Intersectionality: Friend or Foe of Classical Liberalism?

Intersectionality has become a very popular tool for thinking about inequality. The theory’s primary claim is that inequality and repression are not unidimensional, that is, not just a matter of black versus white. Rather, inequality emerges from interlocking categories such as race, gender, and social class. Academic journals and books, including my own work, discuss intersectional theory at length as an important development in the theory of inequality.[i] Intersectionality has also become a focal point for activists promoting social justice.

Against this background, this Cato Unbound symposium asks a simple question. What role does intersectionality theory have, if any, within classical liberal thought? This question is striking because many scholars and activists who employ intersectional language view the classical liberal vision of limited government and free markets with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. Many of these advocates of intersectionality see the multidimensional system of inequality as part of the “matrix of domination” found within capitalist societies.

Levy’s Arguments

Jacob Levy’s essay is an interesting and thought-provoking contribution to the discussion about the link between intersectionality theory and classical liberalism. First, Levy argues that intersectionality theory focuses on a rather uncontroversial aspect of social life. People may suffer injustice in ways that are shaped by the overlap of social categories. Second, intersectionality is needed to understand how emergent social orders may injure specific people and communities defined by the intersection of social categories. Third, state violence may fall on specific people who are defined through their intersectionality.

Levy is wise to focus on intersectionality theory’s most foundational empirical observation. It is true that human societies enact repressive practices that highlight some forms of difference while downplaying others. He is also correct in that, as a methodological matter, there should be nothing suspect about assessing interaction effects, such as testing a hypothesis about whether Black women have different life course outcomes than White women or Black men.

However, Levy’s essay is misleading in one very important way because he sidesteps the connection between intersectionality theory and schools of thought that are strongly at odds with classical liberalism. Leading practitioners have often asserted that their theory of inequality is an expansion, extrapolation, or generalization of Marxism and other critical social theories. It is an error to present intersectionality theory as a rather simple and obvious perspective for classical liberals to adopt. Rather, classical liberals who adopt intersectionality theory would need to employ a redacted version that would be unfamiliar to its advocates.

Intersectionality as Critical Theory

Intersectionality theory has grown past its roots in discussions of U.S. anti-discrimination law and the specific milieu of second wave feminism. It is now a theory that offers a comprehensive analysis of how societies are organized. For example, Patricia Hill Collins’s book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, is considered by many to be one of the most thorough presentations of intersectional thought. Collins uses intersectionality theory to motivate a deeper appreciation and exploration of the social theory and writings of black women.[ii]

Though not primarily a text that addresses Marxist theory, Black Feminist Thought at multiple points notes the parallels and similarities between Collins’s arguments and Marxism. She sees her work as being a form of liberation for women of color just as Marxism is about the liberation of the working class and says so explicitly.[iii] In fact, the affinity between intersectionality theory and Marxism has motivated a literature debating the “single system” question: is there a single process of oppression and domination with multiple faces? Or, does the repression of women, racial minorities, and the working class each have its own distinct logic?[iv]

For many scholars within the intersectionality school, the answer is often that these forms of repression are at least “co-constitutive”; the repression of people along gender or racial lines is often enabled or facilitated by the repression of working class people.[v] Thus, intersectionality theory isn’t merely the observation that people can be defined by overlapping categories, or even that prejudice can be disproportionately directed at “doubly marginalized” communities. Rather, for many scholars, intersectionality is seen as part of a wide-ranging radical critique of the liberal economic and social order.

Intersectionality as Standpoint Epistemology and Inclusion Project

Intersectionality via critical theory and classical liberalism are incompatible partners. Yet there are elements of intersectionality theory that fit more comfortably with a philosophy of freedom, autonomy, and laissez-faire. In the second half of this response, I focus on two ideas within intersectionality theory that can be more fruitfully assimilated into liberalism: as a standpoint epistemology and as an inclusion project.

Standpoint epistemology: One of the more intriguing elements of intersectionality theory is the claim that intersecting statuses create distinct categories within a broader multidimensional social structure. These categories, in turn, produce “standpoints,” or relative positions, within the matrix of domination. Collins, among others, has called for special attention to be paid to multiply marginalized groups because they can witness how inequality is created and enacted better than most. Conversely, those in highly privileged positions may find it hard to acknowledge or perceive how systems of inequality create and support their superior status.[vi]

Most classical liberal social thinkers might find standpoint theory discomforting. It does not presume a universalistic ego that pursues enlightened self-interest, or even the imperfect creature found in behavioral economics. It might be seen as an implicit criticism of libertarians or classical liberals, who are more likely to be male and white than the general population.[vii] This does not have to be the case. Rather, standpoint epistemology can be seen as a recognition that experience matters and it fundamentally shapes who we are and how we can imagine things. Furthermore, experience is not randomly assigned throughout society. As Levy correctly notes in his essay, oppressive experiences are disproportionately felt by some groups and more so among the multiply marginalized, who do not have access to the institutions that are most likely to recognize and document these experiences. The “doubly” marginalized, thus, must encode and transmit their knowledge through practices that are overlooked by the mainstream.

For the classical liberal scholar, this should be seen as an invitation to appreciate the impact of state interventionism in a more expansive way. Normally, we may focus on the most obvious and overt examples of state repression, but intersectionality may sensitize us to the damages wrought on marginalized communities by restrictions on freedom. For example, open borders advocates, such as myself, often focus on job loss. Intersectionality theory asks us to look at how migration restriction affects doubly marginal groups, such as women of color. Their experience is different than that of men. Not only are women of color deprived of the opportunity for economic improvement, they are often left with the task of raising children by themselves when migration restrictions make it impossible for the father to be with his family. Migration restrictions not only keep people in poverty, they exacerbate gender inequality.

