The first handful of nominating contests may be over, and the field has winnowed and whitened, but Elizabeth Warren has not retreated from offering what I would call an intersectional presidential campaign.
On New Year’s Eve, Warren gave a speech commemorating the anniversary of her campaign for the presidency. Speaking to a packed crowd at the historic Old South Meeting House in Boston, calling for the importance of imagination in dark times, Warren invoked Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved black woman who, in the 1770s, in a world in which her very being was called into question, became the first black woman to publish a book of poetry in the United States. This rhetorical move was no glib campaign trick. It’s reflected in Warren’s other speeches and manifest in her plans on everything from climate change to disability rights. It’s not just that she persistently name-checks the marginalized, but that she speaks of and with them in all their complexity. In an earlier speech in New York, she remembered the workers who perished at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire not only as victims of corruption and greed but also as poor immigrant women.
There are many debates about intersectionality within the academic feminist world I live in. Journals devote special issues to it and scholars debate its history and its contours. Its definition is a matter of debate, but it is widely understood to be a theoretical framework that eschews simplistic understandings where one vector of power (say, class) trumps all others in the everyday experience of inequality and in its structural manifestation. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal theorist and coiner of the phrase, says, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”
While intersectionality has deep roots in feminist theory, it also has a long history in feminist activism. This approach is evident in the 1977 statement of the Combahee River Collective, the iconic radical black feminist group active in Boston in the mid-1970s, which stated that “we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” More recently, intersectional approaches crop up in the platform of the Women’s Marches, which offered up understandings of power and inequality built on multiple strands and a coalitional politics that reflected the complex interactions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability in both individual lives and collective possibilities.
Given how intersectional analysis has gained real traction in the academy and in activist communities, it was only a matter of time before a presidential candidate emerged whose outlook reflected that ideology. While some Democratic candidates in the past few election cycles have put forward more progressive and comprehensive plans for dealing with racial or gender inequality, they have nonetheless tended to treat race and gender as single-issue vectors to be noted and then pushed aside. So “gender” is invoked in discussions about abortion rights, “race” in debates about criminal justice, and “class” in attacks on corporate greed. Occasionally, other issues—for instance, equal pay or reparations—weave these strands back into a conjoined conversation, but too often both the pundits and the candidates treat these deep vectors of power and identity as discrete lanes that voters rarely cross.
This is a shame, because voters’ concerns don’t live in discrete lanes, and robust intersectional thinking can help reach constituencies too often referenced in narrow ways. Throughout her campaign, Elizabeth Warren has shown her ability to use intersectional approaches to analyze a wide variety of social ills, and her engagement with this paradigm has only gotten richer as her campaign has progressed.
The key to robust intersectional thinking is to concretely demonstrate the ways in which things that seem to be about one concern are often inflected through others.
§ As Warren herself said in a tweet outlining her disability rights platform, “All policy issues are disability policy issues, which is why I’ve approached many of my previous plans with a disability rights lens, from criminal justice reform to ensuring a high-quality public education for all, to strengthening our democracy.”
§ When Warren addresses the debate about guns and links it to domestic violence, she is signifying precisely how a different angle of vision illuminates the connection between a culture of unfettered access to guns and a culture of violence against women.
§ During the New Hampshire debate, as the candidates discussed racial inequities in criminal justice and in wealth acquisition, Warren pointed out how her proposal to levy a wealth tax is not a simple “class” issue but in fact would address racial inequality in substantive ways by, for example, getting rid of student debt that unduly burdens people of color, who tend to be more in debt and take longer to pay it back.
§ On abortion, Warren made sure to point out the class and race dimensions, stating that if Roe v. Wade gets overturned, the rich (who are largely white) will continue to have access to reproductive services, while poor women and women of color will suffer.
§ She pivoted to condemn our history of discriminatory housing practices and make the point about the various ways in which racism informs pretty much everything, insisting that we can’t relegate “race” questions to some narrow aperture of vision.
§ In her plan on “Valuing the Work of Women of Color” (yes, she actually has a plan for that—a claim no other candidate can make), Warren acknowledges how the interplay of sexual and gender identities (as well as ability) with racial identities can exacerbate the obstacles women of color face.
§ In her plan on securing LGBTQ equality she highlights the connections between LGBTQ oppression and homelessness and increased risk of incarceration.
§ When discussing how to honor and empower Native people, she points out the centrality of anti-violence work for indigenous women who often go unprotected due to conflicts of tribal and federal governance.
Other candidates frame their platforms more traditionally: as discrete “issues” to be addressed fairly narrowly.
Another lesson of intersectionality has to do less with analysis and theory than with what we may call a politics of respectful attention. Taking intersectionality seriously means moving beyond merely acknowledging one’s own privilege and understanding that walking the walk entails listening to and learning from those who live in identities different from your own. Warren has exhibited this repeatedly, chiding other Democrats for only engaging with the black community during election time. Conversely, she met with Ta-Nehisi Coates—years before she became a presidential candidate—to learn from him following his explosive writing on reparations.
