the discipline’s structure is contingent on a history of power. Within the centrifugal–centripetal binary there is the suggestion that centrifugal research, though it may set its sights on subject matter that single axis focused research could never see, lacks the reflexivity to question the ontological assumptions of its discipline. In this way, the centrifugal approach risks perpetuating disciplinary norms and practices that may perpetrate epistemological violence on socially disadvantaged individuals. However, Cho et al. do not rule out the possibility that centrifugal research can be critical and in fact state that it is often necessary to draw upon conventional modes of knowledge production if researchers are to produce work that is intelligible to their intellectual community.

Cho and colleagues’ (2013) mapping is helpful for describing the ways that intersectionality has been taken up by psychologists. In the centrifugal mode, psychologists adopt a social justice agenda and execute it using the conventional research apparati of their discipline. In many cases, this has involved embracing intersectionality as a theory of identity. Psychologists define their research population according to their membership in multiple marginalized social classes, under the expectation that at the intersection of these memberships exists a particular psychological makeup or experience. They then unpack the psychology of these identities using psychometric assessments, therapeutic interventions, and other methods that interrogate the ways that social circumstances might pool within individuals (Ecklund, 2012; Else-Quest & Hyde, 2016a, 2016b; Goff & Kahn, 2013).

There is a sense in which an identitarian interpretation of intersectionality is a natural fit for psychology. Psychology and related public health disciplines have long histories of tracking the demographic attributes of their participants. Their data-gathering methods and explanatory frameworks already align with a reading of intersectionality that posits human existence as the interaction of demographic classifications. By voicing their epistemic practices through the language of intersectionality, they infuse them with a political conscience, gain a language that expresses the contingency of subjectivity on power and privilege, and can endorse social rather than individual-level interventions (Bowleg, 2012; Else-Quest & Hyde, 2016a; McCall, 2005).

Examples of this type of research predate the formal debut of intersectionality. A study by clinical psychologist Hope Landrine (1985) examined the influence of race and class on undergraduate students’ stereotypes of women. Landrine sampled 44 students (42 White and 2 Black), assigned them photos of Black and White women of middle and lower economic class, and asked them to rate each woman on the degree to which she embodied various stereotyped characteristics. She found that the stereotype of White women most resembled the “traditional stereotype of women” (p. 72), while Black women were rated as less competent and more hostile and lower-class women were rated more negatively in nearly every metric, especially if they were Black. Landrine’s study represents one instance where a psychologist formulated a research question based on the notion of multiple marginalization and conveyed the results as findings about the psychology of the participants rather than about the discipline of psychology itself.

The area of research on race, gender, and intersectional stress in women of color is a more contemporary example of a similar approach to intersectional subject matter. Greer, Laseter, and Asiamah (2009), Woods-Giscombé and Lobel (2008), Lewis and Neville (2015), and Stevens-Watkins, Perry, Pullen, Jewell, and Oser (2014) have all contributed to a body of literature that connects stereotyping, microaggressions, experiences of discrimination, and systemic disenfranchisement to adverse physical and mental health outcomes, specifically referred to as gender- and race-related stress. They have devised scales to measure the degree to which gendered racial microaggressions confer stress (Lewis & Neville, 2015), surveyed African American women on the ways that sexism and racism constitute major stressors in their lives (Stevens-Watkins et al., 2014; Woods-Giscombé & Lobel, 2008), and produced quantitative evidence that race- and gender-related stress are interrelated (Greer et al., 2009; Woods-Giscombé & Lobel, 2008). Their area of research tries to capture how the social experiences of women of color are reflected in their psychological states.

In the centripetal mode, rather than looking to interpret multiply marginalized subjectivities in psychological terms, researchers examine how psychological methods obtain their truth value as a result of interactive historical and contemporary processes that keep people of color, women, gender-nonconforming individuals, and economically disadvantaged individuals at the margins of the discipline. In the article “Psychology Constructs the Female, 1968–1988,” Crawford and Marecek (1989) identified the patriarchal themes that prevailed in psychology’s descriptions of women. The article included a statement about the challenges of holding a social constructionist stance in psychology, a field largely dedicated to the notion that the individual is the unit of interior agency. Within this statement, the authors acknowledged psychology’s particular difficulty representing multiple marginalizations as something other than an accumulation of personal problems. In light of this observation, they did not presume that psychology constructed a uniform womanhood that could be joined with constructions of race and class in an additive fashion. Rather, they acknowledged that gender synergizes with race, class, sexuality, and other factors to produce different experiences of womanhood, and they alluded to the ways that psychology has constructed racialized women differently than it has White women. Without invoking the term “intersectionality,” Crawford and Marecek used a multiaxial perspective to make psychologists aware of their role in constructing human reality rather than describing it.