Inclusion project: Another important element of intersectional theory is the idea that certain voices are excluded from academic discourse and social change projects.[viii] Levy notes that an initial impulse for the theory was found in feminist political movements, which were seen as being overly concerned with the interests and needs of white women. A similar critique might be made of classical liberal theory. Articulated primarily by white men, classical liberal social thought might be overly concerned with their experiences. Levy’s essay is correct on this point and it shows one constructive avenue for discussion between classical liberals and intersectionality theorists—understanding how the philosophy of freedom and autonomy might be enriched by placing more emphasis on the issues that affect women of color and other multiply disadvantaged communities.

Dialogue, Not Marriage

Levy’s relatively uncritical depiction of intersectionality does not confront the fact that the theory, as understood by its practitioners, is simply at odds with classical liberalism because it sees inequality and repression as the natural outgrowth of a liberal social order. Still, dialogue is possible if classical liberals understand that intersectional theory has multiple goals and some of these goals should be rejected. The embrace of Marxism and other theories that view the market economy and limited government as inherently suspect should be critiqued and cast aside. Also, intersectionality theory, like all schools of thought, has its own excesses that should be avoided. For example, the more thoughtful practitioners of intersectionality warn against an “oppression Olympics” where resources are earned by boasting about injustice.[ix] Classical liberals are wise to follow this advice.

Intersectionality theory has a truly indispensable insight for classical liberals. All societies will have complex status orders that combine in important ways shaping individual life chances and opportunities. Multiply marginalized communities often suffer the most from illiberal states and repressive private social practices. However, this statement underplays intersectionality’s value for classical liberals. At heart, classical liberals champion freedom of action, and that means people will create communities defined by intersecting categories and hybridized social roles. Thus, classical liberalism must necessarily be a philosophy of diversity. Intersectionality theory can help classical liberals imagine institutions that foster and protect social diversity, rather than marginalize it.


[i] Rojas, Fabio. 2017. Theory for the Working Sociologist. Columbia University Press.

[ii] Collins, Patricia Hill. 2014. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edition. Routledge press.

[iii] Ibid, page 9. Collins specifically parallels feminism and gay liberation with Marxism: “Feminism advocates women’s emancipation and empowerment, Marxist social thought aims for a more equitable society, while queer theory opposes hetero-sexism.” In other parts of the text, Collins situates the subordination of women as part of a global system of advanced capitalism: “Situating mother-child families in the context of the global political economy highlights the significance of advanced capitalism for understanding mother-child families in transnational context (Mencher and Okongwu 1993).In particular, important connections characterize the stage of capitalist development encountered by any group of people and the patterns of family organization that emerge within that group.” (272)

[iv] Bohrer, Ashley. 2018. “Intersectionality and Marxism: A Critical Historiography.” Historical Materialism 26 (2): 46-74.

[v] Choo, Hae Yoon and Ferree, Myra Marx. 2010. “Practicing Intersectionality in Sociological Research: A Critical Analysis of Inclusions, Interactions, and Institutions in the Study of Inequalities.” Sociological Theory, 28(2), 129–149.

[vi] Yuval-Davis, Nira. 2012. “Dialogical Epistemology—An Intersectional Resistance to the ‘Oppression Olympics.’” Gender & Society, 26(1), 46–54.

[vii] Ekins, Emily. 2016. Libertarians Are More Racially Diverse Than Some May Realize. Cato at Liberty Blog. Specifically, Ekins cites data showing that Libertarians are slightly more white than the general population (73% vs. 67%) and notably less black (5% vs. 12%). The same data shows that self-identified libertarians are much more male (63% male vs. 50% in the general population).

[viii] Lépinard, É. 2014. “Impossible Intersectionality? French Feminists and the Struggle for Inclusion.” Politics & Gender, 10(1), 124-130. This article reviews recent attempts to articulate intersectionality as a project of social inclusion.

[ix] See Choo and Marx (2010: 130). Johanna Kantola & Kevät Nousiainen. 2009.“Institutionalizing Intersectionality in Europe.”International Feminist Journal of Politics,11:4,459-477. Hancock, Ange-Marie. 2011. Solidarity politics for millennials. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jacob T. Levy describes intersectionality as “the analytical strategy of thinking about such phenomena as race and gender, or racism and sexism, as interacting.” As such, he suggests that this approach is a promising one, and he defends it against some common criticisms. Those who view oppression of all kinds as a primarily state-mediated phenomenon should want to add it to their repertoire of useful ideas, he argues.

Response Essays

  • Phillip W. Magness warns that intersectionality theory amounts to little more than a qualitative approach to multivariate regression analysis—and a doubtful set of ideological commitments. For centuries, those now known as classical liberals fought against slavery and other forms of discrimination, and their successors today don’t need any such new and dubious theories to continue the struggle.

  • Fabio Rojas expresses ambivalence about intersectionality’s relationship to classical liberalism. On the one hand, there is a clear line of influence running from Marxism and critical theory to intersectionality’s key proponents and texts, and this influence brings with it hostility toward the market process. But on the other hand, he finds that intersectionality can offer new insights into how states perform oppression, and how marginalized voices can learn to speak back. There is no marriage here, but there should be a dialogue, he concludes.