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Intersectionality and Gender

Sojourner Truth was the adopted name of a former slave who later became an American abolitionist and women's rights activist. According to history, Truth was born into slavery but later escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. In 1828 Sojourner went to court to recover her son, and thus, became the first Black woman to win a case against a white man.


Sojourner seems to be an interesting character, so I delved more into history so I can know about her. It turns out that winning a court case against a white man in 1820s wasn't really the main crowning moment of Truth's life. She gave a random speech at a forum organized by a feminist theme deemed "Aint I woman". This speech served as the main foundation of intersectionality, Truth might not have known it then.


Several years after Truth's speech, Kimberley Henshaw attempts to explain what intersectionality is, using examples or in this case, court cases.

  1. DeGraffenreid v General Motors

Five black women brought a case before the court to address a suit against General motors. They alleged that the employer's seniority system perpetuated the effects of past discrimination against Black women. Evidence was shown that General motors simply didn't hire Black women prior to 1964. Because of that, all the Black women in the company lost their jobs, owing to a seniority-based layoff during a recession, because they were all hired after 1970.

This case was thrown out and the court cited these reasons

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i. Plaintiffs have failed to cite decisions that stated that Black women are a special class to be protected against discrimination.

ii. The plaintiffs are clearly entitled to a remedy if they have been discriminated against. However, they should not be allowed to combine statutory remedies, to create a new 'super-remedy' that would give them relief beyond what the drafters of the relevant statutes intended.

iii. Finally, this lawsuit must be examined to see if it states a cause of action for race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively, but not a combination of both.

The court noted that “General Motors has hired female employees for a number of years prior to the enactment of the Civil Right Act 1964”. And because General Motors did hire women (although they were all white women) during the period that no Black women were hired, there was in the court’s view, no sex discrimination that the seniority system could conceivably have perpetuated.

  1. Kimberley Henshaw also told the story of a black woman named Emma. This black woman also went out in search of work only to be told that even though she is qualified for the job, she still couldn’t get it, because the company had already employed several “people of color” already. Emma took the case to court since she felt she was being discriminated against as a Black woman because the “people of color” that, the company allegedly had said to have already hired were all men. Men were hired to do specifically the labor-intensive part of the job, and even though there were women in the company working, they were all white women also doing the secretarial part of the job. Emma in her suit was urging the court and judge to look at her case in a different light, but just like the previous court case cited earlier, the court failed to do that.


Sojourner challenged the sexist imagery used by male critics to justify the disenfranchisement of women, and this was at a scene in Akron Ohio a women’s conference, where she declared her “Aint I a woman” speech. Many of the male hecklers who were present at the conference were invoking stereotypical images of “womanhood”, they argued that women were too frail and delicate to take on the responsibilities of political activity. Many white women at the conference were urging Sojourner Truth to be quiet when she rose to speak because they feared she would divert attention from women’s suffrage to emancipation. But after she was permitted to speak she recounted the horrors of slavery and its particular impact on Black women.

By using her life story Sojourner revealed the contradiction that is between the ideological myths of womanhood and the reality of Black women’s experience. This helped Black feminists in the 19th-century challenge not only patriarchy but challenge white feminists wishing to embrace Black women’s history to relinquish their vestedness in whiteness.

© 2022 Akosua Ago Mansa

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