Crawford and Marecek’s (1989) work exemplifies an approach to intersectionality wherein evidence of systemic multiaxial oppression is sought in the foundation of psychology itself, and that evidence forms a basis for restructuring psychology as a discipline accountable to its sociopolitical influence. This work continues, now explicitly under the rubric of intersectionality. Feminist social psychologist Elizabeth Cole has published extensively on the usefulness of intersectionality for critiquing and revising the aims, methods, and discourses of psychology. Cole and her collaborators have advocated for intersectional approaches to research on the psychology of economic class (Ostrove & Cole, 2003), described the mechanics through which apolitical psychological research on social difference exacerbates animosity toward underprivileged groups (Cole & Stewart, 2001), and created a set of questions that psychologists can consider throughout their research programs to inject them with an intersectional conscience (Cole, 2009). She has also presented a distinction between psychology’s “categorical” approach to intersectionality, in which intersectionality is the study of individuals who belong to particular multidimensional social categories, and its contrast “political intersectionality,” a concept that invites psychologists to consider how social categories come into being “through practices of individuals, institutions and cultures rather than primarily as characteristics of individuals” (Cole, 2008, p. 445). Cole advocates for the latter perspective for its emphasis on the fact that all forms of systemic subjugation are rooted in the same matrix of domination, suggesting that a politically intersectional psychology would endorse a more socially active, coalitional (rather than oppositional) model of group membership.

Cole’s intersectional discussions of psychology typify the centripetal mode of intersectional research in the discipline. But although some psychological studies have adhered more closely to the centripetal approach and others to the centrifugal approach, the two approaches are not diametrically opposed. Else-Quest and Hyde (2016a, 2016b) note that an intersectional critique of psychology can help expose elements of the discipline that perpetuate multiaxial marginalization but that carrying out quantitative research on identity categories while being mindful of their socially constructed ontology can also shift psychology’s research priorities and political orientation in the direction of social justice. Marecek (2016) echoes this in her comment on Else-Quest and Hyde when she states, “Intersectionality theorists challenge feminist psychologists to extend our field of vision beyond the individual to include the cultural ideologies, social practices, and institutional arrangements that perpetuate exclusions, inequalities, privilege, and subordination” (p. 180). In other words, intersectional critiques of psychology can put social structures into the purview of psychological methods.1 The feedback loop that circulates intersectional subject matter within psychology and the restructuring of psychology into a politically reflexive field is also captured in Scott’s (1986) perspective that doing the history of gender is theorizing gender; it can just as well be said that a reflexive approach to the psychology of intersectional identity formation and existence is simultaneously a process of theorizing about psychology’s role in the politics that perpetuate social inequality. Sympathetically, Cho et al. (2013) state that “the future development of intersectionality as a field would be advanced by maximizing the interface between the centrifugal and the centripetal processes” (p. 795). In psychology, this would involve critiquing the discipline so as to inform the development of intersectionally accountable methods and discourses and conducting empirical research in collaboration with intersectionally marginalized populations using critique-driven methods.

Examples of studies that operate at the interface of these processes are interspersed throughout the recent history of psychology. Fine and Gordon’s (1992) article “Feminist Transformations Of/Despite Psychology” constitutes an early instance where intersectionality both informed the selection of content to be examined using psychological methods and laid groundwork for the critique of psychology. Fine and Gordon devised quantitative indices that estimated the extent to which feminist and critical race content penetrated mainstream psychology journals through the 1980s. They also indexed the methods and discourses found in feminist psychology journals to examine whether feminist psychology exerted a transformative influence on “malestream” (p. 6) psychology. They found that mainstream psychology journals cited very few articles published in feminist journals; did not show much increase in feminist citation over time; and published few studies on gender and far fewer on race, class, disability, sexuality, and the interactions of these domains. In addition, they found that the majority of articles published in the feminist journal Psychology of Women Quarterly discussed gender and other dimensions of social difference in ways that recommended intervention at the individual, rather than social, level. Their quantitative survey of feminism’s insurgency in the field reinforced their argument that if feminist psychologists want their work to be politically transformative, they need to revise the discourse of psychology itself. Without having included the term, Fine and Gordon’s study aligns with the stance that an intersectionally informed psychology entails not just investigating social differences but also unpacking the ways that difference is generated through power and the dispersion of social privilege.

