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The Challenge of Intersectionality
posted 02.28.2018

By Toni Calasanti and Sadie Giles

In her exploration of social justice, Nancy Fraser (2008) argues that “participatory parity” is critical, “overcoming injustice means dismantling institutionalized obstacles that prevent some people from participating on a par with others, as full partners in social interaction” (Fraser, 2008). 
While second-wave feminists focused on the barriers that result from gender inequalities, critiques by women of color made clear that women and men are not homogenous groups, and that other, equally important statuses, such as race and class, can shape people’s experiences and abilities to participate and achieve.
These critiques underpin the foundational work of legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), who coined intersectionality to explain the interplay of inequalities that could exclude groups from single-inequality analysis. Sitting at the intersections of race and gender, black women were too black to be female, and too female to be black, in terms of their standing in court. They experience racism and sexism in ways not reducible to one or the other.
Applying this concept of intersectionality to violence against women of color and immigrants, Crenshaw (1991) pointed to the obstacles they face in obtaining services designed to serve battered women presumed only to suffer from gender inequality. She argued, “Shelters serving these women cannot afford to address only the violence inflicted by the batterer; they must also confront the other multilayered and routinized forms of domination that often converge in these women’s lives, hindering their ability to create alternatives to the abusive relationships that brought them to shelters in the first place.” 
Crenshaw demonstrated that race, class, nation, and gender inequalities all are tied into the experiences of battered women of color, and thus interventions that stem from “experiences of women who do not share the same class or race background” are limited in their ability to offer them the help they need, or justice (Crenshaw, 1991).
Since Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work, intersectionality has become an important but sometimes misunderstood analytic and practical tool. Our goal is to clarify intersectionality, in relation to women and aging; and then apply it briefly to demonstrate its utility to researchers and practitioners.
A Focus on Inequalities
People differ from each other in ways that often reflect heterogeneity. In relation to aging, individuals might vary in flexibility, strength, lung capacity, or how quickly they heal from injuries. When groups differ, then disparities may result from inequalities that privilege some (whites, men, middle-class members, citizens), while disadvantaging others (women, blacks, working-class members, foreign migrants). These differences are structured into daily lives and behaviors, based on the ways in which we normally do things (such as family and paid work); as a result, they are taken for granted and generally unseen. The concept of intersectionality illuminates the complex ways in which people’s experiences over the life course and in old age emerge from the intertwining of their various categorical memberships within systems of inequalities.
For example, as a group, women have lower incomes in old age because of the way we work and care for family in the United States. Women perform the bulk of domestic labor, thus spending fewer years in paid labor; and women are employed in lower paid jobs more frequently than are men. Much of income in old age, such as Social Security benefits, is based on years worked and earnings. Thus, women are disadvantaged and men are privileged, as the latter can focus more on paid work, while women take greater responsibility for unpaid labor.
Similarly, as a group, blacks have lower incomes in old age than do whites, resulting from the kinds of jobs they receive, and again, because of the way Social Security benefits are calculated. Both of these—race and gender—are systems of inequalities. What an intersectional approach reveals is that these statuses come together such that black women are especially disadvantaged, in ways that neither gender nor race alone can explain. Whereas some white women might afford the option to stay home to care for children, racial discrimination in the labor market leaves black women unable to rely on (usually black) men for income; thus, they need to work for pay. At the same time, they receive even lower pay than do white women. As a result, they have worse finances in old age than do white women, despite higher labor-force participation rates, and they suffer higher poverty rates (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2016).
Even assumed differences based on gender alter when we take an intersectional approach. For instance, because women can receive Social Security benefits based on their husbands’ earnings, and white women tend to affiliate with white men, white women have lower poverty rates in old age than do Black women or men (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2016).
At issue is not only that different groups of women may have varying experiences. Intersectionality reveals that women are divided by social inequalities, which result in some women oppressing others. Merely to note that the gender division of labor assigns domestic labor to women creates a false expectation that women spend much time tending their own homes. It fails to show how racial divisions of labor create different home lives for many women of color around the world. Families are organized in ways that assume women will perform domestic labor, to be sure; but some women—predominantly those who are white and middle-class or higher—are able to hire other women (usually women of color and, increasingly, from the global South) to perform these tasks, typically at very low wages, and often outside the formal labor market (Glenn, 2010).
