Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

Episode Summary

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1959-present) is a lawyer, activist and scholar who developed the theory of intersectionality.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

This month we’re talking about Beautiful Minds, intellectual giants whose work had an extraordinary impact.

Our woman of the day developed the theory of intersectionality, changing the way that society understands discrimination. Unlike many of the women we’ve highlighted on this show, she’s still hard at work. But we felt it was important that she be included this month with our other Beautiful Minds. Let’s talk about Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. 

Kimberle was born in Canton, Ohio, to Marian and Walter Clarence Crenshaw Jr. in 1959. She went to Canton McKinley High School before attending Cornell University. She graduated in 1981 with a degree in government and Africana Studies. 

While in college, she noticed many classes that looked at issues of race, and many classes that looked at gender, but a real lack of coursework that tackled the two combined. This didn’t make much sense to her. 

After college, Kimberle went to Harvard Law School. There, she was one of the organizers of the Critical Race Theory Workshop, which gave name to the field of critical race theory. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Critical Race Theory is the view that race is socially constructed and functions to maintain the interests of the group that constructed it, namely white people. 

After Harvard, Kimberle got a masters of law from Wisconsin Law School and then began teaching at the UCLA School of Law. 

In 1989, Kimberle wrote a paper for the University of Chicago Legal Forum entitled, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” In it, Kimberle discussed and really broke down the concept of intersectionality, though she credits activists and intellectuals before her for speaking about the same idea. 

The theory of intersectionality speaks to the fact that the experiences of Black women can’t be divided into sexism and racism. Rather the prejudices against both identities reinforce each other and require a multivariate solution. 

Kimberle particularly focuses on intersectionality and the law. Antidiscrimination laws in the U.S. generally look at gender and race separately. That puts women of color in a situation where discrimination due to the combination of both gender and race is never adequately resolved and justice is simply not served. 

An example Kimberle has used to explain this problem is a court case called DeGraffenreid v. General Motors. A group of African-American women argued in the case that they were being barred from employment opportunities due to their gender and race. The group argued that at General Motors, there was no opportunity for Black women to gain employment. Women were only allowed to have office and secretarial jobs at GM but Black people were only hired in the factories, which exclusively employed men. The courts found no discrimination because they examined race and gender separately. Because Black men were employed in the factories and white women were employed in the office, the courts dismissed the case. 

In 1991, Kimberle worked as part of the legal team for Anita Hill, who had accused then Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. 

Kimberle has cited the importance of intersectionality in understanding the circumstances of that hearing. On the one hand, there were women across the country who felt passionately empathetic when it came to the harassment that Anita Hill described. On the other hand, when the Senate turned a blind eye, which it did, Clarence Thomas became just the second African American Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history, which many African Americans rightfully saw as a long-awaited increase in institutional representation. 

 Kimberle has taught at the UCLA School of Law since 1986. She currently teaches Advanced Critical Race Theory; Civil Rights; Intersectionalities: Theorizing Multiple Discrimination, Identity and Power; and Intersectional Perspectives on Race, Gender and the Criminalization of Women & Girls. 

Kimberle was also appointed a full professor at Columbia Law School in 1995. In 2011, she established the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy and Studies there. 

In 1996, she co-founded the African American Policy Forum, a nonprofit think tank working to dismantle structural inequality and expand racial justice, gender equality and human rights. Kimberle has received many honors and her influence has been widespread. Her work was even cited as influential in the creation of the equality clause of the Constitution of South Africa. 

The Theory of Intersectionality has caught on around the world. It’s an important lens to better understand and fight against political, social and institutional prejudice. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!