In the early 1990s, feminist psychologists continued to highlight the remarkable absence of intersectional approaches in psychology, and even within the psychology of women, noting the field’s near-exclusive focus on gender in isolation from race and class. As Reid (1993) noted,

For the most part, theory and empirical study in the psychology of women have failed to recognize many distinctions among women. Indeed, the focus of feminist theory and research has been directed to the explication of women’s essential experience of gender, as if this could be separated from the confounds of class and race . . . .[H]uman behavior would be best represented by a more complex model. (p. 134)

This “more complex” model would begin to make its way more thoroughly and explicitly into academic psychology over the next decade or so (see, e.g., Buchanan & Ormerod, 2002; Fine & Weis, 1998; Settles, 2006). In 2008, a special issue of the journal Sex Roles was devoted to empirical studies employing intersectionality (Shields, 2008), including a discussion of how to overcome some of the methodological challenges that this more complex model poses.

In 2009, as noted, Cole published a call for increased use of intersectionality in psychological research and presented a framework for doing so. Within this framework, she encouraged psychologists to ask three questions as they designed their studies: (a) “Who is included in this category?” disrupts assumptions about the homogeneity of social categories, encourages thinking about diversity within categories, and advocates for the inclusion of traditionally marginalized or understudied groups in psychological research; (b) “What role does inequality play?” highlights that categories such as gender and race are not properties of individuals but rather structural categories and social processes; and (c) “Where are there similarities?” pushes researchers and activists to consider similarities in experience that may move across multiple identity categories so as to promote coalitional politics. It asks them to consider not what race and gender are but what they do so as to create ways of thinking about research that can bridge across difference and inform social issues and public policy (Cole, 2009).

In 2013, in the introduction to another special issue of the journal Sex Roles on intersectionality, Warner and Shields (2013) articulated intersectionality as a framework for integrating the interaction of identities into research programs, as a psychological theory for explaining how people come to form identities as subjectivities, and as an approach to social activism that puts political/social change goals above disciplinary ones. It may be accurate to say that intersectionality has now found a distinct home within feminist psychology, if not within the discipline as a whole. Next this article considers intersectionality’s influence on, and potential for, conceptualizing and writing history in general and then turns to histories of psychology in particular.

Intersectionality, History, and Historiography

Having outlined the trajectory of intersectionality’s uptake and deployment in U.S. feminist psychology, this article next considers its impact on historiography, that is, the theory and methods of writing history. What does it mean to reconstruct and analyze history intersectionally? Does it simply mean writing about the experiences of people or groups who have experienced multiple, intersecting oppressions? In what ways and to what extent have historians implicitly and explicitly used intersectionality as an analytic tool for thinking about and constructing history and, in this case, histories of psychology?

While the mantra “gender, race, and class” has long been invoked in feminist history, the term “intersectional history” has been invoked relatively recently (see, e.g., Somerville, 2000). When historian Joan Scott wrote her now-classic article on gender as a useful category of historical analysis in 1986, she was quick to mention contemporaneous work on race and class as analytic categories and highlighted the growing tendency among feminist historians to consider all three categories of analysis in the writing of history. As she put it:

An interest in class, race, and gender signaled first, a scholar’s commitment to a history that included stories of the oppressed and an analysis of the meaning and nature of their oppression and, second, scholarly understanding that inequalities of power are organized along at least three axes.