Higher class women are able to improve their social position through the exploitation of other, lower class women of color, a situation that affects the ability of the latter to tend their own homes and the standing of each group in old age. To those with more privilege, these lower class women of color might be seen to be personally responsible for their disadvantages by not having more education, for instance, while higher class women might call for reductions in public program spending. In this way, we see that a focus on women hides intersecting inequalities that influence later life and may create a false impression that hides the experiences of the groups trapped by the intersections. Though any categorical or class status may rise in salience in any interaction, our lives are shaped by all of them (gender, race, class, age, nation, and other social locations), at all times.
Applying intersectionality to women and aging pushes us to go beyond essentialized notions of women; and, increasingly, scholars examine intersections within old age. However, we also want to emphasize the less often considered ways that other inequalities intersect with old age. Age relations are also a system of inequality; old age is a disadvantaged status. Old age is more than just the cumulative impact of other statuses over the life course; it is a political location. Those marked as old lose authority and power, including over their bodies; they are marginalized in the workplace, losing status and income, and they are stigmatized and culturally devalued. To be old is to be socially excluded from full citizenship (Calasanti, 2003).
Such inequality is naturalized, often through reference to bodily changes. Bodies change over the life course, but people hold only some of those shifts against groups in ways that create inequality. Ageism ensures that the changes interpreted as marking one as old lead to exclusion (Calasanti and King, 2015). Recognizing that old age is a devalued status that intersects with others alters our questions and approaches to such issues as participatory parity. For instance, to the question, “Why/how do some groups age sooner than others?” we add, “Why are those who are seen to be old excluded from full participation?”
An Intersectional Lens on “Successful Aging”
The most recent iteration of “successful aging” has garnered much attention in gerontological circles, but a lens sensitive to intersections within and with old age reveals critical problems with this agenda. As explicated by Rowe and Kahn (1998), successful aging involves three dimensions: avoidance of disease and disability; high levels of mental and physical function; and engagement with life, including social relationships and productive activities, paid or unpaid.
Key to their framework is a focus on individual choice and lifestyle for aging successfully: “Our main message is that . . . successful aging is in our own hands” (Rowe and Kahn, 1998; our emphasis). That is, individuals can achieve successful aging by making the proper decisions: “In short, successful aging is dependent upon individual choices and behaviors. It can be attained through individual choice and effort” (Rowe and Kahn, 1998; our emphasis). In advocating for successful aging, Rowe and Kahn seek to address ageism by countering the discourse of decline, a laudable goal. However, an intersectional lens makes clear that this framework perpetuates ageism in two ways.
First, intersecting inequalities over the life course influence which vision of aging is seen to be “successful”; the physical and social activities to which elders should aspire are generally those associated with privileged statuses, such as golfing, formal volunteer activities, and the like. Beyond this, however, and in contrast to the emphasis on personal choice and responsibility, intersecting inequalities shape barriers to and opportunities for individuals to achieve the dimensions of successful aging.
As our previous examples of income differences in old age makes clear, intersecting inequalities result in differential access to social and material resources that influence people over the life course and into old age. The gender gap in wages persists among full-time workers, having changed little since the turn of the century (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, and Smith, 2013). 
That this is not simply reducible to individual choice but reflects systematic differences is apparent in data that show this situation holds despite women’s educational levels and the kinds of jobs they have held. In fact, the greater the level of education, the larger the gender gap in wages. Similarly, women employed in traditionally male jobs earn less than men, while men in traditionally female jobs, such as nursing, earn more than female incumbents (AAUW, 2013; Hegewisch and Hudiburg, 2014).
This is not simply a gender difference. Racial and ethnic inequalities intersect such that it becomes clear that only white men are so advantaged. In 2016, black men’s median weekly earnings stood at just 75 percent of what white men received. But white women’s earnings were somewhat better than those of black men, although still only 81 percent of white men’s, while black women brought home only 67 percent of what white men earned (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). Also, black and Latino men often earn less than white women, with racial and ethnic minority women faring the worst (Hegewisch and Hudiburg, 2014). Such income disparities influence a host of factors relevant to successful aging over the life course, and, as we noted above, financial status in later life.
Patterns of employment and income also affect disparities in health and healthcare, as work and health are interrelated in various ways and shaped by intersecting inequalities. Racial and ethnic minority group members are likely to find work in unstable and low-wage employment; such jobs often are those likely to involve exposure to workplace conditions most deleterious to health, while not providing incumbents the financial wherewithal to access healthcare (Brown, 2009; DeNavas-Walt et al., 2013; Williams, 2004).