When she calls black trans women the “backbone of democracy” and focuses on her own education in the politics of intersectionality and apologizes quickly over the treatment of black women in her Nevada campaign office she actually “does” intersectional politics. When she writes on black maternal mortality and her plan to combat it in Essence and on the importance of HBCUs for the black millennial site Blavity, she moves out of her comfort zone and meets people where they are. When one of her many plans is to “value the work of women of color,” she signals that she is, as her campaign co-chair Ayanna Pressley puts it, “an even better student” than a professor.
As Nelini Stamp writes in the newly radical Teen Vogue, “Elizabeth Warren is paying attention…. Her [environmental justice] plan is informed by the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, an equity-based framework written by activists of color in 1991 that no presidential administration has acted on to date. Not anymore. Warren centers marginalized communities again and again in her plan.” And when Warren reads off the names of murdered trans women (not at a LGBTQ event!) and pledges to do so every year in the Rose Garden, she “brings the margin to the center” as bell hooks put it, making visible the ways in which race, class, gender, sexuality live in particular bodies in particular ways.
This is not to say that some of these candidates aren’t good “on the issues.” Some other candidates, including several no longer in the race, offered strong plans for issues that impact women, or folks with disabilities, or trans people. When he was running, Senator Cory Booker offered particularly complex analyses of racial injustice, repeatedly calling for reparations and for criminal justice reform as not just the “ethical” thing to do but as a way to address racial wealth gaps. And Senator Kirstin Gillibrand’s commitments to combating sexual harassment and assault revealed an understanding of the myriad ways that pervasive rape culture structures women’s lives.
Senator Bernie Sanders has evolved in how he talks about race and gender since the 2016 campaign, when he swatted away calls for reparations as “divisive” and called Planned Parenthood part of the “establishment.” But someone with a robust intersectional perspective would never say, as Sanders did in the debate in December, “The issue is where power resides in America, and it’s not white or black or male or female…. We are living in a nation increasingly becoming an oligarchy, where you have millionaires buying elections and politicians.” But, of course, that oligarchy is not racially “neutral.” It does have a gender.
A robustly feminist intersectional approach is more than trickle-down Marxism. Sanders’s plans remain stubbornly “issue”-based, with a meta-story of class that seems to believe that power is racially and gender neutral. So, for example, on his website his first “issue” is “A Welcoming and Safe America for All” and—no surprise—immigration, ICE, and DACA are on the agenda here. But what about women, who are not safe in an America that breeds toxic masculinity and shrugs off sexual violence? What about transfolk who are murdered at disproportionately higher rates? To treat each “issue” as self-evidently about a particular demographic is precisely what intersectionality is not.
Being intersectional also means having to own up to mistakes, learn from those who live and love differently from you, step aside when necessary and step up when the situation dictates it. At a presidential forum on Native American issues in August, Warren addressed her own errors. “Like anyone who’s being honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes,” said Warren, presumably referring to her release of a DNA test purporting to show that she had Native American ancestry. “I am sorry for harm I have caused. I have listened and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”
Intersectionality also can and should, therefore, have a tone, an affect. And I think it is incompatible with a savior mode, a “me and only me” tone. Let me be clear, I don’t think this is necessarily coming from the Sanders himself, but it is surely expressive of the kind of hero worship he inspires, a sensibility at odds with the collective ethos of intersectional feminism. When Sanders supporters claim, as Nancy Fraser and Liza Featherstone do in Jacobin, that he is “the only candidate in the race who is advancing a politics that will actually improve the lives of all those women” and, dismiss any supporters of other candidates as dupes “suckered by cynical invocations of feminism” who “seek to undermine a progressive mass movement,” they display a hubris that is at odds with both the facts and the passionate commitments to broad-based social justice of Warren and her supporters.
When Sanders supporters tout his feminist credentials, they’re not wrong, and let me be clear: I would support him wholeheartedly and campaign my tuches off for him, as I have been doing for Warren. But they are just different feminist credentials. As advocates such as Fraser and Featherstone themselves claim, his policies “address sexism” by attacking “its deeper roots in capitalist society.” Endorsing Sanders in The Nation, Sara Matthiesen points to the “foundational logic” of capitalist society that produces inequality. But misogyny and male domination has deep and abiding roots in most societies, not just our capitalist one. As much as I want Medicare for All and for the rich to pay higher taxes, these changes won’t cure sexism. Ditto racism, as Warren aptly noted in a speech in 2015, pointing out that “economic justice has never been sufficient to ensure racial justice. Owning a home won’t stop someone from burning a cross in the front lawn. Admission to a school won’t prevent a beating on the sidewalk outside.”
If the current occupant of the White House loves nothing more than his own voice and cultivates a devotional following, maybe a thoughtful intersectional candidate who listens to others is just what is needed.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article referred to Elizabeth Warren as the “first” intersectional presidential candidate. That fails to acknowledge the 1972 campaign of Shirley Chisholm, as well as other 2020 candidates who used the intersectional framework before dropping out of the race. The piece has been updated to reflect that.