(Scott, 1986, p. 1054)

The latter observation—that inequalities of power are organized along multiple axes—gestures toward thinking about historical analysis intersectionally but does not go quite far enough. What if the ways gender, race, and class structured inequality were thought of not simply as multiple but actually as interdependent and co-constitutive? Despite numerous historical articulations of just such a framework by 19th-century Black women activists such as Sojourner Truth, Maria Miller Stewart, Mary Church Terrall, and Anna Julia Cooper, histories of abolition and civil rights often foregrounded Black men while histories of suffrage centered the contributions of White women, despite the contributions of Black women to both movements (see Hancock, 2016).

Histories of 20th-century social movements have begun to redress this intersectional invisibility. Historian Ashley Farmer has written a history of Black women’s extensive involvement in the Black power movement, a movement whose male protagonists have typically been afforded much more visibility (Farmer, 2017). She details the ways in which Black women rewrote and re-envisioned the gendered social imaginary of Black empowerment, rewriting discourses around Black manhood and womanhood in the context of the fight for Black liberation.

Historian Jennifer Nelson has written histories of the struggle for women’s health and reproductive rights that center the leadership, contributions, and strategies of women of color (Nelson, 2003). By attending to the concerns of a racially diverse set of historical actors, multiple storylines emerge which challenge the White, heterocentric assumptions of the centrality of abortion rights in these histories and highlight the differential effects of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender on priorities within these movements. As Nelson shows, for many racialized women living in poverty, the fight for reproductive rights included getting support that would help them bear and raise wanted children, healthcare free from the specter of forced sterilization, and sexual lives free from violence. With the escalation of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, many poor women of color needed information about disease transmission and access to available treatments; their needs were not being addressed in larger AIDs crisis activism or in majority-White feminist women’s health organizations. In attending to the ways that racism, sexism, classism, and heterocentrism worked to occlude certain women’s needs from the priorities of these movements, and in highlighting the work of those who demanded that these needs be addressed, Nelson offers both an important intersectional analysis and some valuable lessons for more effective health service provision today.

Historian Danielle McGuire constructs a new history of the civil rights movement with Black women’s antiviolence activism at its center, effectively co-narrating struggles against racism and rape as undertaken by Black women themselves (McGuire, 2010). Reminding readers that Rosa Parks was not simply a “sweet and reticent old woman whose tired feet caused her to defy Jim Crow on Montgomery’s city buses” (p. xvii), an event which has been mythologized as sparking the civil rights movement, McGuire traces Parks’s by-then long history of activism and organizing not only for civil rights but (simultaneously) for the protection of Black women from sexualized violence and rape at the hands of White men. More than 10 years before the Montgomery bus incident, Parks had been deployed by the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP to investigate the gang rape of young African American mother Recy Taylor by six White men in Abbeville, Alabama. As McGuire’s multiple-axis analysis shows, issues of sexual violence were central to both the civil rights movement and to the White supremacist resistance. McGuire focuses her analysis around several important court cases that drew widespread public attention to the relationship between sexual domination and racial (in)equality, such as the testimony of African American college student Betty Jean Owens who was raped by four White men in 1959 and the trial of Joan Little in 1975 who was accused (and subsequently acquitted) of murdering her White jailor with an ice pick when he attempted to rape her. By foregrounding these women’s experiences, McGuire shows that long before now well-known White radical feminists urged women to “speak out” against rape, African American women’s public—and highly risky—protests sparked “larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity” (p. xx).

Fundamental to intersectional frameworks (whether one is writing history or doing psychology) is that the meanings of different social categories and thus the ways they relate to one another in organizing power relations are always constructed in specific historical and cultural contexts and are therefore never static or fixed. Thus intersectional approaches in general demand an analysis of the meanings and relations of these categories in different times and places and refuse the ahistorical “naturalization” of these categories and relations. Of course, historical writing itself can be “denaturalizing” without being intersectional when it considers only how a single social category structures inequality in a particular time and place. Much of the academic field of women’s history in North America as it developed in the 1970s and 1980s challenged the naturalization discourse by demonstrating how the relative absence of women in history was due not to their “natural” inferiority but to the ways gender was constructed and deployed by those in power (i.e., White men). When men held both social and political power, as well as the almost-exclusive power to write history, women were both socially and politically oppressed and underrepresented in historical accounts (see Bohan, 1990). The first attempts to redress this involved writing “women worthies” back into history. Understanding how race, gender, and class (among myriad other social categories) considered together have structured both domination and privilege throughout history—and the explicit use of intersectionality as an approach to writing history—would develop alongside the development of intersectional epistemology itself. Histories that consider how multiple social categories have functioned together to reinforce and impose relations of power are valuable exemplars of intersectional analysis.