As a result, racial and ethnic minority groups are likely to enter old age in poorer health. Given their lower income in later life, racial and ethnic minority group members, especially women, have fewer options for healthcare. Even though Medicare enhances healthcare access, out-of-pocket costs are prohibitive for those with low incomes. Women, who experience chronic illnesses more than do men, are disadvantaged further, especially women of color, who do not receive the same level of treatment as do their white counterparts (Zuckerman et al., 2008; Williams, 2004). Thus, the resources and experiences required to achieve a successful old age are available only to certain, more privileged, groups.
Successful aging reinforces ageism in a second way as well: it does not challenge old age as a devalued status in the first place. Instead, it reinforces old age as a negative status, as aging remains framed as something that must be appropriately managed. To this, middle age serves as the standard; the key is to “not age,” but to maintain proximity to middle age. At the same time, placing emphasis on the individual means that successful aging becomes a measure of morality. If one can avoid disease and decline but does not, then the individual is to blame for not having made the right choices. The emphasis on personal responsibility to the exclusion of systemic inequalities serves to justify the exclusion faced by those not able to forestall being marked as old. The successful aging paradigm does not consider the reality that one will no longer be able to pass as “not old” if one lives long enough.
When and how different groups appear to grow old results from intersections of inequalities. For white, middle-class women, the dictate to age successfully can encourage the use of anti-aging products, cosmetic surgery, exercise, and other means to maintain attractiveness (and perceived sexual receptiveness) to white, middle- class men, and make clear that they have not “let themselves go.” By contrast, white middle-class men should retain appearances of physical or social power; their bodies should suggest that they “perform” (Calasanti, 2016).
Such dictates will differ for black, middle-class women and other groups of women and men, as shaped by intersecting inequalities. But, in all instances, the goal remains to approximate middle age and not be old, no matter the cumulative impacts of privilege and disadvantages over the life course. Avoiding the appearance of aging also is dependent upon financial resources only available to a select group of aging people. As the cost of medical procedures and products are prohibitive for many groups, the ability to stave off the appearance of decline is also only available for those with privilege.
In entering old age, some groups have more resources than others to age successfully; those with fewer are cast as a burden on the rest of society. This moral imperative, which emphasizes individual control over one’s aging body, re-creates and perpetuates inequalities within old age. At the same time, to the extent that successful aging emphasizes the need to maintain high levels of mental, physical, and social functioning that uses middle age as a benchmark, old age remains unchallenged as a disadvantaged status, and conflated with disease and disability.
We began this article with the notion that social justice requires removing institutionalized barriers 
to equal social participation, and Crenshaw’s groundbreaking analysis of intersectionality.
What an intersectional approach offers scholars and practitioners in the field of aging, we argue, is the critical understanding that, first, no one system of inequality is more important than any other; they are intertwined in people’s lives and experienced simultaneously, even if they might be analyzed one at a time. Gender remains an important system of inequality; but women are not homogenous, but divided by intersecting hierarchies. Younger women benefit from the ageism older women face in the heterosexual dating market and in the job market. Policies that target only gender can oppress one group of women at the expense of another.
Second, people do not “age out” of inequalities that exist earlier in life. Instead, these disparities can become compounded in old age, and generalizations about “old people” can result in research or interventions that decrease the quality of life for some groups of elders.
Third, we must recognize that age is an axis of inequality, and that old age is a disadvantaged position that in itself is sufficient to deny individuals social participation. Further, age is dynamic, and people shift from a privileged to a disadvantaged status gradually, creating a complex identity based on other intersectional locations. The most privileged among us will eventually experience old-age oppression, if long-lived enough.
Taking these strands together, understanding women as defined by intersecting inequalities leads us to consider that, to address quality of life in old age and parity of participation, policies and programs must address the gendered, racialized, classed, and sexualized natures of social institutions that influence people over the life course. For instance, a universal childcare provision would aid parents and children without regard to marital status, sexual orientation, or race.
At the same time, we must attend to the denigration that accompanies old age. On a practical level, this means taking care when planning or implementing interventions targeted to women, as it is quite likely such programs are based on the experiences of white, middle-class women. Feminist advocacy that is geared toward caregivers but only explores caring for children or parents excludes—and enhances the invisibility of—the often more difficult work old women provide for partners.
It means not pushing a successful aging agenda, assuming that members of different groups can or even want to achieve this. It also means not blaming individuals for not meeting these standards. It means advocating for those who are old, helping them and the broader society to see the positives in old age, regardless of apparent distance from middle age. Ultimately, it means understanding the varying paths that people take in old age, just as they do in their earlier years, and valuing those differences and old age itself.
Toni Calasanti, Ph.D., is professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She can be contacted at Sadie Giles, M.S., is a doctoral student at Virginia Tech.
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