Intersectional Histories of Psychology

While there have been histories of psychology that have attended specifically and centrally to gender/sexism and race/racism (and to a much lesser extent class/classism), it has only been relatively recently that historical analyses of psychology have attended simultaneously to the operation of more than one social category/system of oppression. In the 1970s and 1980s, mirroring trends in the fields of women’s history and history of science, women’s histories of psychology began to engage in the recovery project of writing women into androcentric histories of the field and to analyze the ways that psychology had constructed gender and gender differences, usually to the detriment of women and inhibiting their full participation in the field (see, e.g., Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987; Shields, 1975, 1982). These histories made only passing reference (if any) to the simultaneous impact of race. In 1976, African American psychologist Robert Val Guthrie wrote the first history of Black psychology, highlighting Eurocentric psychology’s virulent history of scientific racism and eugenics, as well as writing the contributions of Black psychologists—and their resistance to scientific racism—into the historical narrative (Guthrie, 1976). Later decades saw multiple works that extended the analysis of race and racism in psychology’s history to other countries and to its impact on American culture writ large (e.g., Garcia, 2012; Gould, 1981; Jackson, 2001; Jackson & Weidman, 2004; Richards, 2012; Tucker, 1994; Winston, 2004). These histories have made only passing reference (if any) to gender or sexism. Gender/sexism and race/racism have thus remained largely separate and distinct as categories of historical analysis in psychology.

In a recent reflection on her influential 1975 article “Functionalism, Darwinism, and the Psychology of Women,” Stephanie Shields notes that at the time she was writing her article (long before “intersectionality” was explicitly articulated), she was thinking largely about the scientific construction of sex differences in the late 19th century in isolation from scientific and cultural discourses of racial difference. In her reflection, she takes the opportunity to explore how she might have written this history differently if she were to have considered these two categories of difference together—as related to and dependent on each other, rather than as orthogonal. That, is, how did the intersections of race/racism and gender/sexism influence psychological and scientific theorizing about differences among bodies and the associated systems of oppression and privilege (hierarchies of inferiority/superiority) in which those bodies were placed (i.e., the gendering of racial hierarchies and the racializing of gender hierarchies)? How were these discourses intertwined and how do they function to justify and support the overall superiority of White men over both White women and men of all other races? How does narrating scientific racism and sexism separately occlude any consideration of the experiences of women of color?

To begin to explore this history more intersectionally, Shields (2016) notes that social beliefs in the cultural and intellectual superiority of White men infused scientific thinking in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The influence of these social beliefs is strikingly discernible in the writings of both Darwin and those who took up (and at times misapplied) his theories. In Darwin’s work The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, he put forth the idea that although all men were descended from a common, ape-like ancestor, the races came to differ from one another over time due to the effects of geographic dispersal. When the descendants of this common ancestor began to encounter environments requiring different levels of ingenuity in order to survive, races began to differentiate. And here is where extant beliefs in racial hierarchy began to seep into scientific theorizing: the harsh climates of the North were presumed to require greater ingenuity, hence the presumed superiority of White, Nordic races over all others. So far as this goes, it is a story about race, and notably also a story that implicitly positions White European men as superior to men of all other races.

However, as Shields (2016) points out, Darwin also believed (and constructed his theories around) the idea that women were intellectually inferior to men, even though they may have had other compensating strengths such as intuitiveness and moral virtue. How then to place White women as (a) inferior to White men to maintain the gender hierarchy but (b) superior to men of “primitive races” to preserve the racial hierarchy? And what of racialized women? Shields notes that when histories of gender and racial difference are considered together—rather than narrated separately—the intersectional invisibility of women of color is revealed, along with the racism and sexism that infused supposedly objective scientific thinking of the time. As Shields writes,

The missing persons in this account of race and gender hierarchy are women of races identified as primitive by 19th century scientific men . . . So-called “primitive” women however were critically important to explaining the superiority of white men. (pp. 359–360)

Shields (2016) goes on to explain how scientists deployed a hypothesis of greater sexual dimorphism among White races—a hypothesized “increase in sexual dimorphism with cultural advance” (p. 361)—to argue that while White women were deemed significantly inferior to White men in intelligence, they demonstrated greater development of lower-level emotional skills to make up for their lack of rationality. This gender differentiation, however, was not “observed” between men and women of “primitive” races, where “primitive” men were both intellectually inferior to White men and emotionally less developed than White women and “primitive” women were seen as comparatively unfeminine in their appearance and thus more like their primitive male counterparts and also inferior to White women (see also Shields & Bhatia, 2009). The “invisible women of other races, though essential to the logical structure of a racial and gender order, were themselves of no direct concern to scientists because they were neither a threat to manliness nor to racial hierarchy” (Shields, 2016, p. 361).

Another example of an intersectional approach to an aspect of psychology’s history is Peter Hegarty’s article, “From Genius Inverts to Gendered Intelligence.” In this article, Hegarty (2007) exposes how gender and sexual orientation functioned as intersecting categories to reinforce masculinist and heteronormative logics in psychologist Lewis Terman’s work on high intelligence. Specifically, Hegarty examines Terman’s “Genetic Studies of Genius,” Sex and Personality, and Psychological Factors in Marital Happiness in some detail to show how his research was designed to reinforce the extant cultural logic that genius was gendered masculine and heterosexual. As Hegarty highlights, in “Genetic Studies of Genius” both boys and girls were given IQ tests and tests of masculinity/femininity. Overall, for both boys and girls, higher masculinity was associated with higher IQs. When feminine boys did show high IQs (sexual inversion that was seen as a precursor to homosexuality), Terman attempted to downplay their potential for homosexuality to reinforce the notion that high IQ was also equated with heterosexuality.

Hegarty shows that Terman implicitly refuted other extant beliefs that equated genius with sexual inversion (i.e., homosexuality) in males by engaging in a number of strategies. For example, when one of the high-IQ feminine boys in “Genetic Studies of Genius” was later arrested for a homosexual encounter, Terman went so far as to argue that he was not a “true homosexual” but a delayed heterosexual due to the strong maternal influence of a feminist mother. Thus Terman simultaneously enforced the link between intelligence and masculinity and between intelligence and heterosexuality—at least in men. As an example of intersectional analysis, Hegarty’s work attends to the process through which intelligence became gendered in the empirical work of a male scientist, how gender ideologies and heteronormative beliefs course through science, and how the gendering and heteronormatizing of a neutral category—intelligence—served to enforce the power/authority of a particular group (heterosexual men) over all others. When gender and sexual orientation are considered as intersecting axes, a different history of intelligence emerges than those which consider gender or sexual orientation alone.

In her work Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture, Siobhan Somerville (2000) explicitly engages an intersectional framework to show how discourses of race and sexuality were intertwined in the writings of late-19th- and early-20th-century sexologists. Specifically, she demonstrates how questions of race—specifically the construction of “White” versus “Black” racial identities—must be understood as central to the formation of lesbian and gay identities and the creation of compulsory heterosexuality in this period in the United States. Although not discounting the role of gender ideologies in the construction of lesbian and gay identities during this time, she writes, “My aim is not to replace a focus on gender with that of race but rather to understand how discourses of race and gender buttressed one another, often competing, often overlapping, in shaping emerging models of homosexuality” (Somerville, 2000, p. 17). By focusing on the writings of sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, as well as a curious 1913 article by psychologist Margaret Otis reporting on the “perverse” same-sex desire between White and Black girls at an all-girls boarding school, she shows that scientific discourses of sexuality were both overtly and implicitly entangled with discourses of scientific racism, including eugenicist and antimiscegenationist attitudes and legislation. More recently, gender and sexuality studies scholar C. Riley Snorton (2017), in Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, has constructed an intersecting genealogy of black-ness and trans-ness that also draws on early sexological texts, among a host of other archival and cultural sources. Snorton not only revises and complicates histories of trans identity that have focused on White bodies and Whiteness but provides a platform for imagining the possibilities of Black trans lives and subjectivities.

Thus simply writing about the experiences of those who experience intersecting forms of oppression constitutes intersectional history is a necessary starting point, but intersectional histories (of psychology) must also attend explicitly to psychology’s role in structuring and reinforcing relations of power that work to limit the participation of the multiply marginalized in the discipline and support/create sexist/racist/homophobic/ableist theories and discourses. So, for example, does including the lives and contributions of more women of color in histories of psychology constitute an intersectional approach to history? The fact that these women have largely remained invisible in these histories invites an interrogation of their intersectional invisibility, an analysis of how sexism and racism have influenced their participation in psychology and their absence in its historical narrative. This is an important starting point for an intersectional analysis.

To take one example, Mamie Phipps Clark, an African American psychologist who earned her PhD in 1943 at Columbia University in New York City, presciently commented on her own “double jeopardy” in a 1983 autobiographical reflection:

Although my husband [African-American psychologist K. B. Clark] had earlier secured a teaching position at the City College of New York, following my graduation it soon became apparent to me that a black female with a Ph.D. in psychology was an unwanted anomaly in New York City in the early 1940s.

(Clark, 1983, p. 271)

In Clark’s experience, as in the experiences of many women of color before and after her, sexism and racism positioned her as uniquely illegible and problematic to the psychological establishment, an illegibility that Black men (such as her husband) and White women (who experienced sexism but not racism since American psychology was—and is—predominantly White) did not experience.

So a history of psychology that centers women of color and attends to the ways their participation has been influenced by intersecting systems of gender and racial discrimination in society and in psychology would constitute an intersectional approach to psychology’s history, and one that, so far, has not yet been undertaken systematically. Another concrete example building on (but inverting) Shields’s analysis of the intersecting logics of scientific racism and scientific sexism in early British and American psychology would be to analyze the intersections of feminist and antiracist activism in psychology. In 1960s and 1970s American psychology, for example, there were visible efforts by, in the first case (largely) White women to protest sex discrimination in institutionalized psychology and its theories about women and, in the second case, largely Black men to protest the virulent racism of psychological theory and practice as well as racism in the profession. What can be gained by narrating these struggles together?

To date, histories of these developments in U.S. psychology have considered them, for the most part, separately (see, e.g., Rutherford & Pettit, 2015, on feminist challenges; Pickren, 2004; Pickren & Tomes, 2002 on the challenges of ethnic minority psychologists; see also Herman, 1995; Pickren & Rutherford, 2010 for accounts that also narrate these struggles separately). But there were documented tensions between these activist groups despite their shared goals of reforming institutional psychology and mitigating the effects of racism and sexism on its theories and practices. These tensions came to a head when a group of White women representing the newly formed Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) publicly confronted the first, and to date only, African American male president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Kenneth Clark, about their perception that he was not supportive of their cause. In his response to the group at an APA Town Hall meeting in 1970, Clark noted that he was not able to compartmentalize questions of justice and equity among groups and that in order for him to consider inequities against women he had to consider the history of White women’s history of racial cruelty against Black men (Rutherford, 2006). A couple of senior women wrote to him after the incident noting difficulties in AWP’s attempts to deal with the connections between racism and sexism. In 1976 a formal organization for Black women’s concerns would be formed within the APA as a section of the Division for the Psychology of Women, which had been formed three years earlier, in 1973 (Division 35; see Rutherford, 2007). A full intersectional analysis of the struggles against racism and sexism in the APA has yet to be written.

There are, indeed, practically endless possibilities for approaching histories of psychology intersectionally. This article has provided a small, selective set of examples and ideas. Ultimately, intersectionality is a framework that can aid in understanding the world—and psychologists’ roles in it—in terms of systems and structures of power rather than as the accomplishment of great individuals divorced from these contexts (for an elaboration of this argument, see Marecek, 2016). At its best, this is what the history of psychology, and intersectional thinking, can offer.

Further Reading

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Hancock, A. (2016). Intersectionality: An intellectual history. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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(1.) It should be noted that in another article accompanying Else-Quest and Hyde (2016a, 2016b), Warner, Settles, and Shields (2016) note their agreement that psychology would benefit from engaging in an intersectional critique of the field (and following up to include considerations of systemic inequality, policy, and social justice actions into its practices) but express doubt that intersectional psychology could ever occupy mainstream status in the discipline. This is because, in their view, intersectionality is disruptive by design, carrying with it the inherent intention of challenging “dominant [modes of] knowledge production” (p. 173).